Walking around a growing city makes you feel more alive, like hiking through brush instead of along a trail. I’m guessing at that, since I’ve never walked through brush. I wouldn’t have gone to a growing city, either — only I had no idea that’s what Panama City has become.I expected Panama City to be sleepy and old: wide-brimmed hats, hammocks and excessive pride over a technological feat that’s nearly 100 years old. This is not what I’m seeing. I haven’t been to Shanghai. I’ve never seen Dubai. I was too young to see Las Vegas in the 1960s. But I’m finally seeing a city grow in fast-forward: buildings crawling up like silver sea monkeys; new infrastructure struggling to keep up with traffic; foreigners flocking to open factories, hotels and restaurants; construction vehicles blocking street after street. With a 10.5 percent growth rate, Panama’s economy is expanding faster than China’s. And if you told me that’s where I am, I would believe it.
Leaving the airport, the driver points out all the things a proud citizen from a newly first-world city would: the 70-story Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama, the 66-story Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, the Le Méridien Panama — all new. The skyscrapers in the banking district. The enormous Albrook Mall, where Jennifer Lopez recently shopped. The almost-finished Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo. The $1.6 billion subway project, scheduled to open to riders in 2014 to fix some of this first-world traffic we’re stuck in. The hospital that does some of the most cutting-edge stem-cell treatments in the world and dots the city with American medical tourists here to get some of the best treatment available.
The woman checking us in snaps hospital-style bracelets on our wrists to indicate that we signed up for the “all-inclusive” package, allowing us to endlessly drink free at the hotel’s many bars and endlessly eat free at the buffets, which overlap to fill up nearly 24 hours. My son loves it all but, even though I’m getting my hammock and wide-brimmed hat, I still don’t feel like I’ve seen anything Panamanian.