By: Sofía Kalormakis de Kosmas
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
A childhood trip to this park is the first outing I can remember. I was probably three or four years old. My mind’s eye sees my mother fastening my plastic Fisher Price skates before I glided down the paved paths, just like I now get my own children ready to glide around the new rink in the ageless, enduring Omar Park. Like a faithful friend, it welcomes us with open arms anytime, but it positively beckons on weekends.
After circling for a while looking for parking, we unload baby carriages, balls, skates, mats, and the picnic basket.
We meet friends, acquaintances, young athletes, teachers, birdwatchers, tourists, retirees, pet lovers, and other groups participating in every activity under the sun, all coming together on this bit of land that constitutes a break in the daily urban routine and a natural refuge for humans and several species of flora and fauna.
Time and space remain constant in the Omar Recreational and Cultural Park, creating memories and experiences shared by tourists and residents alike.
How many other places in the Panamanian capital provide space where people can exercise while admiring the landscape, discover a pair of sleepy owls perched in a pine tree, enjoy freshly made juice, or buy vegetables for dinner before they leave? Attractions include forests and two miles of paths for strolling, as well as a new skating rink, interactive children’s games, tennis courts, soccer and baseball fields, basketball courts, outdoor exercise equipment, a swimming pool, an amphitheater, restrooms, and picnic areas.
The park’s location on heavily-trafficked Vía Porras makes it a unique urban breathing space, providing an outdoor arena for healthy recreation. It is also a venue for various cultural and religious events and a place to encourage healthy lifestyles for all, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, political party, or creed. In recent years, the park has become a hub for new musical festivals and recycling fairs.
According to official figures from the Omar Park administration, around 5,000 visitors come here every day. Making allowances for scale, we can say that Omar Park is to Panama City what Central Park is to New York City.
A Golf Course Becomes a Park
This place has always held a privileged place in Panamanian history. Before 1973, what is now Omar Park was the exclusive Golf Club, known around the world to fans of the sport. The park takes its name from General Omar Torrijos, who negotiated the purchase of the land and opened it to the public; the space now boasts thirty-two different attractions.
Since 1983, the Office of the First Lady has been responsible for administering the park; under Marta Linares de Martinelli, substantial park renovations have recently been begun.
Today’s landscape gives us a glimpse of the park’s original design: 141 acres of green areas with scattered trees and shrubs. Its singular collection of trees mixes native species with exotic varieties, originally planted to decorate the old golf facilities. The spectacular biodiversity of birds that inhabit and fly over this city and its surrounding areas every day is reflected here, along with the squirrels, and even ants that complete an ecosystem in which all species are interlinked.
White-tipped doves, yellow-headed caracaras, great-tailed grackles, blue-grey tanagers, squirrel cuckoos, streaked saltators, parakeets, social flycatchers, eastern wood-pewees, rufous-tailed hummingbirds (a sort of urban hummingbird), red-crowned woodpeckers, crimson-backed tanagers, tyrant flycatchers, and striped owls are just some of the species of garden, wild, and migratory birds in the park. This sample —visible both with and without binoculars— confirms the wealth of birds that find shelter here.
We begin our day at the fruit and vegetable stands at the main gate. The shade and coolness provided by the trees leads to the Stone Fountain at the entrance of the children’s playground. Titled “Water Is Life,” this monument commemorates the First International Children’s Water Festival, held in 1999. Behind the fountain, a ficus or “tree-killer” coils around a nearby tree like a serpent, sucking it dry and eventually strangling it to death. In front, a casuarina (Casuarina equisetifolia) tree and its long tear-shaped leaves evoke nostalgia.
The hill in front of us is covered with enormous timber trees like the elephant ear tree, oak, Guayacan trumpet tree, white teak, Spanish cherry, yellow mombin, teak, and genipap, and fruit trees like the cashew apple, nance, mango, and carob. The most iconic is the Panama tree (Sterculia apetala) —declared the National Tree of Panama by a 1969 law— which can grow to more than 160 feet in height. The tree provides wood for canoes, and was historically used to treat malaria.
The children’s playground features the usual attractions for small adventurers, such as swings, monkey bars, and jungle gyms, among other delights. Some children skate along the paths, fly kites, or enjoy the refreshing ice cream bars and snow cones that can be purchased nearby.
We follow the winding road, passing picnic areas that lie along on the right side. The road ends at the baseball diamond (opened in 1997) where little league games are played year-round, and celebrities like Carlos Lee teach children’s workshops.
Ahead of us is the Clubhouse (opened in 1932), previously the Golf Club’s principal facility. Today, instructors in several disciplines lead energetic courses in aerobics, dance, and yoga, among other activities. The salons host varied events, including weddings and vote-counting during elections. A new multi-use skating rink, mural complex, sculptures, and a Grotto of the Virgin Museum round out the recreational and cultural options the park offers its visitors.
The Ernesto J. Castillero R. National Library, inside the park, is undoubtedly the most prestigious in the capital. Its reading rooms have enormous windows that bring the park’s greenery inside, imbuing the four floors with the peaceful, tranquil atmosphere necessary for research and academic and recreational reading. For further information, visit www.binal.ca.pa
Our amble through the park ends at a cluster of yellow-flowered shrubs known as golden trumpet (Allamanda catártica) that frame the bust at the Omar Recreational and Cultural Park’s exit. We leave tired, but satisfied with having experienced so much in just a couple of hours in this oasis in the heart of our congested city.