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Panama's New Panache: Beaches, Birds, Beauties

Published: February 2005

The crumbling colonial jewel that is Panama City's Casco Viejo, the capital's old quarter, is gradually being resurrected. As my wife and I stroll the cobblestones, two bicycle-mounted Tourism Police appear alongside us. Clad in shorts, faultlessly polite, they offer their services on our first day in Panama. They take us to see the gold church altar that was saved when Morgan the Pirate sacked the city in 1671, and the market where Kuna Indians sell their elaborately appliqueed molas. They show us fishing docks and former dungeons. Finally, they proudly point to an impeccably restored three-story house whose curving pastel facade overlooks the Pacific.

Its architectural meld of Spanish balconies and French doors recalls the two European intrusions that reshaped this New World isthmus: the first by conquering it, the second by digging the canal that eventually sliced it in two. Yet a third foreign power, the United States, which financed the canal, instantly begat a new nation in 1903 by recognizing Panama's first ambassador. (Since he happened to head the company that Teddy Roosevelt favored for the digging, some minor concerns over his credentials-that he was self-appointed and actually French-were dismissed.) America's diplomatic blessing effectively severed the province of Panama from an uncooperative Colombia; a century later, I still hear Latin Americans decrying this galling act of gringo imperialism, but not Panamanians, whose grateful forebears had long tried to escape distant Bogota's fitful rule.

This isn't to say there haven't been gripes about the United States: Panama's constitution was rigged to let our government meddle at its pleasure, and until 1999, the United States claimed the Canal Zone for itself-a ten-mile-wide, coast-to-coast affront to Panamanian sovereignty. Yet even that protracted embitterment brought advantages: jobs for thousands of locals, a dollar-based economy stronger than most in Latin America, and invaluable infrastructure that Panama eventually inherited.

Another beneficiary was the current occupant of this elegant house. In 1963, while still just a boy from this barrio, he was cast to sing in a Canal Zone production of West Side Story. Five years later, Ruben Blades reached New York, and salsa music has never been the same. Now, after four Grammys, twenty-six feature films, and a master's degree from Harvard Law School, he's given it all up and come home. Not only has stardom made his house a tourist attraction but Panama's new president, Martin Torrijos, has named him minister of tourism.

The day after his appointment, we meet in one of Panama City's ubiquitous banking skyscrapers to discuss why on earth he would take the job. Largely for the money, he explains. But he's not talking about the salary: To accept this post, he declined a movie role that would have paid him far more than he'll earn in the next five years. He's talking about money for his people: "Tourism is the fastest way to distribute wealth on a national level," he says. "It helps everyone, from cabdrivers to maids, managers, restaurateurs, and curio sellers. It's a chimney-free industry. There's nothing like it."

Until recently, Panama's economy relied mainly on commerce: canal tolls, Colon's humongous duty-free zone, and banking laws lubricated to let international capital glide through. The U.S. military discouraged cruise ships from lingering in the canal, and Panamanian dictators General Omar Torrijos (the current president's father) and drug thug Manuel Noriega rarely bothered trying to impress tourists.

"We have an immense opportunity," Blades says. "Where else can you surf in both oceans, or see Atlantic and Pacific marine life in the same day? Twenty ornithologists go to Costa Rica, hoping to glimpse one quetzal bird. Here, one birder can see twenty: We have more quetzals in a few square miles than in all the rest of Central America." He ticks off the new administration's plans: "adventure tourism, ecotourism, agrotourism, ethnotourism, therapeutic tourism with our mineral hot springs and medicinal plants...." The first task is to inventory the nation's natural and cultural treasures. Next, the government will screen investors and developers, foreign and local, for their willingness to cooperate with ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente), Panama's environmental-protection authority. "Seriously, we want people to take advantage of what we have," he says, "but not at the cost of losing it to satisfy someone's short-term goals."

Beyond islands and highlands, fabulous flying creatures and exuberant folklore, Blades also aims to offer something extra to weary Americans seeking safe vacation refuges: "Unprecedented security. I want any traveler who enters Panama insured by the Ministry of Tourism against accident or assault, and guaranteed instant legal assistance should something unfortunate happen. Tourists should feel protected, not all alone."

Long accustomed to being a planetary crossroads with foreigners passing through, its politics now becalmed, and its new government committing star power, Panama appears ready for tourism to take off. Its best-known attractions thus far involve two Caribbean archipelagos: the beaches of Bocas del Toro and San Blas's vibrant Kuna culture. Blades loves both, but he also urges people to follow Balboa's example and discover the isthmus's Pacific side. "When Balboa went up that mountain and saw the Southern Sea for the first time, he realized, ¡Dios mio! This is a new world!"