We had to wake up early on Monday, January 11 to catch the 6:45 tender for a 6 person tour of Panama City arranged by a fellow passenger. After rising so early the day before to catch the entry to the canal it was really hard to get out of bed so early again. From the ship the city looked impressively large. Edwin, our delightful guide, told us that most of this has been built in the last 10 or 15 years and we saw quite a lot of continuing construction underway throughout the city.
We met up with the other two couples on the excursion and caught a mostly empty (most folks were probably still asleep) tender to shore on Flamenco Island, where we had to wait about 40 minutes for our guide to arrive. Our tender passed a striking rock island bathed in the warm rising sunlight. HAL always sets up a nice tender station at the dock, with mats to step out on & cold lemonade to greet you on your return. This cruise has special mats with the voyage logo. The dock was at a yacht harbor with a nice view of the city in the morning light.
Our first stop was supposed to be the Ancon Hill, the highest spot in the area featuring interesting wildlife and overlooks of the city and the canal. Unfortunately, after we drove up there it turned out to be closed that day. Phooey! So Edwin filled the time by driving all the way across the city, in brutal traffic, to the ruins of the first settlement here, Panama Viejo. Built in 1519, this was the first European town on the Pacific coast of the Americas & was a major transit point for gold & silver from Peru & products from Asia. A sizable town, it was sacked by the British buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1671, after which the town was moved about 10 miles east to what today is the far left of the town as seen from the sea. We didn’t have time to walk through the ruins, which include a famous bell tower from the original cathedral, but we got one decent picture from the window of the moving car. Driving across the city was impressive not only for the oppressive traffic, which Edwin told us is normal here, but also for the density of the very tall buildings. Notable among them is the Revolution Tower (which Edwin called the “twisting tower”), the Trump Tower with its curved sail-shaped top, and the Hard Rock Hotel. It seems to us that it would be a conflict of interest for a President of the United States to have such prominent financial interests in other countries. Edwin also told us that Panama City has a number of ethnic communities, each with its own area of concentration. He pointed out the Jewish area called Punta Paitilla, which looks like an area of high-rise buildings on the shore. We have read that many of the luxury apartments in these towers are empty & may be serving as money laundering investments. There are kosher groceries and a synagogue in this area.
Our first stop was back at the Miraflores locks. This time it was us who were in the observation building watching the ships go by. There was a fashion photo session being conducted on the side of the canal below us & in the distance we had another view of the construction site for the new docks. We saw a 10 minute movie that was just a promotion for Panama & the canal & then we went through their “museum,” which didn’t take long because there wasn’t much to see (mostly displays and few artifacts). If going again, we would save the exorbitant $15 per person admission fee ($2 for locals), at least if you have come through these locks already.
Next we drove to Casco Viejo, the old section of the city that was founded by the survivors of Henry Morgan’s raid. To get there we drove through a run down area called El Chorrillo, which was badly damaged by the U.S. invasion to capture Noriega when hundreds were killed there. Today it is a dangerous area housing drug gangs. Edwin told us that the local authorities are trying to move the inhabitants out for renovation, but the residents apparently realize that once they move they won’t be invited back so they are resisting this effort.
Traffic was very bad in the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, and we had to wait in line to enter the parking lot until spots opened when cars left. We walked up the Paseo Esteban Huertas along the top of a sea wall. Partly covered by a canopy of bougainvillea with Kuna vendor stalls selling molas and other colorful craft items. The sea wall has very fine views of the city, and we could also see the Amsterdam at anchor and the Bridge of the Americas near Miraflores locks.
At the end of the Paseo is the Plaza de Francia. It is centered by a memorial to the approximately 20,000 people who died during the unsuccessful French effort to build the canal. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had been responsible for building the Suez Canal, led the French effort to build a canal without locks. The Suez could be build that way because it ran through flat sandy land, but Panama is mountainous so this approach never had a chance. It ended in scandal as many in France lost a lot of money through fraudulent promotion of the canal company. Most of the people who died here were killed by Yellow Fever. The Americans were able to eliminate the Yellow Fever plague by (literally) killing all the mosquitoes in this part of Panama. Mosquitoes are back, but not the Yellow Fever, as far as we are aware.
The monument consists of a tall obelisk with a rooster (apparently a symbol of France) on top. Around its base are busts of some of the leaders of the French canal effort, including de Lesseps. Also in this square are several small metal sculptures of various kinds of workers and a wall of large doors to what was once a Spanish prison.
We walked around the crowded streets of Casco Viejo. It is in process of renovation & right now is a mix of dilapidated old buildings, gentrified restored buildings and construction projects involving gutting of the interior of a building while preserving its façade. Edwin said come back in 10 years and it will be beautiful, which may be true but it will no longer have the feel of an “old town.”
We visited several churches, which are often the most interesting buildings in Latin American cities. The convent of the Compania de Jesus was moved here from its original location in Panama Viejo after Morgan’s raid. It is known (we are told) for its lengthy flat arch, which extends straight across the church with no capstone. This was reputedly cited during the debates in the U.S. Senate over whether to build a canal in Panama or Nicaragua, with Panama eventually prevailing in part because of its geological stability as opposed to Nicaragua’s many earthquakes & volcanoes. The arch collapsed just after the celebration of the centennial of Panama’s independence from Columbia in 2003, but has been restored (using noticeably newer bricks rather than the originals, unfortunately).
There is a wonderful story we have read in numerous places about the Iglesia de San Jose, which contains a huge carved altar covered in gold leaf. It seems that just before Henry Morgan’s raid a clever friar saved this valuable altar by secreting some of its parts in the ocean nearby & painting the rest of it black. When Morgan asked where the gold was the friar told him the altar was still under construction & asked Morgan for a donation. An amused Morgan said “This friar is more of a pirate than I am” & ordered that the donation be made. Thus, the friar’s chutzpah saved the alter, which was moved to the new location in Casco Viejo. Unfortunately, there is a sign next to the altar that says none of this is true: the altar wasn’t built until the 18th century & it was only covered in gold in the 1920’s. But it’s a good enough story that it ought to be true, & the altar itself is pretty impressive no matter when it was built.
We walked to the Plaza de la Independencia, where independence from Spain and later from Columbia was proclaimed. There we visited the Catedral Metropolitana, with its distinctive façade of brown stone, some brought from Panama Viejo after Morgan’s raid, flanked by white towers. Its large altar is made from seven types of Italian marble. Edwin, whose first communion was here, says that it is scheduled for renovation soon and from the looks of the interior it needs it. From the steps of the cathedral is a nice view of the plaza, with a band shell in the center standing in front of the reconstructed Hotel Central, once the ritziest in Central America.
The Plaza Bolivar is an especially nice square full of greenery & nicely restored buildings. Particularly noticeable is the Palacio Bolivar, which now houses the Panamanian Foreign Ministry, a reddish colored hotel on the other side of the square, & a lush roof garden on one of the buildings lining the square. We don’t seem to have a picture of the statue of Simon Bolivar in the center of the plaza, which got its name from a unification conference he called that was held here in 1826 (but which Bolivar did not attend).
We returned to the parking lot, passing two imposing buildings that are currently closed for repairs. The 17th century Iglesias de San Francisco de Asis apparently has been closed for some time & the Teatro Nacional, opened in 1908, was recently closed after part of the ceiling fell during a performance.
We drove back along the causeway to Flamenco Island and the tender port. The spires of the churches in Casco Viejo could be seen from a long way, an interesting contrast with the modern buildings towering over them from the new city. On the way we stopped at the colorful new Museum of Bio-diversity, (I think that’s the title). Opened very recently, this building was designed by American architect Frank Geary (who we were told is married to a Panamanian). We had seen it before while cruising out of the canal & it certainly stands out against its surroundings. It was closed the day we were here.
That’s all from our day in Panama City. We saw a lot, but also missed a lot that we will have to see on our next visit. We sailed away in late afternoon, with the islands and Panama city lit by the setting sun. It will be more than a week before we set foot on land again.