Central America Travelogue Part 4 Panama City
I remained for the rest of my trip in Panama City and did day excursions. Panama City in some ways is a beautiful modern and safe city but just around the corner are horribly depressed and dangerous sections. It is a city where you always have to keep track of where you are and what is happening. There is a strong Tourist Police unit who watches out for tourists and I saw them and experienced them leading tourists out of dangerous areas.
I walked down to Balboa Ave from the hostel to find there is so much construction (the entire promenade is being replaced), that there are only a few places you can see the bay filled with ships. I did see the statue of Balboa which has been moved up to safe place. It is one of the areas where you really see the contrast between the haves and have-nots. On the bay side is lots of new construction both of the avenue and promenade as well as four or five high rise hotels and condos going up, but if you look just beyond it, you see one of the most depressing areas of the city: old falling down tenements and tin shacks with million dollar views. This is one of the most dangerous areas of the city and it is recommended that you not even go into that area during the day with a group!! This is close to the area that was bombed in 1989 by the US government in their attempt to get rid of Noriega and I saw more than one sign reading, “Sr. Bush is a murderer and terrorist and should be brought before the International Courts”. Interestingly enough, the Panamanians do not seem to hold it against the American people; perhaps because they are used to governments doing what they will regardless of the wishes of the populace.
I continued on around the bay until I came to Mercado de Mariscos, the major fish market in the city. It is in a huge building filled with almost every type of seafood you could imagine. Although there was a fishy smell, it wasn't bad and I spent almost an hour wandering through and trying to identify the different types of fish. The venders were very happy to help though sometimes between my English and their Spanish, we probably ended up with new names. One guy had what I think is some sort of sword fish that was a good 6 feet long. He was cutting huge steaks out of it, but most of the fish were sold whole. I had a bowl of Sopa Marisco at the little restaurant at the top of the building. $3.50 for a huge bowl of a very tasty soup chowder filled with assorted fish and shell fish.
The older colonial part of the city, Casco Viejo, is just past the sea food market but you have to go through a sketchy part of town to get there. I was standing on the corner trying to decide if it was safe to go that way when one of the tourist police came up on his bicycle and escorted me over to Avenida Centralia. Casco Viejo is a wonderful oasis in the center of the worst part of Panama City. They have been renovating many of the old buildings so it is a combination of old but beautiful buildings which are falling down but still serviceable; beautifully restored churches, government buildings and stately homes; and buildings that they are restoring which have been totally gutted inside but the outside still have the wonderful details. Along the calles, many of the residences have balconies with wrought iron railings on the second floor filled with flowers, giving the area a definite New Orleans feeling.
At the end of the residential area is a huge plaza, reached through an archway covered with bougainvillea and lined with artisans selling their wares, where the French Embassy is on the point overlooking the bay. From there you can see the Bridge of America and all of the ships lined up waiting to enter the canal. There were several school kids on the plaza, some learning about the French attempt to build the canal and others playing guitars or touring the embassy. I stopped at Luzio's, a small restaurant with a garden courtyard and had a great little salad of shrimp and then continued down the seawall to the Iglesia de San Jose. The altar in this church is covered in gold plate and is spectacular. During one of Henry Morgan’s raids on Panama City, the priest had it painted to hide its value which is why it has survived.
After leaving the church the tourist police came up and indicated that we should not go further down that street but should go up the hill. They are very protective in the area, I guess in prior years tourists have been robbed and some even murdered when venturing too far. I walked up the hill to the presidential palace which is set on the edge overlooking the bay and city of Panama. For two or three blocks around the palace, it is blocked off with armed guards but you can enter with permission after showing your passport and allowing them to look in your bags. The palace is huge and very beautiful, with intricate woodwork and a huge front courtyard with 5 foot tall light gray herons that parade back and forth. They are quite amusing as they keep putting their necks through the bars and squeaking at you. The palace is called the Palace of Herons.
After leaving the palace, I walked down to the Teatro de Nacional, the national theater. It is beautiful with lots of paintings and carvings and three layers of gilt lined balcony loges overlooking the stage. Although not as large as the Met, it definitely had some of the same grandeur. I spent another half hour or so wandering through the plazas and streets and only had to be redirected by the policia de turismo once.
I took a taxi to the entrance of the Amador Causeway($2) and rented a bike($4 for the afternoon). The Causeway which goes out beside the east side of the canal, has a wide riding/walking path lined with palms the entire length, which I think is about three or four km., and passes through 3 islands. I stopped at the Marine Exhibition Center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and toured their exhibits on marine life and conservation. There are some walking paths through a dry forest and others along the beach. Continuing on down the Causeway is the ferry terminal to Isla Taboga and the causeway ends at Flamingo Island which is where the yachts and cruise ships harbor. I made the mistake of having rubbery calamari at the little restaurant overlooking the marina/ twice as expensive as anywhere else and only mediocre, but the view was fantastic. I was on the bike so it was not an issue, but the tour guides indicate that a taxi from Flamingo Island to the entrance of the causeway will cost you three or four times as much as taking a taxi from the entrance. There is a bus.
This little island is located about 45 minutes across the bay via the Calypso ferry($10 RT). The ride over was fun weaving through the giant ocean liners awaiting transit. Apparently there is a fairly complicated schedule for canal transit based on when you get put on the schedule, what you are carrying and how large your ship is. At any one time there are between 20-30 large cargo ships, luxury liners and oil tankers anchored in the bay. In addition an equal number of small yachts are anchored close to the bridge waiting for their turn. Alongside the ships are lots of frigate birds and gulls riding the thermals.
It was a beautiful day and the island is beautiful. Unfortunately, this is where many locals from Panama City come for the weekend so the beaches were pretty crowded. They call it the "Island of Flowers" because everywhere you look are brilliant colored bougainvilleas and other flowering shrubs. The island is quite mountainous so the little town of Taboga climbs up the side. There is a beautiful old church and lots of quaint houses. I spent the first couple of hours wandering through the town and talked to a man who is running a small bed and breakfast. There is a lot of opposition from the locals from Panama City to develop any infrastructure on the islands because they bring coolers of food and stay for the day and they fear that if it is developed there will be no place for them. The people on the island want more development of at least basic services because the city people contribute practically nothing to their economy.
I stopped for breakfast at Hotel Vereda Tropical set up on the hill with a balcony overlooking the harbor. I could have stayed there all day. I walked down to the beach and left my things with a Panamanian family. It is recommended that you only swim on the Panama City side of the pier because raw sewage from the houses is dumped into the ocean on the other side, a bit depressing. I swam out to the sand bar which separates Isla Morro from Isla Taboga and explored a little but then swam back since the tide had covered the sand bar. The tides in this area may fluctuate up to 12 feet. I had booked for the 5pm ferry but several people suggested that I go early since there are huge numbers of people going back to PC on Sunday nights and the last end up in small water taxis for a rough trip in bright sun. The ferry left at 4 and this time several of the ships were coming out of the canal from the Colon side.
Panama Railway to Colon
The train leaves on time at 7:15 in the morning and you need to be there early. I took a taxi to the train station and had the driver drive down to Balboa so I could say that I had been at the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on the same morning. Tickets are $22 each way and there were probably 30 people taking the train. The cars are beautiful with dark wood paneling and comfortable padded seats. In the morning they serve coffee and pastries and in the evening you can buy an assortment of sodas and alcohol.
The tracks to Colon follow the canal and it is possible to see the locks and several ships making their way through the canal. Even more amazing is the landscape with huge lakes, rainforest, swamps and tall mountains. At several points the tracks follow narrow causeways through the lakes. I spent most of the time on the observation platform taking pictures. We arrived in Colon at 8:15am after passing several government buildings left over from the US operation of the canal and then some extremely dilapidated tenements. Colon could be a beautiful city but unfortunately it has been abandoned to the criminal element. Tourists are warned to not walk on the street at any time. I went up to the bus station, three blocks away, which is a typical old,dirty large city bus station and caught the bus Portobello.
Almost immediately after leaving Colon, are the Panamanian equivalent of suburbs which look kind of like mobile home parks except they are brightly colored concrete block houses with less than 15 feet between them. However, soon it gives way to beautiful countryside with small farms and clean homes and eventually the Caribe Coast. In less than two hours, I have made it from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic ocean.
The town of Portobello is very quaint, set on the protected harbor where the Spanish had set up a defense system of forts. It is a really beautiful area but there are few amenities for tourist other than signs at the various ruins of the forts. There is a neat little place to get coffee just ahead of where you get off the bus and a Kuna handicraft market. Iglesia de San Felipe de Portobelo is home to the “Black Christ”, a dark wooden sculpture dressed in an opulent robe. They change the robe twice a year and have a huge festival in October. There is a small museum next door which has many of the robes used in the past and models of how the port originally looked. The coast of Panama, as almost everywhere on the Caribe, has a high concentration of people descended from the black slaves and black Caribes, however, the Black Christ festival is basically a catholic celebration.
I went through the museum and the various forts which are spread throughout the town and walked up the road looking for possible snorkel spots but unfortunately saw no areas with enough people that I would have felt comfortable snorkeling alone and the dive shops were out of town. It is a very peaceful place with much to explore and I spent most of the day there. I ended up at La Torres for lunch and had some of the best conch in coconut sauce I have ever had. Often, conch can be somewhat rubbery and this was not at all. I caught the bus back to Colon and took the 5:15 pm train back to PC. Again we saw several ships going through the locks, this time from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Later as we pulled into Panama City, we saw the sunset over the bay and Bridge of the Americas.
I spent one afternoon exploring the ruins of Panama Viejo. Old Panama was attacked and pillaged by Henry Morgan in the early 1670s and the city was moved to what is now Casco Viejo. The only part that has been reconstructed is the cathedral tower which you can walk up into and the Municipal Tower which houses a small museum. There are stone ruins throughout the areas of several convents, houses and other municipal buildings and there are several signs explaining what you are looking at. On the west side of the park is an area containing a restaurant and a large handicraft store. The store has a fairly extensive selection of crafts from throughout Panama and the prices seemed fairly reasonable. The area around Panama Viejo is a bit dicey and this is one of the areas from which the tourist police escorted me after observing me at the bus stop at 5pm.
Summit Botanical Gardens
I took the bus from Albrook Mall. It is a little difficult to find the right area for the bus. As you stand facing the bays where the major buses arrive, you want to go right to the end of the corridor then take another right and down the stairs. You want the Gamboa bus($1.40) and ask them to drop you at Summit Parque Jardin Botanico. The Park ($1 admission)was started during the building of the canal and offered a way of educating workers as to the flora and fauna in the area. It is also on the Continental Divide. It is a beautiful place but, unfortunately, declining and some of the animals are kept in small cages. However, you do get the opportunity to see the many animals and birds native to Panama. The highlight of the Parque is the Harpy Eagle housed in a huge aviary up the hill. There is a pair housed there but I only saw one, a majestic bird who I swear was posing for photographs. I recommend going early in the morning since classes of school kids arrive around 11.
Mi Pueblito is up by Cerro Anton and offers a kind of stylized depiction of three communities in Panama: the Spanish, Indigenous and Caribbean. It was fairly interesting and was a cool oasis on a hot day. There are some neat handicraft markets with fairly reasonable prices and wonderful views of the city and the Bay. There is an admission charge but no one was there to collect it when I was there. At the Spanish village area, I found a restaurant offering good food at a reasonable price.
There are many fine restaurants in Panama City and I have listed a few I found to be good.(There are some others listed in the log above).
El Trapiche – Via Argentina- Great Panamanian food- I had Ropa Viejo(literally translated old clothes)which was a wonderful beef dish over rice with vegetables , dessert and coffee for $7.70- enough for two meals.
Manolos Churreria- Via Argentina- Breakfast Chocolate de Espanol and Churro Manjar Blanco- delicious but enough sugar to last me a week. Had to follow it up with strong coffee. $5.
Siete de Mares- Just off Via Argentina-absolutely wonderful prawns in a mango curry sauce with vegetables for $16.50-Pricey but worth it.
Luzio’s -Casco Viejo- Shrimp salad for $6- very fresh and good.
Who is online
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests