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Published: June 30th 2012
We have had a whirlwind of activity in our first 2 weeks in Panama City. After an easy drive down the Pan American highway from Boquete, Panama we arrived at our new house in Panama City. Actually our house is a 25 story condominium, our first high-rise on our journey so far. We live on the 18th
floor and have a very nice 2 bedroom apartment with 2 bathrooms and all the amenities. Mike was coming to visit and we decided to enjoy a little luxury to celebrate our 1 year anniversary of our travels.
However, there’s no rest for the weary here. We had to get out in town and learn our way around so we would be ready when Mike arrived. Panama City is a huge, beautiful town of more than 800,000 set on the Pacific Ocean on one side and amazing jungles on the other. The skyline is gorgeous and absolutely glows with beautiful high-rise apartment buildings, businesses and hotels.
We set off with a list of the top things to see each day and tried to find the best routes to visit as much as we could before Mike arrived. Quite the challenge but I
felt we did a great job. We visited the jungles, Panama Canal, Old Town Panama City (Casco Viejo), even older town Panama City (Panama Viejo) and the many old military bases located in the Canal Zone area. We concentrated on just finding locations of things and saving the actual visits to attractions for when Mike actually arrived. Although Panama has some major traffic, we saw a huge array of breathtaking sights and did the best we could to memorize as much history and knowledge of the city so we could be decent tour guides once Mike joined us.
Mike arrived and, as always, his visits are the highlight of our trip. We traveled to 14 countries on six continents while Mike was growing up, so it was exciting to have the old travel gang back together again. After letting Mike rest up from his flight and get situated in our high rise we set off to see as much of Panama as we could in the 8 days he had to spend here.
We started our adventure by visiting the town of Gamboa, which is on the Panama Canal north of the city. Gamboa has a beautiful nature
resort built in the middle of the jungle on the Chagres River. The Chagres is the main supply of water that makes the Canal work. From the resort we set off into the jungle on the famous Pipeline road. Pipeline road set the world record for the most different bird species viewed in a single day with 956. By comparison the United States has some 250 total. We saw beautiful Blue Morpho butterflies, 3 types of monkeys including a large group of howler monkeys and an amazingly colored toucan.
After our morning jungle adventure, we visited the French Cemetery in Paraiso where some of the 22,000 French citizens who died in their attempt to construct the Canal are buried.We continued down the river to make our first stop at the Canal at Miraflores locks so we could tour the museum and observe several ships making there transit through the locks on their way to the Pacific. Quite the exciting first day!
The next day we visited the Panama Canal Administration Building and the old military base at Balboa. The Admin building was built in 1913 and served as the headquarters for the Panama Canal for many years. It
has wonderful murals on display in the rotunda that shows the building of the canal. We made our way up nearby Ancon Hill which provides a superb view of the Canal, Pacific Ocean, Casco Viejo, the Bridge of the Americas and downtown Panama City. It was Mike’s first view of the main part of the city and I can’t think of a better place to take in the views over the amazing city.
On Saturday we decide to take a boat ride to Isla Taboga. Taboga is a small island located about 10 miles off the coast of Panama City. The boat leaves from Isla Naos on the Amador Causeway. The Amador Causeway is a causeway that connects 3 islands near the outlet of the Canal. The day was quite hot and it was nice to get out on the water and enjoy the cool Pacific breezes. Isla Taboga itself is a former Pirate island with 2 nice beaches and many small restaurants and a great place to spend an afternoon. Besides pirates, it is also famous for being a hatchery for half of the Pelican population on the Pacific Ocean. If you want to see Pelicans, this is
the place! Overall a nice day and a good break from driving the busy roads of Panama City.
On Sunday we decided to visit Casco Viejo, which is the old town of Panama City. It contains many old buildings and is reminiscent of visiting the French Quarter of New Orleans. Casco Viejo is a UNESCO world heritage site and is currently undergoing major renovations to return it to its former glory. We made a stop at the Panama Canal Museum located in Cathedral Square. The museum is in Spanish but has an excellent audio tour. The museum was amazing and is a must see for anyone visiting Panama and features much more than just the history of the Panama Canal. The building itself was formerly the Grand Hotel and was used by the French as their headquarters while they were in Panama working on the Canal. We had an excellent lunch at Vieja Havana, which is a very authentic Cuban restaurant located just off of Cathedral Square. I would highly recommend it even if you only have one of their excellent Mojitos. It was hard to only have one, but we had more to see. We headed toward the
old French Embassy located on the farthest point in Casco Viejo, when we were hit by the worst storm I have been in since we left on our trip. I have heard of raining “cats and dogs”, but this was more like “elephants and whales”. The lightning itself was an exciting event. It probably rained several inches in the hour we spent under the welcoming cover at the French monuments in Plaza Francia. After the rain let up we made a beeline to the car and continued on our tour by crossing the Bridge of the Americas. The Bridge of the Americas crosses the Panama Canal and for almost 40 years provide the only land connection across the canal that in effect separates North and South America. We also drove around in downtown Panama and even went up in the new Trump Ocean Plaza’s glass elevator which took us up about 40 stories into the Panama skyline for an amazing view of the city. Another great day despite the rain!
On Monday we decided to take off for the Caribbean side of Panama. Coast to coast in less than an hour is the coolest thing. Mike got his
first view of the Caribbean at the town of Colon. We drove down the road to the town of Portobelo. Portobelo is one of the oldest cities in the New World and was actually named by Columbus on his 4th
journey to the Americas. Portobelo has a collection of forts built by the Spanish to protect their gold from buccaneers in the 16th
centuries. We were going to visit Colon also, but as always the trusty Saturn let us down again. The key got stuck in the ignition and we could not turn the car off. We decided we should attempt to get the car repaired and found a repair shop in the town of Maria Chiquita (coolest name for a town ever!) We met a wonderful young guy who couldn’t get the key out of the ignition, but figured out how to turn the car off without using the key. It worked great and the charge for “fixing” our car was only 10 bucks! He probably worked for about 1 ½ hours in a blinding rainstorm (again!) to get it done. What a life saver.
The next day we went on our version of Amazing Race
to find a place in Panama to permanently repair the ignition. After making our way around several car dealerships and getting the usual explanation that no parts can be ordered for the Saturn anywhere except in the United States, we gave up our search and decided to stay with our “Panamanian” repair. I suppose since we have been living in Central America and Mexico for a year we should have a car that reflects our new lifestyle.
On Mike’s last day here we spent some time looking for Manuel Noriega’s house (which we never found) and visiting the ruins of Panama Viejo. Panama Viejo is the ruins of the original Panama City that was raided by the Pirate Henry Morgan. After he stole all of their gold he burned the town and the citizens decided it was best if they relocated the city to the more defensible area of Casco Viejo.
All it all we had a great visit with Mike and an exciting time seeing all Panama City has to offer. From here it is hard to tell what we will do next. There is only a couple hundred more miles of road to follow before we
run in to the unchartered jungle of the Darien Gap and won’t be able to go farther south without shipping the car. We are currently looking at staying in Costa Rica next month and then perhaps make our way north through Honduras. We definitely need to do something about the vehicle soon. We now have a cracked windshield, bad suspension and the funky ignition. Wish us luck (we’re going to need it). Next update-the end of the Pan American highway!
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