By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Javier Pinzón
Although it sits on the Pacific coast, the Panamanian capital doesn’t differ much from its Caribbean sisters just fifty miles away. It is bustling and frenetic, with a population pushed outdoors by the tropical heat to embrace the excitement that happens on the streets and in every corner of the neighborhoods. The citizens of the city were so traumatized by the months of confinement that they took to the streets with the momentum of the foam from a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne when the restrictions were relaxed.
With safety measures in place, the city has been gradually reopening its commercial and cultural life. There are many challenges ahead and, of course, the possibility of more restrictions if the COVID virus returns in force, but the truth is that Panama City is now open for both its own citizens and visitors from abroad. Panorama of the Americas travels to talk with people from some of the places that are—little by little—coming back to life.
Celebrating the Great Outdoors
The science tells us that COVID is spread more easily indoors, which is why outdoor spaces have a head start in this reopening. People have flocked to parks such as Ancón, Omar, and Metropolitano, and boardwalks like Cinta Costera, Amador, and Boulevard Costa del Este. On any given day on Boulevard Costa del Este, for example, you’ll see people walking and dining at restaurants like those in Town Center Costa del Este. The ones around the boardwalk’s central plaza are especially popular.
This large open-air square with a gallery of open terraces has become a magnet for locals and visitors seeking a moment of relaxation and the simple, but now precious, luxury of seeing and listening to people and life. The expansive area allows for social distancing and many families take their children at sunset, waiting for the spectacle of water and light when the Fountain Pancho Motta is activated. There is live music on the weekends.
“In truth, the structure of the property has played a supporting role in this reopening process; there is plenty of space and in the rotunda people feel very comfortable to enjoy time together as a family,” explains Michelle Endara, commercial manager of Town Center CDE www.towncenter.com.pa. More than just a shopping center, it has become a place that meets people’s needs. There are pharmacies, department stores, gyms, organic markets, and even a prestigious hospital coming soon. Beyond that, it takes you back for a moment to a time when there was no pandemic.
Culture Will Help Us Heal
Each place is coming up with new ideas for ways to attract visitors who are only just now returning to the streets after months of restrictions. Atrio (www.atriomall.com), for example, maintains an active calendar of cultural events, including art exhibitions, craft markets, and pet fairs, among others, all with proper health and safety measures in place. Although these activities were already common before the pandemic, they now take on new meaning, as general manager Carla Ferro explains. “Customers have realized that they can satisfy specific consumer needs online, so they come to the mall looking for a shopping experience in a more human environment, with many different ways to find what they’re looking for.”
Atrio has made an effort to stay relevant and connect with the needs and concerns of their clientele: they were among the first shopping centers to sign a recycling agreement (with the Costa Recicla organization) and participate in the Botellas de Amor (Bottles of Love) project, which creates urban furniture from recycled plastic. “Our clients are conscientious individuals, who not only come to buy, but also to be part of a community. And they come in small family ‘bubbles.’ Sometimes even the adults participate in children’s activities, because they feel the need to do things outside the home,” Ferro continues. The second half of 2021 will be significant for Atrio Mall because an educational facility will open on its premises. This will change the customer experience through education, culture, and art.
Tourist Vaccination Possibilities
Although commerce in Panama is mainly focused on encouraging the timid resurgence of domestic demand, the possibility of a serious rebound in infection rates still weighs heavily. The coast could be clear, however, as of this month, August, or September, when about five million vaccines will arrive in the country. This would improve Panama’s already promising numbers; the country currently has the continent’s fourth largest population of immunized residents.
For Nadkyi Duque, president of the National Association of Shopping Centers of Panama, the priorities are clear: “We want to boost shopping tourism but, due to the situations that neighboring countries are experiencing with new waves of contagion, we must be cautious and focus on expediting internal vaccination processes so that our entire population is immunized before we implement strategies to turn Panama into a vaccination destination.”
To this end, the country’s shopping centers are ready. “We have all the health and safety protocols in place for users and workers, which makes our customers feel confident about our ability to act as a place to meet, be entertained, and enjoy the shopping experience. We believe that Panama has strengths that will allow us to quickly recover from this crisis and once again be a favorite shopping destination, not only for Panamanian families, but for the millions of tourists who visit us every year.”
The Public Is Returning
In addition to conventional commerce, other industries, such as those related to cultural activities, have begun to shake off the dust and fear and reactivate. Isabel Burgos and her partners run the La Estación Theater (www.teatrolaestacion.net) and, like almost all activities that involve crowds, they had to shut down for months. They reopened last March under very different and challenging circumstances. “It was rough at first, as expected, because the public was cautious about being in a closed space, but also because of the hours, because of the curfew.”
The theater’s programming had to be modified. “We presented intimate productions and our audiences were limited to just twelve spectators. We offered a variety of monologues and performances by two actors. This warmed up the room and proved to the public that the site was safe and we were complying with all the measures that the health authorities required.” It was difficult at first, but Isabel says that, little by little, night after night, people have begun taking the risk. “The public is returning, cautiously, but with great joy and relief at being able to participate in the ritual of theater, which requires being part of a live audience, with other people, seeing and living a story together.”
The extended quarantine has led many people and institutions to rethink what they have, where they are, and where they want to go. The Museum of the Interoceanic Canal (www.museodelcanal.com) is no exception. Its new director, Ana Elizabeth González, took office during the most difficult part of quarantine. She came in with a mandate to totally renovate the institution, beginning with the website and ending with the exhibition spaces, refocusing how the museum interacts with its visitors.
Museo del Canal Interoceánico
“We’ll launch the first phase of the remodeling on May 26th and the second in August, but the largest and most crucial part of the process will begin at the end of the year and run until mid-2022. The exhibition spaces need a complete renovation; some of the exhibits haven’t changed in twenty years. We’re rewriting the script, renovating the museography, and looking at new pieces for the exhibitions. There were more words than artifacts on display and we want to shift the focus to the objects, rather than the accompanying text,” explains González.
Even with the limitations that the pandemic continues to impose, the Interoceanic Canal Museum seems to have guessed right; it has welcomed more than 5,000 visitors since it reopened on March 26th. “The best part is that most of the visitors are Panamanian adults, while in the past there were more tourists and school groups. This suggests Panamanian’s interest in their culture is growing,” she concludes.
On Thursdays and Fridays, the museum closes at 8 p.m., so you can follow your visit with an evening at one of the Casco Viejo venues, many of which have already reopened. The most popular places seem to be those with outdoor terraces where you can enjoy a nice drink, and better yet, some company, while looking out on the skyline of a city seeking to gradually recover the joy of living.
Atrio Costa del Este
Atrio Costa del Este is the exclusive Costa del Este area’s leading shopping center, with boutiques, famous international brands, and restaurants offering family-style entertainment and experiences. The mall, which has 500 indoor parking spaces, observes all health and safety protocols and provides shoppers with personalized attention.
A visit to Atrio Costa del Este is an excellent option for passengers in transit to Tocumen International Airport, which is located just fifteen minutes from the mall. Open Monday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (food court from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and restaurants from 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.)
WhatsApp: +507 6065 3497
Facebook: Atrio Mall
Town Center Costa del Este
Come visit Panama’s social center par excellence. Town Center Costa del Este offers much more than just shopping; nowhere else in the country will visitors find a more complete experience, with shops, restaurants, entertainment centers, gyms, and offices close at hand, as well as doctors’ offices that connect directly to the new Pacífica Salud-Hospital Costa del Este hospital.
Town Center CDE is pet-friendly and features an open-air central plaza, bicycle parking, free wi-fi, charging stations for electric vehicles, and more than 3,000 parking spaces.