Casco Viejo, Panama City

You don’t need much time to process what’s going on after the elevator door slides open onto the rooftop at the Tantalo Hotel in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood. If you’re heading out during the day, the mind-baffling proximity of Panama City’s expansive, modern skyline across the bay from the hotel, which is itself surrounded by anachronistic, red-tiled roofs will trigger your camera finger instinctively. It almost looks like a real-time Photoshop job with Casco Viejo’s colonial homes and churches flaunting themselves before the dazzling array of 21st-century skyscrapers.

The Tantalo’s Rooftop is one of the best spots to capture on film the depth of the city’s old-world/new-world character, and maybe catch a few rays while doing so. After dark this is one of the city’s most lively rooftop lounge/bar/clubs. Which is where I found myself one night, next to a very sexy, gay Honduran medical student. I had been relaxing in my room a few floors below without much of a plan and decided to go on a far-flung adventure…to the roof. As soon as I walked into the club, Ismael Ortiz, The Tantalo Hotel’s nightlife coordinator spotted me and made sure I didn’t have to wait for a drink, a perk guests at the hotel will enjoy at the packed bar. Moments later, I was talking with the Honduran and his sassy group of Panamanian friends, no doubt intrigued by my finesse at quickly acquiring a beer. “Look at the view. Listen [to] the music, the crowd is so, what you say, cosmopolitan and fun,” one of them tells me, “This is where we take our friends when they come to Panama City.”

The Tantalo Rooftop isn’t a gay bar (nor is the hotel specifically queer), but it didn’t take a sociologist to figure out that there were plenty of gay guys and their female friends sprinkled about the place. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was that a classic Pink song had just been seamlessly mixed into a La Roux jam—an aural equivalent to pasting a gay-friendly rainbow sticker to your front door. (Later, the tunes went hip-hop, then reggaeton and a bit of classic NYC house). Besides, it’s the newest property from one-time Fire Island Pavilion developer Matt Blesso.

Casco Viejo, “the Casco,” as the locals call it, is “where the cool kids are hanging out these days,” according to Franklyn Robinson, Panama City’s most loved radio DJ and proudly out 26 year old. It’s the following afternoon, and I’m seated across from Robinson, a tall black man who is wearing the kind of thick black-frame eyeglasses and just-so Oxford shirt that might inspire comparisons to Andre Charles (RuPaul). We’re inside the Tantalo Kitchen, the lofty, ground-floor cafeteria-styled restaurant in the hotel, adorned with contemporary Panamanian art. All along the oversized tables entrepreneurs, tourists, and beautiful people talk over afternoon vino and the menu’s international tapas. It’s no surprise that this is where Robinson likes to have his lunch meetings, it’s a visual confirmation of his aforementioned claim about the Casco, being where the au courant are fixated.

“Nowadays, [the gays] are more accepted in all of Panama City,” he says. That’s due in part to his efforts in starting the Panamanian version of the United States’ NoH8 campaign, called T1AG (Tengo un amigo gay). Instead of painting their faces, volunteers, including Panamanian celebrities, are photographed with their hands painted the colors of the rainbow. It’s almost unfathomable to think that it started in 2011, less than five years after homosexuality was officially decriminalized in the country. The Panamanian President, Ricardo Martinelli gave T1AG his endorsement and the ads can be boldly found in spaces at local bus stops, on taxis, and in magazines and newspapers. In June of 2011, Panama City held their first gay pride parade with Martinelli’s wife, Marta Linares, marching right along.

by Matthew Bell
Source – Passport Magazine