After spending our last few days in the rainforest it was time to replace our lush and wild jungle with a concrete and glass one. Panama City has a very impressive skyline set round a tranquil waterfront that could be mistaken for LA or Miami. Apparently there is a lot of corruption at the top and allegedly much of this cities wealth has come from its dubious import trade with Colombia. Who says crime doesn't pay. Helen said I shouldn't just believe the ramblings of a man we met in Colombia about the economic situation in Panama city. A fair point however, as we walked the streets to our hostel the lampposts were full of private detective posters and phone numbers. Pretty suspicious if you ask me.
To be fair since Panama took over control of the Canal from the Americans back in 2000 and jacked up the prices their economy has been booming.
We checked into a pretty pricey hostel dorm in downtown, I already miss South American prices. Unfortunately we hadn't realise we were arriving in the middle of Santa de Semana (Easter week) one of South and Central Americas biggest public holidays. I asked a Brazilian lady I got chatting to which was more popular; Christmas or Easter? She said "CARNIVAL!"
Our plan was to take a jeep over to the Caribbean coast and visit Panama's famous San Blas islands by ourselves, however a quick chat with the receptionist revealed that hotels were pretty much fully booked and turning up without any sort of reservation was pretty risky. With her help we spent a few hours ringing round various tour companies and found a tent available on one of the islands for Thursday and Good Friday. Tour finally booked we had an afternoon and a day to explore Panama City.
Panama's waterfront is a nice place for a stroll. Joggers, power walkers and rollerbladers all zoom past as lumpy men flex their muscles in the open air gym to thumping Reggaeton. The whole scene is over looked by twinkling glass tower blocks to the south and the waterfront path leads to the low rise colonial old town to the north. The sun was starting to disappear behind the towers turning the glass downtown into a golden mirror ball. Somewhere we could hear an open air trumpet lesson as sharp honks and toots harmonised with the constant car horns on the freeway.
As you near the old town you pass the fish market (you will smell it before you see it) where you can eat a fresh catch and watch the world pass you by. Annoyingly the little market restaurants add service and tax, so what you think will be a cheap eat can get quite expensive. Best to eat like a local and just order a Styrofoam cup of Cerviche for $1.50.
Casco Viejo (The old bit)
Before construction of the Canal began back in 1881 all that existed of Panama City existed where Casco Viejo stands today. New investment and population growth pushed the city east along the coast and off Casco Viejo's little peninsula. The rich elite followed leaving behind the old town which quickly deteriorated into an urban slum.
The old town is getting a new lease of life as investment is starting to flood back in and the crumbling colonial facades are now standing shoulder to shoulder with five star hotels, fancy bars and trendy panama hat shops. The gangs that once owned these streets now offer tours of their old hangouts and talk about life growing up here. At $20 per person I think they are still committing daylight robbery.
We spent one nice afternoon walking the rustic cobbled streets and squares. It's a pretty place to get lost in however only being four streets wide this is quite hard to do.
Along the Cusco Vejio's waterfront is a artisanal market where many women from Kuna communities travel to the city to sell handicrafts, particularly their beautiful hand sewn Molas.
We read about a highly recommended ice cream shop called Grancelement. It was set up by a French couple who bought up a grand old building at the beginning of Casca Veijo's redevelopment and was one of the first success stories of the new old town. The air conditioning was set to Himalaya which was very welcome. I particularly liked the large collection of colourful vintage ice cream scoops lining the walls. They had all kinds of unusual flavours however we stuck to our favourites dulce de leche and chocolate. They were served in delicious homemade cones and were undoubtedly the best ice creams we have ever eaten.
Just as you enter the Old Town from the city you come to Capital Bistro Panama a open roofed bar with a fantastic view of the skyscrapers of downtown. Its pretty pricey but great for a sundowner.
One evening we ate at a place called the The Fish Market, not to be confused with The Fish Market. It is set in a roofless shell of an old grand building with four chunky columns in the centre and a few large trees that have obviously been here a while. The owners have kitted the place out with a food truck, picnic tables, little gazebos and plenty of fairy lights. The menu was small but everything on it sounded amazing. We had a Massaman fish curry which was incredible and a BBQ pulled pork bap (we felt guilty not ordering fish but it was dam good).
In the corner of Plaza Herrera is a bar called Mojito. It occupies a space where a grand building should have been. What it lacks in bricks, mortar and a roof it makes up for in cheap strong gins, fairy lights and rock music (Finally a break from bloody reaggeton)
A quick note about hats
You can't leave Panama City without a Panama Hat.
The Panama Canal
When you say Panama people think of either the Canal or Hats, and some people think of someone floating through the locks wearing a Panama hat. The Canal stretches 48 miles from Panama City on the Pacific to Colón on the Caribbean. Originally it was a muddy path way that the Spanish used to transport their plundered riches from South America to galleons waiting on the Caribbean coast. This gold route saw silver from Bolivias Potosi mine, priceless Peruvian Inca treasures and gold from Colombia's indigenous communities. This path became a road and eventually would become the Canal.
The French were the first to see the benefits of connecting the two oceans and started work on the Canal in 1881. Unfortunately due to many factors such as tropical disease and dense jungle the project ran out of money and was abandoned.
The Americans were the next to have a go and took over construction in 1904. At the time Panama was part of Colombia and the Colombians did not want US involvement. However there was a small rebel group who wanted independence for Panama from Colombia and made a deal with the US. Roosevelt backed the rebels and in 1903 the US positioned war ships to stop any Colombian military movement. On 3rd of November 1903 Panama declared independence from Colombia and the USA quickly recognised the new nation. On November 6th 1903 the Panamanian ambassador to the US signed a treaty that granted rights to the US to build and run the Panama Canal. With better sanitation and technology it took ten years to build and opened on the 15th August 1914. The American Society of Civil Engineers has called the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
As soon as the treaty was signed, it was condemned by many Panamanians stating it was an infringement on their new sovereignty. There were a growing number of protests and demonstrations during the last century, leading to them taking full control of the canal in 1999. They then jacked up the prices.
Around 13,000 ships pass through each year. Their fee is calculated by weight and size averaging between $300,000 and $400,000 for standard Panamax vessels transiting the original locks, and between $500,000 and $800,000 for the new larger ships transiting the expanded canal. The lowest fee was $0.36, paid by Richard Halliburton in 1928 who swam through.
The Canal set a new standard for the dimensions of shipping vessels, as the locks were 305m long and 33.5m wide. Just think of how many shopping trolleys you could fit in there! (a big navigation problem for the Canal boats of Knowle and Dorridge) However as of last year the Panamanians have just opened their expansion Canal that can accommodate even bigger vessels. This is bad news for Panamanian supermarkets.
When we arrived there was a sudden flurry of people up the entrance ramps and a buzz of excitement. Apparently the last mega ships of the morning were just passing through. We ran up to the fourth floor and wedged ourselves into the wall of shoulders pressed up against the railings.
A colossal vessel was gliding slowly through the far lock. It was bloody big but unfortunately wasn't filled with a perfect Tetris game of colourful shipping containers. Still it was oddly smooth and quite satisfying to watch, especially as it fit so perfectly with only 60cm ish on each side. It was followed by a tug and a tourist boat. I wandered how long it would take to get bored following a big boat very very slowly through Miraflores locks. I was starting to get a little bored after the initial excitement and I had only been watching five minutes.
I looked to the far end and saw the last container ship of the morning lining himself up. He was called Doug and was apparently an "Energy Saving Champion". Nice one Doug!
It was incredible how quickly these giant vessels rise with the water level. Apparently around 100 million litres of water fill the locks here in a matter of minutes. We could now see most of Doug's belly as the gates were opened and he moved through to the second and final lock of Miraflores before entering the Culebra Cut and then the manmade Gatun Lake.
The ships are secured on each corner by little train like vehicles that run along tracks along the edge of the locks. They guide/pull boats through using taught wire ropes that make sure the boats never scrape the sides. Captains also have to relinquish control of their vessels to special trained lock pilots who drive each boat through. The few crew on deck waved up at the hordes of fellow onlookers on the balcony, we all waved and whooped back like teenage girls at a Stones concert in the 60s.
After Doug had passed through the final gate and was painfully slowly making his way out into the Canal we headed downstairs and watched a short film that was pretty euphoric and heroic about how the Canal and Panama came into existence. It was a bit over the top and patriotic and we all left feeling a tad emotionally drained.
As we were visiting a city that apparently grew rich of the drug trade for our last night we decided to get high, 62 floors high to be precise. The Hard Rock Hotel has a rooftop bar you can visit for free and the views over the city are spectacular. We were feeling so Rock'n'Roll that we didn't even stay for a drink and were in bed by 21:30.
On our way home a religious procession for Santa de Semana (Easter) was slowly walking up the middle of the street with a band playing slow hymn music. Everyone was dressed in long white gowns with bright purple bits at the bottom and the odd gold tassel. For a celebration it was quite a solomn affair and everyone seemed to be taking it very seriously. A few folk such as us had stopped on the side of the road to watch it pass. Whilst scanning the onlookers outside Nathans Fast Food Joint, I spotted a person dressed as a giant smiling hot-dog trying not to stand out.