Monday, March 5, 2012

A man. A plan. A canal. Panama.

This clever palindrome pretty much sums it up, no blog necessary. Just kidding.

Our first impression - Panama is hot. Literally. At 95 degrees with almost 100 percent humidity, our two days there were like an extended stay in a sauna, only we were fully clothed not in skimpy towels. Unfortunately, the heat makes everything ten times more laborious and annoying, but we’re seasoned travelers, so we got past it.

Our second impression – Panama is strangely divided and not quite as developed as it appears to the cruise-hopper’s eye. The old town or Casco Viejo where we stayed, while charming and colonial, features a building vacancy rate of 60% because most buildings are no more than a façade held up by steel bars. The buildings that have been renovated are stylish and luxurious, but were far out of our price range to stay or dine in. The whole area is a mini peninsula that juts into the ocean affording terrific views and breezy boardwalks. But there were no Panamanian food joints, and not many sites of interest. We did pass some old clubhouse where Casino Royale was filmed, saw a legendary golden altar hidden from pirates, heard a church bell blessed by Queen Isabella and visit an extraordinary canal museum though.

Seemingly everything is under construction/renovation
 The flip side is the new Panama, the skyscraper-filled modern half that seems to epitomize development. But upon closer inspection, roughly a third of the buildings were still under construction, and there seemed to be absolutely no street life below the towers in the sky. Whether due to the omnipresent heat or the tourists desire to see as little as the real Panama as possible, the isolation of the buildings from the ground and each other was a planning nightmare to us. So we stayed away. The city just gleamed in the distance like a painted-on background in a bad movie or a mirage in the desert.

The mirage of the new city out beyond the bay through the ruins of the old center
This morning we went see the Miraflores Locks of the canal. Instead of opting for the pricey but convenient taxi ride, we decided to be brave and take local transportation. What a hoot. Always get a second opinion on medical matters my grandma always says - well it applies to bus directions as well. We were told several different stories, overpaid for some stupid card we thought we needed, then ended up on a bus so packed that the driver had to climb in the window to his seat because the doorway was full. Upon arriving at the bus stop for the canal, we got directions from a security guard on how to walk to the visitor’s center after he paused as if to consider if it was in fact possible to arrive by foot. It was. The center had a museum and theater which we skipped and headed directly to the viewing platform to watch the ships roll in. The locks themselves are like any other, with cute little trains and tugboats helping the ship pass through each chamber. What’s impressive is the total scale of the project and the impact it has had.

Panama was little more than a backwater before the flood of U.S dollars from the canal project (started by the French actually) and supporting infrastructure turned it practically into a U.S. colony. They probably built just as much housing, railroads and commercial business as they did canal. Hundreds and thousands of immigrants poured in to work, and many never left, while many also perished (though on account of the heat I can’t imagine how more didn’t die). Entire rivers were rerouted and mountains blown up to make the 80 km canal possible in order to cut 20 days off the normal sea route around South America! Impressive!

The locks at work
After the canal we headed back into town and out to a long causeway that connects the mainland to three small islands. We rented bikes and had a pleasurable ride out to the islands, watching incoming ships waiting to enter the canal and fishing boats at work and enjoying the fresh ocean breeze. It was our second favorite activity and gave us some great views. We were also mistaken for Spaniards and Chileans on two separate occasions which makes us proud of our Spanish!

Biking along the causeway
Tomorrow we head out to Portobelo on the Atlantic side of the country to catch our boat over to Cartagena! We’re hoping to escape some of the heat and not get sea sick on our five day voyage, so wish us luck and we’ll post again when we’re on dry land!

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