Date: Saturday, 11 December 2010 07:43 PST
Subject: Greetings from Panama City
Captions for Pictures:
1. Monkey from our balcony
2. Ship in the Panama Canal
3. Panama City street
4. Presidential Palace – the heron is on the floor under the fountain
5. Train from Colon to Panama City
6. Panama City skyline earlier in the day
Lauren and I are in Panama City on a five day trip to celebrate our December birthdays and completion of her finals. We flew here on Thursday and upon descending into the airport at about 9pm that night I was struck by the views of both the tall skyscrapers making up the Panama City skyline and all the ships sitting off the Pacific coast, presumably wanting to transit the canal. The city is very modern and clean and our B&B is located on a hill where the military officials used to live when the US had control of the canal zone.
Our first day was supposed to be spent with a guide / driver taking us to the Caribbean side of the country, seeing two UNESCO sights and riding a historic train back to Panama City. However, the weather dictated otherwise. The day before heavy rains had hit the Caribbean side of the country, causing flooding and washing out the very roads we had planned to travel. The rain was so bad that the canal had closed for a few hours for only the second time in its 95 year history. When the guide showed up at the B&B to explain this on Friday morning we quickly went to Plan B – a tour of Panama City and the Miraflores canal locks. The good news was that we could still be driven to Colon to catch the train back to Panama City in the late afternoon.
The rain still fell steadily as we went to the Miraflores locks. This was an impressive place and the combination museum, theater and observation deck kept my interest. It was fascinating to watch the huge ships in the locks, with the water rising and all the activity taking place around them. The museum and 10 minute film provided an informative history of the canal, US involvement and subsequent turnover to Panama in 1999. We learned many facts about the canal but what I thought was more interesting were the future plans. A new set of lanes is currently under construction and scheduled to be complete in 2014, which is the 100th anniversary of the canal’s opening. This will significantly increase the size of the ships that can pass through the canal and generate more revenue for the country.
From the canal we took an in-depth tour of Panama City, driving past former US bases, visiting many neighborhoods, including a Chinatown, and several churches and plazas. We saw three different city sites: the first, from the 1500’s that Spanish explorers founded, the next from the late 1600’s after pirates destroyed the original city, and the current downtown. The middle site, with both Spanish and French influences, is being restored with some of it reminding us of New Orleans Square at Disneyland. One highlight was walking right up to the Presidential Palace, called Heron House, because a live heron lives in the lobby. The palace guard motioned me up to take a close up picture through the iron rails.
After lunch we left Panama City, with the rain now falling more intensely, to head on the highway towards Colon, on the Caribbean side. The hope was that we might see some sights over there before boarding the train. About halfway on the 50 mile trip, our guide’s eight year old Ford Wind Star, that he had just bought used five days ago, began to overheat. We had to pull over and, after trying to resurrect the car, making many phone calls and three tow trucks later, we and the incapacitated car ended up at a repair shop on the outskirts of Colon. We had just enough time to get to the train station to make the 5:15pm departure back to Panama City.
The railway was first built in the 1850’s, before the canal, and to address transportation needs arising from east coast prospectors traveling to California during the gold rush. The one hour trip skirts along the present canal route and also passes along some beautiful jungle and river scenery. Lauren and I each enjoyed a Panama beer in the domed dining car as dusk set in. Back in Panama City we still had one more adventure and challenge, hitting Friday night rush hour traffic going back to the B&B, with our taxi taking an hour to cover about five miles. Dinner later at an outdoor restaurant, overlooking the ocean and skyline, was a relaxing end to the day.
In all it was a day of unexpected activities and surprises and we both had a great time!