Feb 8 – This morning we said goodbye to the Pacific.
We dragged our suitcases back down to the Pan American Highway, and had lunch at a truck stop while we waited for a bus.
We were just finished, and our bus pulled up – a big one with air conditioning! Yay! It was an easy two hours back to the Panama City bus terminal and an easy Uber back downtown.
Feb 9 – One more night at the Executive Hotel, then up at 5:30 for an early hotel breakfast and an Uber to the airport.
We encountered a new wrinkle in airport security this morning. After waiting in line to check in, and enduring the shoe removal and X-ray machines, we walked to our gate, looking forward to a sit down prior to boarding. The officials then rounded up everyone in the gate area and subjected us to an additional security screening, then cordoned us off so we had no access to coffee, water or bathrooms. Those in the know told us it was an extra security measure for those headed to the US, looking for drugs. Humph!
Four hours later we landed in Houston, had a six hour layover, then home to Norfolk by 10 pm.
It was a fabulous trip, and it’s nice to be home. Thanks to all who traveled with us!
Jan 23 – We approached the Old Town from a new direction, and what did we find? Chinatown! It seems that every city has one. This one was definitely not included in the modernization we’ve seen in other parts of the city.
Iglesia de la Merced, Church of Mercy, had lots of life-sized statues.
The church next door had a more modern feel. I really liked the artwork.
Jim read about a church here with a remarkable Nativity display. We found it!
The display continued into the next room, with modern characters:
Jan 23 – What to do today? We’re running out of major attractions to see in the city. Some tours and bloggers suggest a trip to the local fish market, so that is our plan for the morning.
After a tour of all the choices, we went outside to the string of fish restaurants, all hawking the same lunch choices. I got camarones in garlic salsa with rice, and Jim opted for the pulpo (octopus) with yucca fries.
Next to the market we saw lots of fishing boats at anchor. It was low tide, and some boats looked like they’d been there a long time.
We walked further down the Cinta Costera, which we learned had just been built in the last ten years to reclaim the waterfront area. We would have walked farther, but it was HOT, and the sun was beating down.
We realized we were not far from the Casco Viejo (Old Town), and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon nosing around. More in the next post.
Jan 22 – Today we left the shiny skyscrapers for a walk in the jungle. Within the city limits is Metropolitan Natural Park, offering a shady walk and a chance to see some local flora and fauna.
We got back to the hotel and rewarded ourselves with an afternoon swim. For supper, we saw Sancocho on the menu, and remembered that this was one of the national dishes we were to try. Sancocho turned out to be chicken broth with a big piece of chicken breast, served with arroz blanco on the side. So…chicken soup with rice. Very nice!
Jan 21 – Today was our day to travel to Miraflores Locks to see The Canal. Although we traveled through the canal for a day in 2008 (while Jim was teaching for the Semester at Sea), this was our opportunity to see the locks from the land.
Jim plotted a way to get us to Miraflores using the subway, several buses, and an hour of time, but we opted instead for a $4 Uber ride, and were there in 20 minutes.
Miraflores is totally a tourist attraction, with a $17 entrance fee and a 3D IMAX movie in English, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Turns out that the movie was the entire attraction, as there were no ships going through the locks when we were there.
Here is a $17 history of the Canal. The Spaniards thought about a canal across the isthmus, but didn’t have the technology. The French tried and failed to dig a canal in the late 1800s: between the rain undoing their digging and malaria and yellow fever killing the workers at a rate of 500 deaths for every mile dug, they gave up.
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt orchestrated a one day coup to free Panama from Colombia and take over the Canal Zone. A US engineer had the idea to dam up the Chagras River / Río Chagras, creating a lake in the middle. This simultaneously provided hydroelectric power for the project and decreased the number of miles to be dug. A UK doctor discovered that mosquitoes were the carriers of the diseases, and they started aggressive spraying the canal area to eradicate the pests.
Ten years later and voilá! A canal run by the US from 1914 until 1977, when Jimmy Carter agreed to gradually give it back. Panama took total control in 1999.
When it was determined that the Canal was becoming obsolete due to the size of newer container ships, larger locks were added on both sides of the originals, just like adding new lanes to the Interstate. The upgrade was completed in 2016.
We’ll, that was quite an education. Thank you, Morgan Freeman!
As it didn’t take too long to see the Canal, Jim had a plan for our afternoon. There is a park / bike path called Cinta Costera that runs right along Panama Bay, providing us a scenic, semi-shady walk. To get there, we had to walk by all the posh skyscraper hotels.
Jim had the idea to walk into the tallest hotel and ride the elevator up to the top floor to see the view. We boldly strode in with our shorts and walking sticks, right past the staff in their formal dress.
Unfortunately, once upstairs, we found just a hallway with no windows, so Jim sweet-talked a maid into letting us into the Royal Suite!
Jan 20 – Today we took a municipal bus across the city to see the ruins of Old Panama. The bus uses the same Metro card we purchased yesterday, and whether you choose the subway or the bus, the cost is 35 cents. The bus was just as nice as the train, and allowed us to see different parts of this big city.
When we were three stops from the one that Google told us was ours, an old man in the seat in front of us started pointing and indicating (in Spanish of course) that we should get off. Sure enough, there was a building that said Visitors Center, but just as we saw it, the bus moved on. Better to trust Google, we thought.
We jumped off where Google suggested, and we were indeed at Old Panama – we could see it through the fence. We tried to walk through the gate, but a guard pointed back up the road – no admission here. We had to walk 20 minutes back down the busy highway until we got to the stop the old man had indicated. Nice Person of Panama, and Google, you let us down!
Once through the proper gate, we hopped on a tram that took us to a small museum.
Inside, we learned some of the history of the Spanish conquest of the area in the early 1500s, the establishment of the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean in 1517, and the ultimate destruction of the old city in 1671 by the infamous buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. He took all the silver and gold, and burned the city down. The Spanish reviled him, but the British knighted him for his deeds.
When we were ready to go home, we hopped on the bus, only to discover that our metro card was out of funds. What to do? The card can only be refilled at a subway station. We offered cash to the driver, but he just waved us onto the bus. Another Nice Person of Panama!
After an afternoon swim, we sauntered over to Concolón, a restaurant that promised authentic Panamanian street food. Unlike other central and South American countries, we have encountered no actual street food here, much to Jim’s dismay. Jim ordered a plantain lasagna and I chose chicken with macaroni, neither of which sounded like street food. Jim’s came in a tiny bowl, and mine on a huge platter – one to feed a chihuahua and one to feed a Great Dane! We were so flabbergasted that we forgot to take a picture. Suffice it to say that both were delicious, liberally seasoned with culantro (the national herb here, with a much stronger taste than cilantro) and between us, we managed to make all the food disappear. A satisfying day!
Jan 19 – The Executive Hotel in the newer part of the city has everything we could want, including a swimming pool and a generous breakfast buffet. But silver skyscrapers are not our thing. Jim said the city bears no resemblance to the Panama City he visited back in the 70s.
This morning we set out to conquer the Metro station and find our way to the Old Town, Casco Viejo. The Metro was modern and clean, with a helpful attendant in a glass booth who sold us a reloadable metro card and did her best with gestures and no English to let us know that we had to load the card with funds at a nearby machine. There is no English signage here. We stood dumbly in front of the machine trying to figure out what to do, when a woman strode up, inserted our card, pushed some buttons and showed us where to insert our dollar coin. Nice Person of Panama!
We got on a clean, shiny train, not too crowded, and, three stops later, we emerged in a grittier part of the city. Google said we had a 20 minute walk to Casco Viejo. Now, I know we’re here to warm our bones, but it is HOT and humid here. It may take me a few days to adjust.
We reached the Plaza de Independencia, which has the Palacio Municipal one one side, and the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria the Ancient on the other.
Inside the Cathedral it was nice and cool, so we took our time looking around.
There is a reliquary and a wax statue of San Joselito here, a 14 year old Mexican boy who was tortured and murdered for his faith in 1928 and became a saint in 2016. First saint we’ve seen in blue jeans.
Around the corner was the Church of St Joseph with a very gold altar.
Now, am I wrong, or is this a holy person taking a selfie?
We walked around the Old Town and admired the colorful buildings:
Arrived back home for an afternoon swim and a lovely dinner. An excellent first day.
Jan 18, 2023 – Want to warm your bones in the middle of the winter? Come with us to Panama!
What do we know about the Republic of Panama? It’s a really narrow little country in Central America, tucked between Costa Rica and Colombia, with the Caribbean Sea (leading to the Atlantic) to the north, and the Bay of Panama (leading to the Pacific) to the south.
Colonized by the Spanish in the 1500s, it became part of Colombia in 1831. The US got access to the special area in 1904 to build the you-know-what (remember A man, a plan, a canal, Panama? Best palindrome ever!)
The official language is Spanish, with enough local eccentricities to make it hard for us to understand. The official currency is the balboa, but they don’t actually print any, using US dollars instead. No conversion math – yay! Weather = tropical, with temps in the high 80s – 90s expected every day. This season is called the dry, and the summer months are the wet.
We got up early and Lyfted over to the airport. When we walked in, I thought we must have missed the Rapture – a totally empty check-in area, and a totally empty TSA screening area! We talked with the screeners, who are usually too busy to chat, and a good time was had by all.
Unfortunately, our flight was to Newark, which is an hour and a half in the wrong direction, but that’s where United sent us.
Then a five hour flight straight south to Panama City. Good news: Panama is in our same Eastern time zone, so no jet lag or resetting our watches! More good news: tap water here is totally drinkable, at least in the city.
Jorge, the Uber driver, was happy to drive us the half hour to our downtown hotel, where we collapsed gratefully into a very comfy bed. More tomorrow!