Saved: August 14th 2013July 24th 2012
Panama, the first stop on our mammoth tour of South America turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Of course, we’d expected the skyscrapers but what shocked us was the sheer amount of them. It was a jungle of glass and concrete set against a backdrop of tropical jungle and blue ocean. It looked like Miami or perhaps Hong Kong without the hills. We were impressed as we headed in from the airport.
The next morning Angela was annoyed with me because we were lost and it was all my fault. I’d foolishly suggested we go out for an early morning wander even though we were due to be picked up less than an hour later for a tour of the city. I told Angela that we had plenty of time, words which would later haunt me.
We hit the streets of downtown Panama City, walking past the casinos that would be opening later that evening, as well as the bars and restaurants getting cleaned in preparation for the day’s festivities. Skyscrapers loomed overhead in all directions while at street level, palm trees and stalls selling fried products buzzed with activity. The temperatures were already hitting the low-thirties but
the humidity was the worst – a wall of invisible moisture that choked the air and clogged our pores.
“Jesus, this is sweaty,” I said as we crossed a street full of angry traffic, all beeping, all furiously trying to push into lanes that were not there. Old buses full of commuters plied the busier roads, thick plumes of black smoke belching from their vertical exhausts. Most had been gaudily painted, often in reds, greens, yellows and blues, and more often than not furnished with impressive paintings of chickens, houses or even monsters. One truck had The Punisher emblazoned on its side panel and judging from the looks of people cooped up inside, it was living up to its name.
I spied an impressive skyscraper shaped like a corkscrew. It poked above some other buildings in a most pleasing manner with its blue shiny glass and large silver spike on the top. I suggested to Angela that we try to get near to it so I could take a photo. With over forty minutes to get back to the hotel I reasoned we had plenty of time.
It was actually called Revolution Tower and was
without doubt, one of the most impressive skyscrapers I’d ever seen. The way the sun caught its many angles was nothing short of mesmerising. Angela looked impressed too, but the way she was studying her watch meant it was time to move on. Instead of retracing out steps, I suggested we take a shortcut. This decision cemented us getting lost because we ended up on a merry little dance that involved glaring, swearing and temperatures flaring. When we stopped to ask for directions, the man had not even heard of our hotel and so we trudged onwards with the time clicking steadily away and Angela’s mood darkening.
“I told you we should have gone back the way we came! We need to be back in five minutes!” said Angela as we tried to flag down a taxi. Like all the rest, it didn’t even slow down because it was were already taken. “And now we’re going to be late for the tour.”
Wiping the sweat from my brow we rushed along a busy road flanked by banks and designer shops, looking in vain for any landmarks we could get our bearings from. The only one we recognised was
the twisty tower, which had got us into the mess in the first place. It poked up above a set of other high rise buildings offering no help whatsoever. I stopped to glare at the pathetic Lonely Planet map again, wondering why I had decided to trust the useless thing, especially after my experiences in East Africa a few months previously. And then by total chance I spotted the hotel, tucked up a little side street, sitting there as it always had done. We’d been walking around in hellish circles. We entered the air conditioned interior where normal service was finally resumed.
John, our guide, was an American man born in Michigan, raised in Florida, but had moved to Panama City nine years previously to marry his Panamanian wife. “I love it here,” he said as he took us to the brightly painted van. “There’s not many countries I can think of where you can have jungle one day, mountains the next, a tropical beach after that, and then a modern city to end with. Do you know it’s the fourth most popular country for US retirees?”
We were heading to the famous Panama Canal, the one must-see
sight for anyone visiting Panama. As we drove along a large 4x4 suddenly cut in front causing John to break heavily and blast him with the horn. When we set off again, John smirked. “You know what? When I first came to Panama, I was scared to shit about driving here. For two weeks I thought I was gonna get killed by these mad bastards on the road. It’s not like in the States or Europe, where drivers’ are courteous and might let you out from a junction. No, in Panama, they don’t give an inch. But now my wife says I drive as bad as them.”
We eventually arrived at the canal; at a part called Miraflores Locks. It was one of three locks along the 80km waterway and because of its proximity to Panama City, had turned into a major tourist attraction. “At this time of day,” John said, “there should be at least a couple of ships passing through.” I nodded and smiled, but to be honest, staring at a ship going through a canal sounded dull as hell.
We arrived just in time because we managed to bag a prime position at the viewing
platform just minutes before hordes of other tourists arrived. Everyone assembled to stare at a massive German-owned container ship which was ever-so-slowly being risen in the lock. Streams of water gushed from its nether regions while white egrets and grey pelicans darted above. A loudspeaker gave a running commentary in both Spanish and English, about where the boat had come from and where it was going. But what everyone wanted to hear was how much it had paid to pass through the canal. This one, we heard, had cost the owners $135,000, which though sounding expensive, was actually great value. The money and time saved by not having to navigate all the way around South America was well worth the cost.
“The cheapest ever price for crossing through the Panama Canal was thirty six cents,” John told us. “It was paid by a man called Richard Halliburton, who swam the length of it in the 1920s and when he’d finished, he got weighed. That’s how they calculated the cost.”
After a long while, the ship started moving onwards towards the Atlantic, over fifty miles away, which would take it about eight hours. Everyone strained their necks to see
the next ship coming through but I was a bit bored. I’d seen one ship and that was enough for me. After ten minutes of waiting for the new arrival to begin its ponderous ascent up through the Miraflores Lock, John led us to a small cinema to watch how the canal had been made.
Despite my reservations, the short 15-minute film turned out to be quite interesting. The designer of the Suez Canal, a Frenchman called Ferdinand de Lesseps had been the one to envision a waterway linking the Pacific to the Atlantic, but after a few years of construction, where thousands of men died of malaria, yellow fever or accidents, he gave up. A few years later the Americans decided to have a go and managed to finish it. They handed it back to the Panamanians in 1999 where it has been a money spinner for the country earning about $4.5 billion per year. No wonder the Panamanians were building another, wider lock, to cater for the super container ships that still had to sail the long way round.
The museum was full of model ships, model trains and model hoisting machines. It also contained rock
samples and grainy black and white photos of people who had toiled away on the project. Due to John’s presence, we lingered around the displays longer than we would have liked, but after a suitable time of chin rubbing and thoughtful reading we finished our tour of the Panama Canal by going upstairs to see a display of thankfully dead creepy crawlies endemic to Panama. The giant cockroaches were particularly disgusting, about two inches in length, and looked like they could survive a bashing with a heavy book. There was also something called a Hawk Wasp, an ugly black thing with reddish wings. The one in the display was attacking a tarantula.
“That’s a nasty wasp,” said John who had noticed us staring at the terrible scene. “The female will stun the tarantula and then lay its egg inside its body. Then the spider will come around not knowing what has happened to it. But deep inside its body, the egg grows and eventually a grub will hatch and begin eating the tarantula from the inside. After it’s feasted and grown enough, it will burst though the spider’s body, like a scene from Alien.”
fun of the canal we drove the colonial heartland of Panama City, an area called Casco Viejo. To get there we had to drive through Chorillo, one of the cities Red Sectors, i.e. dangerous neighbourhoods. “At night you would not want to be here,” said John, “because there would be a very high chance of being robbed or even killed. Even during the day it is not good for tourists. If the locals see you, they will assume you have money and will want it.”
So why the hell are we driving through it, I thought, especially in a van painted with lizards, parrots, toucans and the words Panama Trails emblazoned on the sides. Angela and I stared outside but everything looked normal and day to day. People were sat about in cafes, chatting animatedly, children in school uniform were laughing and joking, and women perused fruit from the many stalls. One old man caught my eye though because he was stood by himself, staring right at our minivan. We passed him and then John slowed down to point something out.
“See that graffiti over there?” he said, pointing to an image of a US soldier
drawn as a devil. “This and lots of others like it were put up because Americans are not popular in this part of the city. It was because of the US invasion of Panama in 1989 when about 500 Panamanians died as a result of American aggression to depose Manuel Noriega, the disputed leader of the country. Most of the fighting happened in this area.
We passed through Chorillo without mishap and arrived in an area of narrow streets clogged with traffic. The cause of the jam was restoration work. Men toiled at laying new cobblestones, others adding concrete to cracked pavements to smooth the way for pedestrians. Casco Vieja, Panama’s old town, was going to look amazing when it was all finished.
Panama City, we found out, was almost five hundred years old. Founded by the Spanish in 1519, it soon became their base for expeditions into South America, and as such became one of the most important trading posts in the world. That was until British pirate Henry Morgan came knocking on the door for Spanish gold. In the late 17th
century, Morgan and his band of privateers raided the city but were thwarted by the
efforts of the Spanish at hiding their treasure. So maddened by this, Morgan ordered the destruction of Panama and set the city on fire. Thousands died, Panama had to be rebuilt, and Morgan was Knighted by King Charles II, settling in Jamaica as governor. And he got a brand of rum named after him.
Baton waving police officers directed the traffic through it all until we eventually found a parking space, and John led us to our first stop, Iglesias de la Merced, famous for its golden altar. It was huge, featuring ornaments, statues, decorations and plinths, all in gold. There was an interesting story about the altar involving Captain Morgan. Before he ransacked the city, he had heard about the golden altar and decided to steal it. But unluckily for the pirate master, when the priest in charge found out about his impending visit, he covered the altar all in mud, thereby hiding its sparkly glow. Morgan arrived, had a gander, and so convincing was the soil encrusted altar, that he believed the priest when he was told it had already been pilfered. In the end, after rubbing his eye patch and tickling his parrot, Morgan actually gave
a donation to the priest to buy a new altar.
We headed towards a pretty, central square called Plaza de la Independencia, where the founding fathers of Panama gathered to declare their independence from Colombia back in 1903. Apart from a few statues of the men, the square was now the haunt of trinket stalls and a nice church. Women wearing traditional costume tried to cajole Angela into buying carvings made from large nuts or else necklaces filled with colourful beads but we managed to get through them until we found ourselves in a little bar.
“I really like Panama,” said Angela after she’d taken a sip of her drink. “I think I could live here.” I nodded in agreement. The Atlas Beer I was drinking definitely hit the spot on such a hot and humid day.
“It’s a great place to live,” added John. “And it’s safe too. A lot of people imagine the worst about Latin America, but as long as you don’t flash your dollars or wave an expensive camera around, you’ll be fine. The only exception are the Red Sectors. Tourists or white people in general need to stay out of them. People
there will murder you for nothing.” John looked wistful for a moment, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. “We had a man who trimmed our hedge a while back. For a few dollars he’d show up with his hedge trimmer and keep the grass down. He did most of the street. One day he didn’t show up. He’d been walking home through Chorillo when a couple of men stopped him. They took his trimmer, his phone and twenty bucks. Then they shot him dead.”
We finished our tour of Casca Vieja by wandering to old French Quarter. Where they had failed at constructing the canal they had succeeded at building a nice square overlooking the ocean and skyline of Panama City. In the middle of the square was a large obelisk with a rooster on top and around the edge a wall with an old prison at its base. “Prisoners were chained up at low tide outside the dungeons and left there to drown as the tide came in.”
The palm-fringed Causeway linked four small island on the outskirts of Panama City. According to John, there were plenty of restaurants along it and so that’s where he dropped
us off. He’d been an excellent guide and we wished him well. The Causeway was decidedly nice, flanked by ocean on both sides. Small sailing boats sloshed about in the water and pelicans dipped and dived for fish. Just behind the restaurants we chose for lunch was a small but tropical beach with a few people sunbathing. Panama was out to impress us.
For the afternoon we took a taxi to a rainforest. It only took ten minutes because the Metropolitan Natural Park was located inside the city limits. We paid the fee and set off on a jungle trail that supposedly offered sloths, anteaters and terrapins.
The terrapins were easy to spot because they were all in one place – a large pond just near the entrance. About ten of them were basking in the sun, heads turned up into the air, while the rest sat dunked in the water. As we approached, most of the sunbathers dived into the pond, but one big specimen remained, reptilian eye staring at us. We moved on, passing through thick forests, twisting vines, bulging wasps nests and a constant cacophony of insect noises. It felt like being in a Tarzan
movie. “Where do sloths live?” I asked Angela. I imagined it was up in the trees, but couldn’t be totally sure. And so far, we hadn’t seen a whiff of one.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Angela as we both stared upwards towards the canopy. The occasional bright blue butterfly would tumble past us or vivid red bird would fly across our path, but the sloths were keeping themselves well hidden. We walked on, finding the trail headed upwards into denser rainforest. It really was amazing that such a place existed within Panama City and I was glad the city builders had had the forethought to keep it.
“Look,” said Angela, pointing to the ground. It was a line of leaf-cutter ants, all diligently trooping over a fallen log, and then across the path we were walking on. There were thousands, half of them carrying a carefully cut section of green leaf, the other half walking in the opposite direction to get more leaves. It was amazing to watch and we were careful to step over the ant caravan as we made our way uphill.
“Stupid bloody sloths,” I said. “Where the hell are you?” Weren’t they supposed
to be lazy bastards, doing nothing all day? So where were they? Both of us stopped to scan the treetops again. No sign of them anywhere. Just then, we heard a rustling up ahead around a jungle bend but were disappointed to find two other people, a young couple who smiled when they saw us. “There’s a good view from up there,” the woman said in an American accent. “Just follow the trail around to the top and you’ll see.”
We thanked them and did as they said and found a platform with a fence around it. Below, just beyond the leaves of the canopy, were the Skyscrapers of Panama City. From up here, it was possible to see just how expansive the city actually was. After another fruitless search for a sloth, we headed back downhill.
“What would you do?” I asked Angela. “If we rounded that bend and saw that couple lying on the ground, dead, with a couple of sloths eating them?”Angela laughed but didn’t answer. We concluded that we wouldn’t see one and so headed towards a gate which we presumed to be the exit.
And then we saw a sloth. It was
a beige coloured thing, slothing about in a mid-level branch just metres away from the exit. Silently we crept up to the furry mammal, about the same size as a small dog and stared up at it. It didn’t move a muscle. But we could see the three-toes of one of its arms curled around a branch. Like all sloths, it was fast asleep.
We clicked and purred, trying to cajole the sloth from its slumber but it was no good. There was no waking the little bastard. I considered throwing a piece of fruit at it, or poking it with a long stick, but Angela wouldn’t entertain that idea and so we had no choice but to leave the sloth to its late afternoon nap. We left the park happy once again at the bounty Panama City had provided.
-Lush jungle so close
-Safe enough in the right parts of the city
-Hot and humid
-A few dodgy areas
-large gaping holes in some pavements
There are more photos below