Author Joe Keohane Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY ONE The first thing that strikes you when you approach Panama City is the skyline. The towers are so densely clustered and slender and bright they look like a geological feature, an effusion of quartz rising from the earth.
I wake up in one of them: the Waldorf Astoria, a sharp-edged block erected in a recent frenzy of construction that is only now starting to abate. My room—done in beige and gold, glass and chrome—has a kind of glow to it. I open the curtains and, beyond the palisade of high-rises, get my first glimpse of the tankers, dozens of them, sitting low in the sea, headed southwest toward the Panama Canal.
Panama City, I’ve been told, is a “three-shower-a-day kind of place,” and I soon discover why. I exit the Waldorf and receive the full brunt of the city’s equatorial heat. So, my first order of business is to get myself a straw hat. I stroll along nearby Cinta Costera—a manicured path that snakes along the edge of the bay—toward Victor’s Panama Hats. This is not a terribly pedestrian-friendly city—sidewalks are scarce and the driving erratic—so Cinta Costera is a popular spot. Joggers jog, families relax, vendors vend, travel writers pour sweat.
I duck back into the Waldorf, exchange knowing looks with the doorman, change into shorts, and smuggle out a washcloth for brow-mopping duty, as I don’t think the hat will be sufficient. I am about to meet a prominent Panamanian, after all, and I want to look at least halfway presentable.
Elena Hernández is the founder of the Panamá Gastronómica food festival. We meet at the Nina Concept Store, a trendy design shop, gallery, and café owned by her brother Manuel. While we try the brunch offerings—corn arepas with tuna and cilantro mayonnaise, eggs Benedict with salmon on brioche (baked by Hernández), pancakes, and local fruit—she tells me her story.
She was born in New York City and moved here when she was around 4 years old. After dropping out of law school, she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “When I came back, there were only maybe five chefs in Panama,” she says. “I was, like, the second woman.” Cooking was seen as a low profession in a place where parents wanted their kids to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and most favored European- and American-style food.
After working in several restaurants, Hernández opened Panama’s first private cooking school. Then she created Panamá Gastronómica five years ago to promote the work of the country’s new wave of chefs. “I think we helped make people proud of Panamanian cuisine,” she says, taking a bite of bacon that came from a butcher down the street. “Nobody studied cooking before. Now everyone wants to.”
I leave with a list of Hernández’s favorite eateries but decide to burn off a few calories before cramming myself with more. A short drive across town is Cerro Ancón, the famous wooded hill that rises 650 feet above the city and is topped with a giant Panamanian flag. As I trudge upward, damply greeting fellow hikers, the noise of the city recedes. Aguotis—small creatures that resemble miniature tapirs—bound across my path. Hawks wheel above. The walk takes about 20 minutes, and the views from the summit are astounding: the great canal on one side, the emphatic sprawl of the city on the other.
Later, having stopped by the Waldorf for, yes, a shower, I take a car northeast to the San Francisco district. Dinner is at Maito, run by trailblazing chef Mario Castrellón. In a room that resembles a Japanese teahouse filtered through a Latin American lens, a procession of wildly imaginative food commences: tuna tartare and spicy guacamole served on a crispy plantain chip; baby squid with achiote and pork rinds; lamb bacon tacos with tzatziki; mackerel tempura with sweet-and-sour sauce. Chef Mario comes out to say hello. He’s funny, shaggy, and animated. I ask him what inspired him to devise this menu. “Panama,” he replies. “It’s what I think of when I think of Panama.”
It’s late, but I have the driver stop at the Ocean Sun Casino, where I take the elevator up to Panaviera, with its thrumming outdoor rooftop bar on the 66th floor. I grab a stool by the railing, order a local 507 beer, and get down to the business of pondering the town. The way the city lights extend before yielding to the darkness of the interior. The way the still tankers twinkle in the black water, waiting for the opening of the canal. The way … oh, I just remembered: I have to get up at 6 a.m. tomorrow.
I call it a night.