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The jungle city

by Laura Gelder | 21 December 2016

Panama is one of those countries that just attracts characters, its capital in particular. During an eight-hour flight delay at the domestic airport I got chatting to one of the CIA agents who captured Panamanian despot Manuel Noriega in 1989. Now retired and on his way to holiday in the Caribbean isles of Bocas del Toro, the ex-CIA man was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a novelty baseball cap and demonstrated just how much Panama has changed since Noriega’s reign.

Panama City has been around since 1519. It was the first settlement that the Spanish founded on the Pacific side of the Americas and it was this decision (along with its naturally narrow geography), which sealed its fate as a strategically important city.

The ruins of Panama Viejo are the best place to start exploring the city, since they are all that’s left of its first site, a place where tonnes of Incan gold passed through in the 1500s on its way to Spain. After a ransacking by Sir Francis Drake, it was privateer Henry Morgan who finally pillaged the settlement and razed it to the ground. Panama City was reborn in what is now known as Casco Viejo or Old Quarter.

This is Panama City’s jewel, a compact maze of narrow streets and quiet plazas with pavement cafes begging to be frequented. Around each corner are grand churches, market stalls selling Panama hats and streets of distressed buildings, with pink, ochre and green paint peeling behind sprays of bougainvillea. The tide of gentrification is obvious in boutique hotels like Casa del Horno, but from the balcony of its penthouse suite, with exposed brick walls, hip sepia photography and an iPod docking station, I could see straight into the disintegrating slum opposite and watch little children playing in their communal room.

The most bewitching thing about Casco Viejo is its juxtaposition with new Panama City. From the rooftop bar of boutique hotel and restaurant Tantalo, you can sip a mojito and gaze upon the flickering skyline of the modern city across the bay, unfortunately crowned by Donald Trump’s characteristically flash Ocean Club hotel, the tallest building in Central America so I’m told.

Panama is a mish-mash of cultures. Most of the population is a mix of Spanish and indigenous descent but many can claim African heritage and there’s a sizeable Chinese community, all against a backdrop of pervasive American and European culure. If you wish, you can have waffles for breakfast, Lebanese for lunch and Greek for dinner.

Much of the city’s multiculturalism comes from the building of the Panama Canal. Truly one of the world’s man-made wonders, it’s hard to explain how absorbing it is to watch monster container ships pass through Mira Flores Lock.

Nearly 14,000 ships cross the 80km stretch every year, taking four hours, displacing 220 million litres of water per ship and generating millions of dollars. It’s worth visiting the lock’s museum to understand the human cost of building the canal through a yellow-fever infested swampland, and the extraordinary efforts that go to thwarting nature’s attempts to take it back.

The canal was partly created by nature, since the Chagres River already existed. But the building of the canal also created Gatun Lake, now the site of eco-resort Gamboa where we spent a day spotting wildlife. It’s just an hour from the city but on a quick boat trip we saw capuchin and tamarin monkeys hanging from the trees, iguanas scampering the banks and crocodiles lurking. Even inside the resort grounds capybara roamed and we caught a glimpse of a blinking sloth dangling from a tree.

And in neghbouring Soberanía National Park we could have been a thousand miles from the city, as we walked in hushed silence through the forest, looking out for the silhouettes of toucans flitting above.

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