Panama City –
We always seek out what most showcases a country, something synonymous with that country, and perhaps an item so unique it can only be seen in that country. The Panama Canal, of course, is on the Panama pedestal – considered “One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World”.
While figuring out what our approach to seeing the canal will be, we spend our days wandering around central Panama City until our legs wobble, then come home to snuggle up in the superb Hilton Garden Inn, with unbeatable amenities and outstanding staff.
Our Panama Photo Gallery
Around day three Rick puts my thoughts into words, “I’m having a difficult time finding the distinctive beat or vibe of this city.” An “ah-ha” moment is distinguishing Panama City as being the most international Latin American city we have visited to date. Ex-pats from all over the world make their home here (to work or retire), which morphs into restaurants with a dozen different cuisines on the same street, ethnic foods in “supermacados”, huge malls such as the Albrook with 580 stores, skyscrapers, luxury condos, casinos….and like the contrasting colours on a checker-board, among all this modernity are pockets of slums and dire poverty – from 1st to 3rd world within blocks.
When ready to venture out further we book a two-day pass with “City Sightseeing Panama – Canal Tour” Hop-On/Hop-Off bus. It is a given that the Panama Canal will be our first “hop-off”. We arrive at the Miraflores Locks in time to rush to the top viewing deck and watch a freighter loaded down with containers nudge its way through the canal with guiding electronic locomotives, known as mules, tethered to the freighter to keep it centered… and with the size of this vessel there is not much room for error. Quite a sight!
We then watch a short documentary and go through the small museum where the canal’s fascinating history unfolds. Soon after the Spanish arrived way back in the early 1500’s the idea to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was conceived. It was not until 1881 that the first firm effort to build the canal was undertaken by the French, which did not end well with 22,000 workers dying from accidents/tropical diseases before the company declared bankruptcy a dozen years later.
In 1904 Panama negotiated an agreement with the United States and the canal was successfully completed; officially opening under US control on August 15, 1914. The Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977 gave a time of joint control, and in compliance with the agreement Panama took over full operation of the Canal in 1999. This marvel of engineering, the Miraflores Locks and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side uses a system consisting of two lanes that operate as water elevators which raise ships from sea level to the 26m above sea level of Gatun Lake (manmade for this purpose), and then lowers the ships back to sea level on the opposite side of the Isthmus. This introduction to the canal instils in us a desire to see more!
Hopping back on the next bus the route takes us past the outrageously gaudy BioMuseo with irregular roofline panels in screaming red, yellow, green and blue. It was slated to be open in January of 2014, but looks far from completion. We zoom past the highest point in the city, Cerro Ancon, at 199m in height, then down the long narrow Amador Causeway, where we “hop-off” for lunch at the tip, known as Isla Flamenco. Our next “hop-off” is the historic district of – Casco Viejo, the old city (also called Casco Antiguo), and after skimming the surface we decide to come back here for day-two of our bus pass.
This turned out to be a wise choice as there is a lot to see. When the original city “Panama Viejo”(now an archaeological site) was destroyed in 1671 by buccaneer Captain Henry Morgan, a “new” city was begun further west – the present Casco Viejo. (Both Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo are UNESCO sites). As Panama City grew and sprawled the old colonial buildings fell into neglect for decades. The buildings remaining in a crumbling state are most intriguing – the wind whistling through the hollows where windows once were in the rough wall remnants seemingly whisper tales from the past.
Some of the old edifices are restored as restaurants/cafes/shops and the churches still call forth the faithful and spectators alike. The Catedral Metropolitana was practically abandoned after its completion in 1796, until a major restoration in 2003. The central stone façade with huge wooden doors contrasting with white mother-of-pearl encrusted bell towers on each side is impressive.
My favourite is the Iglesia de San Jose (Saint Joseph’s Church). So plain on the outside, we almost missed it, but the inside is divine. It is difficult to tear one’s eyes away from the glorious brilliance of the altar veneered in gold – the subject of legend. The story goes that this altar was in Panama Vieja when Morgan plundered it, but was covered with a coat of black paint to appear worthless. If Morgan had seen it as we stand before it today, he never would have left without it, which gives substance to the legend. It was later moved to its present location.
The narrow streets lead us to the Pacific Ocean where a brisk market is underway along the wide pedestrian walkway at the water’s edge. I am excited to see many of the sellers in the small stalls are Cuna (Kuna), the indigenous peoples who first migrated to Panama from Colombia centuries ago. Although men have succumbed to western clothing, the women are exquisite in their traditional dress with gold rings in their ears and noses, headscarves and cloth-wrap skirts, their forearms and calves bound in rows of coloured beads – and their famed “molas” – the reverse-appliqué panels that appear on the front and back of their blouses.
The “how” of these artistic panels? Firstly, several layers of coloured cloth are basted together, then snipped out layer by layer, exposing the different colours needed to produce the design, after which the rough edges are turned under with small perfect stitches. The designs mostly relate to Cuna religious beliefs (water demons, medicine men, celestial objects, animals), but may also reflect political views and historical events. As well as in blouses, mola panels are incorporated into blankets, purses, tops of T-shirts, and all sorts of items for visitors to take back a sampling of. I leave the market with small jewellery storage bag, with a snake design of gold trimmed with black on a background of green!
Most of the Cuna live along the narrow band of land on the northern Panama mainland and on the islands of San Blas Archipelago; their autonomous region since1925. Land passes down through the females in this matriarchal society, and when a man marries he moves in with his wife’s family (yup – his mother-in-law), but seemingly for balance they also elect men to speak for each community at their national meetings.
The Cuna have been in the medical limelight recently as they do not suffer from high blood pressure, ever – not even with advanced age. Their basic daily diet consists of plantain, coconut, fish and fruit, and a quart of Flavanol-rich cocoa. The question is – will eating more processed foods have a detrimental effect on their current life-long low blood pressure?
Along our numerous long walks we note the name Balboa showing up throughout the city; the Canal zone, a street, a square, part of the name for various businesses, Balboa here, Balboa there……Rocky?? (I jest). You might say “money talks”, when I notice the dollar coin bears the head of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. (Panama uses the US dollar, with the exception of locally minted coins.) Then along the waterfront we find a statue of this Balboa fellow brandishing a raised sword in one hand and a Spanish flag in the other while standing on top of a globe…this cries out for a Google search. In 1513 this explorer/conquistador is credited with being the first European to cross the New World (the Americas) when he crossed the isthmus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (the latter then known as the South Sea) wherein after his “discovery” Balboa waded into the water and pierced the sandy bottom with a flag, claiming this sea for Spain. In several other countries there are Balboa Streets/Squares/Parks…. and hey, there is even a lunar crater named after him.
We awake one morning feeling it’s high time for us to see more of the Panama Canal. This time it will be the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side, which are not as frequented as the Pacific side Miraflores Locks, due to their being a two-hour-drive from Panama City. We are also keenly interested in seeing the Canal Expansion of new Locks on the Atlantic side, and throw Fort San Lorenzo in the mix since it is in the same area. After reviewing our options we book a private tour through Ventura Morales (at the Crown Plaza Hotel) for all of the above.
Our guide Jose and driver Kevin are at our hotel lobby to pick us up at 7:00 a.m. sharp. It is first off to San Lorenzo, the ruins of the Spanish fortification built in 1595 to protect the entrance of the Chagres River, which was at that time the main route into Panama City. Only a year later the fort fell to Britain’s Francis Drake, was won back, and then in 1670…guess who?… Henry Morgan blasted the fort and it was from here that the scallywag continued inward with over a thousand men to ransack Panama City.
It is on to the Gatun Locks. From our viewing deck we see a huge grey ship in the Lock furthest from us just beginning its journey from the Atlantic side and in 8 or 9 hours will exit to the Pacific. At the same time in the Lock nearest us, we are in for an über thrilling experience! The large vessels that started out on the Pacific side are now entering the Gatun Locks from Gatun Lake AND we are chatting distance away from these vessels! We call out to the crew who wave and call back!
Leslie, a lock attendant, is on hand with details on the ships passing right under our noses. Check out the Hanze Groningen, from the Netherlands – 590ft long, 98ft wide (the canal is 110ft wide, and allows a maximum boat width of 106ft – so not much room on either side of this Netherlander). Her weight is 20,200 tons – the cost to go through the Panama Canal – $93,292.85.
Pointing out a ship anchored on Gatun Lake, Leslie says, “That’s the Coral Princess Cruise Ship, which is in partial transit. After coming through Gatun Locks its 2,400 passengers had a choice to spend today in Panama City, after which the ship will leave through Gatun Locks again.” She checks her ledger and continues, “This cruise ship on a 7-day cruise from Fort Lauderdale, weighs 78,800 tons and the cost to go through the canal is $321,600.”
We are left WOWED by these close encounters!
A short distance away we arrive at the viewing area for the Canal Expansion Project of mind-boggling complexity. Four gargantuan stainless-steel sliding Lock doors stand like sentinels, waiting to be installed. The new locks at the Gatun side will be 427 metres (1400ft) long and 55 metres (180ft) wide (the size of four football fields) which will accommodate today’s super-sized vessels and double the capacity of ships going through the whole Panama Canal system. Other components of this mega-construction project entail deepening the Pacific and Atlantic entrances, widening and deepening Gatun Lake and other sections of the canal, as well as adding a new Pacific access channel. This project that broke ground in 2007 was to be completed in 2014 when the Panama Canal completed 100 years of operation, but as of January 2014 it is 66% complete. Rumours abound about lack of funds by the company that undertook this expansion, but as yet further strategies or a new target date for completion have not been announced.
For Panama City & surrounding area tours:
Crown Plaza, Panama
Phone: 206-5555 Ext. 5614 Guest Relations
Artesonias Panama Battia
(great souvenir shop, near Hilton Garden Inn)
Panama, Bella Vista, Eleanquijo
Calle 55 Via Venetto