Gambling is legal in Panama  and casinos are scattered throughout Panama City , primarily in the better hotels around Vía España. Centrally located ones include the Royal Casino, next to the Marriott (tel. 210-9100, Calle 52 at Calle Ricardo Arias); the Majestic Casino (tel. 215-5151) in the Multicentro Mall on Avenida Balboa; and the Fiesta Casino (tel. 208-7250) behind the Hotel El Panamá.
The newish Veneto Hotel and Casino is the glitziest (tel. 340-8888, Vía Veneto between Avenida 2 Norte/Eusebio A. Morales and Calle D). The hotel itself is a 17-story, 300-room Vegas knock-off with decor that’s an odd mix of the garish and the generic—more Atlantic City than Panama City.
The Lotería Nacional de Beneficencia, or national lottery, is a tenacious carryover from a time when Panamanians had fewer entertainment options. The first lottery was held in 1882, and the current system dates from 1919. It’s still hugely popular.
Every Sunday and Wednesday at 1 P.M., a crowd gathers for the drawing, broadcast live throughout the country on TV and radio. Drawings are held in Plaza Víctor Julio Gutiérrez, which is covered by an open-sided shed that takes up an entire block between Avenida Perú and Avenida Cuba and Calle 31 and Calle 32. Anyone can drop by to watch.
The ritual is as solemn and unwavering as a church service. First, the lottery balls are turned incessantly back and forth in a shiny steel cage by a designated official. This seems to last for hours. At last, the cage is stopped and a ball is extracted by a child dressed in his or her very best. The ball is twisted apart to reveal a number printed inside, which is held up for all to see, read aloud by the emcee, and then carefully recorded on a board behind the stage.
Three sets of four numbers are chosen, corresponding to the first, second, and third prize. A ticket holder must have all four numbers in the correct order to win one of the three prizes, though there are small prizes (US$1–50) for getting some of the numbers right.
Often, the ball must be loosened with a special contraption, heightening the suspense. (In 1991 lottery officials tried to update the system with a fancy new pneumatic machine, but a suspicious and tradition-minded public rebelled.) Going through this process 12 times turns the drawing into an event long enough to allow for all kinds of side shows: beauty queens in polleras, folkloric dances, musical performances, visiting dignitaries, and so on.
All this for a first prize of…US$2,000. Second prize is US$600 and third US$300. That’s still a lot of money for the average hard-working Panamanian. And people often buy multiple tickets with the same numbers; theoretically, the maximum prize is US$540,000—if one has bought 270 winning tickets.
There are also special drawings that pay more. Gorditos del Zodíaco (little fat ones of the Zodiac) are held on the last Friday of each month, for instance. First prize is US$4,000 (for a maximum of US$700,000 with multiple tickets). A new gimmick, the sorteo de oro (the gold drawing), increases the payout if a winning ticket has certain letters printed on it. To purists like me, though, adding this alphabet soup to the mix ruins the charming purity of those three rows of numbers, which are posted diligently around the country on bus station chalkboards and other public spots twice a week, year in and year out.
Four-number tickets cost US$1. If that’s too expensive, two-number chances go for US$0.25. These pay out if the numbers correspond to the last two numbers of any of the winning combinations. First prize for these is US$14, second prize is US$3, and third prize is US$2. The maximum for multiple tickets is US$280.
Tickets are sold by freelance vendors around the country. Those interested in playing should have little trouble finding a vendor on any street with lots of foot traffic. A whole battalion has stalls set up on the Avenida Perú side of the plaza, between Calle 31 and Calle 32. There are nearly 10,000 vendors in Panama.