DRIVING PAST THE GLASS HIGH-RISES ALONG Panama City’s bayside Corredor Sur freeway, it’s easy to
imagine yourself caught inside a time warp speeding through eighties-era Miami. After all, this “gateway to the world” is still
widely—if unfairly—associated with the outlaw trifecta of Contras, cocaine and caudillo strongmen (à la Manuel Noriega),
which gave rise to these Caribbean-inflected boomtowns. Despite such misconceptions, however, in lockstep with this
year’s Panama Canal centennial, the Central American capital is reestablishing itself as a cultural portal for cutting-edge
architecture (like Frank Gehry’s environment-promoting, Crayola-colored BioMuseo, rising over the Amador Causeway),
enterprising restaurants and galleries, and a burgeoning hotel scene. In fact, the latter may actually be leading the former.
As evidenced by Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas-inaugurating Flamingo in 1946 or the fifties-era Fontainebleau-Eden Roc
rivalry that fertilized the shores of South Beach for decades to come, great hotels—and the moguls, restaurateurs and
avant-garde creatives behind them—have the power to redefine territories across the map. Such is the hope for the
American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage-sited Casco Viejo, the once-walled city center that
descended into poverty in the 1980s and may now be the keystone for the capital’s renaissance.
TEXT: MICHAEL SLENSKE
THE CULTURAL HEARTBEAT OF PANAMA CITY