06 Jan Panama – Hard Rock style
On assignment to find some hiking, I found a dance floor instead. You’re in the jungle now, baby.
“This isn’t the real Panama,” says Nash Vegas.
Nash – his local moniker – isn’t the best judge of reality. His real
name is Dave and he’s been living here in the Hard Rock Hotel Panama
Megapolis for about 67 days, gambling online – an illegal activity in
his hometown U.S.A. On stage behind us, dancers wearing leather
bikinis shake it; and apparently Justin Bieber just sauntered in,
turned around, and left.
No, Nash: none of this is quite real. But it’s an apt metaphor for a
city stuck between two worlds.
The Panama City skyline looks a bit like a Central American Vegas:
the sail-shaped 70-storey Trump Ocean Club soars 284 metres tall;
nearby, the Hard Rock Hotel at 66 storeys is wedged behind a giant
Panasonic jumbotron. Out in the Gulf of Panama tankers the size of
small islands line up to pass through the famous canal joining the
Atlantic to the Pacific – making the country a goldmine.
Driving out of the city, en route to ziplining, our guide yells out random
Panamanian facts: “We have over 20 of the tallest buildings…. Over
here is Flamenco Island – a former prison. It’s now a shopping
area…” She’s quiet for a few moments, and then blurts out, like she
forgot to announce her upcoming marriage: “McDonald’s in Panama
We’re at the base of Anton Valley – a deep crater formed by an
extinct volcano overgrown with giant ferns and snake-like tree roots.
I picture a bad 1970s horror movie where the forest comes alive and
eats everyone. At the precipice of the third zipline, someone asks:
“We’re going down that?” pointing to the rope that vertically juts into
the canyon. My turn. I drop into the canyon as thunder and lightning
shake the forest. Suddenly, the guide slams on the brakes and I’m
hanging there, in the middle of the canyon. I let go of the line, lean
back and close my eyes: a waterfall to the right, an aggressive river
below and soft mist on my face.
That night, after sushi, we go out in search of the real Panama-
nian nightlife. En route, three of us get stuck in a zombie parade
celebrating the new season of The Walking Dead; a gashed-faced
zombie drapes himself over a car – the driver looks pissed. Finally,
we untangle from the crowd and reunite with our group. Inside the
nightclub (the beat: Nnnnn-ssssss, nnnnn-sssss)
we sip pink champagne and don feathered masks, draping ourselves in Mardi
Gras–style beads. “I’m only staying for one drink,” I announce.
But when the beat turns salsa, I’m overcome by Latin bravado:
“Where you from?” “Canada. Where you from?” Guatemala? Cool.
Let’s dance. How many countries can I find? Guatemala, Colombia,
and Mr. Hunky Venezuela. They all move differently. Research can
be so exhausting.
Back in my room, it’s 4 a.m.; the ringing in my head persists when
my room service arrives: sonchoto soup. I greedily slurp cilantro,
celery and chicken broth – my first Panamanian meal. When the
bowl is empty, I pass out.
The next day, as Axl Rose would say, “We’re in the jungle, baby.”
Only 25 kilometres outside the city, Soberania National Park spreads
55,000 acres of rainforest along the banks of the Panama Canal.
We’re the only visitors. Overly pleased, the ranger pulls us outside
and points to the top of a tree. A sloth. “Must have taken him forever
to get up there,” says one of the girls.
The path, Camino de la Plantacion, eventually meets up with a trail
that was a former gold and silver trade route from Peru. For three
hours, we’re on high alert for other treasures: Look! A lime-green
bug the size of my thumb – we all crouch around like school kids
in amazement. One of the guys steps into the base of a tree whose
roots encompass his entire body. Someone in the group notices a
highway of ants. On one side, the ants haul bits of leaves, ten times
the size of their bodies, on their backs, chain gang–style. On the
other side, the ants are returning for pick up. Following the line, we
come to a tree – the source is over 200 metres away.
On our last night, we cross the harbour into another world: the old
town, Casco Viejo, dating to 1519, is over-the-top charming, with
wrought iron balconies and stucco washed facades and tall lamps
emitting a yellow glow onto the deserted cobblestone roads. In the
quiet square tables begin to fill with people and laughter. I regret not
spending more time here. Walking to the waterfront, we get a view of
the new world’s bright lights reflecting on the water – purple glows
from the Hard Rock Hotel, pinks, greens. It looks like a mirage: not