a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘panama’

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.



not teddy roosevelt’s panama

Casco Viejo has a long history.  It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo.  It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997.  Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls.  Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.

Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs.  It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander.  I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.

casco upgrade

If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change.  The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development.  From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer.  HUH?  His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development.  The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.

The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal.  By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang.  It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development.  Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!

The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff.  I went for lower prices but did

it lured me in…

indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it.  The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo.  Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories.  It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip.  Each level provides a different experience and cuisine.  The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre.  It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza.  One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi.  Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna.  I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…

I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean.  Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.

Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out.  There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop.  My food on the rooftop just OK but

head to the roof

the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying.  There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.

The hotel staff were very welcoming.  I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador.  Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day.  Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began.  Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂

You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists.  They are Latin so very charming and convincing.  The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better.  Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen.  A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price.  Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap.  Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options.  The atmosphere is the main component.  Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂

If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement.  It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day!  I did walk a lot between visits…

Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana.  It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.

the importance of being open-minded…

There are some old stories I may still commit to paper but it’s time to get into 2017 on the blog 😉

I have gone through various phases in my feelings about Panama.  When I grew up, it was not considered a tourist destination.  Then I had a friend visit and it got on my radar.  Not long after, I transited through Panama City airport on my way to South America and the experience was horrible so I held it against Panama and it went to the bottom of the list.  Then I read an enthusiastic article about Casco Viejo and discovered my birthday coincided with a great time to visit and airfare would be very reasonable.

Now that I’ve been, I would recommend being magnanimous about the airport and airlines who fly there because it is worth checking out but I had one of the ugliest flights of my life getting there.  The theory was great.  I would overnight to Toronto arriving early morning and then depart in a couple of hours for Panama City, sleep on the plane and arrive midafternoon to start sightseeing.  It all began well enough.  I got to Toronto and indulged in a great breakfast in the terminal.  I had about an hour of sleep on the plane so would survive a little longer.

colonial splendour

It didn’t take long for everything to go horrendously wrong.  Our boarding time came but no one was boarding.  There was something wrong with our plane and we would have to find another one.  They suggested it would take a few hours.  Not great but not terrible yet.  The day wore on and information was sketchy.  I discovered the terminal was filled with few options for either food or entertainment so a place you only want to transit through.  Instead, I got to spend about 15 hours trapped there trying to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss a flight for which I didn’t even have a departure time anymore.  I was a first world refugee.

Finally a flight came onto the board and we all lined up again, actually getting on a plane this time.  The hotel in Panama City was excellent and changed my transfer from 2pm to 4am so I arrived exhausted and disorientated but didn’t have to find a taxi.  I decided to stay in Casco Viejo, which is essentially the old town, but Panama City is an old Colonial city so it was relocated centuries ago so there is a Panama Viejo as well.

Panama has a long, bizarre and colourful history.  Not only has it tangled with Spain, Colombia and the USA, pirates, conquistadors and dictators, it even has a unique place in geological history.  We’ll talk more about all of that but, for the casual tourist, what will matter is modern Panamanian history.  Thanks to Jimmy Carter, Panama got control of the canal on December 31, 1999 and in 2015 the expansion to accommodate modern supertankers was completed. This – along with a better electoral process – has brought a lot of change to the economy.

Like most developing countries, the spoils are not shared as equally as they might be, and it’s good to do some research and not wander randomly, but Casco Viejo is beguiling and I had a wonderful visit.  You will also be supporting social change and economic revitalization (more on that in future).

a place to call home

I had a leisurely stay so split my time between two choices to get a fuller experience.  I would highly recommend both.  The choice depends on your style.  First, I stayed at the Magnolia Inn, an actual restored turn of century mansion.  It’s a mix of hotel and hostel, Staff are very friendly and prices are great.  There is no elevator and you will need to search the neighborhood for entertainment but there are many options only minutes away.

my glamorous room

If you want to glam it up at a super reasonable price and you are a sound sleeper, stay at Tantalo Hotel and gaze at Panama City from the rooftop.  That’s where I spent my birthday, having one of the best hotel experiences of my life.

Stay tuned for more details of a tiny country with a lot to offer still under most people’s radar – exactly when you want to see it 😉


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