Category Archives: Panama

A Tale of Three Cities: Panama City

We celebrated our last few days in Central America and Panama and splurged a bit by returning to Panama City and renting a charming apartment in the tony area, Casco Viejo, with rooftop views of the city and the bay.Casco Viejo rooftop view

When thinking of Panama City the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Panama Canal.  But Panama City is far more than this modern marvel and encompasses two old and venerable cities within its boundaries: Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo.  In between these two entities, each of which shares the distinction of being selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contemporary Panama City carries on its robust and active life with towering skyscrapers, billboards and neon signs and three and four lanes of traffic jammed with honking, speeding cars.  All of which were jarring to our senses after days spent in a tranquil, seaside village.Panama City traffic

Panama Viejo, or old Panama, is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  Founded in 1519, it grew in importance as the Spanish empire expanded in South and Central America. Panama Viejo’s value to the crown was the fact that it served as the port city for most of the silver, gold, pearls and other loot that was stripped from the Andes of South America and the rain forests of Central America. From there it was moved overland, by land or water, depending on the season, to be transported to Spain. Not only did Panama Viejo flourish, it became a tempting prize for the many pirates who prowled the equatorial waters seeking lucre. Being alert to this danger the city was situated inland from the coast and fortified by a defensive wall.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo

It was put to the torch by its Spanish rulers just prior to being overwhelmed by the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan.  He was now a more respectable English admiral but still commanded a pirate army that had crossed the isthmus after razing the garrison at San Lorenzo.  Panama Viejo was abandoned and fell into oblivion except for providing building materials for the new city which arose at a point roughly six miles southwest along the coast. This site, later known as Casco Viejo, was protected by fortified walls and a reef which allowed access to the city only at high tide.Panama Viejo

But the remains of Panama Viejo are magnificent and inspire an almost reverential awe as one walks among its ancient ruins.  The old city’s remaining skeleton contained houses and a hospital as well as the remnants of the Cathedral with its adjacent tower which, as its medieval shape implies, probably served as a watch tower. The Iglesia de la Concepcion housed a convent for the nuns and their servants in addition to the church with its altar, sacristy and nun’s choir. The site’s location, quite near to massive, towering modern structures, offers a quick comparison of the fate of the long-ago dead in the modern era.Panama Viejo with skyscrapers as backdrop

And the city that was literally rebuilt from many of the stones of Panama Viejo?  This is the rapidly changing old quarter known as Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial city that replaced the vestiges of Panama Viejo in 1673. When the Americans’ began construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 the old town of Casco Viejo was all that existed of Panama City. However, with the completion of the canal and the natural growth of the capital city many of the country’s elite began to abandon the old quarter and it deteriorated into an urban slum. The stately homes, hotels and government office buildings fell into disrepair. But recently, a new wave of gentrification has emerged and the process of decay is being reversed and eradicated. Even now, part of the charm of the place is the grungy disrepair which stands in stark contrast to the modernized and revitalized buildings.Casco Viejo gentrification

Casco ViejoIf the trend continues, and there appears to be no reason at that this point to assume that it will not, Casco Viejo may be one of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the capital. It is filling rapidly with a mix of traditional Panamanian and gourmet restaurants serving a variety of menus aimed at satisfying every taste, chic shopping venues and large colonial buildings that are being converted to stylish condos. Most of the old churches remain along with many government buildings, the national theater and the original offices of the French Panama Canal organization. And so, Casco Viejo stands alongside Panama Viejo and the contemporary Panama City in a perfect trifecta and a tale of three cities.Panama City Bay

By Richard and Anita

 

The Heartland of Panama and The Gringa of Guararé

Azuero Peninsula near CambutalThe Azuero Peninsula hangs off of the Panamanian underbelly like a squat appendage, jutting southwards into the Pacific.  It’s been called “the heartland of Panama” and “the home of folklore and traditions” but at its heart it is the distillation of the old Castilian culture; the celebration of the vaquero – the cowboy and the landed gentry. Fittingly it is a land of voluptuous, softly rolling hills and breathtaking vistas, verdant green pastures, farmland and working cattle ranches.Azuero Peninsula

For the modern world, it encompasses golden and white sand beaches, world-famous surf destinations, spectacular sport fishing, whale-watching, snorkeling, diving and sea turtle nesting areas.  The eastern portion of the Peninsula, the most populous region, includes the city of Chitré, the smaller city of Las Tablas and the sleepy, seaside fishing village where we found ourselves, El Puerto de Guararé, (pronounced Gwa-RA- ray).

Guarare boats

Although our perception of Guararé was of a town that had stepped back in time our hostess Bonnie Birker, owner of the friendly, seaside guesthouse Casa del Puerto, said it had progressed since her first arrival in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer.  At that time La Enea de Guararé was fairly isolated with only one car in the entire area and roads of deep mud during rainy season. There was electricity but no phone service.  Water was provided by a village pump and the homes had outside latrines.

Guararé was featured by Lonely Planet in 2000 and Bonnie, who prefers to be called a gringa from Guararé rather than an expat, realized that the town that had given her so many friends and memories had modernized and even had phone service. She returned to Guararé for good in 2006 after her retirement from a career as an international consultant in countries that included Honduras, Jamaica, South Korea, the Philippines and Nepal.  She bought a large but unpretentious house with deep covered porches that overlook the wide expanse of the Pacific spread out in all its awesomeness.Bonnies house

view from Bonnies houseThe food in Guararé is well worth mentioning. It’s located on the coast and small fleets of boats set out twice daily in the early morning and near sunset and their catch graces the tables of many local restaurants. Most often we feasted on freshly caught corvina, or sea bass.  Served with heads on – and sometimes staring eyes, too – they were easy to debone with a sumptuous, flaky, white meat. They came accompanied by the regional specialty of patacones – which we had previously called tostones in Nicaragua – or crisply fried green plantain patties. We also stuffed ourselves with fresh fish or shrimp ceviche. Late one afternoon we dined on fresh caught tuna on the southern coast of the peninsula. The bounty of the sea was never more lavishly available than in the Auzero.

During our visit Bonnie did her utmost to show us some the reasons why she had returned to the village of Guararé and the Azuero Peninsula.  We visited Las Tablas for the National Festival of the Pollera held there each July.  The Pollera, a descendant of the Castilian culture, is the females’ yang to the vaqueros’ yin. It is the quintessential national dress composed of a blouse and long, full skirt featuring the painstaking work of the Panamanian women with original and complicated, decorative embroidery and, many times, additional applique, crochet and lacework.The Queen of the Pollera

Beauties at the PolleraThe festival included the presentation and judging of the Pollera in several categories, rodeo and equestrian events, craft and food vendors and a concluding parade. The latter displayed several dances with the men and women moving in a formal and stylized, intricate synchronicity while others featured the women – with many young girls imitating them – swirling and twirling holding the hems of their dresses up to display the gorgeous embroidery designs and a demure peek at the white-on-white lace and cutwork underskirts.showing the underskirt

Many of the dresses involved hundreds of hours of skilled and careful needlework and the most elaborate were expensive by almost any standard.  And, as if the Pollera needed any additional decoration, several long necklaces of gold were draped around graceful necks, sparkling beaded hair adornments sat atop glossy, black hair and eye-catching earrings dangled from lobes.

Towards the end of our time in the Azuero we spent a day traveling through the center of the peninsula to the southern coast, again with Bonnie. We drifted through established towns such as Tonosi in the rolling hill country, still much immersed in the cattle culture. Places such as these are the anchor of the peninsula, they are the heartland clinging to the more traditional. At the terminus of the journey we stopped at the beach town of Cambutal, with its rapidly expanding infrastructure reflecting the up-coming changes. Here, and elsewhere, are modern signature homes, boutique hotels, tony yoga retreats, funky eateries and up-scale restaurants all vying for the dollars possessed by the surfers, sun worshipers, eco-tourists, gringo retirees and wealthy Panamanians.the beach at Cambutal

The Azuero Peninsula neatly encapsulates the tensions that exist as an established way of living cedes ground to the new. Surely benefits accrue in the wake of modernity but at a cultural cost. Bonnie, and her many amigos, represent those on the cusp, those who are witness to and participants in the changing of the guard.  And in the Azuero, we were the fortunate ones who wandered through able to observe and appreciate the heritage and enjoy the perks offered by the latest and greatest.Featured Image

By Anita and Richard

Panama Pictures And Panoramas

Panama is the southernmost country of Central America and is comprised of a variety of stunning landscapes and seascapes, white and golden sand beaches, rolling hills with farm and ranch lands, mountains and, of course, cities and people.  During our travels in July we took hundreds of photos and we wanted to share some of our favorites this week.

We’ve spent the month of August crisscrossing the US visiting family and friends on a long overdue trip back “home”.  Our travels started at the beginning of the month flying in from Panama to New Jersey for a few days and followed by a ride to Washington D.C. via Amtrak.  Later we flew to Spokane, WA. for a mini-family reunion. Another flight a few days afterwards took us to Denver, CO where we’re currently visiting more family including our son and grandson.  Our last stop in the US will take us to Corpus Christi, TX before we head to South America in September.  There we may just have to take some time off to recoup from a hectic month and catch our breaths!

Next week:  More stories from Panama

By Anita and Richard

Some Sun, More Rain and the Journey to Bocas Del Toro

Leaving David in the early morning we were off for the Caribbean coast to see the reputed number one tourist area of Panama – Bocas del Toro.  The day was bright and hot, promising to be another scorcher.  Feeling a little less confident about our navigating skills and, again, embarrassed at our fractured Spanish, it had taken us two circuits bumbling around the large and confusingly chaotic, triangular-shaped bus terminal of David before we found the boarding area for the bus bound for Chinguanola that would send us on our way .  The bus was a twenty-four seat vehicle, a mid-size in the world of Panamanian buses, and it left David far from full, departing the terminal with only seven passengers.   We headed east down the Pan-American highway which was under construction; a perpetual condition here in Panama we had been told.

We left the Pan-Am near Chiriqui and began the slow ascent towards the continental divide on our way to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and Bocas Town on Isla Colon. As we climbed towards the summit the air cooled and it began to mist; wispy, feathery clouds crept out of the valleys and clung forlornly to the ridgelines. Peering down into the valleys revealed a fractured and folded terrain for Panama is a new land. Somewhere around four million years ago, an eye blink in geologic time, massive tectonic plates ground together and this magical landscape up-lifted and created the land bridge between the northern and southern continents.

Just past El Valle de la Mina, near the summit of the continental range, the distinction between the sky and the road began to disintegrate rapidly. The white-greyness of the air merged with the grey-whiteness of the undelineated concrete highway and the misty rain played havoc with depth perception and object identification. The bus crept and climbed slowly along the dizzying curves of the winding road as the windows streamed with moisture.

As we descended from the summit and made our way to the coastal area, the visibility improved somewhat although it had begun to rain steadily and with great purpose.  The bus stopped repeatedly, filled to standing room only and emptied and filled and emptied again, with chattering,neatly dressed, uniformed children finished with another day of school.  The sky cleared briefly and the sweltering heat enveloped the land only to be replaced again by more heavy rain as the thunderheads moved in off the Caribbean.

Almirante, the jumping off point for the water taxi to the Bocas del Toro archipelago and Bocas town, may have seen better days or perhaps it was always neglected and dirty. We grabbed a cab from in front of the dilapidated bus stop but the scenery only deteriorated further when we arrived at the waterfront where outhouses perched at the ends of docks extending out from ramshackle homes. Almirante waterfront

After purchasing our tickets for the water taxi we wrapped our backpacks in waterproof covers to protect our laptops from the rain and hunched protectively over the packs in our laps (rather resembling gargoyles at this point) as we hunkered down in the launch. Rain dripped down the sides of the canvas tarp overhead and splashed into the boat from the sides as the water taxi gained speed and we endured the half hour ride to the island.

Bocas TownAnd, you ask, was Bocas del Toro worth the time and effort?  We might have to rethink scheduling any future visits during the rainy season, which according to one local, was one of the wettest years he could remember.  However, most afternoons we could count on the sun making an appearance and a few hours of no rain so that we could explore around the colorful Bocas Town and the Isla Colon. We managed a day trip on a catamaran sailing to Isla de San Cristobal and Isla Carenero among numerous little islands. Mangroves and islets

We anchored a couple of times to swim and snorkel alongside a shore tangled with mangroves above a fantastical reef which included  startling deep purple and brilliantly golden coral and other fabulously shaped and colored occupants.  An amazing number of plumped up, rosy-colored starfish, resembling pictures from a children’s book, rested on the sand or draped over the coral inhabitants in the reef garden.  Another day we unfurled umbrellas and spent a few hours following an energetic English expat as she showed us her incredible botanical garden paradise, Finca del Monos,  spread over 27 acres.Botanical gardenBotanical garden

So yes, our journey was well worth the time and effort and we were supremely comfortable and well cared for at Lula’s B and B.  And hey, we’re not vacationers counting each precious day, despairingly waiting for sunshine and cursing the rain.  We can be patient and enjoy the thunderstorms and downpours.  We have time …

By Richard and Anita, Panama, July 2014

 

 

 

Neither Here Nor There: David And Boquete, Panama

Panama is a country of a few large cities interspersed between small towns glistening with puddles following a rain or a coating of dust in the dry season, wide spots on winding highways often with magnificent, breathtaking scenery. And, at the end of yet another long bus ride, we found ourselves in David on our way to other places.

David downtown

Our battered Lonely Planet Guidebook, a 2010 edition given to us by a friend in Nicaragua, advised us of to think of David (pronounced Dah Veed) as a major agro-business and commercial center rather than a cultural hub. Further digging informed us that it was a popular tourist destination and the second or third largest city in Panama, depending on the source, with a population of roughly 150,000 souls.taxis in David

As the capital of the Chiriqui Provence, the city of David and the surrounding area is rumored to be attracting ever more foreigners interested in relocation and might even be poised on the brink of major growth in both its economy and population.

Although David was founded in 1602 there is very little sense of historical importance or any impressive architecture. Indeed, the present was much more in keeping with a city devoted to the reality of commerce minus the frills of the arts and letters.

David

The center of the city, which radiates outward from Parque Cervantes, is a utilitarian affair which quickly turns drab or run-down in a couple of blocks if you head in the wrong direction. And Cervantes Park, while neat and stylistic, is not particularly appealing to the eye or the seat of pants for the foot weary pedestrian or the casual people watcher.Parque Cervantes

Our guidebook, under the heading “Sights” had listed a single entry: the Museo de Historia y de Arte Jose’ Obaldia. We hoofed it over to the museum twice, both times during the posted hours, with consistent results. It was closed, padlocked shut; so much for the cultural part of our stay…

We took a bus out of David and headed up into the mountains, less than an hour to the north. Here we encountered Boquete, a quiet mountain town of roughly 5,000 people and prized by Panamanians for its refreshing climate and pristine natural setting.outskirts of Boquete

This is the same locale selected a dozen years ago as one of the top four overseas destinations for retirement by Modern Maturity, the magazine of the AARP. So, aside from the gated communities which dot the hillsides, and are currently spilling onto the crowded valley floor, and disregarding the astronomical real estate prices which to seem to start at around a quarter of a million dollars, Boquete is an attractive place.Boquete

Due to the fertile soil, flowers, coffee and citrus all do well in this beautiful mountain town and the surrounding valleys. The city provides a picturesque central square which is clean, compact and welcoming for relaxed chats or simply watching the folks flow by. The presence of sweaters and light jackets might be what confirms the fact that one is in the mountains rather than at a beach resort judging by the relaxed and convivial atmosphere of the people.Boquete Parque CentralReturning to David from the crisp and invigorating climate of Boquete we couldn’t help but compare the two cities. Perhaps the geography best sums up our apathetic response to David. One city nestled in the mountains and the other, situated below a dormant volcano, sweltering in a basin with reputedly one of the hottest climates in the Central American region. It was definitely time to blow this burg and head for points more interesting and, hopefully, a little cooler!

Transportation to anywhere else...

Transportation to anywhere else…

By Richard and Anita, Panama,  July 2014

Plundering, Protecting The King’s Gold And Pirates: Fort San Lorenzo

San LorenzoBy the map it’s only eight miles west of the Caribbean port city of Colon, Panama to the UNESCO site of the colonial Spanish fort at San Lorenzo on the northern border of Panama.  However, this abandoned citadel hidden away at the end of a two-lane road through dense jungle is a world away from the hub-bub of the Canal Zone of which it was once a part.  As with many things Spanish in Central America, San Lorenzo represents conquest, exploitation, untold wealth in precious metals and empire.San Lorenzo on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea

The remains of the crumbling fortress, perched atop a bluff eighty feet above the Caribbean Sea and further protected by a dry moat on the landward side, provided a clear vantage of ships approaching to attack or to blockade the mouth of the Chagres River.Facing the Chagres River

This ability to protect was a vital necessity, for the Chagres River was the eastern terminus of the wet season treasure route that funneled gold and silver from the Incan empire in Peru down through Panama City and across the isthmus and, eventually, to the royal coffers in Spain. Old cannon, some with insignia still visible, litter the site lying awkwardly in broken cradles or sprawl about near crumbling fortifications no longer capable of defending the interests of the crown.

scattered cannon

At one time San Lorenzo was a player in the game of international wealth. The initial fortress was a battery built at sea level. But starting in 1560, shortly after its construction, pirates began to assault the lucrative target and the trail of gold stretching back to Peru. The attackers were persistent and in 1670 Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, brigand and English admiral, defeated and leveled the original fort. Using it as a base, he provisioned his troops and took his motley assemblage of buccaneers across the isthmus and sacked the mother lode – Panama City.San Lorenzo facing towards the Chagres

The old fort destroyed by Morgan was abandoned and the current fortress that commands the heights above the River Chagres was constructed by the Spanish only to be attacked anew by pirates and adventurers as well as by the English navy.  When the Spanish fort at Portobelo, further east on the Panamanian coast, fell to Admiral Edward Vernon, San Lorenzo was left the preeminent military garrison on the Panamanian coast.  However, the decision by Spain a few years later to ship its booty around the tip of South America at Cape Horn left the bastion on the Caribbean headland bereft and inconsequential.San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo’s star faded quickly. It was used as a prison for over a century.  Undoubtedly an ignoble death awaited as age claimed the deteriorating brick, wood and stone structures. As a part of the agreement with Panama in 1903 the lands containing the fort and those adjacent to the Chagres River were folded into the Canal Zone administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. But little was done by the Zone administration to conserve the structures that they had acquired in the transfer and the decay continued virtually unabated.San Lorenzo

In 1980 UNESCO designated San Lorenzo a World Heritage Site. There is much to be done. The fortifications at San Lorenzo remain in a state of ruination. The mosses, grasses and plants grow in profusion on a majority of the buildings allowing the eradication to continue day by day. The unabated destruction of the site is almost palpable.San Lorenzo

However, Fort San Lorenzo is a visually engaging site awaiting the attention that once brought it to prominence as a guardian of the riches of the new world. It now needs to be resurrected as a custodian of the history of a world long since passed away.San Lorenzo

By Richard and Anita, July 2014, Panama

 

In The Zone: The Panama Canal

Panama CanalWe left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps).  However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years:  the Panama Canal.  Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.Locks closed

A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.  However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly.  But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.

Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction.  New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable.  And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.closed

But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.lock gates opening

For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.entering the canal

We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers. ship going through

What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall.   These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.almost through

That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system.  But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.done

So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.Through the canal

By Richard and Anita