‘Look at the skyline now, it looks like New York!’ boasts our driver, Diogenese, enthusiastically.
And so it does, with a distinctly tropical twist, for Panama City has boomed in the last few years. Driven by an ambitious expansion of its famous canal and burgeoning banking and services sectors, Panama’s economy has grown at over 10% in the last couple of years, placing it above the likes of China on the list. And with an expansion project designed to double the canal’s capacity scheduled for completion in 2015, this looks set to continue.
With this boom has come a boom in tourism, for the skyline is not all banks and brokers. The Trump Hotel & Tower with its sail-like design is the largest building in Central America, whilst a few blocks away is Latin America’s first Waldorf Astoria. Both have opened within the last couple of years, and this inflow of international hotels is showing no signs of slowing. There’s even talk of a man-made island in the bay, bedecked with resorts and restaurants, planned for the coming years. Very Dubai-esque.
But what of the rest of the city, beyond the glass and steel of the downtown waterfront and, of course, the ubiquitous canal?
As the new town drives inexorably on, filling with Trump towers and Hiltons like the same old cast at a Christmas panto, we head across the bay to see what is out there for a visitor looking for something a little more authentic.
The original Panama City, known as Panama Viejo, was destroyed in 1671 in a raid by British privateer, or pirate, Sir Henry Morgan. The sacking of the city violated an Anglo-Spanish Peace Treaty, yet once back home Morgan was knighted by Charles II for his efforts. Today, the ruins, including a three-storey bell tower, form a World Heritage Site; a crumbling spot providing welcome respite from the 21st century cityscape beyond.
To protect themselves from further attacks, the Spanish built Casco Viejo further along the coast. This walled city, perched on a peninsula jutting into Panama Bay, now forms the oldest inhabited part of the city.
Whilst skyscrapers shoot up in downtown Panama, Casco Viejo is undergoing its own transformation. Workmen scurry to and fro laying down new cobbled streets. Boutique hotels and renovated apartments are replacing the neglected shells of abandoned houses, long since left to the mercies of the tropical climate. Coffee shops and artisanal stores have opened on every corner.
‘We just parked and five new restaurants opened in Casco,’ quips our guide.
And being a World Heritage Site, there isn’t a high rise to be seen. Contrastingly, the emphasis in this part of town is on restoration and retaining the colonial character, whilst providing a 21st Century space for an increasingly global city.
Tantalo is fast establishing itself as the place to be on a Saturday night, or any night for that matter. A spacious bar overlooked by a living wall of 900 plants, irrigated using reclaimed rainwater from the skylight four floors above, dominates the reception area. Stop off at the ground floor restaurant for Panamanian style tapas before heading to the rooftop bar for cocktails and panoramic views of the city, old and new, beyond. Each of the 12 rooms in this quirky boutique hotel is decorated by a different Panamanian artist and has its own unique character, ranging from the bright and tropical to the sultry and sensual.
For somewhere a little quieter, Casa del Horno, so named due to its origins as a 19th century bakery, offers a more discreet feel. Its recent renovation has made a feature of the original stonework and structure, reminding you of the historical setting of this now sleek contemporary hotel.
If Casa del Horno is discreet, then Canal House is positively elusive. Another recent restoration, this time from a turn of the century mansion, Canal House still feels like a private home, with creaking staircases and a communal dining table. You’d almost expect to bump into someone in 19th century garb on the stairs were it not for the iPads and plasma TVs in every room.
Wandering around Casco is to see a city in flux. With the hotels has come a flurry of new bars, cafes and restaurants. Exhibitions are held in restored churches and revamped plazas are full of people enjoying the old-town atmosphere. Plaza Francia offers views across the bay – a perfect spot to try a raspao, shaved ice drenched in fruit syrup and condensed milk. But you only have to wander a couple of blocks to find areas of Casco the entrepreneurs and architects driving this transformation haven´t reached yet. Derelict buildings, crumbling stonework and broken roofing are still common sights. At times scaffolding appears to be a structurally integral feature, seemingly as old as the buildings it supports.
However, Casco has a momentum which doesn’t seem to be slowing. As the new Panama strives to emulate Dubai, New York or any number of international cities, fuelled by international aspirations and funded by international money, Casco Viejo is doing something all the more remarkable: moving elegantly into the 21st century without sacrificing its history or character. It’s a work in progress, but a stunning piece of work.