Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 2

Published: June 7th 2019
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We began the day with a bus tour around the modern city of Panama. This new city has tall, thin buildings so designed to withstand the high winds and hurricanes that frequent this region. Panama has the largest tidal changes in world. On the Pacific side the tides run 16 - 18 feet high to as low as 2 feet during low tides within a 24 hour period. The highest point in Panama City reaches a nose-bleed record of 600 meters. We passed areas where fishermen used to work and live. Now these areas are overtaken by high rises and great wealth. These poor people have nowhere to go and wish to maintain their homes but are finding they can’t afford to stay. Sadly a common occurrence around the world.

The bus stopped along the route for us to see the F&F Tower, previously known as the Revolution Tower Building and known locally as The Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is blue in color with a white pointy top that seems to list a bit. It does stand out in the skyline. It is the 7th tallest building in the new Panama City. The tower twists 360 degrees as the glass skyscraper reaches 797 feet at the summit. this building has become an iconic standout among numerous modern buildings in Panama City.

I saw a street vender selling avocados and mentioned it to Abdiel. He was surprised and told me avocados are not frequently seen in Panama since it is not a popular indigenous food and as a result seems hard to find. And yet Costa Rica, rich with avocados is so close! Sadly the bus didn’t stop for my avocado opportunity.

After our city tour, our bus took us to the ruins of the ancient cathedral “Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion” and the neighboring Bishop’s House (Casa Alarcon), both built between 1610 and 1626 are now part of Panama Viejo, a UNESCO protected church and cloister. These ruins which cover a better part of two blocks, are in various states of repair. The cloister itself remains unexcavated but it is very likely that the nun’s cells were found here, arranged in rows around the courtyard. The only important surviving element of this courtyard is the great well which is unique in Panama. More than one hundred thousand liters of water could be stored here. Surprisingly
The Virgin Mary The Virgin Mary The Virgin Mary

This statue is protected on one of the remaining walls of the convent.
we were able to climb into the remaining structures to get excellent views of the grounds and new city beyond.

Panama City was founded in 1519 and destroyed by pirates in 1671, namely the famous pirate Henry Morgan, Lord Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. During the colonial period, every important city had at least one convent of nuns. Founded in 1522, the Order of the Immaculate Conception was the only convent of that period in Panama City. After the pirates arrived and began looting and pillaging, these poor unprotected nuns were left alone and had to fend for themselves. This UNESCO site was made of manmade basaltic bricks that were staggered in the walls to absorb the shock of an earthquake and there were other clever building techniques such as holes in the walls for ventilation yet despite the holes, these walls are very sturdy and supported the construction to this day.

In the museum nearby (thankfully air-conditioned) we learned about the many African slaves who were brought here by Genoese merchants to work. Some slaves came from Nicaragua and were branded with an L on their forehead. The Catholic and Episcopal church brought education and had a key
Four story Cathedral TowerFour story Cathedral TowerFour story Cathedral Tower

I'm sure the view is great from the top but I found this air conditioned view to be just right.
role in both urban and rural areas of Panama. Catholicism was an important introduction from the Spanish but we were told the churches were used as a cover for the Spanish to protect their gold and silver. Sadly the Jesuit nuns were not funded by the church and so had to beg and made and sold their pottery to provide food for themselves.

I was told you can get a great view of Panama City from the museum, or if you want, (in the heat), you can climb the four story Cathedral Tower for an even better view. As it was near noon and very hot, I thought my photograph from the museum was good enough so I passed on the bell tower. The museum and ruins are very close to the changing tidal waters and there is a lovely walk along the water’s edge. Among the trees here was the native buttress tree Arbol. The flowers are beautiful but the Panama seeds have sticky stinging threads inside. One of our curious adventurers found out too late.

We returned to the historic part of Panama City and as we walked through the old section of we were told we should ask the Guna people if we can take their pictures. These people think their soul is being captured in the camera and they will not ever be able to rest. When they see someone with a camera, often they will duck, turn or cover their heads. We found them in many market stalls selling their crafts.

Upon our return to Independence Plaza we saw some local people dressed in their traditional Pollera dresses having their pictures taken so I joined the party and, with permission took some photos as well.

It was now past our usual lunchtime and after the heat and the hike we were ready to eat. There were 21 of us crammed into a long table at the Rene Cafe (One Independence Plaza) for lunch. Yes the place is tiny (= intimate) but it is quite charming and conveniently located near the Plaza de la Independencia and within site of our hotel, but the food is why you should go. Although the food is Panamanian this little restaurant had a distinctly Italian feel. There was a nice wine selection displayed on the back wall and white curtains helped to let light through the large windows facing the street. I had a very nice fresh salad, a rice/bean/veg dish and a lightly breaded basa filet. It is hard to serve a large group with good food but this place did!

After lunch and fully stuffed, we walked to the Tropical Chocolate Cafe that was across the Independence Plaza and near the Museum of the Canal. Flavored milk chocolate included combinations such as Papaya and basil, Pineapple rice, Cantaloupe, Passion fruit and what they called chocolate Nibs that were merely broken pieces of chocolate, not true nibs. They also sold the very expensive Geisha coffee, claimed to be the best in the world. While sampling chocolates, Abdiel said his mother used to boil pineapple skin with a little rice, a touch of sugar and sometimes a cinnamon stick. This mixture was then strained and afterward you milk or condensed milk was added to complete the drink.

Abdiel took us for a walk to an area on the edge of the Casca Viejo to meet some local people who were struggling with the government. We were introduced to some Squatters who are attempting to take possession of “their” land to avoid what they think is imminent government takeover of the area. In October of 2000 these people found out the government had offered their land in auction.

In the 1850s this land had belonged to the train workers who had worked on the building of the canal. In 1903 the government claimed the land was to be used only for “Social Interest Houses”. People who had some money started moving out in the 1950s. The remaining people were poor and are now intent on reclaiming “their” property. To do so the remaining residents take turns squatting on the land twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, to maintain this “residency”.

Gentrification started 1997 and forced people to leave the property. The government tore down houses claiming they would make renovations and plant trees. But they never built houses or planted trees. By 2015 there was a school in the building where they live now. The school was soon closed, they were told, because “the people” had left. Then the government was going to tear down the school, but these people stayed making the school their home. They have electricity and water for the twenty eight families who live there now. The woman we met is the president of their “squatter’s union” and spokesperson for the group. The told us they came up with an amount of money that would be paid to the Mayor of Panama for water and electricity, even though it is illegal. The Mayor turns a blind eye. In time, they are told, the government may accept money for them to purchase that land. The area includes two houses with two properties and a third property down the block all in consideration for purchase. This woman’s parents lived here and her daughter Esther was born here. Her parents used to rent an apartment here and “gave” the land to her.

With much on our mind we walked back through the charming old Casco Viejo to the restored San Jose Church or Golden Altar Church that dates from about 1625. We were told there were graves under the church but they were removed when the floor was restored. Rumors of tunnels for Spaniards escapes under the church but none were reported. The Altar de Oro or golden altar is pretty impressive in this small church and I was happy to see a statue
Exposition AdoremusExposition AdoremusExposition Adoremus

This intricate and detailed exhibit is in the basement of the San Jose Church. Well worth a visit!
of a saint represented in the darker skin color of the Panamanian people. But you must go downstairs to see the magnificent Exposition Adoremus. A wonderfully crafted scene depicting Jesus' life covers much of the room under this church.

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