Panama Is the Complete Package

I visit Panama at least once a year, and every time I approach the city from Tocumen International Airport I’m amazed. It’s what Dorothy must have felt as she traveled the Yellow Brick Road and got her first glimpse of the towers of Oz.

This is one big, bustling city, and it seems to get bigger and more bustling every year.

Sure, it was a busy city when my wife and I lived here back in 2007. At that time there weren’t enough available tower cranes on the planet to service all the high-rise construction projects in the city. Then the emphasis shifted to infrastructure—the Cinta Costera bypass now flies traffic over and through what used to be horrific bay-front congestion, and the new Urban Metro project is modernizing the city’s mass transit system and hopefully will take a good number of cars off the overcrowded Panama City streets.

Add in projects to improve the Colon highway and the Northern Corridor highway that serves the eastern part of the city, and you have a lot of infrastructure upgrades going on.

All signs of Panama’s economic vitality… The Panama Canal is a money machine, handling 5% of the entire world’s trade traffic. A current expansion project will make it even busier. Banking services naturally concentrate in a place with that much trade, making Panama a global financial hub as well.

For people who love action, Panama City is paradise, as hip and urbane as any city in the Western Hemisphere. But in my experience, Panamanians—no matter how hip and urbane— never stray too far from their roots. I think that’s because, in Panama, the “interior” of the country is never very far away.

Take the Pan-American highway east or west from Panama City, or strike north to Colon and the Caribbean coast and you’ll be in the “interior”…where you’ll see the lush green uplands, sweeping fields and pastures, and stunning Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Places like Pedasi, San Blas, Santiago, Bocas del Toro, San Francisco, Penonome, and David are where the heart of Panama beats and the soul of Panama dances and parties.

But even in Panama City you can feel the beat. All it takes is a ride in a taxi with a driver from the interior with a good radio to become immersed in the quintessential Panamanian-style tipico and cumbia music. The kids and the chiva party buses (brightly decorated and illustrated buses) may be playing the latest reggaeton (a blend of Caribbean and Latin American music styles) star, but the old hands drive with brother-and-sister music duo, Samy y Sandra Sandoval, and accordionist Aceves Núñez. Or, if they’re born in the city, they may prefer salsa or jazz from Ruben Blades or Danilo Perez.

It’s all here: the urban style and conveniences right along with the interior roots and color. And in Panama, one is never very far from the other. It’s not that big of a country geographically, so it’s easy to have traditional sancocho soup and patacones (fried green plantains) at a village restaurant for lunch and enjoy Indian tandoori or Argentine fillet or Japanese sushi in the city for dinner.

I think of all this every time I come here, and every time I understand again what makes Panama the city and Panama the interior such a huge draw for North American expats. It’s hard not to find something somewhere in Panama to like, and it’s just as hard to run out of things to do. For lots of expats I know, it’s the complete package.

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