Observations from Panama

The last few days in Panama have been illustrative. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to do a workshop here for a large multinational company. All I knew was Manuel Noriega, the Canal, and the Panama Papers.

What I have learned is that Panama City is cosmopolitan and sophisticated — when your client laments that she got the wrong chai latte at the cafe, you know you’re not in a back water.

It is an international city of business. The people here come from all over Latin America and work for multinational companies like Samsung, Halliburton (Richard Halliburton — apparently no relation — swam the entire length of the Panama Canal, 80 kilometers, in 1928), and, of course, lots of banks. Panama used to be considered the the “Switzerland of the Americas” due to it strict banking privacy laws — that is, until the leaked Panama Papers.

Panama has no military. Instead they have a form of militarized police. Panama has a somewhat complicated relationship with the United States, which is easy enough to learn about on Wikipedia so I won’t go into it here. But it’s hard to believe that the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989.

Here are a few of my observations.

There is an insane amount of construction. High-rise, luxury apartment buildings are going up everywhere. Many of the units are already sold out. I asked if many of the buyers were foreigners or locals. There seemed to be a mixed answer. Most of the existing high rises have gone up since 2000, when the U.S. handed the Panama Canal back to its people and Panamanians reclaimed control of their land (President Carter signed the Treaty in 1977).

The F&F Tower in Panama City.
Luxury residence building in the Costa del Este in Panama.

There are several ghettos embedded between the high rises. What is striking is the landscape of satellite dishes dotting the tin roofs.

Panamanian food can be bland. I ate the one of the most popular Panamanian restaurants in the city. The food was OK. Considering their proximity to two oceans, seafood doesn’t seem to play a prominent role in the diet. Instead, there is a reliance on starchy vegetables like yuca (cassava), plantain, corn and yam. That said, there is an excellent selection of restaurants that serve cuisines from around the world. Last night I ate some perfectly prepared sushi, tuna tartare, etc.

Sushi in Panama
Sushi in Panama

This is not a wine town. Even at the Westin, where I have stayed, the wine list just says “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Chardonnay.” No vintage. No winery. Not even an area. This is beer country sounds like a perfect market for small batch, artisanal, craft brew.

For its size, Panama City is considered safe. All the locals have been clear that Panama is safe, particularly in the tourist areas. Of course, they are probably talking about personal safety (no risk of kidnapping). That said, I have felt safe everywhere I’ve gone. It is still an enormous city and using common sense is the rule of the day.

Hot. Hot. Hot. Man, it’s hot. Even for me. But I love it. I love the warm nights and have enjoyed sitting outside for dinner, enjoying the people-watching. I’ve tried to be outside at every opportunity, but will admit that even I have avoided being in the direct sun.

During the rainy season, which is from March to the end of November, there is a thunderstorm every day around 2:00 PM. The skies open up and a deluge falls on the city. Then it clears up and the mugginess permeates the air. I’ve been lucky, being here at the end of the rainy season. Yesterday while I was doing the training I saw the storm approach from the Pacific Ocean and was treated to a pretty wicked storm. My clients were amused at my reaction. The electricity in their building was knocked out, but within seconds the generators kicked in and we continued on our business.

Even though most of their history is dominated by the United States, they are trying to retain their historical recognition. Casco Viejo, and old quarter of town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are meticulously repairing this area to retain its character. It’s become a centerpiece for the tourism trade. It is reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with iron balustrades on colonial buildings.

Overall my impression is quite good. I’ve really enjoyed being here and meeting locals. It’s a small country but they are making an enormous impact on international trade. There is a true sense of pride of what they have been able to accomplish once they were able to get out from under the U.S. They are in the middle of a region of great turmoil, with an influx of illegal immigrants fleeing the collapsed Venezuela and sandwiched between two volatile markets — Mexico and Brasil. But they feel stable and confident. As one client told me, “Nothing happens here.”


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