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Seeing Panama, from crowded capital to private island

The "San Felipe" neighborhood, next to "El Chorrillo," partially destroyed in 1989 during the US invasion.

Alfredo Maiquez Getty Images/Lonely Planet

The "San Felipe" neighborhood of Panama City, next to "El Chorrillo," partially destroyed in 1989 during the US invasion.

PANAMA  CITY — I thought I knew a few things about Panama before I came here for work over the summer, but it turns out, I didn’t know much at all. Panama hats aren’t made here, for one thing. They’re made in Ecuador. And the Panama Canal isn’t actually a canal cutting straight across the country, it’s more of a big lake with narrow channels on either side of it.

Even the Van Halen hit “Panama” is about a car. (I suppose I should have been clued in by the lyrics: “Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue” doesn’t exactly sound like an ode to North America’s southernmost country.)

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Other than knowing it’s a skinny country that joins two oceans and two continents, that was pretty much the extent of my Panama references. But during my week here, I discovered a beautiful, highly developed land of stark contrasts: a capital city skyline crammed with modern skyscrapers next to ruins from the 1600s; a multi-billion-dollar shipping industry and pristine beaches; traffic jams and tropical flowers; casinos and sloths moving oh-so-slowly atop mangrove trees.

I came to Panama to write about the canal expansion and Copa Airlines, the Panamanian carrier that recently started flying to Boston, so I got to know the commercial side of the country more than I would have on vacation. My boyfriend came with me, and since he’s a huge hockey fan and the Bruins were battling to be in the Stanley Cup finals at the time, our first outing in Panama City was to a sports bar.

Alas, even in Central America, the Bruins are overshadowed by the Red Sox. At the sports bar at a Marriott hotel casino, we finally found a small TV in the corner, with the sound off, showing our beloved but ultimately doomed boys in black and gold. Front and center on the big screen, with the sound turned all the way up, the Red Sox were getting killed by the Tigers.

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The traffic is epic in Panama City, and being a pedestrian is inadvisable. Sidewalks start and stop suddenly, and crosswalks and walk signals are virtually nonexistent, which makes it difficult, and a little dangerous, to navigate the clogged streets by foot. We found the best way to cross a busy thoroughfare was to wait for locals to step out into traffic and high-tail it after them. There are taxis everywhere, which helps, and they beep incessantly each time they pass someone walking, knowing they will soon come to their senses.

Back at our sleek, modern hotel, which had a waterfall and an astroturf outdoor bar area with potted palms and a hot tub, prostitutes loitered out front. In the morning, we realized that our ninth-floor skyscraper view consisted of not just the impressive F&F Tower, a twisting green building, but construction cranes and rundown apartments.

The old quarter, Casco Viejo, is much more genteel — filled with grand Spanish Colonial churches, squares with outdoor cafes, and a waterfront market with locals selling jewelry and tapestries.

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The old quarter of the city, Casco Viejo, is much more genteel — filled with grand Spanish Colonial churches, squares with outdoor cafes, and a waterfront market with locals selling jewelry and tapestries. We even ran into some sort of military parade in front of the presidential palace. At night, the area’s stateliness apparently gives way to a thriving night-life scene, but we were too busy watching hockey to take advantage of it.

On the other side of the city lie the ruins of Panama Viejo. The crumbling cathedrals and convents, located near a massive office park, are all that is left of the original city after it was sacked by Captain Henry Morgan, a Welsh privateer who made a name for himself raiding Central American cities in the mid-1600s. And here I thought he was just a flamboyant pirate with a taste for rum.

Panama has a long history of foreign intervention, including the construction of the canal — first by the French, then the Americans — and the US invasion to remove General Manuel Noriega from power. In order to fully explore the canal, from the existing locks to the expansion site, we hired a driver, who arrived at our hotel in a white 11-passenger van with a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror.

Our first stop was the Miraflores Locks, near Panama City, where we watched a ship rise slowly as water poured into one channel and out of another as split-tailed birds swooped above. When the water levels were even, the 700-ton gate between the two chambers opened and locomotives on tracks beside the ship pulled the vessel through.

We continued on to the other side of the country 40 miles away as the skies opened up — the “green season” as Panamanians like to call it — passing billboards of a politician with his shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal a gold chain. The site of the new locks being built near Colon is still a massive construction area, where 4,000 workers a day have been working in shifts around the clock since 2009. “It’s like building a shopping mall every day,” said our guide.

After all this industry, we were ready for the beach. There are 1,800 islands in Panama, and we had our sights set on Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean archipelago on the country’s northwest edge.

We took an early morning flight to Bocas Town, which was so small that it took just five minutes to walk from the airport to the main street. A short water taxi ride later, we were on our own private island, checking into a bed-and-breakfast tucked into a jungle of palm trees and flowering ginger plants. We were the only guests — not counting the plentiful geckos and insects — a true treat after three days in a crowded city.

When we got up, not early, the owner fixed us coffee and coconut bread and plates of tropical fruit by the pool. Dinner, also by the pool, was usually fish, washed down with a tasty rum drink.

Rain poured and thunder crashed every night, but it cleared enough during the day for us to venture out. We kayaked around the mangrove islands and to the beautiful Red Frog Beach, where the frothy, green waves was as warm as bathwater. One day we snorkeled at Crawl Cay in the rain — which I shouldn’t have been surprised to realize you can’t feel underwater — and stopped for lunch at an over-the-water shack that served overpriced seafood and Kist orange soda. On the way back, we saw dolphins jumping near our boat, curving in and out of the water with hardly a splash.

The highlight was a place the locals called Sloth Island, where we saw a group of bedraggled sloths with smiling faces sunning themselves on the treetops. Their movements were so slow as to be almost imperceptible, taking everything a millimeter at a time.

The proprietor of our B&B, a Colorado native whose overly friendly 100-pound Weimaraner, Zeus, is the most treacherous thing about the place, bought the property a year ago “after too much rum” from a Florida couple who catered to a naturist crowd that liked to swim naked in the pool. Panamanian rum is tasty, although I don’t know if I could ever drink enough of it to buy a nudist resort only accessible by boat. The new owner said he doesn’t seek out the adults-only crowd, although the stripper pole in the game room offers a glimpse of the place’s past.

The clouds and rain were constant during our time there, and everything was always slightly damp. But on our last night the sky cleared, revealing a fizzy Milky Way arching above us. Then it was back to the bustle of Panama City, which seemed a very long way from sloths and mangrove islands and rum drinks by the pool.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.
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