Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón
The explosive growth experienced by Panama City in recent years is reflected in the city skyline and the wall of spectacular buildings bordering the bay. The Coastal Beltway is situated at ground level in the midst of gasp-inducing luxury real estate; this, the most democratic space in the entire city, reveals the interconnectedness of urban life.
The Coastal Beltway is a broad ribbon extending nearly five miles along Panama Bay, linking the exclusive Punta Paitilla district and the modern city of spectacular lobbies and glass façades with the ancient Old Quarter –built by the Spaniards during the Colonial era– and the most humble of neighborhoods: El Chorrillo with its checkered history.
This strip of pedestrian walks and bike paths winds past gardens, children’s parks, more than twelve sports fields and courts, two amphitheaters, and ten sculptures by famed artists. An important feature of the Beltway experience is the diversity of the people: million-dollar apartment owners in designer athletic wear mix with young skaters and families on 4- or 6-seat tandem bikes pass residents of deprived neighborhoods that have acquired a certain unexpected cachet with the opening of the Coastal Beltway. Close to 1,000 people a day are lucky enough to get their daily exercise in this democratic space and every weekend there are some 10,000 visitors, more than justifying a project that was rather controversial during its construction.
This project is not the first time Panama has reclaimed land from the sea. At the beginning of the previous century, the land for Calzada de Amador was reclaimed in 1913 as part of the Panama Canal project. Land for Avenida de los Poetas (1914), Javillo or Terraplén (1915), and Avenida Balboa was later wrested from the sea, as was Parque Urracá, which usurped around twenty-three acres from the Pacific Ocean in 1940.
Finally, we have the Coastal Beltway: 188 acres of infill (the project was divided into three phases) along Panama Bay, from Avenida Balboa to Avenida de los Poetas. The magnitude of this project becomes clear when we remember that the Old Quarter covers only about 124 acres.
Sunday on the Beltway
Anyone visiting Panama City will surely find it impossible to resist the temptation to take a spin along the Beltway. Dust off your own bicycle or rent one and join in on a Sunday morning. Starting from Punta Paitilla on the Beltway’s eastern end, the first recreation area is Democracy Square, named in honor of the first post-dictatorship triumvirate of Guillermo Endara, Ricardo Arias Calderón, and Guillermo Ford. This end represents modern Panama City. The shadows thrown by the buildings and the sun glinting off the windows epitomize a highly urbanized landscape.
Those who prefer to take it easy and contemplate nature might start out in the morning at low tide when thousands of shore birds come to feed on the sandy islets rising out of the water. The morning pageant is matched by the equally spectacular sunset at high tide. The water gleams like a mirror, the breeze blows, and a pair of raccoons peeps around the rocks and locks eyes with visitors as if begging for food.
The 3,000-foot stretch from Paitilla to the iconic Miramar building is dotted with exercise equipment and bars, all well used by dozens of residents before and after work. But this is merely an initial taste of the main attractions of this urban space: even before you get to Plaza Anayansi (at Kilometer 1) you encounter six playing fields and two children’s parks.
You cannot leave Anayansi without partaking of a snow cone (with condensed milk and fruit syrup) as you enjoy one of the thousands of events on offer here: yoga, dance, and aerobics classes; religious activities; cultural events and concerts —in short, any activity best enjoyed outdoors next to the sea. The plaza also features fountains and one of the city’s most popular children’s parks.
The Pacific Overlook is located at kilometer 2.6. Ping-pong tables and exercise equipment stand under a pergola of tropical flowers, and tennis courts, two children’s parks, and a small square for cultural activities are nearby. But the icing on the cake is the set of stairs descending to the sea, one of the best places on the entire Beltway to sit and admire the wash of the waves while enjoying the city’s famed meat skewers.
The road leading to the next point of interest becomes a fairground on the weekends. Cotton candy and toffee apple stalls, small rides, strolling musicians, jugglers, and street artists usher visitors into the extremely popular Seafood Market (at Kilometer 3) near the artisanal fishermen’s pier. Sixteen open-air stalls offer ocean delicacies such as ceviche, fried sea bass with plantain chips, beef fillet topped with seafood, plantain chips stuffed with shrimp, and the renowned “guacho” (perhaps best described as a soupy tropical risotto). Fishermen can be seen preparing the ingredients very early in the morning, guaranteeing that the dishes will be fresh.
Next up is the Breakwater, which provides an excellent view of Panama City’s Old Quarter, the boats tootling around the bay, the mansions of Santa Ana, the entrance to Chinatown, and high above it all, Mt. Ancón: all of Panama City seen from a single vantage point. The fountain at Kilometer 3.8 is a perfect place to watch the sun dip behind Mt. Ancón, a sight previously celebrated in a poem by Amelia Denis de Icaza and now proudly flying the Panamanian flag.
Leaving the Breakwater, we also leave terra firma behind. The Beltway shoots out of the city along an ocean viaduct shared by vehicles and pedestrians; the semi-circular structure is supported by 177 pilings anchored on the seabed and 560 longitudinal beams. Walking or cycling along this 1.6 mile path offers the unusual perspective of the city seen from the sea rather than the other way around, showing the skyline of tall modern towers interspersed with old Colonial mansions. It also provides a wonderful view of the wall built in the 17th century to protect the city from pirates.
The pedestrian bridge is separated from the vehicle bridge by a divider of colorful flowers; it is well supplied with seats and observation points for admiring the view. Kilometer 4.5 features three recreation platforms that seem to float above waves that would interest any surfer. You can park your bike here and rest for a while in a beach chair, cool off with water from one of the strategically placed fountains, or use the onsite binoculars for a close-up look at the Old Quarter and its wall.
Continuing on, there are another three lookout points, two soccer fields, two basketball courts, two multi-purpose courts, a beach volleyball court, several children’s parks with climbing walls, and even a fabulous skate park designed by experts from California. This stretch of the Beltway is open to the ocean, so sit down, relax, and enjoy the view, but only for a moment, since you cannot leave without making one more stop: Sabores de El Chorrillo, eleven stalls specially designed to allow the famous cooks of the El Chorrillo neighborhood to share their incredible food. The neighborhood was built on infill dirt from excavations for the Panama Canal and has always been inhabited mostly by Antilleans and Hindustanis, who put their stamp on the cuisine.
There is no need to worry if you hear drumming or a commotion, since it is likely a game at the Carlos M. Pretell Stadium, known to neighborhood residents as “Maracaná.” Built in 1970 on land fill, it was completely renovated while the third phase of the Coastal Beltway project was underway. The ocean bridge ends at Kilometer 6.6, at Paseo de los Poetas, which connects to Calle 13 in San Felipe, marking the end of the trek.
The Coastal Beltway links not only roads but also people; it gives new dimensions to previously depressed neighborhoods and provides an expansive green space where thousands of residents and visitors can relax. On your next visit to Panama City, don’t leave without seeing its “hub” and becoming part of the action.