Panama City and that famous canal

Wednesday 22 to Sunday 26 April

The first thing that strikes you when you come into Panama City from the airport is the ‘forests’ of tall buildings. This is in stark contrast to the cities we have recently visited.

They seem to be crammed into two distinct areas. As we got to know the city better we understood that one forest was residential, mostly occupied by ex-pats. Some of these skyscrapers are ageing but in the tropics, concrete buildings age quickly.

The other forest was mostly made up of commercial buildings wearing various shades of glass. The architecture amongst these buildings is interesting with the F&F building topping the list. So impressed was Bruce with this building that he stood out in peak hour traffic to get a shot.

Panama also has an ‘old town’ the Casco Viejo. The first time we went there I was scared. I was confronted by a lot of derelict buildings and it was dark. But we returned and found a city of change. Most of those derelict buildings are marked for renovation, with architecture and project management signs out front. And when you get into the centre of Casco Viejo you will find a heap of renovated buildings – a few of them are apartments but the majority are a mix of slick hotels, backpacker hostels, restaurants, coffee shops and boutique businesses. The place is coming alive.

We wandered down to the fish market. The water was a haven for birds, picking the best out of the fish scraps from the fish market stalls. There were small fishing boats filling the harbour – some of them probably had not seen the water beyond the jetty for some years.

We took the hop-on hop-off buses. One on the canal tour which took us to the first locks at Miraflora Lake and also to the end of the causeway at Flamenco Island. This is the causeway which joins three islands to the mainland and was created using the rocks dug out of the canal. It acts as a breakwater stopping silt from clogging up the entrance to the canal.

The second bus tour took us through the newer commercial district – the forest of glass. This is the area that makes the Panamanian economy tick. Banks and off shore businesses exist here and perhaps there is even some laundering done – who knows?

This bus tour took us to the original city of Panama Viejo, torn apart by the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in the 17th century. It is a field of crumbling rocks but the government has great intentions of renovating the site.

The next day we took the partial tour of the Panama Canal. This took us to Gatun Lake, effectively up three locks to the highest point of water from the Pacific side. Another three locks measuring about 25ft each, drop back to sea level on the Caribbean (Atlantic) side.

Compared to our experience on the 5 steps of the Yangtze River it was excruciatingly slow, but the Panama Canal has recently celebrated its 100th birthday. It was completed in 1914 using only gravity fed water between the locks. For an engineer it is one of the world’s wonders. And the original construction still works as it did on its inception. The lock gates and the amazingly thick walls of the locks have not changed since 1914. That is what makes it such an amazing place to visit.

Our tour guide was passionate about the canal and provided a fantastic, almost non-stop oration of its construction and benefits to the world, constantly switching between Spanish and English.

One of the newer landmarks of Panama is the Biomuseum, designed by Frank Gehry. It sits out on the Amador Causeway – that artificial link to the three island. It is visible from the entrance to the canal and from parts of the city. It is like a jumbled lego with many brightly coloured panels.

We were fascinated by the birds diving for fish. When the fresh water fish reach sea water, brought into the canal, they die almost instantly. There is a lot of fish to feed the bird population.

We met a ‘Beer and Beef’ fellow for dinner and a couple of his Danish colleagues. They are in Panama to design a brewery. It sounds like an exciting project – beer is such an important part of life in this hot and humid climate.

After some forward planning, we spent our last day in Panama getting to know the Casco Viejo, well a few landmarks and a decent restaurant.  The long walk back along the Malecon in the balmy evening breeze was delightful.

It was Sunday, and as we wandered into town along the beach path called the Cinta Costera, we came upon a group painting a mural building awareness for autism.  It was a treat to watch young people of all capabilities contributing.

And then there were groups of people practising dance steps. Such a nice Sunday walk.

Panama City

Panama Canal