Pan-American Transmissions Part 4: Panama City Booming

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pan-American Transmissions Part 4: Panama

“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.

Ania and I decided to live in Panama City while standing somewhere along Avenue Central. It was our second day in the city, a hot, sunny day, and aside from the canal, we knew little about the place.

But that didn’t matter.

We had just passed the “Barberia Ca$h Money,” a barbershop full of Tupac Shakur murals, and spent half an hour talking to an old man in a red Mexican sombrero about the magical powers contained within his vintage Mamiya camera . . . which he was frantically painting with silver glitter in the middle of the street.

Ania and I were convinced. There was something happening in Panama City, and we both felt it on that pedestrian walkway full of shops, street merchants, watch repairmen, produce stands, reggae music and that sweet, rotting fruit stench of life in the tropics.

It’s hard to pinpoint what brought on the feeling.

Maybe it was the flock of construction cranes perched over the downtown area, changing the city skyline with each passing day. Maybe it was the restoration projects in Casco Viejo, the old colonial neighborhood where, after decades of neglect, original Spanish facades were being rehabilitated. Or maybe it was the expansion of the nearby Panama Canal to accommodate modern cargo vessels, drawing unimaginable foreign investment into the region.

Whatever it was, Panama City was booming and we immediately picked up the classifieds to start looking for jobs.

Skyline Without Limits

The most obvious sign of progress in capitalist countries (and Panama can be considered a hyper-capitalist country) is the number of new skyscrapers in urban areas. Modern, abstract, simply gigantic construction projects filled Panama City’s skyline with towering steel frames, earning the place nicknames like “South Miami” and “the Dubai of Central America.”

I went out looking for a grocery store one day, but instead found a spiraling tower of blue glass. Like a doofus, I watched the building for a few minutes to see if its floors spun around an axis. They didn’t.

Either way, it was a surprise. And many more like it bound to spring up. Billionaire real estate moguls seem to have Panama City fever.

Just last year, Donald Trump opened his first building outside the United States in along the city’s coastline. The The Trump Ocean Club, as it’s called, is currently the tallest building in Central America and adorns the oceanfront with its sail-shaped architecture.

Ania and I decided to visit it one night and found a luxurious  palace complete with Botero sculptures, $300-a-night rooms, excellent bathrooms with excellent cotton hand towels, numerous fine dining options and easy rooftop access (which resulted in the photo at the top of this article).

At 70 stories high, Panama City looks impressive, but Eric Jackson, editor of the English-language Panama News, says most new buildings remain unoccupied. Speculators simply buy apartments to sell them at higher prices.

“You go around Panama City and look at these new “sold out” luxury towers at about 8 p.m. and there are hardly any lights on in them,” he recently told Time Magazine.

Panama City’s unrestricted housing boom may cause a real estate crisis in the near future, but until then, we can just look at the bright side and say the new buildings are covering up empty rubble lots leftover from the 1989 U.S. military invasion.

Grit, Graffiti and Colonial Grandeur

On the opposite side of the city, far from any skyscrapers, stand the remnants of Panama’s colonial past and, at the same time, the makings for Panama’s future tourist center: Casco Viejo.

The neighborhood, full of classic Spanish-style plazas, churches and colorful facades, housed the city’s rich until the 1950s when they opted for the new high-rise apartments that were popping up downtown. From that point on, Casco Viejo was left to rot. Poor people moved in and it became a somewhat violent ghetto.

But that all changed when UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site back in 1997.

Landlords were slowly bought out and massive restoration projects followed. Within five years, the neighborhood will be converted from a deserted construction area lined with ramshackle scaffolding to a pristine, cobblestone shopping mall and nightlife hub similar to Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

At first sight I found Casco Viejo’s present state of flux to be absolutely fantastic. A playground for urban explorers. The leftovers from another time, ripped open, revealing years of decay, grime and stories, all covered with graffiti and stencils. What more could a photographer want?

I was content spending long afternoons walking around the old quarter, admiring its beautiful textures and trying to get into abandoned houses. At the moment, Casco Viejo is a rare opportunity to explore old Spanish colonial buildings before they get a new coat of paint and become Gucci stores.

If you like history, then get there fast.

(Side Note: Those who really like history can also visit the ruins of Panama Viejo, the original Spanish settlement that was burned down by Welsh pirate/captain Henry Morgan in 1671. Entrance is free on Mondays.)

The Canal Gets An Upgrade

Every action has a reaction, and all those new skyscrapers and restoration projects in Casco Viejo are reactions to the expansion of the Panama Canal. The infamous link between oceans is getting bigger and wider. New locks are being built parallel to the original canal to double shipping capacity, allowing the canal to handle more traffic and modern cargo vessels.

During our visit to the Panama Canal, Ania and I learned the passageway is a major income source for the nation. The average cargo ship pays $54,000 in toll fees to pass through the canal, and though it’s expensive, it’s easier than going around the Strait of Magellan.

The expansion of the canal is especially significant because Panama now has complete ownership of the canal. Up until 1999, Panama split the canal zone and its profits with the United States. When the expansion project is finished in 2014 the increased traffic is expected to increase revenues substantially.

Panama’s former-president Martin Torrijos famously said that the new canal would generate enough wealth to transform Panama into a first-world country. Imagine that.

On the other hand, Donald Trump famously said the “U.S. foolishly [returned] the Canal for nothing” and lost respectability in yet another country.

At Home in a Hostel, At Work in the Streets

So, back to that job search.

After getting to know the city, Ania and I got to know our job prospects: they sucked.

Panama had plenty of good job openings, but we were there on tourist visas and no one would hire us. Our only option was the service industry, and minimum wage for waiters was about $15 a day.

We figured it was better to take matters into our own hands.

This happened rather quickly and literally after we moved into Hostal Miami on Avenue Central.

The place was a live-in hostel ($4-5 a night) full of traveling street merchants, artisans, jugglers, streetlight artists, fire breathers, sword swallowers and musicians. Many people had been living there for months. Most of them from Argentina. Some of them from Colombia. All of them earning money from the streets.

They made it look easy so Ania and I gave it a try. Our first business venture was baking and selling arepas filled with pollo asado. It worked extremely well. Panamanians loved our Venezuelan flavor.

After about a week of cooking we got tired of eating arepas, so Ania started making feather earrings and we sold them to tourists in Casco Viejo. This also worked, but not as well as the arepas.

Then, Ania brought out her flute. We struck gold. She’d make more than $20 an hour when she played outside shopping malls. I’d juggle a little to supplement the show, but she was the star, and with her gypsy flute we were making a profit by staying in Panama City.

Olive oil, vegetarian restaurants, wine — we indulged in everything we missed through our travels.

Life was comfortable again; not just financially, but at home as well. The people at Hostal Miami formed a community — almost a family around us. We celebrated birthdays; made joint dinners. The women put dreadlocks in each other’s hair while the men shared juggling tricks. It felt like we were living in a traveling circus, but with more luxuries and fewer animals.

Ania and I ended up staying there for more than a month. Ever since leaving we’ve been looking for another place like Hostal Miami, but have yet to find it.

Sure, Panama City’s booming with its new canal, shiny skyscrapers and refurbished colonial areas, but what matters most are the people and I look back at Hostal Miami as the place where we formed the most friendships along this ever-changing voyage.

We didn’t end up getting real jobs and didn’t find a real place to live, but we had the experience we were looking for. For a brief period of time, we became part of something. We learned the trade of backpack entrepreneurship, we learned how to work the streets, but more than anything, we learned the time to visit Panama City . . . is now.

By Diego Cupolo

Read Part One of Pan-American Transmissions (Northern Nicaragua) here, Part Two (Southern Nicaragua: Bargain Paradise) here, and Part Three (A Cheap Bastard’s Guide To Traveling) here.

Coming soon from Pan-American Transmissions: 10,000 Ways From Panama to Colombia, None of Them Paved


About the Author

diegocupolobiopic3Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at

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