Headlines - Travel and Leisure - "Continental Divide - Panama"

Continental Divide

For “Continental Divide”, writer Amy Wilentz traveled to Panama to report on its emergence as a Central American tourism destination. “The country has everything you could ever want,” she says from teeming cities to deep, mist- shrouded jungles. Wilentz also explored a phenomenon she calls “the Panama social experiment,” a result of the international collaboration that created the famous canal more than a century ago. “Everyone went there – Americans, West Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Jews, and adventurers from all over the world,” she explains. “They built the canal and then they stayed on living together.” Wilentz, a contributing editor for the Nation and the author of the novel Martyrs’ Crossing, is writing a book on Arnold Schwarzenegger and California politics.

From a capital city on the make to a seaside retreat in Pedasí to the superverdant cloud forest in Boquete, Amy Wilentz experiences the many facets of Panama, crossroads of the hemisphere

When you get off the plane in Panama City, you have to decide just what it is you're looking for, because Panama is full of possibilities. Panama is really three countries: glitzy, supermodern Panama City; the cool, inscrutable, slow-moving interior (including jungle and cloud forest); and the varied, surfable, fishable coasts-backpacker-land. Like so many places that are at the center of their geographical area, Panama is a dream factory. It is not a dull place of sure bets; it is not a superproduced place, as Costa Rica has become. Many dreams have been made in Panama, and many shattered, but it is a country that has always offered infinite potential. Panama is an opening gambit, and it opens the traveler up.

In Panama City, everyone scoots around from meeting to meeting intent on business. In town, there is little sense of tropical becalming, little lolling about. It's a jittery, on-the-go city, a deal-making, black-coffee-drinking haven where something is always going down. But although it explains a lot about Panama, the capital is not the reason for coming. "This town is alive with business; oh, my God, how the Panamanians love commerce! This is the land of import-export," says Jean-Paul, a French tennis-shoe trader who is here for a month. All day long, as I make my way across town, refamiliarizing myself, I marvel at the grandeur of the Panama City skyline. I haven't been to Panama for about a decade, and it seems to me, as I turn my head upward at a 60-degree angle, that three dozen or more new high-rise apartment buildings have gone up in that time.

"More," says my Panamanian friend Berta.

In some neighborhoods, like the exclusive, residential Punta Paitilla, it looks as if there is simply no space left for more construction, and yet you can see a crane peeping out here and there. In the San Francisco area, only a few of the low-slung residential blocks remain. The business district is dense with new hotels and office buildings, and even the shoreline is beginning to fill up with skyscrapers. Zoning is not a word that means much in Panama. City planning is not a concept that carries weight…

Panama has long been a safe harbor for adventurers, schemers, and those with a piratical turn of mind. The country has a tax code that is friendly to foreign business and, until recently, secretive banking laws-like Switzerland's-that have made it easier to hide shady monies and engage in questionable dealings. It has historically attracted a transient population on the lookout for fast financial returns; indeed, many treasure seekers came through Panama at the height of the California gold rush in the 1850's, seeking a quick passage to the free money in the West Coast's dirt. The country has also been a loyal friend to the United States, an ally that was instrumental in the creation of Panama as a nation in 1903 (when the isthmus gained independence from Colombia) and that, a decade later, finished construction of the Panama Canal…

Although it is a connector between north and south, and between east and west, Panama is geographically disorienting, always presenting the traveler with directional conundrums. There are points in the country from which you travel west to east to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Still, I quickly learned-in a general sense-where I was in Panama. I was in the center of the Americas. And all this because of the canal. The canal has traditionally governed everything in Panama. It has the biggest cash flow of any business-well, certainly, of any legitimate business-in the country, and fees levied on transiting ships from around the world account for most of Panama's monetary intake. Running the canal is as important a job in many ways as being president of Panama, if not more so. And the canal is intimately tied to Panama's complicated demographics. During the late 1800's and up through the completion of the canal, there were not enough Panamanians available to dig the gigantic and demanding cuts or to build the dams and retaining walls of the project, so workers by the thousands had to be imported. Because so many laborers from around the world immigrated to the isthmus-submitting themselves to harrowing engineering ordeals and murderous epidemics-Panama now has a large West Indian population, a sizable Asian population, and a trader class of Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs, as well as people descended from conquering Spanish and Native American ancestors, or both. During the canal's American phase-in which it actually got built-workers of different races were tacitly segregated in their own tidy little U.S.-built villages, but since then, there's been plenty of what might be called interpenetration.

At noon on December 31, 1999, after a gradual process of transfer, the U.S. government turned over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, including administration, operations, and defense of the waterway. It was an odd moment. The Canal Zone, a 553-square-mile tract of land, and all the buildings on it, were now completely Panamanian, and the Canal Authority, under the sole management of Panama, could decide how to dispose of the territory and everything it contained. Before this, the Zone had always been a more or less pristine version of American suburbia, albeit in a tropical setting. U.S. soldiers in crisp uniforms patrolled the nearby base, and on weekends, families living in beautiful two-story wooden houses with screened terraces and porches frolicked on their lawns, drinking martinis and eating barbecue, the children gliding through the air on plank swings and playing with cheerful plastic toys. Everything came from the commissary, shipped in by the U.S. government.

But from the moment it fell under Panama's control, the Canal Zone effectively was Panamized, while the rest of the country quickly became more Americanized. Now you can find a McDonald's in every medium-sized town, Pizza Huts and Mail Boxes Etc. dotting the avenidas, shopping malls of every stripe in the cities, and Internet service everywhere-even up in the cloud forest. I drive into the canal zone late one afternoon to talk to a man named, improbably, Gilles Saint-Gilles, a French designer with a worldwide practice. The first plans for a canal across the isthmus were drawn up by the Spanish in 1529, but war and exploration diverted the conquistadors. In the late 1800's, the Spanish renewed their attempt and began developing companies to finance construction. The only thing they failed to do was break ground. That was left to the French, who were the first to both dream of a canal in Panama and begin digging one. The original work on the Panama Canal was financed by France in 1880 and undertaken by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the public relations genius and impresario who had-before that-conceived of the Suez Canal, sold the French on that one, and got it built.

Gilles Saint-Gilles is the latest in the series of Frenchmen touched by a crazy Panamanian dream. We sit in the courtyard of his office, which is in an old Canal Zone house. Upstairs, in a cheerfully renovated, modernized work area, careful men wearing spectacles are pasting together architects' models of various dazzling buildings. Outside the office windows, palms spread their dark green fronds. About eight years ago, Saint-Gilles and his wife came to Panama on a lark. They were walking through the Casco Viejo-the elegant, dilapidated colonial quarter of Panama City-"and she looked at it and then at me and said, 'Hmm. Not bad,'?" Saint-Gilles says, laughing.

"That meant she had fallen in love."

He had, too. Together they bought some land out on the Azueros Peninsula, on the Pacific coast near a small town called Pedasí. "I chose the place because of the sea," Saint-Gilles says. "The calm, the climate. It's very peaceful. Like Tuscany." And they began building. First, a house.

"It's a small house," Saint-Gilles says. "To paint in, to think in."

A small house, however, didn't satisfy his need to create on a large scale-and so he found himself, as time passed, obsessively continuing construction on his sprawling Azueros property, until, by now, there is the equivalent of a resort there, including a hotel called Villa Camilla. He and his partners hope to turn it into a luxurious, exclusive retreat for the world's wealthiest vacationers. It remains to be seen whether a place like Panama can play to that crowd.

"We think it can," says K. C. Hardin, an American businessman easy to mistake for a surfer, which he also is, who has been working with Saint-Gilles and others to make the Azueros resort a reality. "Panama has everything: beauty, beaches, excitement, adventure."

Panama's head of tourism has other ideas. And he's exactly the kind of person you appoint if you want your tourism chief to have other ideas. His name is Ruben Blades. Arguably the world's most famous living Panamanian (with the possible exception of deposed dictator Manuel Noriega, now languishing in a Florida prison) and arguably the world's most famous living salsa musician, Blades is also a talented ?lm actor who has a house in Los Angeles as well as in the Casco Viejo. But here he is at work in his office in the Convention Center downtown, surrounded by high-gloss tourism photos. His music always had political undertones, and in 1994 he made an unsuccessful but high-spirited bid for Panama's presidency. Blades's friend Martin Torrijos, Panama's new president, was inaugurated in September 2004 and appointed Blades soon after.

Blades approaches tourism not just as a lucrative industry but also as a platform for instituting social justice. It's a new attitude in Latin America, but one that is making some headway in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and here. During the military regime of Noriega, of course, tourism came to a virtual standstill in Panama. Neighboring Costa Rica, seeing an opportunity, surged into the ?eld; while Panama was stalled under the unsavory Noriega, Costa Rica had for its president Oscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel Prize winner. It made a difference then, and Panama-finally a real democracy-is trying to catch up.

"We want to offer cultural, historical, recreational adventure ecotourism," Blades says. "We don't want the tourist version of McDonald's. When people travel to another country, I don't think they want only to be entertained and sit around the pool with a margarita. Tourism is a spiritual affirmation, or it can be. It should be."

For me, Panama already provides just that. As I leave town, I have to drive out through the Casco Viejo, and drive slowly, too, because the streets in the old district are narrow and there is too much congestion (the government has been brooding for years about traffic patterns in the area and about parking, with no visible result). I'm glad the traffic moves slowly because it gives me time to peer out at the glories of this quarter: its second-floor balconies and chipped pastel paint; the regrets that, along with several sharply uniformed guards, stand watch on the landing of the Presidential Palace; the repetitive arches of the old colonial structures; the blue and green interiors of the fluorescent-lit bodegas; and the plastic-tablecloth décor of the nongentrified houses with their doors open to the breeze. The whole place is still so authentic and so full of the past-those archways, the broad sidewalks, majestic old wooden hotels, colonnades, terraces, cathedrals, and plazas-that its profound reality feels almost artificial.

Perhaps the most spectacular thing as you travel around Panama is catching sight of the top of a huge, bulky containership through the leafy green canopy of the jungle. Parrots fly in and out of the sun, and the ship's smokestacks mirror the columns of trees as its prow and cargo-filled deck nose through the fabulous flora, in a bizarre conflation of the man-made and natural worlds. Every aspect of the canal is fascinating: the huge ships (many of them of a size called Panamax, meaning the largest a vessel can be and still pass through the canal); the superstrong metal "mules," vehicles like tanks on tracks, that travel up and down both banks of the canal using thick cables to guide the ships through their passage; the locks, whose gigantic Pacific gates are 82 feet high and weigh more than 790 tons and so are able to check the extreme tidal fluctuations of the sea; and, after all that hugeness, the tiny figures of half-naked Chinese seamen on the stern deck of a transiting freighter, jumping up and down and waving for all they're worth at a pack of elderly American tourists on the shore, and the Americans, in their hats and sunglasses and pastel-colored outfits, waving back…

The northern coast of the country is dotted with the ruins of exploration-era Spanish fortresses, and I wanted to see one because, after all, these structures-put up to protect trans-isthmian trade routes-were the first to foreshadow the coming of the canal. We drove from the Free Zone to the nearby San Lorenzo fort in K.C.'s frighteningly large white pickup truck. K.C. calls it El Diablo, and rightly-it can get through anything.

San Lorenzo, or what is left of it, sits on a lonely, magnificent point on the Atlantic that guards the mouth of the Chagres River. The remains of the fortress are all around us, low dark walls (made of coral from the reefs, it is said) and halves of turrets, bits of old dungeon and buttresses with high grasses growing among them. The useless cannons are still pointed at the jungle and the sea. A low sky threatens rain, and then lets the rain come as the sun begins to drop. K.C. says, "Notice: the sun is setting over the Atlantic here."

And so it is. The promontory on which San Lorenzo is located juts out eastward into the Atlantic, creating this disorienting effect. But then, I think, that's what Panama is all about: new points of view in an old geography, new perspectives on old events, new ways to find pleasure, fulfillment. New birds to discover. Below the stone-gray clouds, an orange sun sinks down into blue Atlantic waters, and we climb back into El Diablo for the long ride home.