Despite being founded in 1519, Panama is really only 13 years old, Mr. Fábrega argued, its birthday being Dec. 31, 1999, the day the United States gave the Panama Canal and its surrounding land back to the Panamanians. For the first time in a century the country was whole and independent.

“My generation inherited this blank canvas,” said Mr. Fábrega, his salt-and-pepper hair fluttering slightly in the Audi’s air-conditioning. “Now we have the chance to make it our own.”

Today, that canvas is far from blank, however. Over the past 13 years, Panama City has been racing to become a world-class metropolis, and for travelers, the changes have been enormous.

Photo Credit: Panama City skyline at nighttime. whl.travel / Flickr