Breezy, Probably Unfair Generalizations About Panama Based On An Hour At Tocumen International Airport

harley davidson panamaWriters are famous for blowing into places for a very short period of time and then spouting off on them as though they were experts. Click on my name here and you’ll see that I’m just as guilty as everyone else. And writers with a hell of a lot more talent than me have done the same thing.

According to Paul Theroux’s “Tao of Travel,D. H. Lawrence spent just a week in Sardinia, but needed 355 pages to describe the trip in his book, Sea and Sardinia. Graham Greene spent just 18 days in Liberia preparing “Journey Without Maps,” and Rudyard Kipling never went to Mandalay, the subject of his famous poem. Bruce Chatwin would wash up in a place for an hour or two and somehow get three chapters of dialogue-driven material, much of it likely fabricated, without breaking a sweat. (Theroux wisely doesn’t disclose how long he spent anywhere)

The hazard of writing non-fiction is that there will always be readers who know more about the topic you’re writing about than you do. Travel writers record their impressions of a place and then duck for cover as people who live there or know it very well take justifiable shots at us.I had all this in mind on Valentine’s Day when I had an hour to kill at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. Like most Americans, I know very little about Panama, but I wondered what I could pick up about the local culture from wandering around the airport for an hour. Here is what I noticed. I hope that those who know Panama well will use the comments section to set me straight.

See through pants. The first thing I noticed after stepping off the plane was a middle-aged woman’s ass. Mind you, I was in the airport with my wife and two children, but even my wife couldn’t help but notice it.
“Dave, look at this woman’s outfit,” she whispered with a nod, as though it had somehow slipped past me. “Her pants are totally see through! You can see her ass.”

I wanted to get a photo of it, for posterity, but I didn’t want to get too close, and from a distance, it wasn’t possible to detect how shear her stretch pants were. I didn’t see anyone else in a see-through outfit but I did spy plenty of women in very tight, form-fitting attire and even the airport janitors looked quite fetching in their uniforms.

Treasure Chest: As I stood underneath an airport monitor marveling at all the exotic places I could connect to in Panama (Manaus! Belo Horizonte! Ascuncion! Cali! M.A. Gelabert?!) my sons made a beeline for one of those horrible feed-a-dollar-and-your-child-will-get-the-prize-they-don’t-want machines called Treasure Chest, which was full of stuffed animals and other assorted junk kids love.

My three year old will plead with us to feed coins into these machines and then, invariably, commence a meltdown of biblical proportions when he doesn’t get the thing he wants. I swear that Tocumen has at least 100 of these exact same machines all called “Treasure Chest.” And my sons approached every last one of them, harassing us to buy them something. In some areas of the airport, there were two of these machines back to back. Why so many? Obviously Panamanians must be into spoiling and indulging their children.

harmont and blaine tucomen airportWealthy elite. Panama is a relatively poor country but the rich elite must be damn good shoppers. Rolex, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino, Caroline Herrera, Lacoste, and Salvatorre Fergammo all have locations in the airport, not to mention other upscale retailers I wasn’t as familiar with. My favorite was Harmont and Blaine, an upscale Italian store with a WASPY name and logo featuring two dachshunds. (Short sleeve polo shirts sell for $90) Most of the posh stores were empty and it seemed like the only places doing any business at all were selling perfume or electronics.

No Bargain. Here’s all I know about the cost of living in Panama: a pizza sub and a small bottle of water from a Subway sandwich shop cost me $11.50 U.S. Even by airport standards, that is ridiculous.

tocumen airportCould I get a newsstand, please? You can find a decent newsstand and/or bookstore in almost any major airport in the world. But I looked very hard for one at Tocumen and asked several people to guide me and came up empty. I finally found a very small place with a modest selection of magazines (all in Spanish save Time and Men’s Health) but, oddly enough, they had no newspapers. Not even local ones.

I asked the woman where the papers were and she said they get them in the morning and by the afternoon they’re all gone. I suppose one could take the optimistic stance that this shows avid readership but I found the lack of reading materials in the airport a bad indicator for the country’s literary scene, and indeed, the list of famous Panamanian writers online is pretty modest.

But one woman I asked in a perfume shop who was talking to a guy that looked like a Panamanian drug lord straight out of central casting was nice enough to give me her copy of “La Estrella,” a 164-year-old daily newspaper that is apparently one of the oldest in Latin America.

sophia rossi porn starBeisbol and boobs. After I’d seen enough of the airport, I sat down and leafed through “La Estrella,” which was full of coverage of the country’s baseball championship between teams called Metro and Occidente, and seemingly random photos of bodacious women. One particularly fetching photo, which appeared in the Sports section under the headline “La Apasionada” (The Impassioned), featured the porn star Sophia Rossi, who makes Pamela Anderson look like the flat-chested girl next door. (And has been romantically linked to the baseball player, Pat Burrell)

Diversity. I spent the rest of my time people watching and, while you never know where people are from, the diversity was impressive. There were people of every skin tone, befitting a country that’s long been a crossroads and a melting pot. I was only in Panama for an hour, not even enough time to get Van Halen’s song of the same title out of my head, but I saw enough to know I want to go back. Next time, I’d like to actually exit the airport.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

Westin opens first hotel in Panama to the tune of $100 million

westin panamaPanama, ranked the number one travel destination by The New York Times and an emerging destination by pubs like Fodor’s and Travel + Leisure, has just gotten a little hotter with the opening of its first Westin hotel.

The newly-opened Westin Playa Bonita Panamá is 20 minutes outside Panama City, flanked by both rainforest and beach. The hotel boasts 611 luxury rooms and suites, six fine dining restaurants, four bars and an open-air VIP Lounge on the 19th floor, which boasts panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, rainforest and Panamá Canal.
While 600-something room hotels aren’t always our preference, it’s a great way to get a tropical escape on the calendar for a reasonable price or for a moderate number of SPG loyalty points.

This opening falls on the heels of other major hotel announcements in the fast-emerging must-visit destination, including the opening of Trump Ocean Club Panama earlier this year.

Photo of the day – Panama on skateboard

Photo of the day
Skateboarders get a bad rap: they travel in packs of (usually) teenage boys, gravitate towards public buildings and spaces, and redefine the word “loiter.” But this shot by Flickr user aaroncolorado taken in Panama City, Panama is graceful, almost balletic. No doubt the no-goodniks were promptly chased away from their hangout spot, but looks like they had a good afternoon skating.

Have some great action shots to share? Add them to our Flickr pool and we may feature it on a future Photo of the Day.

Airbnb: Six awesome experiences

airbnbLast autumn, after having tracked the Airbnb buzz for a while, I finally took the plunge and reserved rooms through the site in Panama City and Bogotá for my two-stop December jaunt.

About a half-hour into my first pit stop, it was already clear to me that the service was a perfect fit for budget-conscious travelers. (For the record, I’m not the only Airbnb fan at Gadling. Check out my colleague Elizabeth Seward’s Airbnb post published earlier this year.)

For those unfamiliar with it, Airbnb is a rental service. House or apartment owners list their spare beds, rooms, or entire living spaces for rent on the site.

What makes Airbnb distinct? First of all, owners are paid 24 hours after the reservation begins, a delay that helps weed out dishonest landlords. Another important detail: if there is a problem with a rental, guests can contact Airbnb to void payment. I was comfortable with Airbnb from the outset in light of these consumer protection safeguards, and the fact that everyone is encouraged to evaluate one another following a stay was icing on the cake. Landlords can’t get away with false advertising, and poor behavior on the part of a guest or host will also be exposed through reviews. Good hosts and guests can both build up positive profiles via strong reviews.

Overall, Airbnb is pretty scamproof if used as directed. In a review of comments and criticisms of Airbnb online, it appears that some people have been scammed after making a payment on a rental outside of the Airbnb payment system. Payment via the Airbnb payment system, it should go without saying, is a much safer bet. Here’s a tiny piece of advice: If any property owner you contact through Airbnb urges you to bypass the Airbnb payment system and directly wire them money, cut off contact and report them.

Overnight, I became a fan of Airbnb. Seldom had I found such cheap accommodations in such comfortable surroundings, and with the added benefit of an instant social network of locals taking an interest in my welfare. I’ve experienced just two annoyances of the most minor sort: a host in Panama City who never messaged me back and a hostess in Tel Aviv whose room was not available despite being advertised as such.

But where did I stay? What were my accommodations like? And what did they cost?Panama City. In the Panamanian capital, I stayed in a high-rise in a wealthy neighborhood just down the street from the US Embassy. I had my own bright bedroom and a private bathroom. My host introduced me to some of his favorite restaurants and dined with me on two of my three nights in the city. An American expat, he was full of helpful tips and friendly asides. The damage: $72 per night.

Bogotá. I lucked out here, with a beautifully swank apartment near the center of the city (see above for a balcony-level photo of the street in front of the building.) My hosts were phenomenally kind. They served me breakfast, drove me around, gave me advice, and introduced me to their friends at elaborate dinner parties. It was here that I had the incredible experience of sampling homemade ajiaco, a delicious Colombian potato soup. The damage: $60 per night.

Amsterdam. I stayed in the funky neighborhood of De Pijp over the week of Christmas, first by myself for a night (sharing the space with my hosts) and then with my family for a week (by ourselves). De Pijp is an exciting, dynamic neighborhood. The apartment was beautiful if small and the only downside was its draftiness, particularly noticeable due to the frigid temps. The damage: $62 for a single room; $243 per person for seven nights for the entire unit.

Oslo. Before my February visit, I was terrified of Oslo’s price index, and justifiably so, as it turned out. What made Oslo affordable was my rental room, a quiet little space in an apartment about a kilometer from the train station. I shared kitchen and bathroom with the very friendly owner. The damage: $76 per night.

Tel Aviv. I stayed in the superhip neighborhood of Noga, next to Jaffa. My temporary studio, a factory conversion, had high ceilings and a pleasingly post-industrial decor. I had the entire studio to myself for two nights. On my final morning in Tel Aviv, my hosts showed up, chatted with me about a number of topics, and then drove me to the train station. The damage: $119 per night.

Jerusalem. I stayed in a hilly, residential part of West Jerusalem. I had a tiny apartment of my own, an annex to my hosts’ apartment, with a bathroom, a little kitchen, and access to a back garden. My hosts, long-term peace activists, were wonderful for conversation, information, and mid-morning coffee. The damage: $84 per night.

Airbnb has been in the news recently. Ashton Kutcher was announced as an investor and advisor in late May. Last week, it was revealed that contact salespeople working for Airbnb surreptitiously contacted property owners advertising on Craigslist to expand listings.

Raymond Fisman on How Bogota's Mayor Fought Crime

Panama City: Casco Viejo rising

panama city casco viejo
Casco Viejo is on the edge, but of what?

Depending on who you talk to, Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, has either already peaked or only recently managed to identify how it might achieve its prime.

The neighborhood is inarguably gorgeous. Beautifully renovated structures share space with completely decrepit buildings. There are plazas, churches, convent ruins, and, at one extreme, a fortress wall. The National Theatre lies within its borders, as does the Presidential Palace.

There is a well-manned Tourist Police office as well, and a smattering of cute cafes, restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops. And yet, even with all these facilities, there is an appealingly abandoned feel to many blocks. These ignored buildings, some with internal foliage peeking through open windows and many with wrought-iron balconies and gates, continue to be a primary feature of the neighborhood.

In fact, there has been a buzz in Casco Viejo for some time, and paradoxically it is this very buzz that has encouraged the abandonment of many buildings. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Casco Viejo fell by almost a third, to under 7000, after the passage of a law designed to encourage the rehabilitation of buildings. This law prompted property owners, operating under the assumption that gentrification was imminent, to kick their poor tenants out. (Many of the neighborhood’s tenants generate no money whatsoever for landlords. They are destitute, and were originally relocated to unoccupied Casco Viejo buildings by Panama’s Housing Ministry.) Interestingly enough, many buildings remain unoccupied today. For greater real estate history, check out this article in the Panama News a few years back.

It looks as if many empty buildings may remain abandoned, at least in the near future. In August 2010, the government suspended plans to invest in previously scheduled renovation projects in the neighborhood.

So what’s in the cards?

One possibility is that Casco Viejo will become more of an artist colony. In the Panama Report, a publication devoted to travel and investment in Panama, Jesse Levin suggested in a 2009 article that Casco Viejo’s stop-and-start pace of gentrification has happened in part because the ‘hood simply heated up too quickly, leaving a massive gap between those who could make a purchase at the top of the market and Casco Viejo’s “natural” new inhabitants: people of moderate means in the domestic creative class.

Another possible future of the neighborhood can be glimpsed in the emergence of Las Clementinas, a very nicely detailed guesthouse and restaurant-bar in the heart of the neighborhood, which opened in November. It’s hard not to be impressed by Las Clementinas. It’s got beautiful rooms (pricey for Panama City, at $240 per night) and a popular restaurant-bar. I ate dinner there alone, surrounded by rich Panamanians celebrating a birthday and a few fellow tourists. The meal’s highlight was fufu, a somewhat spicy Caribbean soup. The food was fine, and the atmosphere was outstanding down to the last detail.

Las Clementinas is posh, and it is posh in a particularly Panamanian way. It feels like it belongs in Casco Viejo. But if another dozen businesses like Las Clementinas open up in the neighborhood, what will happen? Will Casco Viejo slowly but unavoidably morph into a cliched overdone tourist destination, terribly pretty but lifeless?

Whatever the pace and whatever the outcome, Casco Viejo’s current state prompts consideration from locals and visitors alike about what makes a tourist neighborhood special and wonderful to visit.

Looking for more Panama? Check out Darren Murph’s much-visited recent post on Panama for Gadling here.