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The Americans Arrive in Panama

Written by
Francisco Gonzalez
October 11, 2021
Our first time to Panama commences! The modern Panama City skyline contrasts with the historic part of the city, Cisco Viejo, where we enjoyed wonderful local cuisine and Cuban cigars.

On October 2, 2021, Panama became the 24th nation state that I have visited during this life. I have been living and working in Guatemala for most of 2021. So, given that I was already in Central America, I felt like it was finally time to visit Panama. And I wouldn’t be doing it alone.

Back around 2013, a young man from Panama came to Tallahassee, Florida to intern at The James Madison Institute (JMI), a public policy think tank I worked at for nine years. Chris had been studying at Florida State University’s campus in Panama and had met his girlfriend (at the time) there while she was doing a semester abroad. So, he came up to Tallahassee to visit her a few times and someone told him that he should look into The James Madison Institute while he was there. He did and was granted an interview and eventually accepted into JMI’s internship program, while he was taking classes at FSU’s main campus in Tallahassee for a semester or two.

I told Chris back then that I’d like to visit Panama one day and perhaps he could show me around. Well, it might have taken me eight years to get here, but a promise kept is a promise fulfilled! Chris turned out to be a pleasant and knowledgeable tour guide!

When I told Chris that I had another friend from Florida who has had a longtime interest in visiting Panama, he said he would welcome us both and he kindly put us up at his apartment, located right on Avenida Balboa in a vibrant part of Panama City. It’s always great to stay with a friend when you are traveling.  It not only helps save on our budget, but we also get the local experience. And I would soon find out how deep of knowledge Chris has of his native Panama and he more than answered all the questions we came with.

Panama City or Miami?

So, two Americans, my friend Marshall and myself, descended upon the Isthmus of Panama, both of us for the first time. Obviously the first thing I ever think of anytime Panama is mentioned  is the Panama Canal (and the unrelated Van Halen song by the same name).

The Panama Canal was built by the United States between 1903-1914 and is simply one of the most marvelous construction projects ever done in human history. Think about it. We literally reshaped the geography of the planet. We did so with purpose. And we did so only because so many sacrificed their lives to make it happen. You can read my previous post about the historical preview to our first trip to Panama to learn more about the undertaking.

Marshall not only shares my admiration for the canal and the desire to see it, but he had one more, perhaps bigger reason to come to Panama. He was very close with his grandfather, Roger Swanson, who passed away in 2020 in his mid-90s. Roger served the United States during World War II. After first serving in Britain in the early 1940s, he was then sent to Panama.

The canal and the U.S. territory surrounding it was an important strategic area for the United States to protect. And, because of the canal, the U.S. and the Allied forces had another strategic advantage during the war. We could move ships (men, material, and arms) between the Atlantic and Pacific through that passageway. Of course, the Axis forces had submarines surrounding the Western hemisphere and not far from Panama. Mr. Swanson was an Air Force pilot and was sent on missions out of Panama to bomb some of the Japanese submarines nearby.

The other unique thing about Roger Swanson is he was here both during the war and after the war, roughly from 1944 to 1946. It wasn’t a bad place to be for a young man from Kansas. Roger also helped run a newspaper in Panama that was read by the American men stationed there. It was called The Beach Times. This was where he gained his early reporting experience, writing descriptive articles and taking plenty of photographs.

Photograph courtesy of Roger Swanson circa 1945

Marshall still has some of those original newspapers and photographs and he brought them with him via his iPhone. He also sent Chris and I digital images of the photographs ahead of the trip hoping we might be able to see some of the areas his grandfather was at and perhaps take some photographs of what those places look like today. We’ll get more into this in the next post about our visit to the Panama Canal and the area formerly known as the American zone -- where our friend Chris happened to live during his youth.

With this context of our trip in mind, I arrived in Panama City, Panama (not to be confused with Panama City, Florida) on Saturday, October 2. They have a large airport here, but it’s mostly because Panama has become a great place not only for ships to pass through, but for flights to connect between North America, South America, Central America, Europe, and Asia. When you walk outside the airport, there is a relatively small pick-up area because let’s face it: Panama is small and most of the people coming through this large airport are not coming and going in and out of Panama. Think of it like the Atlanta airport of Central America. Less of a destination airport, more of a place to connect.

The population of the entire country of Panama today is about 4.3 million people. Much of that is consolidated in and around the area of its capital, Panama City.

I have seen modern photographs of Panama City and my first impression of those photos was: “that looks a lot like Miami today.” When I arrived by plane, and Chris picked me up and drove me about 20 minutes from the airport into the heart of Panama City, my first impression was nearly an identical description. And throughout my time here, I was constantly looking at the skyline of Panama City, saying: “I can’t help but think of Miami.”

Modern Panama City

There are lots of tall buildings, condos, offices, etc, and most of them look very new -- and that’s because they are. In fact, Marshall had arrived in Panama City a day earlier and stayed at the Plaza Paitilla Inn, an iconic circular building which is probably about 20 stories tall. Chris told me that when his mom came back from Ukraine (where she went to college in the 1980s), that was the tallest building in Panama City. “No way!” I said. If you see how many much taller buildings are around it today, you would likely have the same reaction.

Chris had a few errands to run on Saturday, so after we picked up Marshall at the Plaza Paitilla Inn, which is in the San Francisco neighborhood of the city, he drove us about 15 minutes over to the historic Casco Viejo area of the city. This area was first completed and settled by the Spanish in 1673. However, while the buildings look historic, you can tell most of them are recreations from that period -- more of a gentrified neighborhood.

When the French were here in the late 1800s, trying to build the canal (before they ultimately failed), they had a lot of influence in this Casco Viejo area as well. In fact as Marshall and I walked around, we kept thinking how much this area and its architecture had a feel almost like New Orleans. “Except much cleaner,” I added.

Also, much less populated. This is clearly a very gentrified tourist hot spot, and the tourists aren’t coming in as high of numbers right now due to the pandemic. Panama was pretty locked down throughout all of 2020 and early 2021. There is still a public mask mandate in place here, despite the fact over 70% of Panamanians have been vaccinated. Casco Viejo is where all the original government buildings are and it remains that way today. You can also see some ruins of old cathedrals and other churches as well as some that are in use today.

A view of the Panama City skyline from Casco Viejo

We were hungry so our first spot was the Diablicos restaurant in Casco Viejo. It was not busy at all, but the service was good and the food was above average. I had some kind of chicken dish on the menu and Marshall had a steak. My dish came with these fried plantains that were different from what I’m used to with my Cuban-American roots in South Florida. But they were great. And gave me the feeling I was in a new place: Panama!

While we were in the restaurant, it rained pretty hard outside for about an hour. That was nice because we were inside eating anyway and the rain seemed to cool things off a bit. Even though it was already early October, Panama was hot and humid, reminiscent of Florida in August. And Chris explained to us that the rain storms here are also reminiscent of the short strong summer storms we are used to in Florida.

If I could turn back time...

After lunch, we walked just a block or so down the street and found a cigar lounge called Habano House Panama. We met some friendly staff and patrons, all locals in Panama. And the place contains pretty much all Cuban cigars. One of the only problems for smokers in Panama is the local laws forbidding smoking indoors. So they didn’t allow us to smoke here, but they told us we could take our cigars down the street and smoke on an outdoor patio at a restaurant.

We walked a block and saw the Finca del Mar restaurant, which accommodated us at an outdoor table (shaded by an umbrella) with a view of the bay looking toward a thin highway that circumnavigates Casco Viejo about a quarter-mile out. Beyond that is the Pacific Ocean. The weather remained cooler and overcast, giving Marshall and I a nice time to just catch up for two hours over cigars, while watching pedestrians walk by and an occasional car stroll by. The cars go very slow around the old historic streets of Casco Viejo, making this a very friendly place for pedestrians.

Around the time we finished our cigars, it was almost evening. Someone we met told us there was a cool rooftop restaurant on the other end of Casco Viejo that was good for food (and because it was a rooftop, you could also smoke there). Well, we were done smoking for the day, but we pinged Chris who was now ready to meet back up with us and he confirmed that the rooftop was a good spot. Oh, the name? Lazotea Restaurant & Rooftop.

When we arrived, we lucked out. They had a small table still available on the outside deck of the rooftop that accommodated the three of us. We noticed many of the tables were previously reserved, so if you want to eat here during your visit, it’s best to reserve a table ahead of time, especially as more tourists start returning here. There is a small swimming pool on the rooftop, which adds to the ambience.  We also arrived there just in time for some really amazing views of the sky during sunset. The food was very good. I would say, smaller to medium sized dishes that were high quality. It wasn’t overpriced, but also wasn’t cheap. A good price point for the quality and the atmosphere. And the clientele here seems young and pretty good looking. I should have dressed as nice as Marshall did.

An evening view from Laztoea's rooftop!

Once we finished dinner, I was starting to get a bit tired, as I had been up since about 4:00am to catch my early flight out of Guatemala City. But then we noticed there were some jazz musicians playing inside, so we closed our bill outside and grabbed an empty table inside. There were plenty of tables to be had inside. Marshall started talking to one of the managers and to the musicians -- the manager brought a few interesting cocktails to the table and we each tried them. I ended my evening with a Mero Carajillo, a dessert cocktail which had Mezcal, maple, and coffee. (I needed just a little bit of a wake up at this point!) We listened to the jazz band play and they even asked Marshall to come up and sing a song with them. He did great!

We then closed out the night and headed to Chris’ apartment, which is actually in one of the tallest buildings in Panama City (over 60 floors), on the Avenida Balboa. While Chris’ place was “only” on the 6th floor, his balcony has a great view of the Pacific Ocean, the skyline of Panama City, and some views of Casco Viejo as well. Avenida Balboa is a central spot to be in if you are coming here to Panama City. A nice place to arrive and get settled and only a few minutes drive to the most coveted area to visit, Casco Viejo.  

My next post will detail our visit to the Panama Canal and the area formerly known as the American zone. Stay tuned!

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