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Panama City offers a global feel and a melting pot of cultures

By// Maureen Jenkins

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The global feel of steamy, tropical world-class Panama City, home to nearly 1.4 million people, has been influenced for centuries by the intersecting and melding of Spanish, French, Native American, African and Caribbean cultures — and, it’s these last two that give the evolving metropolis much of its sizzle. That’s especially evident in its multi-hued population, its delicious cuisine and restaurants, and in spirited and soulful venues where music comes alive.

Panama City offers travelers and residents alike a fascinating gateway, not just to the Americas, but to the 21st century itself.

To ensure that young Black Panamanians embrace their cultural heritage, Panamanian playwright, professor and former United Nations Ambassador Carlos Russell and investors plan to establish Centro Cultural de la Diaspora Africana, a Panama City-based center that will offer young Afro-Antillanos “expressions, explanations and examples of their rich culture.” Among the center’s offerings: a theater, jazz café and bar, dance studio, film room and gourmet kitchen celebrating Panama’s African-inspired roots.

“We’re moving forward, and we want the history books to add us and to be acknowledged as part of what Panama is today,” says Sonia Atherton-Ibañez, a Panamanian-American retiree who returned to her native Panama from New York and offers personalized tours of Panama City (contact BuyPanama@aol.com; JET readers will receive a special gift).

A visit to this Central American capital offers travelers a dazzling buffet of sights, tastes, and sounds that reflect the country’s Afro-Caribbean influences — and gives them a chance to sample and savor life as the locals do. “The spirit of the people is so prideful that they waste no time in telling a foreigner where to get started,” says Atherton-Ibañez. “It’s the personal, old-fashioned way we connect.”

Here are five experiences that let you absorb the city’s vibe while providing you with a peek into life Panamanian-style (and don’t forget to pack that Spanish phrasebook, as you’ll need it often):

Panama Canal Railway: Experience the world-famous Canal through an hour-long ride on gorgeously restored, wood-paneled passenger cars that let you gaze at lush rainforests and take in sights from open-air observation decks. These weekday rides link Panama City with the heavily Afro-Caribbean port town of Colón (home to the Colón Free Zone duty-free shopping emporium). Its residents are descended from Canal workers who arrived near the turn of the 20th century.

Museo Afro Antillano de Panamá: Open Tuesday-Sunday, this museum pays tribute to the 30,000-plus Black West Indians who made up the vast majority of the Canal’s foreign laborers — and many of whom died doing this dangerous work.

Soak up the sounds at Habana Panamá: Authentic salsa reigns at Habana Panama — and the locals love it. Top bands and performers appear at this club in the San Felipe ’hood, just outside the historic Casco Viejo district.

Dine like locals at Casablanca and Costa Azul. Housed on a gorgeous plaza in Casco Viejo, Casablanca serves up live music, slap-your-mama-good Sangria, and the restaurant’s trademark sancocho, a flavorful soup considered Panama’s national dish made with chicken, garlic, yams, potatoes or yucca, and a variation of cilantro. For a down-home diner atmosphere, local favorite Costa Azul (Calle Ricardo Arias, near the Panama Marriott Hotel) in Panama City’s Financial District offers affordable sancocho and other Panamanian staples around the clock. Grab a seat on the expansive front terrace and people-watch.

Mercado del Mariscos: (Avenida Balboa and Calle 15 Este) Panama City residents come to this market to buy seafood so fresh you’ll see fishermen carrying their catches through the doors. Locals eat at the casual sit-down eatery upstairs, but you also can grab a fresh-from-the-sea cup of Panamanian favorite ceviche downstairs for just $2.

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— Maureen Jenkins is a Travel & Food writer who’s visited more than 30 countries and blogs at  UrbanTravelGirl.com encouraging Black women to “live globally through international travel.”