Great Escapes

08.17.14

A Man, a Plan, a Canal: Panama Turns 100

The Panama Canal celebrates its centennial on August 15th while it’s on-the-verge tourism scene continues to make it the most caliente hotspot in all of Central America.

Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, a feat of engineering that helped define the earliest days of the 20th Century. A personal mission of US President Teddy Roosevelt, it started as French project in the 1880s, but constant delays and cost overruns—as well as engineering bull-headednes on the part of Ferdinand de Lesseps, famed builder of the Suez Canal—ended up costing $287 million (about $7.4 billion in today’s money!) and up to 22,000 lives. It collapsed in a scandal that brought down a government in Paris.

The US took over the project in 1903 and finally completed the canal on Aug 15, 1914. It also fomented a revolution in Panama, then a province of Colombia, guaranteed its independence with gunboats and cemented its reputation as a bullying imperialist throughout Latin America for decades to come.

So, when my business writer friend told me he was headed to Panama, the land of booming transportation sectors and 4 percent jobless rates to interview their Ministry Of Finance, I knew I just had to tag along. (Mostly to find out what a “Ministry Of Finance” is.) And to check out this 100-year-old steel and cement engineering marvel. And if you can get to Panama shortly before, or after, (I recommend “after”) the canal’s very special birthday on Friday here’s some local destinations to embrace as you comb WebMD for local diseases to avoid.

From Raider To Rum

Much like Lindsay Lohan’s brain, the country’s original capital was destroyed by Captain Morgan. The merciless pirate-turned-corporate-symbol sacked what was then a Spanish settlement on the territory’s Pacific coast way back in 1671, and while Panama Viejo’s brand new visitor’s center still needs to add a little more English to their exhibits, the surrounding ruins—just a 10-minute taxi from the city—are an archeological adventure.

Tiny Streets, Big Stories

140815-panama-causeway2a-tease
Renovations continue at the Hotel Hererra, a former mansion now slated to open as a boutique hotel later this year, in the historic Casco Viejo district of Panama City, Panama, on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty )

Casco Viejo is the oldest area in Panama City (which, of course, also makes it the most charming). It is what The Rocks is to Sydney or Beacon Hill to Boston … with still-visible bombing damage from Reagan’s 1989 invasion, to boot!

Music in a Monument

Las Bovedas is quite possibly the coolest looking jazz bar in the history of history, (Happy Hyperbole Day!). Carved within the ancient walls of the Plaza de Francia, the funky/freaky décor (think Bourbon Street meets Twin Peaks), coupled with local bands, outdoor seating and exceptional hipster watching makes this place a Casco Viejo must! And I don’t use exclamation points lightly!!!

Hope Floats

CNN voted the canal second only to Brazil within their top 11 locations to visit in 2014, and the country’s gone all out when it comes to their big party at the bigger parting. Every year 14,000 vessels serve 1,7000 ports in 160 countries as they make their way through this Atlantic-to-Pacific pathway. Current and upcoming festivities include Magical Museum Nights—every Saturday throughout August—at the Miraflores Visitors’ Center, which present performances recreating the canal’s history. Also on tap is the world premiere of the film “Histories Del Canal” at Panama’s National Theater on Aug. 13, along with international artists exhibiting their own interpretation of the century-long enterprise within the Panama City Contemporary Art Museum. (The canal’s expansion was supposed to be finished in time for the celebration, but the project has been hopelessly delayed and mired in all manner of cost overruns to the tune of $6.5 billion spent so far.)

Budget Bunking

Hostal Urraca’s (507-391-3971) Zen-like garden—complete with welcoming Christmas lights, hammocks, an expansive kitchen and workable laundry machines—and clean accommodations is one of the more expat friendly hostels in Panama City. The nights spent ordering dollar beers at the front desk and hanging out with our fellow roomies on the patio proved to be just as fun as a bar.

Further Afield

140815-panama-causeways-tease
The view of the Causeway, a road connecting three islands off the Panama Canal, from the third island Flamenco, which used to be a US base and then a Noriega government garrison and jail. (Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe, via Getty)

Australians always say of Melbourne: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, while no doubt prefacing that with a “mate” or two. Regardless, that goes double for a hippy isle full of expats and pungent pot known as Bocas del Toro. This little slice of anarchy is a 24-hour bus ride from Panama City, with plenty of rainforest-y scenery along the way. Upside: This torrential downpour only lasted 10 minutes. Downside: My pith helmet did nothing!

Eat: Natural Mystic
Snorkel: Cayo Coral
Drink: Paki’s Point Surf Bar