Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Panama City, Panama

After saying goodbye to Mary Ellen and her family we took the bus to Orlando airport and flew 4 hours to Panama City, Panama. Panama is located in Central America at the very tip...

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It is one of the few countries in Central America we have not visited so thought since it wasn’t too far from Florida we would visit this year. We landed at the airport where we were met by our hosts who informed us that the accommodation we had booked was no longer available and they would put us up in one of their other properties. I was disappointed as I really wanted to stay in the historic part of the city but such is life! The condo we stayed in was lovely with a great view...



It was located near the Amador Causeway which was created from the material dug up when building the Panama Canal and we could look out and see both the new and old parts of the city...



Panama City is home to around 900,000 people. It is considered the economic and financial hub of the area and is used by many wealthy people from around the world as a tax haven. It is a very different city than any others we have visited in Latin America, often called a mini Miami or Hong Kong because of the number of skyscrapers built there. One day we took a taxi to downtown but found it was composed only of skyscrapers, banks and huge malls. It is obvious that this is an international shopping area with large duty free zones, so if you are a shopper you would love this place!



We took the elevator 62 stories up in one of the buildings to get a good view...





And it was reported that many of these towers are half empty being built as tax shelters. There were really no pedestrian friendly places to walk so we did not stay long in the hot concrete jungle! 

One of the first things we do in a new country is to buy a SIM card for the phone so we are able to make local calls and use data for planning. It wasn’t an easy task as no one spoke much English but after a few tries we had success. We bought the card at the Albrook Mall which is the largest mall in Latin America with over 700 stores. It was quite fancy and still had lots of Christmas on display...







The most interesting part of the city is Casco Viejo, a declared UNESCO Heritage Site. In 1671, the city of Panama Viejo was pillaged and burned by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates leaving only one of its many churches standing. After the survivors relocated to a rocky peninsula on the Bahía de Panama to start all over, not only did they construct a walled city but it included one of the largest churches in all of Central America. 



Catedral Metropolitana – Dominating the western side of the Plaza de la Independencia is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America. Built between 1688 and 1796, it was built using stones from the ruined cathedral at Panama Viejo and remained virtually abandoned until a badly needed restoration in 2003 had transformed it into what you see today. It is a fascinating mix of old and new architecture with the darkened stone and wooden main entrance flanked by the mother-of-pearl-encrusted, gleaming white bell towers. Unfortunately due to ongoing restoration we were unable to go inside. 

It is located on one of the main squares of the Old Town which is a beehive of activity. Here people are lined up on Three Kings Day, January 6 to receive gifts from the church. This is the day in much of Latin America where children receive gifts instead of Christmas Day. 






We happened to be there that day and the streets were filled with families and children with their gift bags...




By the latter half of the 20th century this area had become something of the past. The approximately 800 buildings fell into serious disrepair and it was only after the UNESCO designation did the revival of the area start to take place and it can be seen everywhere, here are some of the beautiful buildings...














But there is still lots to be done...







There is lots of history in this place including here...



At the tip of the southern point of Casco Viejo, this beautiful plaza pays homage to the French role in the construction of the canal. Its large stone tablets and statues are dedicated to the memory of the 22,000 workers who died trying to create the canal. Most of the workers died from yellow fever and malaria. Among the busts is a monument to Cuban doctor Carlos J Finlay, whose discovery of how mosquitoes transmit yellow fever led to the eradication of the disease.

I found this information really interesting as I did not know that the French had made an attempt at building the famous Panama Canal and failed.

This area has become upscale with lots of the buildings housing restaurants and cafes and is particularly known for its’ rooftop bars where we spent a hot afternoon enjoying the breeze and the beverages...



And the fireworks which seem to go off somewhere every day...



There are also lots of shops including an artisan market along one of the sea walls...



One of the most famous handicrafts is the mola which is a type of embroidery done by the indigenous peoples...



And of course the iconic Panama Hat is always on sale...now to get one big enough!



I usually don’t wear a hat but the heat made me do it! 





Lots of places to eat inside the old section but we decided to walk a little outside to a local restaurant or Fonda...



We were the only non locals there and enjoyed shrimp and fried chicken, Panamanian style...



We ended our day there with a visit to another one of the squares which was awesome...



The lights were everywhere and the locals were out enjoying the beauty and warmth of the evening...



One of the main reasons many people visit Panama City is to see the Panama Canal which is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World. You can visit the locks to see it in operation or take a transit thru the Canal. Once a month tourist ships can do the transit and we decided to do the full 82 Km trip. It was a long but interesting day! 

We boarded the boat at 6:30am and set sail at 7:30 am on a boat similar to this one...






France began work on the canal in 1881, but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn around the southernmost tip of South America. 

A picture of our transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans...



We were raised and lowered 85 feet through the locks and the artificial lakes of the Canal.

Since we were a small boat we were low on the priority list to enter so we had to wait for a larger vessel with enough room left for us in the lock chamber. Here were some of our companions...



The large boats are tied to locomotives which pull them along the tracks on each side of the lock...



They are also maneuvered into the lock by tugboats, unfortunately this one ahead of us got stuck!



It was amazing to see the operation of the locks up close...



Here we are untying our ropes as we get ready to go through one of the locks.



Our turn is next...



We are waiting for this boat ahead to exit before we entered, you can see it is about half way lowered in the lock...

Don watching the action, the doors that keep the water in open and close from the walls...



Here is a picture of the two men whose job it is to row out and tie off the large ships when necessary, such a contrast in size!



Since the Panama Canal cut the country in two there was a need to build bridges to connect it again and as a result we passed under some beautiful ones...



As we sailed through the large artificial lakes we passed many ships from all over the world, there are approximately 13,500 going through each year. When we saw this one we laughed and wondered how much of its’ cargo will we see in Dollarama...



It is also interesting to note that the Canal is now owned by Panama after being handed over by the Americans in 1999. Last year revenue was 1.7 billion which goes into the coffers of the government. It is also estimated this revenue will grow quite a bit with the completion of a new, larger lock system capable of transporting today’s larger vessels. Our excellent narrator and tour guide told us that one of these large ships paid 1.1 million for one trip through the canal as the fees are paid on amount of cargo and they carry a lot.

Almost through the last lock...



And we are happy! 




Now to sail to the port of Colon to dock and take the bus back to the city, by the time we got there the sun was setting...



And this cruise ship was in our docking space so we spent 2 and half hours sailing around in the bay of Colon before it moved...



Twelve hours later we were back to our place tired but glad to have had the full transit experience, named by National Geographic as one of the 100 Journeys of a Lifetime! 

This was the end of our short visit to Panama City, certainly not one of our favourite cities but still definitely worth a visit! 







2 comments:

  1. Debbie, your excellent commentary and pictures make it very enticing. You'll soon be head hunted to do travel magazine reviews. Actually, you should think about that. I hear there are lots of perks.

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    1. Glad you enjoy the blog! I think a gig as a travel writer would be awesome!

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