The double face of Panama City

Trip Start Sep 28, 2007
Trip End Jun 25, 2008

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Our last stop in Panama and Central America was Panama City.

The first afternoon Mark and I walked along the central avenue. The canal brings lots of trade goods to the city so the main street was full of warehouse-style shops selling everything from perfume, to 'American clothes', watches, jewelery and electronics. All the shop assistants looked so bored.

We wandered along looking for cameras (my lack of zoom is getting to me with all the wildlife spotting)  and watches. Mark needed one and I wanted a waterproof one. After several ho hum watch shops  we both bought a watch from a street stand outside a store  where there was a huge tumbler of water full of the $3 watches to prove they were waterproof and a street hawker going on a mile-a-minute about them (not that we could  understand). So far so good...they keep time which is more than can be said for the watch Mark bought in San Jose that literally ran out of battery juice that night.

We walked on to Casco Antiguo, which  is the new, old Panama. It was where they rebuilt the city in 1674 after English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and destroyed the original settlement.  They hoped that the estuary would keep out raiders, and it did.

Casco Antiguo is really pretty with colonial buildings, many in a state of disrepair, but it has a special feel to it. It is meant to be very dangerous even in the day, but we felt safe.

There is a big monument to the French who first attempted to build the Panama canal and a sweeping path by the ocean. From there you get good views over the bay to the causeway and where the boats line up to cross the canal and the banking district in the other direction. It is a lovely spot.

We met a crazy guy called Juillermo Alfred McKenzie (he showed us his ID card), who had set up his shop/home in a corner on the beach. It was a variety shop, specialising in single shoes he had found and other bits of junk. So, if  you are missing a shoe and are ever in Panama city, you never know your luck, he might have one to match...

He happily showed us an actual pair of shoes he had bought for himself.  They were like golf shoes, crossed with sneakers.  He said he loved to go out dancing and they would be great for that. He was so happy with them.

He said he had been living at the beach for three months and I was  impressed that no one had made him move on, even more so when I realised that the presidential palace was no more than 500 metres away or so around a few corners. We wished him luck and moved on.
We stopped at the presidential palace next, after having our bags checked. It is  called  Palacio de las Garzas for the white herons that live there. When we visited there was a beautiful tall grey heron standing outside ( we saw a white heron there the next day).

He was tall and elegant but getting in the way of the cleaner who was moping the marble floor with a bright yellow mop. He also reacted to the young man who play-jabbed him on the way out like you might do to a dog (we later wondered if he could be the president's son). Then he  stretched out his long  banded leg like he was doing a ballet arabesque. All  while the armed guards looked  out towards the street. Incredible.

 We stopped at a cheap diner and had a meal of chicken, beans and rice for  US$1.35 each and then returned to our hotel.

The next day we did a poor value city tour that took us back to Casco Antiguo.

The best bit was going out to the Miraflores locks to see the Panama Canal in action. The ship going through the lock was massive and was paying US$100,000 for the shortcut(the fee is based on carrying capacity).

From the observation tower we watched the last set of lock gates open and close, saw the dramatic water level change and then saw the ship continue on its way out into the Pacific.

It takes about eight hours for boats to travel the 80 or so kilometres. The series of locks takes them up to 26 metres above sea level and down again.The amount of fresh water used to lift and lower the ships is incredible, and it all washes out to sea. 

They are building wider and  longer alternative locks that will be more water efficient hopefully in time for the 100-year anniversary in 2014.

We saw a short film and then wandered through the museum which gave us a better idea of the feat it was to put in the canal.

Panamanians are very proud of their canal. No doubt the celebrations were huge in 1999 when it came into total Panamanian control from the United  States. Plus, the question of whether to upgrade the canal was  put to the people in a referendum

The final part of the city tour was going to see the ruins of old Panama that was sacked and destroyed in 1671.  All that remains are some thick stone walls, and two of  the main cathedrals, one of which is being restored.

Very pretty in parts, I thought Panama City was a strange place. I felt like the money the Americans had poured in when they made and ran the canal had created two  cities. The main pedestrian mall is grotty and tacky and is miles from the banking district with a large skyline's worth of skyscrapers.  In fact we didn't even go to that area, only driving through it on our way to see old Panama.  It made me feel that the city wasn't very integrated. If I had spent more time there, perhaps I'd change my mind.

In the early evening we took a taxi to the causeway, which was built between three islands using stone excavated for the canal. As the sun went down and Panama's skyline lit  up across the water, I felt like we could have been in any Western city. The causeway was another gentrified area so different to where the real Panamanians live and work, I felt. It was  not without wafts of the most disgusting smells however, which we had smelt all over town.

We stayed out on the causeway for dinner and saw a huge light show as lightening flashed behind the skyline of the city.

It was our last night with the group and the GAP  tour, but everyone was so jaded we called it a night early.

We had thought that doing a tour first would ease us into traveling and speaking Spanish. I think it will actually make traveling on our own harder. We have become so lazy, not having to worry about getting to the bus stop or finding our hotel, and we haven't had to speak Spanish much, and so we haven't. I feel like I  haven't learned anything. Still,  it has meant that our first two months have felt like a holiday, and I needed that, being pretty frazzled when we left New Zealand.

For our second to last day in Panama, Mark stayed behind in the city while I went out to Taboga island to join some girls from the group who were staying there. It's about an hour's ferry ride and it's pretty with lots of islands around  and looking back on the city. 

The main beach on the island is connected to another little island  at high tide, so you could swim either side of the little island.

It was the Finnish girl's first dip in the Pacific so I got the excited before photo. I didn't get the after photo three minutes later when she came running out of the water with red marks from a jellyfish sting, grimacing and rubbing her arm.

It started raining so we went to have a drink in a simple restaurant.  After two beers the rash had gone down, so perhaps beer is the best medicine. She certainly thought so.

 We headed out to the beach again once the sun came out and had about an hour before it started pouring again.

And did it pour. Luckily I sheltered at where the girls were staying,  watching the rain cascade  off the balcony roof and listening to the large booms of thunder. The perfect beach paradise.

Before catching the ferry back, I went up the hill a bit to see the church founded in 1550, making it the second oldest church in the Western-hemisphere.

I was horrified on the  way back to see men I think were local chucking their empty beer cans overboard. Littering is what people do right through Central America  and it is so horrible.

For our final day, Mark and I went out to the Soberania National Park and walked the seven-kilometre plantation road, plus a small foray on the Camino de Cruces track which is the historic path the Spanish used for transporting gold and merchandise between the two oceans.

The fourteen kilometres there and back took all day as there was much wildlife to admire along the way.

Mark puts our mammal count at  eight: squirrel, coatis, howler moneys, capuchin monkeys, small monkeys (we think they are called titi), an agouti, and both kinds of sloth.

This count doesn't include the dogs (or humans) we saw. Mark freaked a two-month old retriever puppy by reaching out to pat it and it whimpered in fear and retreated five metres. So cute.

But the best mammal sightings were watching a capuchin monkey come over and pick a fight with a howler monkey and the amazingly small brown and white monkeys that made cheeping noises.

We also saw toucans, trojans, mot mots and many other kinds of birds that we need to identify from the field guides.

I was transfixed by some of the weird spiky and humpy trunks we saw. One we could see had little wood off-shoots for a couple of metres up. Others had vicious spikes.

Also amazing was a huge dragonfly-type animal with four wings that folded back together and looked like a dart tail.

Carting us  from the ferry the day before (Mark had been at the Smithsonian museum on the causeway and met me there), to the park and on to the airport was Raphael the taxi driver. He's a crazy enthusiastic guy who members of our group had used and really liked. He is trying to learn English from his son, so we had funny hybrid conversations with us speaking in Spanish and him trying to answer in English. Sometimes his animated gestures of hold ups and pointing out locations interfered with his driving alarmingly but it was really nice to have someone familiar we could trust cart us round for a fair price. He was horrified to hear the price of petrol, cigarettes and a Big mac combo in New Zealand but then transfixed to hear minimum wage was around $10 an hour. He told us in Panama it was $1.35 or similar. If we had been flying to New Zealand, I think he would have begged to come in our luggage.

Next stop, Caracas, Venezuela where everyone tells us we will be mugged or worse. If we can survive one night before we get the hell out of there, you'll hear more from me soon.
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