Almost 75 years since Richard Halliburton swam the Panama Canal for a 38-cent toll, the world wonder remains a rite of passage with a difference: Instead of a waypoint to somewhere else, Panama’s capital city teems with fascinations, as I discovered when the captain announced our canal transit was delayed.
Nothing prepared me for the high density and intensity of the city, likened by realtors to Miami’s South Beach without the attitude problem or the next Hong Kong. Gone, the gun-toting G.l.s of yesteryear. Phrases like “ex-pat revolution” and “retirement economy” pepper casual conversations. Amador, the staging area for yachts entering the canal’s Pacific side, is a trendy address of boutique bars and eateries, whose palm-lined promenade was built with 18 million yards of canal-excavated rock.
Downtown, 100-story condos compete for airspace on a waterfront so hemispherical, it bends like a scene in a fisheye lens.
Some of my favorite things from a too-short stay:
*Friendly, inexpensive taxis. $3 takes you anywhere. Almost every driver is a willing guide.
*Ceviche at the fish market. The freshest fish, octopus, shrimp, and squid, marinated in lemon juice, served take out or in the upstairs restaurant of Mercado de Mariscos, a lively fish market at Avenida Balboa and Calle 15 Este, Calidonia. An equally amazing fruit and vegetable market, Mercado Público, is next door.
*Old neighborhoods. The UNESCO World Heritage streets of Casco Viejo overflow like a Latin-styled French Quarter with wrought iron balconies and espresso bars full of colorful patrons, who might include offshore bankers, bums, or Harvard alum and salsa singer Ruben Blades. The Casco’s grand slums alternate with restored architectural treasures including the president’s palace, where I had the distinction of being pecked by a giant dove-gray heron strutting haughtily in the grilled entryway.
Balboa town was founded by the United States during the construction of the Panama Canal as the administrative center of the Canal Zone, a US territory. Today, while undergoing substantial redevelopment, its streets of Zone-era architecture exude a greenness and innocence refreshingly apart from downtown’s mad pulse and scale.
Here, the Balboa Inn soaks in the ambiance while putting you close to everything in the city you want to see.
Phone: 507-314-1520 / 6618-4414 (mobile)
On a hillside near Avenida Balboa, the splendor of the circa 1920s residences dates to when La Cresta was home to the city’s who’s who. An American ex-pat from Oregon, Jennifer King and her mom bought a sprawling Spanish colonial here and transformed it into a hip B&B, pet motel and ex-pats’ salon.
La Cresta De Oro
US phone: 702-940-9958
Panama phone: 6705-0731
The canal still has plenty of gee-whiz factor. If you can’t visit in person, see boats locking in live on their webcam: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html
Posted by Patricia Borns, Globe correspondent
Photo of the marketplace and the presidential mansion by Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe