At the Ballet in Panama City.......for sure!!!!!!!

Trip Start Sep 20, 2011
Trip End Jan 15, 2012

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Where I stayed
Hostel Mamallena
What I did
Ate, drank, went to Ballet, saw the Panama Canal

Flag of Panama  ,
Friday, September 23, 2011


We fly with Copa Airlines from Santiago, Chile to Panama. The flights were booked many months ago........ we leave on time, no fuss. I am relieved.

Arrival in Panama is a breeze, no visa needed. We are picked up by Domenico and taken to Mamallena Hostel................. This place is a real backpackers - small room painted in garish colours with one small window and the AC is only available at night.  Fortunately we have arrived late in the day, so we don't have to suffer the heat and humidity for too long. Dinner is a pizza from around the corner on Via Espana. Sleep is needed by both of us. Jet lag, time difference, heat and age have caught up with us.

Next day it is cook your own breakfast. The kitchen is a community lot, a bowl of pancake mix ready and molasses warm on the stove. Water for coffee/tea is boiled in pots with no handles. Those of you reading this who have stayed in backpackers will know the scene. The rest of you can just guess.
 A young guy is peeling and cutting pawpaw very slowly, as if he is a surgeon. He is telling me that Nicaragua is really 'cool' as there are few tourists ( a backpackers delight is meeting the “real” locals)..............What he really means is that it's cheap. 
A girl is cooking her pancakes as am I. We chat as travelers do. Where are you from?    Where are you going?   What have you seen?  How do you get to.......?  
Ah, life is good back on the road.

Now why would you come to Panama?

To see the Panama Canal of course. So I ask how to get there? This is when the backpacker network kicks into gear.... a discussion starts and all in the kitchen contribute............. Take a bus on Via Espana to Allbrook Mall for 25 cents (Panama uses US$ as their national currency), then a bus to Gambon for 25 cents where you get off at the entrance to Miraflores Locks. Fom there it is a ten minute walk to the Canal Visitor’s Center. Try and be there between 1.30 to 2.00 pm as that is when the large ships transfer the lock........Of course you could just take a taxi there for $5.00

Allbrook Mall is a large old American Shopping Mall, no doubt built for the Americans who administered the Panama Canal from it’s completion until 1999. 

Panama was a US Military base during that time and as you move around you can see the remnants of many US Military establishments. Some have been turned into hotels, the rest are Government administration buildings.

We mall walk for an hour, stopping briefly for a lovely fresh fruit juice. A lot of the outlets are mini department stores - more of them than speciality shops it seems to me. The stroll is OK as it is hot outside but airconditioned in. Finally it is time to go to visit the Panama Canal.

A little history.

The Panama Canal is still one of the engineering wonders of the world. Even by today's standards it is awesome to see a large container ship ( A Panamax ship, constructed with the canal in mind) gliding through the locks and rain forest. If you can imagine the level of technology at the turn of the 19th century, the construction of the canal is staggering.
The possibility of a waterway linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans was thought of as far back as 1534 when King Charles V of Spain commissioned a survey to dig a canal. 
It was the French who actually started the job in 1880 under M.Ferdinand de Lesseps. After 10 long, hard years they were forced to give in. The jungle, disease (principally malaria and yellow fever), money problems, and the sheer enormity of the task defeated them.

In 1903 Panama seceded from Colombia with a little assistance from the USA. Panama then signed a treaty with the USA that granted them the rights to build, and indefinitely administer, the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses, a concession for a public maritime transportation service across the Isthmus.
The following year they bought the French Canal Company for $40M and started digging.
It was in 1914 that a cargo ship, US Ancon,  made the first transit.
The Canal is around 87 km long with three lockages and ships are lifted 25m as they cross the Isthmus. It takes about 16 hours for the transit.
The USA held the concession until 1979, when the process to hand over the Canal to the Republic of Panama began. It was 1999 before the Canal finally came under the control of Panama.

Over 14,00 ships pass through Miraflores and Gatun Locks each year. The average toll is about $100,000.............. The smallest toll was paid by Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1926 and was charged 36 cents after his displacement tonnage was calculated.  

There are locks both ends of the canal. We are at the Pacific end, Miraflores Locks. The Atlantic locks are the Gatun Locks........... I am impressed with the set up for viewing the transit of ships. There is a seated area with a running commentry by a local official, much like seating at a sports field. 
We sit there listening to how much each ship pays to negotiate the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic  and the mechanics of the transfer of   each vessel.  One of the ships that we view transiting the Miraflores Lock is a large container vessel that has paid around US$500,000 in cash. Cash only, no cheques, no credit cards, no accounts........... You can only use a credit card if you are a small craft and the price may only be US$500.00. There are two canal systems at the moment but a third is under construction, agreed to by a vote of the that is democracy.  This will allow the transit of the largest container ships. At the moment they have to off load in Colon on the Atlantic side or Panama City on the Pacific side, the containers are moved across country by train, then reloaded on another ship on the Colon/Panama City side. This is still less expensive than traveling around Cape Horn.

We sit transfixed watching these little tugs, four either side, their role to keep the ship in the center of the lock. The ship is under it’s own power as it moves through the lock at walking pace. 
This truly is riveting stuff, you can’t take your eyes off these large ships traveling at a snail’s pace.
Once the ship is in position, the water enters the down stream lock until it matches the level in the upper lock -  the one with the ship. Now this is impressive, very fact faster than your average bath emptying. The gates are then opened and the ship passes through. We watch two ships, then visit a very interesting museum before heading back to town.

Panama City was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Davila,not long after Balboa first saw the Pacific Ocean. The city was ransacked and destroyed in 1671 by the English pirate Sir Henry Morgan, leaving only the stone ruins of Panama Viejo.It is a place of contrasts, not unlike most cities that have an old section and a new. The New is symbolized by the Trump and the Revolution buildings, large, modern, shimmering glass and steel towers. The Old quarter features Spanish, French and Antillean styled townhouses established after the sacking by Morgan and is called Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo.

Taking a stroll in the heat, not unlike a Brisbane summer day, we head from our hostel down to the waterfront. We stroll past the fish market to Casco Viejo...... If you look south you see a modern city full of highrise buildings, look north and it is Old Panama full of  old stone, three and four story buildings, tiled with red roofs and balconies and decorated with potted plants. We are surrounded by nice typically Spanish squares, some restored some in disrepair and decay.

The President's Palace, “Palacio de las Garzas”, is at the end of the road where, after a recommendation by the famed Panamanian Poet Ichardo Miro, herons have been a fixture since 1922. We are hoping to see them, but can go no further - no words needed, just the stern look from the fully armed guard.
We visit the Iglesias of San Jose, “Church of the Golden Altar”at the Plaza de la Independencia. Legend has it that when the Welsh pirate, Morgan, was doing his pirate thing of looting and burning, a resourceful priest painted the altar black, thereby tricking Morgan into believing nothing of value was to be had.
While having coffee at the cool and pretty Plaza Bolivar, named after Simon Bolivar “El Liberator”, a lady tells us that there is a ballet performance at the “Teatro Nacional” on the other side of the square. The tables around us are full of young girls, looking important, all dressed up, with vibrant makeup, all giggling their heads off. Much the same as young people the world over.

The National Theatre, built in 1908, is conducting ballet rehearsals for  “Don Quixote”.  Inside the airconditioning is running at full tilt. It is so cold that we can only stay for the first act..... It was still an unexpected treat
Continuing our walk we are joined by Conrad......... Conrad is a thin, black guy about 75 years old. He just moves in beside us and starts giving us a history lesson..... I think that he told me about four times that the Americans (USA Military) killed his wife and children during their incursion (1998)...... He told us about the French and the digging of the amazing history from an amazing man.
He leaves us at the Plaza de Francia which has an obelisk with the French Rooster on top and commemorates the failed French attempt to build the canal,

When he was leaving he asked for a tip “beggars can’t be choosers” he said. 

Dinner is at the Red Roofed Terrace, a place recommended at our digs. No one seems to know it's real name, but it has a red roof so the Red Roofed Terrace will have to do.......Calling it a terrace is being a little too kind. The diner has a red tarp stretching over very plain tables and chairs. The lighting is not that bright but adds to the ambience and the BBQ's are cooking a variety  of meats.
We have a pile of “protein” -  grilled meat, beef, chicken, pork and all types of cuts. Pam didn’t like the pork fat all that much but I did..... A “cerveza” (beer) or two and my diet is shot.....

On our return to the hostel, the young backpackers are enjoying a drink and watching the TV - as they are wont to do........ We go to bed waiting expectantly for the airconditioning to come on. We can tell when this will happen, because someone walks on the roof above, stomps, and it starts. A ritual that we look forward to each evening. 

 A nice couple of days and we are away to Havana......Cuba.....I’m excited. 
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Mick on

Fine commentary. You would do well as a tourist guide.

Wendy Griggs on

Dennis, having done a bit of tourist blogging myself, I am feeling overawed by your commentary. It reads like the work of a professional journalist - you weren't one in a previous life were you?

Keep on having fun


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