Panama is a small, narrow and mountainous country located on the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow bridge of land that connects North and South America. While it is most renowned as the site of the Panama Canal, today it is also a key airline hub connecting to other destinations in Central and South America. The national airline Copa, offered us the most convenient connections to San Jose, Costa Rica, thereby giving us an opportunity to include a couple of days in Panama City to our holiday plans.
We landed at Tocumen International Airport around mid-morning. There was no necessity to withdraw any local currency this time. While the balboa is the official currency of Panama, due to historical connections with the United States, US paper currency is freely circulated. The balboa is on par with the U.S dollar and it is used only in coins.
The historic old town of Panama City lies about 25 kms away and that is where we were headed. Uber operates widely in Panama City and that was our choice for transport. The arrival of the Uber vehicle set in motion a minor mishap - the landing of a foot on uneven pavement leading to buckling down of the leg followed by the entire body, bags and all. As injuries go, some skin scraped off the elbow which was minor, but a swelling ankle threatened mobility. This did not auger well with a couple of sightseeing activities to look forward to. The driver tried to be helpful, but a box of wet window cleaning wipes was the only aid handy and we had to make do with that to stop blood dripping on the car seat. At the hotel, after taking a few minutes to recover and freshening up, we were ready to head out and see what the city had to offer.
Day 1 - Arrived Tocumen Internationl Airport, Panama City. Visited Panama Canal at Miraflores Overlook. Late afternoon, explored Casco Viejo the historic town.
Day 2 - Visited the more modern parts of Panama City . Back in Casco Viejo before evening departure.
The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama dates back to at least the 1500s when it was a twinkle in the eye of King Charles I of Spain. While the realization of such a route across the mountainous, jungle terrain was deemed impossible at the time, the idea remained tantalizing.
France was ultimately the first country to attempt the task. Led by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt, the construction team broke ground on a planned sea-level canal in 1880. Almost immediately they comprehended the monumental challenge; incessant rains caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria took a heavy human toll. They realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult and reorganized efforts toward a lock canal. But funding was pulled from the project in 1888 and the project languished.
The U.S. purchased the French assets in the canal zone in 1902 and proposed a treaty over rights to build in what was then a Colombian territory. When the treaty was rejected, the U.S. threw its military weight behind a Panamanian independence movement, eventually negotiating a deal with the new government in 1903 that gave them rights in perpetuity to the canal zone.
The project officially commenced in 1904, but ran into problems almost immediately. In addition to equipment that was in need of repair, widespread incidence of yellow fever and malaria was frightening off the workforce. Eventually a two pronged approach was adopted - sanitation (fumigation, clearing stagnant pools) to address the infectious diseases and engineering innovations to speed up excavation work, building of dams and locks that were needed to facilitate transit over the continental divide.
When the canal opened in 1914, it afforded the long-sought after shortcut transforming the face of maritime shipping forever. At a cost of more than $350 million, it was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history to that point.
The US continued to maintain control in the following decades but after World War II, US control of the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it became contentious; relations between Panama and the United States became increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone rightfully belonged to Panama; protests were met by the fencing-in of the zone and an increased military presence there. Panamanian unrest culminated in riots in 1964, when about 20 Panamanians and 3–5 US soldiers were killed. A decade later, in 1974, negotiations toward a settlement began and the transition to local oversight began with a 1977 treaty signed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, with the Panama Canal Authority assuming full control on December 31, 1999.
There are multiple levels of viewing platforms at Miraflores and we made our way to the main one on the 4th floor that affords panoramic views of the lock system and canal transits. As we were waiting for activity to pick up, we watched several squadrons of Brown Pelicans and Frigatebirds transiting freely across with no wait time and no tolls!
The first ship that we watched used the new and wider Cocoli Lock that was built relatively recently as part of the Panama Canal expansion project. Eventually we noticed some smaller ships and private boats gather in the Miraflores lake at the northwestern entrance. They were waiting to cross over from the Caribbean to the Atlantic. Each was sequentially guided into its spot in the lock by little engines called 'mulas' (mules) that run on fixed rails on either side. This is a very slow process and the ships carefully inch into position. The smaller crafts were later joined by the larger “Western Lucrezia” that completed the batch. The winding iron gates shut behind them and the water in the chamber was drained lowering the ship from the lake level (26m above sea level) to sea level. The iron gates then opened on the opposite side allowing the ship to pass through.
A short while later, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, a huge beast of a vessel (flying a Swedish flag), lumbered into the lane closest to the viewing platform and the process was repeated. Beyond the locks, those who had entered before at a snail’s pace, gathered speed as they disappeared towards the Pacific.
It was mesmerizing to watch the entire operation at close quarters, especially keeping in mind what it had taken to build it. Ships from around the world are specifically built to fit through the 110-foot wide locks.
The Panama Canal assures the country’s standing as one of the most strategic transportation hubs of the world and revenue from the canal tolls continue to represent a significant portion of Panama’s GDP.
The historic district of Casco Viejo (Old City) is collectively a Unesco heritage site and it is the second most-visited neighborhood in Panama City. Only the canal sees more visitors. Back from Miraflores, we set out on foot, albeit one of us hobbling and slowing down the pace. We headed straight to Plaza Mayor (aka Plaza de la Independencia), the most important plaza in the city. It houses administrative buildings, shops and restaurants and is also where the Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the largest in Central America, is located.
As we neared the plaza, we could hear pealing church bells emanating from the direction of the cathedral. We soon walked straight into the head of a large religious procession that was leaving the cathedral plaza. We enjoyed the music and watched the animated procession as the faithful made their way through. The loud pealing of the cathedral bells and the spectacle of a street procession with the faithful carrying their deity on their shoulders had a mesmerizing effect.
From the outside, the Metropolitan Cathedral stands out for its contrast in color combination and for the mix of architectural styles. The stones used for the construction of the entrance wall were taken from the ruins of the city of Viejo are gray. There are two tower-like structures on either sides of the entrance which are white (the nearby Iglesia de Merced also had a similar appearance). The cathedral was originally designed by military engineers and completed in 1796, but has been renovated several times since.
The area itself was considered dangerous not too long ago, but has now been cleaned up. It features a unique mix of architectural styles, reflecting the country’s eventful history, plus a number of museums and other attractions. The Panama Canal museum lies on one side of the square. With renovated colonial houses, boutique hotels, fine-dining restaurants and some of the best coffeehouses in town, it has been gentrified. The official presidential residence, "Palacio de las Garzas” is located close by but access is restricted.
We wandered around the narrow lanes of the old town each leading to other neighborhood plazas. At Plaza Simon Bolivar is an impressive monument to Simon Bolivar, a namesake Palace and also the church of San Francisco of Assisi, a Roman Catholic Church. What caught our attention there was a Black Vulture perched over the head of a massive statue of Jesus. Fortunately we are not given to reading omens, or we may have predicted something cataclysmic! Other architectural highlights on the walk included the National Theater of Panama and various other churches.
We slowly made our way to Plaza de Francia which is situated at the southern point of the peninsula and showcases statues and large stone tablets narrating the story of French role in the construction of the Panama Canal. Approximately 22,000 workers from France, Martinique and Guadeloupe died whilst attempting to build the canal, a majority of them due to yellow fever and malaria. A raised promenade affords great views looking north of the skyline of modern Panama City and the setting sun made for great lighting.
We finally got a chance to rest our feet at a waterfront watering hole before we called for an Uber for the less then 2-km ride back to our hotel. A roadway (part of the Cinta Costera reclamation project) runs parallel to the coastline around the peninsula and is part of an effort to reduce congestion within the old city. This we found was sometimes the fastest way to get from one part of the old city to another thereby completely avoiding the narrow congested streets.
Next morning we continued our exploration of Casco Viejo. Iglesia San Jose, with its 17th century Baroque style Golden Altar, Altar de Oro, was a highlight. Carved in mahogany, the altar is covered in golden leaf. It was originally located in a temple by the similar name, San Jose. After the pirates had burned down the Old Panama city, the altar was relocated to the new place and entirely renovated in 1915.
On our second day in the city we headed to Panama Viejo (Old Panama), also a UNESCO heritage site. The ruins here are all that remain from the old city of Panama, founded in 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila. Surrounded by the skyscrapers of modern Panama City, they are some of the oldest monuments in the city.
On the ride over we rode through a dense collection of high-rise buildings that make for an interesting skyline from a distance. Among the cluster in the financial district is the distinctive looking F&F Tower, also known as the El Tornillo (“the screw”).
It was only after we got off and tried to gain entrance into Panama Viejo, we realized it was closed on Monday. We could not persuade the guard or the librarian to let us just walk through the site so had to be content with reading the few displays located outside the main site. In 1519, this was the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast. It suffered fires, earthquakes and piracy ultimately leaving it in ruins.
Our return ride took us along the beautifully landscaped Cinta Costera that is dotted with interesting installations , fountains and play areas. We caught sight of a sail shaped building that used to be Trump's but is now a JW Marriott. We got off along a pedestrian pathway on the Pacific oceanfront close to Casco Viejo and decided to walk the remaining distance, testament to the indomitable spirit of the one who had been hobbling since we arrived at Panama City airport just a day ago.
At a distance was Ancon Hill, a lush green mountain with a massive Panama Flag aflutter at the top is visible from almost every area of Panama City.
Another taxi ride took us to Amador Causeway, a thin strip of land that connects Panama City to the Amador Islands. It was created with the rocks that came from the excavations of the Panama Canal. The area is a favorite leisure destination for both tourists and locals who rent cycles to ride along the causeway and enjoy great views over the canal and the city skyline.
With a steady drizzle setting in, we seated ourselves comfortably at waterfront restaurant and waited for a break. A Hoffman's Woodpecker worked the sides of a nearby Palm Tree and kept us occupied for awhile. Eventually we considered the possibility of the rain not letting up, but that did not stop us from traversing a short distance until The Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) came into view. This road bridge stretches over the entrance of the Panama Canal, connecting Panama City to inland areas on the Pacific Coast. Ships traversing the canal have to pass under the bridge thereby limiting their height. It is part of the Pan-American Highway which is a network of roads stretching across the American continent. This iconic image of the country and the continent served as a fitting vista to end yet another memorable trip.