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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Panama City is a bold blend of the old and new

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Panama City’s skyline of skyscrapers [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

PANAMA CITY – A bold blend of the old and the new, Panama City is like no other capital in Central America.

Founded on the site of an Indian village in the 16th century, Panama City is really two cities in one.

San Felipe, the oldest quarter, is a mélange of low-rise Spanish colonial, Caribbean, French and Art Deco buildings currently going through a process of massive urban redevelopment.

Paitilla and Bella Vista, two of the city’s modern neighbourhoods, bristle assertively with a striking skyline of skyscrapers that bring to mind such destinations as Manhattan and Hong Kong.

Thanks to its bifurcated cityscape, Panama City is unique in Central America.

The first European city on the Pacific coast, Panama City was established by Spanish explorers and quickly became a hub of international trade.

Sacked by the British buccaneer Henry Morgan in the 17th century, it was rebuilt on a peninsula near the original settlement, the ruins of which stand today in a gray and eerie tableau.

San Felipe was the only neighbourhood in Panama City when construction on the Panama Canal, linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean, first began in the late 19th century. As the years passed, San Felipe, in the southwestern part of the city, fell into a downward spiral of decline. But of late, it has been gentrified.

Gentrification has accentuated its quaint qualities, transforming San Felipe into a tourist draw of cobblestone streets historical buildings, cafes, restaurants, shops and boutiques.

Plaza de la Independencia, the heart of San Felipe, is where Panamanians declared independence from Colombia on Nov. 3, 1903, thereby enabling the United States to begin construction of the Panama Canal.

Around the plaza are a medley of astonishingly beautiful buildings: the National Theatre, with its gleaming hardwood floors, Italian marble walls and gilded galleries; the Moorish-style presidential palace, with its white-washed façade and wrought-iron gate; the city’s first cathedral, dating back to the 1600s, and the Hotel Central, Panama’s first modern hostelry, now undergoing renovation.

From the weathered sea walls of San Felipe, the modern city looms large and prosperous, even as it conceals the appalling blight of urban poverty.

The building boom that has endowed Panama City with a world-class skyline was launched in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 1989.

The skyscrapers, a gleaming mix of office buildings and condominiums, run the gamut from extremely inventive to wildly original. They largely define contemporary Panama City and attest to its status as one of Latin America’s commercial centres.

Like Rio de Janeiro, Panama City has a tropical rainforest within its municipal boundaries. North of the downtown core, the Parque Natural Metropolitano, or the Metropolitan Nature Park, is a refuge of exotic birds and animals from toucans to sloths. Five trails cut through it, and one of them, La Cienaguita, offers views of the city and the Panama Canal.

Eight hundred and eighty thousand of Panama’s 3.4 million people are squeezed into Panama City. Although Roman Catholics comprise much of its population, a fairly substantial Jewish community thrives here. 

Ten thousand Jews, mainly Sephardim and including a growing colony of Israelis, live in Panama, the only country in the Americas that had two Jewish presidents in the 20th century.

Max Delvalle was briefly president in the 1960s after a spell as vice-president. His nephew, Eric Delvalle, held the same position in the 1980s.

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