Panama city is booming

this entry typed enroute to Quito from Panama City …

Our travel from Zancudo beach in Costa Rica to Panama City was pleasant but a bit gruelling.  We were up very early to eat and pack up to be ready for the 5:45AM bus out of Zancudo.  This bus served as public transport and the local school bus for high school kids who had to attend about an hour away in Conte.  A two hour bus ride took us to Laurel where we found a 20 minute taxi to the CR/Panama border.  We were busy here … had to change our remaining Colones into $US, then purchase $7 exit stamps, then through CR immigration/emigration.   Took a while, but Yvonne eventually found an ATM that would dole out $US, because we were told by just about everyone that Panama authorities want to see that you have at least $500 cash on you!  All told, our border prep took about 2 hours, then into Panama fairly painlessly and onto a 1.5 hour bus to David.  A 30 minute layover in David then onto a huge swanky air conditioned bus for the 8.5 hr trip to Panama city.  We were stuck in the first rows of seats and the driver had the curtains pulled, so we saw virtually nothing – good thing we all had books.  Arrived Panama city 8:30PM without much of an idea where we were going to stay.  Our SIM chips from CR didn’t work in Panama, so we were without mobile internet for the 1st time in our 5 weeks on the road so far.  I had pulled up a few hostel names at the CR border for this eventuality, but no taxis had heard of them.  Fortunately the bus station had some WiFi and we selected a hostel in the “Casco Viejo” section of town.  Taxi took us there only to find that hostel didn’t accept kids (just as well, probably – there was a pretty raucus party going on there), but another around the corner (Magnolia) did, and we got quite a deluxe private room for hostel prices.  It was now 10PM, so that had been a 16.5 hr travel day.  Fell to sleep pretty quick …
We slept in a bit (all relative … we were up by 7AM), found some groceries and planned the day.  1st stop was the Miraflores Visitors Center for the Panama Canal.  Aside from the fact we were over-run by school trip kids at the center, this was fantastic.  We watched a bulk carrier go through the two-tiered lock, then worked our way through their interpretive museum, then went back out to watch a huge car carrier pass through, all from an observation deck very close to the locks. 

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bulk carrier entering the lock, heading Atlantic to Pacific, 2 locks away from Pacific at Miraflores Visitor Center/lock
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A boat this size as 6 locomotives (known as "mules") to guide it through the locks and keep it from bumping into the sides. I mentioned this to Kaia, who thought about what I'd said, then asked "isn't it hard for 6 mules to pull a boat that size? What don't they use some sort of machine?" 🙂
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Just left 1st Miraflores lock, and into last lock before Pacific
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These boats are built to JUST fit - 2 ft on either side!

We had a chance to sit down with the main guide at the site who filled us in on some key details:
– price of passage depends on the length of the ship as well as the value of its cargo.  The large car carrier paid almost $400,000 for its passage through!  A small sailing yacht would pay the minimum passage of $800.  These fees bring in about $1 billion to Panamanian economy and represent 15% of its GDP
– it takes about 8 to 10 hours to pass through.  In the morning, ships from both ocean sides work their way up through the locks to high point of the lake in the middle.  Boats rise 26m through 3 locks (in both directions).  They use the width of the lake to pass each other, then in the afternoon they descend the 3 locks on the side.  We asked “wouldn’t it be more efficient from a water use perspective if you had boats going in both directions at the same time through the locks?” but he explained that the only place boats could really pass each other was in the central lake
– 30 to 40 ships transit each day
– canal was completed by the US in 1914 – so we saw quite a few centennial celebration signs around.  In 1975 the US signed an agreement “treaty” with Panama to transfer ownership/control of the canal to Panama in 1999.  There was a huge national celebration on this transfer date.
– ships that transit are for the most part of the “Panamax” size – that is, they were built to just fit into the Panama canal locks – with only 2 ft to spare on each side!.  There are many ships larger than this though, and Panama wants to be able to capitalise on their desire to transit the canal.  In 2007 they had a national referendum and 76% voted in favour of enlarging the locks to increase the length by 40% (to 1400ft!) and width by 60%.  Construction started immediately and the new locks are supposed to open in early 2016, but there is some question about that date

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car carrier entering lock
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I think I heard that these car carriers hold up to 5000 cars! This one had cars from Europe.

We thoroughly enjoyed that visit.  Then set off for the “Cinta Costera” sea-side walking/cycling path that follows a good portion of the Panama City waterfront.  It is full of playgrounds, tennis and basket ball courts, and generally full of life. 

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Kaia & Jake uptop a lovely climbing web along Cinta Costera

A very short walk took us to the VERY lively Fish Market for some ceviche (raw fish).   The ceviche was pretty good, tho Jake stuck to a more recognisable form of whole (and cooked) fish filet.  I have to give him and Kaia credit though, as they polished every morsel .. brain, and both eyeballs too!  Jake and I were curious to learn from a trip to the bathroom here at the market that it costs 25cents to pee on a weekday and Saturday, but 50cents on Sunday.  hmmmm?

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shrimp ceviche
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Kaia said she'd have enjoyed hers more if it weren't 75% onions.

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The remainder of our day was spent strolling around the Casco Viejo section of town where we were staying.  FASCINATING!  The original Panama cith was built in early 1500 in a different section.  But in 1613 when the town governor heard that privateer/pirate Captain Morgan was about to attack, he ordered the burning/destruction of the

town to spoil Morgan’s looting.  From there, a new town emerged in the location now knows as Casco Viejo.  Over the past decades or 100 years, Panama city migrated into a more central location and Casco Viejo was mostly abandoned.  But its colonial architecture is nothing short of outstanding, and in 1997 it was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site and has since undergone a remarkable restoration.  Buildings untouched for decades (centuries?) sit right next to buildings that have undergone full restoration … painted, woodwork redone, stone repaired.  Cafes and restaurants have come to life in the narrow streets and around the plazas.  We took in an art exhibit, got some food, wandered some more, then took a few steps back to our hostel for a snack before bed.

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Casco Viejo of Panama
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Freshly restored in Casco Viejo
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restoration work in its early phase in Casco Viejo

We’d love to have had another day or two to explore Panama Viejo (the old original city) and the new modern city.  Speaking of which … what a remarkable story.  For reasons I still don’t full understand, money is pouring into Panama City.  Our taxi driver this morning pointed out to us the tallest building 10 years ago – it was about 12 stories high.  Now the skyline is actually more impressive than Toronto’s. 

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the "New" city of Panama seen from the fish market

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Huge office skyscrapers, dozens and dozens of really tall condos … all in the span of 10 years.  Panama is apparently now an international banking hub and enjoys very low personal and corporate tax rates.  I guess that explains things partly.

Cam

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