Friday, March 21, 2008

Panama City and the Canal

The old city has a New Orleans flair. Here renewed and to-be renewed, side by side

Our day in Panama City

In contrast to the rural nature of Boquete with its hills, winds and moderate temperatures, Panama City is urban, hot and humid. The city is very commercial. The largest bank is the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). Its mere presence beginning with the acquisition of Grupo Banistmo in 2006 signaled the coming of age of Panama and its capital. Once dirty barrios have been replaced with high-rise apartments and office buildings. Panama City has become an expensive place to live and like all urban renewal has driven many of its residents to desperate measures.

Flying into Gelabert (also known as Albrook), the local airport located on the former American base, one may be lucky to see the ships lined for transit through the Canal. The cab ride to the hotel was a short distance, but the traffic was such that Los Angeles would have envied. For the two of us the ride was $5 (the tourist center at the airport said that it should be $3.25, but considering the traffic, we did not quibble). Manuel, the driver, spoke some English, and offered to pick us up at the hotel for the trip to Tocumen Airport when we were scheduled to leave, two days later.

Our decision to stay at the Panama Marriott was the result of having a free night certificate and enough points for a second night. The hotel is all American, except for the casino located in a connected building.

The shower was especially welcomed since mid afternoon was hot and humid. We did our email and other Internet things at a nearby Internet only shop, there are several. Before returning we passed a 24-hour restaurant, CafĂ© Azul, and decided to partake in the local fare. The food was moderately good, but the price was extremely right, especially when compared to the hotel’s menu.

For our second day in Panama City, we wanted to do something we normally avoid, a City Tour. JoAnne had located a relatively new tour operation and had had email correspondence with the owner when we were in Boquete.

The owner of Panama Tourism & Travel, Marina Ehrman, met us in the lobby of the hotel at 9:30. The guide, Adolfo drove up a few moments later, and we were off. Our first stop was the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. The operation of the canal is handled by experts and is among the highest paid work on the Isthmus.

See Movie of ship moving through locks

Ships from the south (Pacific side) were moving into the locks where the water level in the first lock was raised 27 feet. They then moved into a second lock for another 27-foot increase. From there, they went into the Miraflores Lake on their way to the northern locks. The feat of moving a cargo vessel that has about one foot of clearance through the locks is worth seeing. The ship is under its own power, commanded by a Pilot supplied by the Canal Authority.

After witnessing the transit of one container vessel, we moved into the four-story display of the building of the Canal to a five screen view of what the pilot of a container ship sees as the vessel moves through the locks. Since movement is something like watching water boiling, it is sped up ten fold.

After the Canal we toured the residential area near the Canal and proceeded to three islands that are connected by a causeway. The last island has a shopping area, hotels and highly rated restaurants. Along the Causeway were many views of the Ciudad Panama.

Lunch was included in the tour. We journeyed back to town and were seated at a table. We were told that our lunch was limited to one of three pasta choices (the cheapest on the menu). The meal was pretty bad. At the start, I was told that if I wanted a beer, I had to pay extra. No problem. Coca Cola came with the meal. Murray ordered a beer knowing he had to pay extra. When his bill arrived, he was informed that Coca Cola Light (that JoAnne ordered), was extra. Both of us found this extra charge to be "cheap" and the lunch not to be up to the standard of the rest of the tour.

Our tour continued to the Ancient City of Panama, the archeological area that was first settled by the Spanish. It was destroyed by the pirate, Henry Morgan, who thought that Panama City was rich with gold. The only gold treasure was the altar, removed by the citizens, hidden, and then carried to the new city and placed in the San Jose Church. (picture). A museum provides both relics from the ancient city, a model of it, and various boards that detail the city’s history.

We wandered about the ruins, culminating in a climb to the top of the watch-tower that provides a panoramic view of the area out to the Pacific. The last stop was the old town, the area of the city to which the population moved when the ancient city was destroyed. This rundown area is being renewed. It has a certain charm, much of which reminds one of New Orleans.

We returned to the hotel at 6PM, a full day seeing the city and learning about much of its fabled history. Giving in to fatigue, we decided to have a small dinner in the hotel. The food and service were excellent as was our stay. The next morning Manuel met us at the appointed time and whisked us to the international airport in plenty of time to catch our return flight.


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