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Trekking Around Panama

When you get off the plane in Panama City, you have to decide just what it is you're looking for, because Panama is full of possibilities. Panama is really three countries: glitzy, supermodern Panama City; the cool, inscrutable, slow-moving interior (including jungle and cloud forest); and the varied, surfable, fishable coasts—backpacker-land. Like so many places that are at the center of their geographical area, Panama is a dream factory. It is not a dull place of sure bets; it is not a superproduced place, as Costa Rica has become. Many dreams have been made in Panama, and many shattered, but it is a country that has always offered infinite potential. Panama is an opening gambit, and it opens the traveler up.

In panama city, everyone scoots around from meeting to meeting intent on business. In town, there is little sense of tropical becalming, little lolling about. It's a jittery, on-the-go city, a deal-making, black-coffee-drinking haven where something is always going down. But although itexplains a lot about Panama, the capital is not the reason for coming. "This town is alive with business; oh, my God, how the Panamanians love commerce! This is the land of import-­export," says Jean-Paul, a French tennis-shoe trader who is here for a month. All day long, as I make my way across town, refamiliarizing myself, I marvel at the grandeur of the Panama City skyline. I haven't been to Panama for about a decade, and it seems to me, as I turn my head upward at a 60-degree angle, that three dozen or more new high-rise apartment buildings have gone up in that time.

"More," says my Panamanian friend Berta.

In some neighborhoods, like the exclusive, residential Punta Paitilla, it looks as if there is simply no space left for more construction, and yet you can see a crane peeping out here and there. In the San Francisco area, only a few of the low-slung residential blocks remain. The business district is dense with new hotels and office buildings, and even the shoreline is beginning to fill up with skyscrapers. Zoning is not a word that means much in Panama. City planning is not a concept that carries weight.

And there's a dirty little secret—not a very well guarded one, at that—behind a great deal of the new construction. Later that night, I see that large patches of the skyline are unlit. One condominium complex we pass has only two lights burning, even though it has been there for more than a year and is over 15 stories high.

"Why are they empty?" I ask.

"Drug money," comes the response. Drug traffickers build some of these buildings, it turns out.

Dirty money goes into the project, and clean money comes out. It's a perfect plan, and efficient, because the projects are so huge and expensive. Basically, my friends inform me, the building we're looking at is a big washing machine. And so are many of the others.

"Still, some of the people who buy the condos are legit," one friend points out. I guess those are the people at home tonight, with their two lights burning.

Panama has long been a safe harbor for adventurers, schemers, and those with a piratical turn of mind. The country has a tax code that is friendly to foreign business and, until recently, secretive banking laws—like Switzerland's—that have made it easier to hide shady monies and engage in questionable dealings. It has historically attracted a transient population on the lookout for fast financial returns; indeed, many treasureseekers came through Panama at the height of the California gold rush in the 1850's, seeking a quick passage to the free money in the West Coast's dirt. The country has also been a loyal friend to the United States, an ally that was instrumental in the creation of Panama as a nation in 1903 (when the isthmus gained independence from Colombia) and that, a decade later, finished construction of the Panama Canal.

As one of its obligations of friendship, Panama has given asylum to many U.S.-approved dictators: most famously, the shah of Iran. Raoul Cédras, one of Haiti's former strongmen, still lives quietly in Panama City, it is said—in one of those condos. (Many in his brutal regime were graduates of the infamous School of the Americas, the United States–run military academy near Colón, which has outlived its Reagan-era curriculum of psychological operations, death-squad strategy, and torture and is now the big, impressive Meliá Panama Canal hotel; thus does tourism replace history.)

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