A Man A Plan A Canal Panama
Panama City, Panama
Portobelo, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, has great historical significance as a once mighty Spanish port, but Sarah and I weren’t interested in seeing its ruins. We had arrived at its harbor after five days sailing the rough seas, and in need of a shower and a proper bed, headed straight to Panama City.
Panama’s capital, apart from the language, could have passed for an American suburb. New buildings and downtown were similar, and roads were not pedestrian friendly, lacking sidewalks or cars that slowed for us to cross. Everywhere were American chains: Pizza Hut, Subway, KFC, Blockbuster, Dunkin Donuts, and even a Hooters.
Some public busses were former American school busses painted with bright murals on the outside with the original interior.
Panama used the dollar as its currency, and while they minted their own coins, they were the same size and weight as their American counterparts and indistinguishable by feel.
But Panama City has a rich past distinct from American culture. In 1519, the Spanish colonizers founded Panama Viejo, the predecessor to Panama City, and Panama became of great importance to their empire. Between their presence at Panama Viejo and at Portobelo, the Spanish were able to transport goods and people between the seas by unloading ships on one coast, transporting overland, and then back onto waiting ships on the other coast.
Repeated attacks on both coasts were repulsed over the years until Welsh privateer Henry Morgan (of Captain Morgan fame) held Portobelo for ransom in 1668 and invaded Panama Viejo three years later. Panama Viejo was burned to the ground although no one is sure whether the fires were set by Morgan or defensively by the Spanish. Since the city was built mostly from wood, not much is left today aside from a few stone buildings on the side of a busy street.
The best preserved building is the old cathedral tower. Restoration work has been recently completed allowing us to climb to the top via a steel staircase.
The Spanish rebuilt Panama Viejo on a more defensible peninsula five miles west. Today known as Casa Viejo (Spanish for old town), it remains a small neighborhood of Panama City with old peeling buildings.
The best view of Panama City’s skyscrapers is from Casa Viejo.
No visit to Panama would be complete without seeing the canal. Cutting fifty miles through Panama, the canal saves a ship from making an eight thousand mile journey around the tip of South America. Because Panama rises 85 feet above sea level, there are three sets of locks that raise and then lower ships.
The Miraflores Locks are located just outside of Panama City and are open to visitors. We showed up just as the last ship was being raised for the morning. It was a tight fit; ships are designed specifically to pass through the locks and this one was pushing it. New locks, scheduled for completion in 2014, are being built to accommodate even larger ships.
The locks’ hundred year old technology is brilliant in its simplicity. Since the path of the canal crosses Lake Gatun at its highest point, locks are filled by gravity without pumps.
An accompanying museum describes the history and the economics behind the canal. The US built and administered it before handing it over to the Panamanians at the end of 1999. Since then, Panama has run it with the stated goal of maximizing profits, charging fees that could top three hundred thousand dollars depending on the ship’s size and cargo. (Kris, the captain who had sailed us from Colombia to Panama was expecting to pay $1500 for his fifty foot boat.)
After a day in Panama City it was time to move on. There were a few Panamanian cities on the tourist track reputed to be “the up and coming Costa Rica”. We decided instead to leave Panama for the real thing, and boarded a fifteen hour overnight bus to Costa Rica’s capital San Jose.