Savannah Grace

Panama City and the Canal

Continue the adventure with Ammon and Sasha:

Panama City. Round 2. We’d passed through and had an overnight stopover near the beginning of this trip but didn’t have time to visit any of its tourist attractions. This time we gave ourselves 3 days to give it its due. My strongest memory and impression of Panama City will probably be of shopping malls. We seemed to have spent most of our time in them eating, shopping or simply transiting (the bus terminal is beside Albrook Mall). There is a lot of money here and an impressive skyline of skyscrapers. From a distance it looks very much like a tropical city in the USA. We never lost that impression and overall found Panama (and for the most part the rest of Central America) to be extremely “Americanized”. I had thought Central America would be like a mini South America but found it much more closely aligned with American culture and practices instead. I’m getting ahead of myself a bit but for example baseball instead of football, more fast food chains and taxes not included in the listed price. Small things but they add up and the source of the influence is obvious.
Panama is best known for its canal and we couldn’t come and not pay a visit. Fortunately it is easy to make a trip out to the Miraflores locks to see the ships passing through and visit the onsite museum. The building of the canal is a pretty messed up story of tragedy, arrogance, political intrigue and eventual engineering triumph. Many don’t realize that the successful separation of Panama from Colombia as an independent nation is directly related to US interests in building the canal. It all started with the French though. Hot off the success of building the Suez canal, French engineers started planning for a canal across Panama in the same style. What worked in Egypt will work in Panama right? Ha! Egypt is flat and dry so a sea level canal made sense. Panama was undeveloped disease-ridden jungle covered mountains and the stubborn and arrogant French wasted 20 years and thousands of lives trying to cut a sea level path all the way from coast to coast. The Americans eventually took over, built some locks, flooded the central section with an artificial lake and finally opened the canal in 1914. The canal is mostly used by ships traveling from the west coast of the Americas to Europe or the east coast of the US to Asia and saves about 3 weeks of travel time compared to going around South America. As ships have gotten larger over the last 100 years, in 2016 Panama finally completed an expansion upgrade to allow for the newer, larger ships to pass as well. Somehow we ended up easily spending 4 hours out at the Miraflores locks before they closed and sent everyone away. The important thing is visiting at the right time. Traffic is all one way because of the narrowness of the canal so in the morning traffic flows east and in the afternoon it flows west with a couple hour gap of quiet in between.

Entrance to the canal on the left, city on the right
Miraflores locks and the mechanical “mules” that pull the ships through the locks

Well before the establishment of the canal, it was obvious that the area was the shortest land crossing between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific was at Panama Viejo. This original site lies just outside of downtown and is a set of ruins left behind when the colonists abandoned it following its destruction by pirates (led by the famous Henry Morgan) in 1671. A new settlement was started a few km away and has become the restored touristy colonial neighbourhood of Casco Viejo. Now the most touristic part of the city, only 20 years ago it was 5% preserved and considered too dangerous to visit. Today it is a mix of destroyed building shells sitting between restored buildings with little restaurants or souvenir shops and while far from the nicest colonial centre we’ve been to, was safe and interesting enough for a short wander.

Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo
Taking a break in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo
Ruined monastery, Casco Viejo
Monument to the French canal builders
Downtown view from Casco Viejo

Of course the other side is also important so we couldn’t neglect the history of the Caribbean side of the trade route equation. While Panama Viejo became a port for the collection of goods (gold but mostly silver) coming up from Lima and other parts of northwest South America it still needed a departure point on the Caribbean side. Enter Portobelo and the Spanish treasure fleets.
After a brief journey overland from the Pacific coast, the treasure would be taken to Portobelo where huge trade fairs would be held, the ships loaded and left to sail back to Spain, hoping to avoid pirates along the way. Portobelo has a deep, natural harbour and quickly became the main port for the export of silver from the mines of Peru and Bolivia. Obviously this needed protecting so a few forts and other defensive structures were built. Despite this, Portobelo was sacked on multiple occasions by pirates or the British (often the same thing) and Sir Francis Drake is even said to have been buried in a lead coffin somewhere in the bay after his death.

Santiago battery, Portobelo
Portobelo bay
San Jeronimo fort, Portobelo
These local buses are known as “Red Devils” and drive like maniacs.

The canal was later built with its Caribbean entrance some 50 km to the west of Portobelo at a city called Colon and today Portobelo is a very small and sleepy town quietly neglected in its decay. No effort seems to be put into the maintenance, restoration or even promotion of the fortifications but they are a free open area for those that want to explore. A few rusted cannons pointed out to sea are all you get to help your imagination recreate the glory of days long gone. On our way back from a day trip to Portobelo we went all the way into Colon to change buses. Colon has a terrible reputation for being dirty and dangerous and in all honesty I have seen war zones that look more inviting. We had to walk two blocks to get to the bus station and that was more than enough. It stands out as a perfect example of the bizarre duality of Panama. There is money in the country and Panama presents itself as a modern global country but it all seems to be in the city. Everywhere else we went (granted it wasn’t many places) looked very run down and poor which isn’t unusual for us but the contrast stood out more than we expected. We left on a night bus headed west (Panama runs east/west not north/south like most people believe) to our final Panamanian destination, Bocas del Toro.


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