Panama 12/13

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The canal, the old town and a modern city on the rise...

Two full-size cargo ships heading north rising at different levels in the Panama Canal Miraflores locks

A planned end-of-year mileage run combined with a sales call in Wayne, NJ that fell through landed me in New York City for one day and then on to a Central America jaunt through Panama. Having never been there before, Panama was a pleasant surprise, combining interesting sights, the iconic and expanding canal and a snapshot of a rising third world capital.

 

Tuesday & Wednesday, December 3rd & 4th - New York City

 

I arrived at Newark from LA just after 5pm on Tuesday and made a beeline to the Airtrain, connecting to NJ Transit for the quick ride into Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. I walked from Penn Station to Times Square and got in line at the half-price ticket booth in plenty of time to get a ticket for Spiderman - Turn Off The Dark that evening. After checking in (on points) at the Marriott Marquis, I grabbed a quick snack in the lounge and headed for the Foxwoods Theatre.

 

I had a half-day to spend in New York City on Wednesday before my Panama flight, so I did some walking around Times Square (first picture below) and Rockefeller Center and took in two museums, the International Center for Photography and the MOMA (second picture below).

 

Heading 30 feet down in the Pedro Miguel canal locks

Times Sq. Santas

NYC MOMA water lilies

Miraflores locks visitor center

Miraflores balcony

 

Thursday December 5th - Panama Canal Miraflores locks & Casco Viejo, the old city

After my late arrival from Newark on Wednesday night I woke around 8am, grabbed breakfast in the lounge and walked the half mile or so to the Multicentro complex where I bought a Hop-On-Hop-Off ($29) bus ticket for the day. Having read about difficulties with the unmetered taxis in Panama City, coupled with my complete lack of Spanish language skills, I decided to use the Hop-On-Off bus routine to see a couple of the major sites and get my bearings on my first day. The strategy was somewhat successful, but a lot of time was wasted waiting for the next bus after my sightseeing was done. My first Hop-Off was at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center near the southern end of the Panama Canal. The Visitors Center was cheap ($5) and very well organized with excellent views from all four levels (third and fourth pictures above). A live, running information commentary in English and Spanish on the canal's history and it's current expansion along with real-time ship traffic updates could be heard throughout the complex.

My next Hop-Off was at Casco Viejo, the old city of Panama - more accurately the second old city of Panama, pre-dated by the 300 year older Panama Viejo area to the east of the city center that was sacked by the pirate Captain Henry Morgan in 1671. Casco Viejo is described in guide books as half crumbling, half high-end, which, based on my visit is too generous on the high-end side. Armed with a local map, I did a worthwhile 90 minute circular walk around and through the area with its narrow streets (first picture below), colonial period buildings (second picture below) and town squares anchored by cathedrals (third picture below). Most of the churches and buildings were closed, the exceptions being the ones under restoration (fourth picture below). There was a lack of decent restaurants open, likely because I was there at a weird dining time, mid-afternoon. The visit felt safe with a visible tourist police presence, but the area was edgy enough that I would not feel comfortable walking those same streets alone at night.

 

Completing my Panama City tourist loop for the day, I returned to Multicentro on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus while experiencing Panama City's world class bad rush hour traffic, made worse by the construction of their metro system and a significant building boom. Realizing that I hadn't eaten since breakfast, I was all set to park for an early dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, only to discover that the Hard Rock Hotel at Multicentro had recently closed its cafe. I decided instead to walk back to my hotel with a stop at the Rey Supermarket for a good bottle of Rioja and some snacks and then finished my first day in Panama with a light dinner at the hotel's concierge lounge.

 

Casco Viejo street

Convent Santo Domingo

Iglesia Cathedral

Iglesia Merced

 

Friday December 6th - Panama Canal transit, Gamboa south to the Causeway

 

A quick overview of the Panama Canal - The canal was built a hundred years ago by the US to allow cargo and passenger traffic between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to sail all the way around South America through the Straights of Magellan. The French had tried and failed at a "lockless" approach before the US. Their failure was more due to mosquito-driven yellow fever than their engineering approach. In the existing canal, there are a total of six "locks" that raise or lower ships from sea level on either end of the canal (the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are at the same level) to the higher lake level in order to traverse the middle of the country. The locks work on gravity, using directed lake water to fill the locks and then releasing it toward the ocean to lower the ships down. The Gatun locks on the Atlantic side is a three lock system, the Pedro Miguel lock is a single step followed by the double step Miraflores locks on the Pacific side (large picture top of page left). All of the locks are two lanes wide and accommodate the same maximum size ship, dubbed "panamax".

 

I had done research ahead of my trip to select and book a southbound partial canal transit for Friday. I taxied 30 minutes from my hotel to the end of the Amador Causeway where I checked in with Panama Marine Adventures around 9am and took the 40 minute bus ride to Gamboa, which is about halfway across the country at the northern end of the narrow Gaillard Cut. There I boarded the Pacific Queen for my half-day canal transit. After sailing through the continental divide (first picture below) at its only break anywhere in North or South America and then under the Centennial bridge we entered the first lock on the Pacific side of the canal, Pedro Miguel (large picture top of page right), which lowered us 9 meters toward sea level in one step (second picture below at lake level & third picture below 9 meters lower in the same spot). Continuing across the man-made Miraflores Lake, we entered the upper lock at Miraflores (fourth picture below).

 

Centennial bridge at continental divide

Entering Pedro Miguel lock

Exiting Pedro Miguel lock

Miraflores upper lock

 

Our tiny boat (first picture below) was dwarfed by the size of the massive locks at Miraflores, built stronger than other locks to withstand direct Pacific currents. The Miraflores locks lowered us the remaining 18 meters in two successive steps to sea level (second picture below). Continuing to the end of the canal we passed under the Bridge of the Americas (third picture below), which marks the beginning of the Pan American Highway north all the way to Alaska. We looped around the man-made Amador Causeway (fourth picture below) on our approach to the dock. After walking around the Flamenco Marina, I hailed a taxi and returned to my hotel just ahead of a rainstorm. The rain kept coming, so I opted for a quiet dinner in the hotel's bar while I sorted and post-processed my shots from my first two days in Panama.

Pacific Queen in lower lock

Leaving Miraflores locks at sea level

Bridge of the Americas over the canal

Flag, causeway & skyline

 

Saturday December 7th - Panama City Cinta Costera urban park

 

For my last full day in Panama I decided to sleep in and then do a "walkabout" along the relatively new Cinta Costera urban park that hugs the crescent-shaped Pacific coast of Panama City. The park is completely commercial-free and well maintained. Starting at the pedestrian overpass closest to my hotel (first picture below taken from there) I walked south past outdoor art (second picture below) and through expansive park settings (third and fourth pictures below) to the edge of Casco Viejo. The park walk totaled 7KM round trip according to the markers along the way. Adding the inland walk to and from my hotel, my walkabout was roughly 5 miles long. That may not sound like a lot, but the afternoon weather was 95F with nearly 100% humidity. For my last dinner in Panama I walked north about a half mile from my hotel to the Wine Bar, an inexpensive Italian restaurant with an extensive wine-by-the-glass selection having great potential that was overshadowed by painfully slow service.

 

Cinta Costera urban park

Cinta Costera art

Flower clock - Casco Viejo backdrop

Cinta Costera park bridge

Some final observations from my short visit to Panama: Panama is an easy place for an American to visit. US dollars are not only accepted here they are the actual currency of the country. My lack of language skills was a barrier more so than in Europe or Asia, but the people I communicated with were friendly and understanding. My almost real-time Android phone Spanish/English translator - Jibbigo, was helpful in a couple of spots and was also a hit as far as entertainment value. Panama City has world class bad traffic Id put it somewhere between Bangkok and Cairo from my limited experience. It makes the 405 at rush hour in LA look like wide-open spaces. Part of the reason for the traffic is that they are installing a subway system to help fix the problem. Coupled with rapid growth due to a pro-business government, the downtown streets come to a complete standstill sometimes that the traffic cops have to sort out one car at a time.

 

Theres a palpable air of optimism in the people that I met. There are some ugly looking slums on the outskirts of town and things are third-world bad in many ways, but things are also getting better fast. The new canal being dug now is massive and will bring a bunch of new money in once it opens, allowing significantly bigger ships through the locks. Meanwhile, digging it has brought unemployment to near zero. I didn't see a single homeless or mentally ill person on the streets during my entire visit. The food was generally good and I cultivated my appetite for ceviche paired with Spanish wine that started back when I was in Peru a few years back. All-in-all Panama was a good place to experience, at least this once. I returned to LA via Houston on Sunday morning.

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