Author Joe Keohane Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY THREE On a boat operated by Canal & Bay Tours, with another Geisha coffee in hand (and potential solvency issues if this habit keeps up), I move toward the country’s most famous feature, along the way counting the tankers awaiting entry to the canal. More than 50 are levitating in the morning haze. Most wait a day or a day and a half to get in. On average, ships pay $85,000 to pass, with the highest fee being nearly a half million, usually for cruise ships. The lowest fee was for an American named Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928. He paid 36 cents.
We pass under the Bridge of the Americas—completed in 1962 to rejoin the continents severed by the manmade waterway—and our guide tells us the canal’s history. How the French attempted to build one, and it ended in mass death and disgrace. How the Americans pulled it off, not by digging a trench the whole way but by flooding the land and then installing locks at points too elevated to flood. That way they had to dig only 10 miles, instead of 50.
We arrive at the Miraflores Locks, trailing a tanker from Delaware. The 700-ton gates (made in Pittsburgh) shut behind us, and we wait as workers secure the boat to the 50-foot-thick concrete wall. I feel the surge of 26 million gallons of water in my stomach. The lock takes eight minutes to fill. Then we’re through. The big ship ahead of us is tethered to two silver locomotives, called mules, which keep it centered as it moves through the narrow locks. Some of the largest vessels—called Panamax—pass with less than a foot on either side.
We navigate the renowned Culebra Cut, the stretch of the canal that was actually excavated. The scenery is somber, craggy, lovely. A light rain falls. We pass a small, fenced-in white building on the canal edge: It’s where former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega is being held awaiting trial, after stints in American and French jails, on an array of charges.
Our final stop is Gamboa, about three quarters of the way up the canal, where a bus takes us back to the city, dropping us off near the Amador Causeway, a pretty strip of land that serves as a breakwater and a recreation area. I stroll the length of it and arrive at the Biomuseo, the biodiversity museum that opened in 2014. A tumble of primary colors designed by Frank Gehry (his first work in Latin America), it looks like something Picasso might have made if asked to build an exotic bird out of kids’ building blocks. It also contains a series of interesting exhibits that walk you through the formation of the isthmus, between 40 million and 80 million years ago, and the subsequent migration of creatures from north to south and south to north—including charming “tiny camels” and less charming “terror birds.”
Back in Casco Viejo, I stop at the Diablo Rosso gallery, which architect and co-owner Johann Wolfschoon tells me was founded partly to address a scarcity of venues for local artists. It has sold pieces to the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in New York. “We show things we believe in,” Wolfschoon says. “Things that could be good for culture.”
After a shower and an invigorating pale ale at La Rana Dorada, a pioneer in the burgeoning local craft beer scene, it’s time for dinner a few blocks away. If I can find the restaurant. Again, there’s no sign. A man sitting on a traffic barrier points me to the right place, but when I get there all the doors are shut. Having watched me walk around the building, twice, the man comes over and bangs on the door. It opens. He smiles. This must happen constantly.
Now in its third year, Donde José is the work of celebrated chef José Carles, and like so many people I’ve met here, he wants to help carve out a new Panamanian identity. The place is tiny, like a well-appointed bunker—concrete, wood, metal, red velvet. I sit at the bar with a couple of recent transplants from Jamaica, and Carles comes out to walk us through his tasting menu. “We don’t serve plates here,” he says. “We tell stories.” He’s a physical man, and he expects that physicality to extend to his food. “You’re going to use your hands a lot,” he says. “Only fork and knife if
The meal is technically accomplished and deeply felt. Steamed dumplings stuffed with spicy corn tortilla; sea snails and cashews in a squash and clam broth; a salad with mango sorbet dressing and grated dried beef; a riff on chicken and rice in which fried chicken bits (breast, thigh, heart, and liver) are paired with rice cooked in chicken fat, making it obscenely rich. Finally, there’s an apple pie, inspired by the ones served at McDonald’s and made with the local root vegetable chayote (apples don’t grow in Panama). “We’re a young country,” Carles says when I congratulate him on his culinary performance. “Who says we have to keep eating the same food forever?”
I ply the crowded streets and enter the hotel, tired and overfed, and hear music coming from Danilo’s, the club opened here by legendary Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Perez. I grab a table and order a beer. Leading a hard-driving quartet, singer Idania Dowman tears through jazz standards, soul classics, Latin fare. She struts, flirts, and tells blue jokes. After “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Guantanamera,” she does a colossal rendition of “My Way” that has the crowd howling along.
“I feel so diva!” she cries.
“You are!” someone shouts back.
“We are!” she replies, and it only gets louder, and happier, and later. And later still.
Joe Keohane, a New York–based writer and former editor of Hemispheres, is lobbying for sloth racing to become an Olympic sport.