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Travelogue: Panama City, Panama

Panama City has for the longest time been a city that I wanted to visit. Maybe it was the canal, or it’s history or maybe just the hats. In August I convinced the family to visit this very cosmopolitan city surrounded by tropical rainforest.

We made the short hop from Nicaragua to Panama’s Tocumen airport which is just 15 miles from the heart of the city. It surprised me Panama City upon arrival, it was very cosmopolitan and densely packed with tower blocks almost leaning against one and another.

A lot of people come to Panama, tick the box that says Canal and then head out of this bustling metropolis to seek it’s natural treasures such as the national parks, mountains and unspoit beaches but I really wanted to explore the city and with only a few days to do it in, we spent the entire first day on an open top bus.

We picked the bus up from one of the many new large and glitzy malls called Multiplaza Pacific. The bus tour was only introduced last year and there are two routes taking in different parts of the city.

The guide said that the two loops take about 2 hours unless you get off which we did numerous times and probably the reason we took the whole of the first day.

The main commercial centre, Avenida Central, was pretty unattractive and told a mixed story of investment and crumbling old buildings with no sense of architectual style, but it did provide a real sense of daily life of workers and hawkers trying to lure shoppers into their stores by clapping their hands. We nosed from afar but weren’t brave enough to haggle or even try any of the juices, mixed with what appeared to be sugar cane being sucked out of a range of fruits by a number of street vendors.

DSC_0389We got off at the colonial neighbourhood of Casco Viejo. We entered from the pedestrian path that runs from a range of markets through the docks known as the Terrapien. It was a colourful area and not necessarily all in an art painting kind of way. The Terrapien is where the fishing boats offload their catch and according to local gospel this is the place to try ceviche, a food that I love, but the smell wasn’t encouraging my vegetarian other half to hang around so I forego that ‘treat’ too.

Not far from the Mercado de Mariscos (fish market) is the Mercado Publico, where the meat market aids a surf and turf odour to the air. We were there early morning, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting late afternoon after the sun had been out all day!

Beyond here though the area turns very upscale. The Presidential Palace, officially known as Palacio de las Garzas (Heron’s Palace), named for the numerous herons that inhabit the building, takes pride of place overlooking Panama Bay and elegant cafes and restaurants line narrow streets including the cities most written about, Manolo Caracol.

For the past century Casco Viejo was nothing more than a rotting neighbourhood occupied by squatters and low income families. However 10 years ago the area started to be lovingly restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The area does come with a safety warning though and although the major hubs of activity such as Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de la Independencia and Plaza de Francia offer photo opportunities of museums, outdoor cafes and wrought iron balconies filled with plants there were some side streets that were less appealing. Many roads looked completely under construction and a map was a necessity as well as having previously arranged pick-up.

History abounds nonetheless like the Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared it’s independence from Colombia in 1903. On the square is the impressive The Metropolitan Cathedral. The Iglesia de la Merced is an excellent example of one of Casco Viejo’s oldest buildings. The Instituto Nacional de Cultura de Panama was formerly the Supreme Court building and was seen in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Dressed in mostly gold and red with an enormous crystal chandelier dangling inside of it is the Teatro Nacional, opened in 1908 and and completely restored inside.

Back on the bus we were whisked along the wide Cintra Costera, built on reclaimed land and only finished a couple of years ago. The coastal road runs for about 3 miles and is a great for a stroll or an open-top bus ride.

DSC_0401Next stop the famed Panama Canal, one of the most awe-inspiring yet simplistic human achievements the world has seen. Built across the isthmus of Panama at one of its narrowest points, it is 50 miles long and extends from Panama City and the Pacific Ocean to the city of Colón and the Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea.

We spent more than 2 hours at the Miraflores Locks, one of three locks within the canal and which were completed in 1913. The lock links the Pacific with the artificial Miraflores Lake, raising and lowering ships 16.5 metres in two incredible steps. The Miraflores Visitors Centre is an all singing all dancing complex which contains a four story museum, a theatre showing documentaries, a vast observation deck, a restaurant and the obligatory shop.

We had concerns that our daughter would lose interest after 5 minutes, but she was awe-struck. So were we as we watched gigantic container ships slowly maneuver their way through the canal and wait for their turn at the lock. 40 ships pass through the canal each day and from 6am to 3.15pm they travel from the Pacific towards the Atlantic. Then after a half-hour break, ships travel in the other direction until 11pm. At any other time, travel is permitted in both directions. The journey from one end to the other takes between 8-10 hours. The alternative is weeks around the hazardous Cape Horn at the southern-most tip of South America.

The history of the Canal goes back almost to the times of the first intrepid discoverers of the Americas. The Europeans recognised Panama’s narrow isthmus as a great opportunity for a water passage. The French gave buiklding a sea-level canal but found, but not after they did a load of excavation.

The Americans and Theodore Roosevelt moved in and they completed the canal in 1914 cutting through the continental divide, the scale of which was massive. Six thousand men worked in the cut, drilling holes in which were placed a total of 60,000,000 lb of dynamite to break up the rock, which was then taken away by as many as 160 trains in a day. Landslides were large and frequent  which only helped give rise to one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.

Two artificial lakes were built, Lake Gatun and the Miraflores Lake. Four dams were constructed to create these lakes including Gatun Dam, which is 640 metres thick at the base and 2,300 metres long along the top and was the largest of its kind in the world when the canal opened. The locks Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores were also built.

On 7 September 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed the Treaty which set in motion the process of handing over the canal to Panamanian control. The treaty came into force on 1 October 1979 and provided for a twenty-year period during which Panama had increasing responsibilities for Canal operations, culminating in a complete U.S. withdrawal on the very last day of the millennium. Since then the canal has been run by the Panama Canal Authority.

DSC_0506We toyed with all kinds of ways to see the Canal. We looked into the Railway and also cruising down it but the Miraflores Lock was a good choice and I am glad I can now say that I have witnessed this engineering marvel.

In the middle of Panama City is Parque Natural Metropolitano, which offers an urban tropical experience. Because of its location a huge highway runs through the middle of it but still it offers all kinds of goodies such as sloths, tamarins and hundreds of species of birds. There are also about 3 miles of walking trails too.

The Amador Causeway is a beautiful breakwater than extends more than 2 miles out into the Pacific calming the waters at the entrance of the Panama Canal. The views are great. On one side the majestic Bridge of the Americas where ships pass from the exit of the Miraflores Locks and leave behind the Americas in their rear view mirrors. On the other side is the half-moon of Panama Bay.

The Causeway is known mostly for its nightlife, and the stream of bikes that are ridden up and down it. There is also a cruise liner terminal which has helped sprout numerous touristy spots. At the entrance is the Frank Gehry designed Museum of Biodiversity. It is half built, but the brightly coloured structure has already obtained iconic status. Perhaps though it was a little over ambitious and there are no deadlines for its completion.

We never made it out to Panama La Vieja, which is where the ruins are of the old capital. Time ran out and there was plenty more vibrant things to do than visit crumbling buildings in an area that also came with a big fat safety warning.

We stayed in the striking Trump Hotel on the spangly new peninsula called Punta Pacifica. I am sure when the Trump was first built it must’ve had superb 360 degree views, but since then equally tall apartment buildings have been shoe-horned in alongside it and the skyline around here looks complicated and unthought out.

The Trump is an architectural masterpiece though, although we weren’t particularly enamoured with the service Whether that was a cultural thing or an arrogant thing I don’t know.

There is a burgeoning restaurant scene in Panama City, but we fell in love with an Italian place called Ristorante La Terrazza, which was underneath our hotel right on the water. It was also very child friendly and because we had a very hectic schedule it suited us because it seemed to always be open. Plus, and this was the kicker, next door and owned by the same people was a delightful gelato shop offering about a million flavours and superb coffee.

The local beer wasn’t quite in the same league. I favoured the darker Balboa over the lighter Panama and Atlas, which were more in common with American lite-beers.

DSC_0396Panama’s national football stadium was north-east of our hotel. The 29,000 Estadio Rommel Fernández was completely remodelled in 2009. The Panamanians just missed out on a 2014 World Cup play-off place but the young team offer a lot of promise. Two city teams shared the stadium at Estadio Javier Cruz. Chorillo and Plaza Amador, one of the oldest clubs in the country.

Baseball dominates though and Panama produces a disproportionate number of U.S. Major League players for the countries size.

Panama City has come a long way from the days of when it was the money-laundering capital of the world. George Bush’s government invaded in 1989 to dispose of leader General Manuel Noriega, but from the days of the California Gold Rush through to Panama’s jewel in the crown, the continental crossing that is the Canal, the United States has always invested in Panama and it’s capital and that relationship is very evident from travelling around the place.

Construction in Panama City is everywhere and the country is experiencing an economic boom, and it is said that Panama will be the fastest growing economy in Latin America matching Brazil in the next 5 years. Still however, almost 30% of the countries 3.6m people live in poverty.

Steeped in history but remarkably modern. Some of Panama City looks like it is frozen in time yet turn a corner and huge cranes race to build the next skyscraper. Gritty and charming, often on the same street it was a very fascinating city and the simple yet ingenious Panama Canal was exactly as I had hoped. I still didn’t get my Panama hat though!

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