Hit Read More to learn more about Panama and see some photos of this interesting Central American country.
We were totally shocked by this lovely modern city. It has a very impressive downtown area for a city of about 900,000 inhabitants. Our younger son had visited it before but he had never mentioned what this city was like. Both Guatemala City and San Jose, capitol of Costa Rica, are colonial cities. Their buildings are mostly only 6 or less stories tall, and demonstrate colonial architecture. There are few if any skyscrapers. But as you can see from the photos, Panama City has dozens of buildings over 60 stories high. They line a lovely bay of the Pacific Ocean. Many of these buildings are banks. Every ship that goes through the Panama Canal must pay in cash by 48 hours before its scheduled entrance to the Canal. The Panama Canal Authority, now owned and operated as a branch of the Panamanian government, earns 5 to 9 million US dollars a day. There have to be a lot of bankers to handle all this cash. In addition, many of these skyscrapers are high rise apartment and condo buildings. People now wish to live in downtown Panama City. It seems this is where the action is. Also Panama has now overtaken Costa Rica as a place for Norteamericanos to retire. Many United States citizens are buying these apartments and condos. Though living in the City is becoming more expensive for housing, other costs are low, the US dollar is the currency, most people speak English and the US left a good infrastructure of roads, buildings, and culture. All of these characteristics attract people there for retirement.
Panama city has ruins from the 16th century. At that time Henry Morgan, a British sea captain, privateer and pirate was making repeated raids in the Caribbean, especially on Jamaica. He was successful in turning Jamaica from a Spanish possession to an English one. He made a lot of attacks in the area including one on Cartagena, and then decided to attack Panama, first conquering Portobelo on the Caribbean coast, then mounting an attack on Fort San Lorenzo.
|Fort San Lorenzo, Caribbean side of Panama|
|One of three forts in Portobelo, Caribbean Panama|
|The modern day village of Portobelo|
|Church of the Black Christ, in Portobelo, Panama|
|16th century ruins of Our Lady of the Ascension Church, PC, Panama|
|Colonial Panama City, built in the late 1600s and 1700s, after Henry Morgan's attack.|
|City Square in Casco Viejo, or San Felipe, settled after 1671.|
We were fascinated by the Panama Canal. Maybe it is because we stayed at the Country Inn Suites which is located directly on the Pacific terminus of the Canal, just west of the Bridge of the Americas. We witnessed the ship traffic from the balcony of our hotel room.
|Bridge of the Americas, crossing the Panama Canal. (View from our hotel room).|
Each ship has to have a pilot from the Canal Authority on board the entire transit of the Canal. We were able to see the little speedboats taking the pilots to the eastbound ships and picking up the pilots after the 10 hour Canal transit from the westbound ships. Also we saw the tug boats that were requested to assist some of the ships through the Canal. Most of the vessels are container ships, but other freighters and an occasional cruise ship passes through the Canal. It is very expensive to take this route, though not as expensive as going around "the Horn." The largest container ship that can now go through the Canal, called the Panimax size, cost about $450,000 to transit. Still there are 3 generations of container ships beyond the Panimax size which can not fit in the canal now, so currently the Panama Canal Authority is building 2 new sets of locks to handle the largest vessels now in use, and areas of the the Canal itself are being dredged deeper also. These changes will be ready in 2014.
We viewed the Canal from every angle and every location by taking a train from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Caribbean side. The train was built by the US in the Canal Zone so it runs along the Canal and along Lake Gatun, the artificial lake made to finish the Canal. Then we visited Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of Lake Gatun. There is a museum there, and bleachers and a very nice narrated explanation of what is happening in those locks. I had never thought about it and didn't fully realize that the locks in the Panama Canal were created to raise the ships from sea level to the level of Lake Gatun, and then lower them back to sea level again on the other side of the isthmus. (The Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans are not at different heights. Sea level is sea level.) Lake Gatun was artificially created to allow the ships to pass over the highlands in the middle of the isthmus. Without this lake, the Canal would have had to be dredged down to sea level, an engineering impossibility. That is why France who originally tried to build the canal by just dredging, failed. But a French engineer working for the United States got the idea of flooding the passage through the highlands and raising the ships to that level to pass the highlands and then lowering them back down. Later we took what is called a partial transit, boarding a small ferry sized ship above the locks on the Pacific side, Miraflores locks, and passing through them , and then sailing out onto the Pacific to the Flamenco Marina, providing magnificent views of the Canal, locks and finally of Panama City.
|Container ship traversing Miraflores Locks|
|The electric locomotive called a "mule" serves to keep the ship centered in the lock.|
|Another container ship through the locks.|
|For those ships which do not fit, here is the port. Containers go by train across the isthmus.|
When we took the train to the Caribbean side, we drove to see Fort San Lorenzo, and later the town of Portobelo and its three forts, pictured above and mentioned in the historic paragraph about Henry Morgan above.
Another day we took a day trip to El Valle. This is a town in the highlands of Panama. It is a very pretty drive from Panama City, involving crossing the Bridge of the Americas. Most tourists visit El Valle on Sunday because the market is open. There are lots of colorful vegetables and many handicrafts to purchase. However, this market does not even approach the market in Otovalo in Ecuador, so we didn't spend much time there at all. In a park in El Valle, there is a small creek which tumbles down a lush narrow valley. In that valley along the creek is a large rock on which some former indigenous people have carved and painted a petrographic map of El Valle, the valley in this highlands. Interestingly, the town of El Valle trains their young people to act as guides at this site and many others in the valley on weekends and school vacation days in order for them to be occupied and to earn a little money. Therefore, we took a 10 year old boy into our van with us and he road to the Petroglyph rock with us. Then he very knowledgeably explained what all the pictographs mean, in Spanish though so our guide Archie had to translate. The boy then guided my husband further up the valley to the waterfall. Training these young people as limited guides is a remarkable practice in this town and can only serve to prevent preteen and teen vagrancy and crime. We also visited an orchid conservation farm which is dedicated to saving and collecting orchids which grow in the rainforest of the area. The two ladies who operate this orchid farm, put out bird feeders. We sat for an hour watching the colorful birds come to the feeders and photographing them. In a future blog I plan to post some of the photos of the marvelous birds we saw on this trip.
|An explanation of the symbols drawn on the rock.|
|The waterfall above Petroglyph Rock|
|El Valle with its surrounding peaks.|
|The El Valle market.|