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Panama On Two Fronts

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 10 June 2010 11:52

Years ago I arrived in the late afternoon and my first real experience of Panama City came that evening when Casey and I wandered around El Cangrejo and past Panama’s first Las Vegas style casino and hotel, recipe The Veneto, which is now (of course it wasn’t back then) a Wyndham Grand Hotel. The entrance was guarded by two giant Egyptian tombs and in one area all the waiters were wearing silver garb. Above the blackjack tables if I remember correctly, help the ceiling had been painted with birds and clouds and a network of small, twinkling constellations to remind us, I suppose, of the warm Venetian night. 

Playa Blanca just wants your money. Panama City actually wants you to believe.

We took a taxi to the infamous Calle Uruguay, a several-block network of bars and restaurants and clubs, all of which were stylish and occupied by attractive people in fashionable clothes. From Avenida Balboa, we could see the soaring towers of Punta Pacifica and Punta Paitilla and even, from one point on our way home, the embryonic lights of Costa del Este which was, at that point in time, just getting off the ground.

We ate breakfast the next morning next door to a high-rise project called Yacht Club, which was still just in its billboard phase. Of course, it wasn’t really a yacht club, insofar as such places generally imply membership, boats, the ocean and so on. Instead, this project was, not unlike a large handful of those being erected in Panama City at that time – and in retrospect, similar in premise to almost everything I experienced that first visit – a tribute to something. Something else. Something Panama City was not.

Over the course of that first trip – and please don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy myself immensely – I grew tired of the comparisons. They came from tour guides and real estate agents, from locals who’d lived there all their lives and fellow tourists looking for someone to share in the wonder. “This here is Panama’s Sunset Strip,”  “It’s going to be the Switzerland of the America’s,” “Costa Rica and Singapore and Manhattan all rolled into one!”

Fast-forward a few years to find me basking in the artificial lagoon at Playa Blanca (which you can see above), an all-inclusive beach resort about an hour and a half outside of Panama City. I’d been to Playa Blanca before and for some reason sort of liked it. I stayed in one of their villas with several good friends and spent several days abusing our access to unlimited food and booze, paying homage to good old-fashioned American overindulgence. There was a broad white beach with hammocks and thatch-roofed huts, some water toys to rent, two large pools with bridges and gazebos, three places to eat and enough bars to plausibly fuel a nationwide carnival celebration several times over.

The architecture at Playa Blanca is subtly Greek. Faded whites and pastel blues, rounded domes made of stucco: it’s not as if the guest is intended to believe he is in the Mediterranean of course. But as with the tiki huts and the disco den and the lagoon, which, in only its second phase, is far bigger than any man-made pool I’ve ever seen, I felt somehow gratified that someone had gone to such great lengths to entertain me on my little vacation. It’s performance architecture. And for my own little twisted reason, I like it.

So why, for me, doesn’t Playa Blanca have the same oppressive effect that does Panama City? After all, both are vying for my dollars, both are competing for tourists, both lack any kind of insanely unique vibe. Yet somehow they’re different.

Maybe its because Panama City is so candid in its imitation? Or because places like Miami and Switzerland are now so vulnerable to parody? The Veneto Casino, with its sushi bar and New York Steak restaurant was stylized in a way that seemed try-hard and forced and full of sincere aspiration: like if the hotel itself had the chance it would, in a heartbeat, leave Panama to relocate in Las Vegas.

The big difference, I decided, between these two Panamanian places is this: Playa Blanca just wants your money. Panama City actually wants you to believe.

To believe in what? To believe in tremendous infrastructure and tall buildings and banking hubs and nightlife and restaurants that are as good as anywhere you’ve been in the world. It’s as if you’re to asked to accept that Panama City is a destination on par with Milan and Paris and New York and Madrid. 

Playa Blanca, oppositely, provides me with a strange sort of comfort. I like it maybe most simply because it’s not putting on a front. Ask anyone to describe the place and you’ll hear the same thing: it’s a cheap resort with lots of sun, pools, food, and drinks. And that is what it is good for.  No one spends their time at Playa Blanca looking for the “real” Panama and no one really feels intimidated by the culture it presents.

So I recline in that crystalline lagoon sipping a stiff margarita and catching some rays. In the distance, I can hear a one of those terribly kitschy beach songs on the speakers and I love it. It sounds so good. "And we'll have fun, fun fun, now that dadda tada beeba awaaaay." I don't even know who sings it but it's so, so guiltily pleasurable. Playa Blanca isn’t the first place I’d send visitors to Panama, but in a way, whether I admit it or not, it’s got its own honest place in my heart.


Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Matthew Addis , April 12, 2011
The Beach Boys, Matt. Jesus. Young people today!
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Last Updated on Thursday, 10 June 2010 12:04