On the way home, we pass yet another of these insanely painted, psychedelic city buses, called Diablos Rojos. They’re independently owned, and every driver competes to throw the best party, with blinking lights, music and, on the outside, murals of half-naked women or famous singers. It’s as if Ken Kesey designed Las Vegas’ public-transportation system. The Diablos Rojos are being phased out, replaced by modern, larger, city-operated Metrobuses. There’s a small movement by the expats to save them, since they give the city so much flavor, but most Panamanians are thrilled to have air-conditioned buses that are way less likely to kill them. It’s another example of the tension between old and new.
We recover the next day at the hotel with omelets and frozen margaritas and by watching salespeople play water volleyball in the pool. Out of nowhere, three teenage employees of the hotel, wearing booty shorts, blast some music and perform something by the pool that I can’t imagine is a native Panamanian folkloric dance. We are ready, once again, to venture outside the hotel, free buffets be damned.
So for dinner we finally head into Panama City itself. Amid all the cold, gleaming skyscrapers, we’re surprised to find a living city. Though I am tempted to check out boxer Roberto Duran’s restaurant, we have dinner at La Posta, an old plantation-style house that makes the best octopus dish — serving it in three styles — I’ve ever had. The homemade pasta is also great. Panama, thanks to the canal, has had nearly 100 years to soak up a bunch of culinary cultures so that it’s become a fusion of Spanish, American, Japanese, Italian, and Central and South American styles. And much like everything else here, it feels like a new, better Panamanian cuisine is about to emerge.
After dinner, we push Laszlo’s stroller down streets with gleaming condos, expensive stores and Euro-looking discothèques. I have no doubt that he’ll come back to Panama City as an adult, and it will be finished: a vibrant metropolis with a small, charming old section where the cool people go, just like every other city. I’m glad we saw it now.