Author Joe Keohane Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY TWO “How do you know about this? Panamanians don’t even know about this!” I’m visiting Yarabi Vega, an employee at the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is a jungle. Not the way New York’s Central Park was a jungle in the 1970s, but an actual jungle, a former U.S. military base that returned to Panamanian control, was inaugurated as a park in 1988, and has since reverted to a lush state of nature.
The well-kept secret Vega is referring to is the canopy crane. If you work it out with the park in advance, you can go 150 feet up in a machine that ecologists use to study the rainforest canopy. Vega leads me down a dirt path, amid the urgent cries of hidden titi monkeys, past abandoned military installations, until we arrive at the crane and meet the operator, Edwin. I mention that I want to see a sloth. Edwin nods. It’s a reasonable request. Then he says, “I have to go to my office!” and climbs a ladder to a cabin at the top of the crane. We on the ground strap on our harnesses, step into a metal cage, and lurch upward toward the canopy.
Soon we’re dangling over the rainforest, taking in the view—the jungle, the city in its morning haze, the sea beyond. Suddenly, disconcertingly, we swing left, drop back down into the trees, and come to a halt. Two feet in front of us: a sleeping three-toed sloth.
“Can you wake him up?” I ask Vega.
“Maybe if you make the sound of an eagle.”
Screaming at the thing seems mean, so I tap the cage and whistle. The sloth very slowly turns to face us. He blinks. He stares. Then he nods off again. It’s thrilling.
I notice Vega is wearing a small carved sloth on her necklace.
“Are you a sloth fan?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I used to race them.”
“You raced them?”
“In my apartment.”
“You raced sloths in your apartment?”
“Yes,” she says, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. She then explains that the park is also a rehab facility. They had found two baby sloths, and there was nowhere to put them, so Vega took them home to care for them.
“Oh! You raised them.”
We return to earth, and after parting with Vega, I head for Casco Viejo—the old town—to check into the American Trade Hotel. In the bad old days, this building was occupied by gangs, who nicknamed it “Castle Grayskull,” à la He-Man. Today it’s an impeccably tasteful colonial-style boutique, launched by the people behind the Ace Hotel chain. My room is a sunny top-floor junior suite with an excellent shower that has its own eye-level window, allowing me to look over the rooftops of Casco as I scrub. I notice a small towel with “makeup” embroidered on it and sequester it for brow-mopping duty.
Elena Hernández told me to check out Café Unido, a small local chain co-owned by Mario Castrellón that seeks to reintroduce Panamanians to the glory of their home-grown coffee. Luckily, there’s one at the hotel. I get a chocolate croissant and a cup of Geisha coffee. Geisha is one of the most sought-after beans on the planet, and it grows in Panama. Costing $7 a cup, it’s brewed one cup at a time using the pour-over method, and it is remarkable—deep and smooth, with a lemony hint that yields to smokiness. It’s worthy of its reputation.
I take mine black and to-go and head out into the narrow streets of Casco Viejo. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area has had its ups and downs. Right now, it’s on the up. Scores of old buildings are being renovated; restaurants and bars are appearing. I stroll through Plaza de la Catedral, with its 18th-century Spanish colonial Catedral Metropolitana, past the vendors selling hats and crafts. I’m heading for the Ramparts, the defenses that once protected the colonial city from seaborne invasion. The walkway along the top of the walls has been converted into a lovely shaded space under a canopy of flowers. I plop down on a bench and watch the ships.
Continuing my stroll, I stop at Papiro y Yo, a little shop owned by Zaira Lombardo. She and her staff specialize in creating stylish designs using traditional Panamanian techniques and materials: hats and bags, jewelry, housewares. For now, her buyers are mostly foreign. “It’s difficult to sell to Panamanians,” she says. “They’re like people in Miami. They like brands. But little by little they’re learning to appreciate things from here.” I tell her I keep hearing that, and she nods. “There is a wave of people like me.”
I’m off to meet another cultural pioneer: Pituka Ortega Heilbron, director of the four-year-old Panama International Film Festival. She’s suggested we have lunch at Boulevard Balboa, a 1950s-era diner on the waterfront. It’s full of people from all walks of life: politicians, businesspeople, musicians. “Look around, and you’ll see the heart,” she says. “This is Panama right here.” Her father was a politician and later a newspaper columnist, and he used to come here to take in the gossip. “They sat all morning drinking coffee and just talking.” According to Ortega Heilbron, the malted shakes here are the best in Panama, so I order a coffee malt, plus a tortilla sandwich with pepperoni and mozzarella. “Good choice,” she says. “Really Panamanian. That will last you till tonight.”
When she started in film, Panama didn’t have much interest in the form, but now the scene is starting to bloom. That has a lot to do with the festival, which has grown into an internationally renowned event. “What was fascinating in the first year is that people saw these films in Spanish, and they couldn’t believe the quality,” she says. “They discovered something about themselves.”
I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Casco Viejo, listening, looking, using the makeup towel. I stop to get a juice at one of the shaded tables on Plaza Bolívar. A little later, in need of more substantial refreshment, I duck into the American Trade’s cool, bright lobby bar for a Canal Jumper—white rum, Bushmills, falernum, lime, and orange, served with a lit cinnamon stick, glowing red like a cigar. I enjoy it in a wicker rocking chair by the window, watching the light fade over the streetscape outside.
Dinner is across town at Intimo, a cozy new restaurant (if you can find it; there’s no sign) that feels more Northern California than Panama, with a rustic-chic vibe, open kitchen, hirsute staff, and a formidable tasting menu that draws upon local ingredients, including some grown in the backyard. Chef Carlos Alba comes over to chat. He started out studying to be an industrial engineer, but, inspired by Mario Castrellón, switched to cooking. The decision horrified his parents, but it paid off. “Mario was one of the reasons it became OK to be a chef,” he says. They worked together for several years, and then Carlos opened Intimo.
I have a coconut water martini to start things off. Then comes the deluge: food, cocktails, wine, beer, cider. Among the imaginative dishes I try are the tamarind-glazed beans, which taste like ribs; dumplings stuffed with root vegetables; rabbit over a sweet corn puree with crunchy corn; mushrooms with creamy sweet potato, fennel confit, and fried kale; shredded lamb neck with carrots and tiny white flowers; and, finally, a dessert of pineapple yogurt “buried under chocolate dirt,” served in a teacup.
For a nightcap, I head to Tántalo, a boutique hotel and restaurant that’s popular with the trendy Casco set. The rooftop bar here looks out over the neighborhood jumble. Bare bulbs are strung overhead. People are dancing. The air is cool. The music is classic hip-hop. Someone’s getting a tattoo in a chair in the corner. Everyone’s friendly, having a great time. And then it hits me: Oh God, I have to get up at
6 a.m. again tomorrow.
But then something else hits me: Eh, maybe just one more.