a unique perspective on this crazy world

Archive for January, 2018

under construction…

I have now travelled so much in the developing world, it’s normal for me.  Tourists to Panama tend to be spoiled westerners, often spending a day or two in Panama City before joining a cruise ship.  As previously noted, the economy in Panama is expanding rapidly and they are working on infrastructure so there will no doubt be improvements in the future.  At present, it’s easy to walk around Casco Viejo but, if you want to see tourist attractions further afield, you will generally need a taxi or private driver.  Neither is cheap and I just wanted to see a few attractions so decided to take a chance on the Hop on Hop Off bus I saw advertised on the internet.

The hotel approved of my choice and even gave me a discount coupon.  You can get a 24 or 48 hour ticket.  Since I wanted to see both the Panama Canal and the biomuseo, I opted for the two day ticket.  It worked and the price was reasonable so I wouldn’t discourage you from following the same strategy.  You just need to remember it’s a developing country.  The hours of operation are a bit limited so it’s not great if you want to see a ship go through the canal, which generally occurs early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  If you like to rush through attractions, you could see both on the 24 hour ticket.  The second day the bus didn’t show up for the first departure.  It wasn’t clear why but we did eventually get on the bus and I got to chat with strangers.  It’s really a choice of budget vs convenience.

frank gehry magic

Whatever way you get to the Biomuseo, you should go.  There is a cool Canadian connection.  The building was designed by Frank Gehry so is an impressive and unique architectural structure.  The museum design is by Bruce Mau who has collaborated with Frank Gehry before and is a fascinating and optimistic man. You feel that in the museum, which is so brand spanking new it wasn’t even fully completed when I visited in March 2017 so will continue to get better.  There are lots of eager young Panamanian staff to show you around.

More importantly, you will likely learn some new facts about geology and biology.  Until I visited, I hadn’t appreciated that long ago there was a North and South America.  It was Panama that turned it into a contiguous land mass creating the question… how many continents are there really?

The Biomuseo’s permanent exhibition is titled Panama: Bridge of Life. Eight galleries and eight “devices of wonder” explore the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its gigantic impact on the planet’s biodiversity.

Until about 3 million years ago, there was a gap between the American land

colourful interior

masses and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans co-mingled.  Tectonic plates shifted and initially marine volcanoes created land masses on the ocean floor high enough to become islands in the gap between North and South America.  Sediment kept building until a land bridge was created between the two continents in the area known today as the isthmus of Panama.  This major geological event also separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and created the Gulf Stream and other disruptions to ocean currents and marine life.

This changed the composition of the flora and fauna in Panama.  Since animals were now able to freely roam potentially from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, Panama ended up with an incredible diversity of wildlife and birds.  Since animals also often track seeds and the climate is very hospitable, it also has a wide diversity of plants.  You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean easily in a single day.

biodiversity in action

The museum is new so it uses a multi-pronged approach to tell the story of Panama.  There is a gallery of biodiversity, a three-story projection space with ten screens that immerse the visitor in an audiovisual rendering of the natural marvels that compose all of Panama’s ecosystems and a room filled with replicas of animals and plants that migrated through Panama.  There is also information on the human history of Panama, estimated to have begun 15,000 years ago.  Aquariums depict the impact of the creation of the isthmus on marine life in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  You will leave entertained and well-informed and ready to check out the incredible biodiversity of Panama.

A visit to the Biomuseo will encourage you to get into the rainforest and see the biodiversity for yourself.  That is where we are headed next…

 

 

 

it’s all about the canal!

finally, a blog post!

If you were playing word association and the first word was Panama, the next invariably would be Canal.  The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel.  Panama is probably the most famous isthmus in the world.  It was discovered in 1513 by Balboa.  That began the canal debate.  As we’ve talked about in the Chile posts, ships had to make a long, expensive and dangerous tour down the Americas, past Cape Horn and back up the other side before the Panama Canal.  Eliminating all that extra time by crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific through Central America was obviously a great commercial idea.

checking out the canal

The challenge of course is that Panama is largely rainforest.  The French started the project in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal.  Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, started a sea-level canal.  Panama was not Egypt.  Rather than desert, it was largely rainforest and the rain caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria killed thousands of workers.  In 1888, the French gave up.

That’s when Teddy Roosevelt got involved.  Until you come to Panama, you will likely not appreciate that it is very close to Colombia and was a Colombian territory until 1903.  The US had purchased the assets in the canal zone from the French in 1902 for $40 million.  Thus began a bizarre colonial relationship and lots of American meddling in Central America.  Colombia wasn’t happy to have the USA building things in its territory so the US decided to support a Panamanian independence movement and Panama became an independent country in 1903.

This gave the US tremendous control over Panama and the Panama Canal.

miraflores locks

The initial start was not promising as the Americans had not learned from the French mistakes.  In 1905 a railroad specialist named John Stevens was appointed as chief engineer and he incorporated new technology and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was better suited to the terrain.  He was certainly instrumental to the success of the Panama Canal but his chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas also contributed tremendously.  He thought mosquitoes were carrying the yellow fever and malaria that was plaguing the workers so he went on a mission to fumigate homes and clean up bodies of water.  He wiped out yellow fever in 1905 and greatly reduced malaria.  Stevens quit in 1906 and was replaced by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals.  It took until 1914 to finish the canal and the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

There are three locks along the canal route, which lift ships from sea level to 85 feet above where they transit through man-made Gatun Lake.  It officially opened on August 15, 1914 but the grand opening ceremony had to be downgraded due to the start of World War I.  The Panama Canal and politics have always been bedfellows.  The original deal the Americans cut was that they would control the canal forever but Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would transfer control of the canal to the local Panama Canal Authority by December 31, 1999.

getting close to ships

Even more interestingly, Nicaragua was the Americans’ first choice for the canal but a very effective propaganda campaign about the danger of volcanoes in Nicaragua shifted the plan to Panama.  Apparently there is now some Chinese billionaire looking to give Nicaragua its own canal.

So, you can thank Teddy for getting it built and Jimmy for allowing the new Panama to emerge.  Not only did Panama take control of the canal, they expanded it to allow today’s modern supertankers to pass through the canal.  The expanded Panama Canal was opened on June 26, 2016.

You can learn all of this – and more – when you visit.  It can be tricky to actually see a ship passing through the canal on a random visit but it is impressive no matter when you arrive.  There are great exhibits and video describing both the history and the function of the canal.

For me, it was a multifaceted experience.  I probably should have been an engineer so certainly appreciated that aspect of the canal.  Also love history and Panama’s history is fascinating.  Finally, I spent several years working for a client in the shipping industry so seeing real ships in the Panama Canal had an extra resonance for me.  The names on the shipping containers were like the names of family members.

 

 

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