It was 1972 when I was last in Panama. Back then it was full of banditos, cowboys in the jungle and señoritas who shot passion-stare darts direct to the heart. I was 24, abroad for my first full-blown world adventure and so much more.
These were the days when Manuel Noriega was working as a CIA operative, solidifying his power base to run for president. There was simmering discontent against the Americans for holding control of the Panama Canal. Just a few years earlier in 1964 anti-American riots over the sovereignty of the Canal Zone left 24 dead in the streets. That day is still commemorated as Martyr’s Day. The capital’s downtown waterfront was a dodgy place of cutthroats, dangerous drug dealers and decaying buildings. It was the wild west meets the banana republic.
I recall buying two quart bottles of Balboa beer one afternoon, sitting on the grass next to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores locks andwatching ships of the world rise out of the earth and sink below. I was mesmerized. Three o’clock came and someone above turned on the faucet full blast. I’ve never seen rain fall come down like that. No wind. I could barely see my hand in front of my face and hear only the roar of the downpour. I was soaked to the bone, but after downing the Balboas I really didn’t mind. Then a half hour later, the rain stopped on a tick of a clock. The well had run dry. The sun came out and steamed the earth with oppressive humidity you could cut with a knife.
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Flash forward decades and I arrive in Panama again, this time by boat. I travel along the canal by train from Colon to the capital. Lake Gután, the inland waterway that makes up much of the canal, has lush jungle shores, shimmering waters in the late afternoon sun and floats enormous freighters on its surface.
I spend three days in Panama City. I am stunned with the city’s urban skyline of towering glass and steel that stretches for miles along the Pacific Coast. It rivals Miami in its über modern panache and sophistication. The Hilton, the Waldorf Astoria and the Trump Tower pierce the steamy horizon. None of this existed in 1973. It looks to me that Panamá has left its banana republic image behind to rot in the jungle.
But wait. I spend a day and night in Casco Viejo, the old part of the city established in 1673 after rebel rouser Henry Morgan and other pirates plundered the original town now referred to as Panamá Viejo. Casco is going through rapid restoration of its 400-year old buildings. It rivals restoration efforts I’ve seen in Havana, San Juan and Cartagena, all old ports of the Spanish Main. But in spite of its chiqué bars and restaurants and being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, a lawless tension still pervades the air in the old district.
Just 15 years ago, you wouldn’t be caught dead wandering around in this place. Back then, Casco Viejo was riddled with crime, drug dealers and gangs. But the government was determined to make this historical district safe for tourists and it has. Police are stationed on many corners. Some patrol on bicycles. And then there are black clad soldiers, two to a motorcycle that look like henchmen for The Force. While the driver negotiates the quaint cobblestone streets, the guy on the back holds a semi-automatic rifle scanning the crowds for suspicious characters. Wander just a couple of blocks beyond the district and the vibe on the street changes in a heartbeat. Smiling shop owners are replaced by scowling barrio residents. Hip techno music from posh nightclubs is swapped for blaring Latino rap music booming from ghetto blasters. Spotless streets with lush green gardens are supplanted by stinking trash-filled alleys devoid of vegetation. Panamanians did not get rid of the problem. They just displaced it.
So yeah, the new Panamá has changed in many ways. And in others it has remained the same. I still find it a fascinating convergence of cultures, people and circumstance. When I ask my canal guide, Eduardo, about Panamá’s army he just grins, “We only have national police. We don’t need an army. If one of our neighbors like Colombia would attack us, the Americans would be back here in a New York minute. Remember amigo, we always have the canal. It’s our money maker and our insurance policy. In Panamá, yes, it’s all about the canal.”