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History and nightlife in Panama City

By Regis St. Louis
Lonely Planet
Published September 3, 2006

Long overshadowed by its forested neighbor to the north, Panama has finally earned its place among the world's hot new destinations. The wonder is that it has taken so long to be discovered. Like Costa Rica, Panama is packed with wildlife, teeming jungles and breathtaking highlands; it's one of Latin America's safest destinations; the currency is the U.S. dollar; and it's close--it takes less time to fly between New York and Panama than it does to fly across the United States.

But most importantly, Panama has Panama City, a steamy salsa-infused capital with a beautiful historic district reminiscent of Old Havana, dozens of restaurants, nightspots and jazz clubs, and a rich mesh of cultures all adding to the lively street scene beneath the tropical sun.

Casco Viejo is the city's colonial gem, complete with picturesque plazas, cobblestone streets and old mansions near the edge of the bay. Dilapidated for years, this neighborhood was first rediscovered by the city's artists, who came seeking cheap rents amid old-world ambience. Since then, others have followed suit, giving the crumbling homes a much-needed facelift. One of Casco Viejo's most famous arrivistes is the singer-actor-activist Ruben Blades. He is only slightly overshadowed by President Martin Torrijos, who holds court in the elegant Palacio de las Garzas, named after the slender white herons (garzas) gliding about nearby.

A wander through Casco Viejo will lead visitors past splendid churches, tiny art galleries, charming cafes and several museums, including the excellent Interoceanic Canal Museum. Exhibits here offer a wealth of information on the first railroad across Panama (built to carry prospectors from the eastern United States to the gold fields of California), the early efforts of the French to build a canal (leaving one French company bankrupt and thousands of workers dead) and the later success of American efforts (though it, too, came at a heavy loss in life). The museum is housed in a lavishly restored 1870s building that headquartered the French and later the U.S. canal commission.

Although Casco Viejo is the oldest still-inhabited part of the city, Panama's first foundations were laid a few miles east of there in 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Avila. Founded as the first European settlement on the Pacific, Panama soon became a major link in Spain's golden pipeline. Gold plundered from Peru passed through Panama on its way back to Europe. This brought the city great wealth as well as unwanted attention from English pirates.

Although Sir Francis Drake left his calling card in Panama, Henry Morgan was the one who dealt the city its most lethal blow. In 1671, he sailed up the Chagres River, continued overland and, in a surprise attack, routed the city in a few hours. He and his band stripped the gold from the storehouses, then left the town in flames. Three years later, Panama City was refounded in present-day Casco Viejo. Although only fragments of the original settlement remain, visitors can wander through the ruins, photographing the still-standing tower overlooking the sea. Nearby, the Panama Viejo museum gives a sense of what things might have looked like in 1671.

As night falls on the city, it's time to return to the present and take advantage of Panama's relentless vida nocturna (nightlife). Casco Viejo is a good place to start the evening, in one of its excellent restaurants, low-key bars or jazz spots (one located in a former dungeon). Later in the night, Isla Flamenco, with its many open-air nightspots and underground clubs, becomes the destination of choice. One of four islands created from dirt dredged during the construction of the Panama Canal, Isla Flamenco has some enviable cocktail-sipping spots on charming patios beside the water. In the wee hours of the morning, Plaza Pacifica keeps the party going, with several late-night clubs and DJs spinning a broad mix of tunes.

Just before dawn, it's back to Casco Viejo once again, to catch the early morning fish market and the wild spectacle of sunrise over the city. Because of Panama's twisting shape along an east-west axis, from the city it appears that the sun rises from the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic: one of many curious wonders, just like Panama City itself.

Where to stay: Located in the best part of Casco Viejo, the beautifully restored 19th Century mansion of Casa Mar Alta has lavish guest rooms and a scenic rooftop terrace (011-507-211-2277; www.casamaralta.com; doubles from $155). The all-suites DeVille Hotel has a boutique feel, with spacious antique-laden rooms. It's located in El Cangrejo, a neighborhood packed with restaurants and bars (011-507-206-3100; www.devillehotel.com.pa; suites from $155).

Where to eat: Stylish Limoncillo serves a creative blend of eclectic dishes, prepared by one of Panama's top chefs. If you like the ambience, take it home. Most of the artwork adorning the walls is for sale (011-507-263-5350; Calle 47 near Calle Uruguay; entrees run $14-$20). For one of the world's more unique dining experiences, take a cab 20 minutes west of the city to the Miraflores Locks. Here you can dine alfresco on tasty Panamanian fare while watching ships pass through the canal just below. Call to reserve a choice table and to find out the best viewing times (Miraflores Restaurant; 011-507-232-3120; entrees around $9-$15).

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