Recently I arranged a trip to Panama and Columbia for a good traveler of mine, and here is his report of his experiences he's graciously allowed us to share:
Ten years ago I traversed the Panama Canal, viewing the skyline of Panama City from the rail of a cruise ship and wishing we had the city in our itinerary.
Panama City is the tale of three cities: The colonial, new and disadvantaged. The city was originally founded in 1491 as a collection point for gold and silver treasures to be transported to the Caribbean side for waiting Spanish galleons. The pirate, Henry Morgan, raided in 1571, sacking the city. It is a melting pot of the worlds' populations that were attracted by Inca and California gold; Chinese, Caribbean and Indians working with the French on the first failed canal effort, American railroaders to build the passage between the two oceans, and more Americans for the second canal and its defense until it was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999. And now it is attracting American and Canadian retirees. Nonetheless, it is surprising the lack of English comprehended by the Panamanians, especially since Americans have been here for over one hundred years in the vicinity of Panama City.
The "new" city has numerous apartments, office buildings and hotels high-rises that fill the skyline. Driving in from the airport one can see a skyline that is almost reminiscent of Miami, with many architecturally interesting high rises lining the waterfront. And there must've been 50 active climbing cranes, a testimony to the burgeoning economy. It may also be a testimony of loose banking regulations and money laundering, since the local currency is US dollars. Most if not all major hotel chains are represented including Trump, who put his name on one of the most recognizable hotel structures. Some locals think that there is not enough tourists for all of the hotels.
The colonial area, Casco Vejo, is comprised of centuries-old buildings, churches and colonial mansions that represent the Spanish and French influences over the past 300 years. It is undergoing renovation, started in 2007, with probably more than half of the buildings completed; the remaining have had no attention other then structural steel supports for potentially crumbling walls. It is the up-and-coming area for boutique hotels, small shops and interesting restaurants. Most of the churches and colonial era government buildings have been preserved. The French influence is very prevalent because so many of the apartment buildings are reminiscent of the French quarter in New Orleans, with baroque rod-iron balconies and rails. It's population of 7000 is housed in two or three story apartments dotting an area of nine blocks by six, while most colonial mansions have either been converted to government offices, converted to apartments, or abandoned.
The American Trade Hotel, situated in the colonial part of the city, was my home for five days. The hotel was constructed in 1917 as an office building for RCA and remodeled in 2013 as a luxury hotel. However, the elevator appears to have been from the original structure as well as many of the light fixtures. It fronts a historical park, with views of ships waiting to start the canal passage.
Panamanian cuisine is remarkable and deserves world recognition, exhibiting great creativity with a fusion of French, Spanish, Chinese, and African cuisine, and using Panamanian sourced ingredients. Dining the first night was an amazing experience at "DondeJose", and served as a 10-course tasting meal to 16 patrons. The chef, Jose, explained that the essence of his cuisine was acidic, smoky and spicy. Each course combined numerous ingredients that highlighted the chef's concept. In my travels, this was one of the most creative, ambitious and savory cuisines that I have ever tasted. Advance reservations are a must.
Dining the second evening at Maito was not as exhilarating, but a simpler meal well prepared, offering the opportunity to dine outside in a perfect temperature. I wish I knew the delicate sauces in the starter and fish course.
The guidebooks note that the chef of Salsipuede is the best in Panama. He is resting on his laurels and his staff is just resting!
Madrigal's chef owned a two star restaurant in Madrid before circumstances brought him to Panama three years ago, but he is continuing his reputation and has launched other highly regarded restaurants.
Our final night's dining was at Sal Manolo Cofoco was one of the best, because the chef/owner grows 75% of the produce served, which he combines to producing just remarkable, tasteful dishes in his 10-course tasting menu. While not as exotic as the first night, it was certainly quite delicious.
The lunches at the hotel and Las Clementina were so artistic as well as tasty.
The Miraflores locks at the southern end of the Canal include a museum exhibiting many interesting factoids about the construction and operation of the canal. During my passage, I remember all the tourists lined up at the locks to wave at the passengers on our small cruise ship...The new locks to accommodate much larger ships will be completed this June, featuring locks that are four basketball-courts wide and eight football fields in length. Since the source of all of the water comes from a lake that is gravity fed into the locks, there remains a concern that a drought could disable the entire canal, especially as the new locks will require so much more water. The expansion would double the Canal's capacity by accommodating "Post Panamax" vessels, which can hold almost three times as much cargo as "Panamax" vessels, the largest ships currently able to navigate the canal.