Welcome to my 175th blog post and another adventure from sunny and warm Panama! The last two posts featured stories and photos from our time learning the history and building and then making the transit on the Panama Canal. This week, we’ll take a look at our stay in Colon located on the Caribbean, our travel back to Panama City on a passenger train and the program farewell event.
When I last left you, we were getting off the vessel that took us on the transit of the Canal. We went from the dock by bus to the Melia Panama Canal Hotel. This hotel at one time was part of Fort Gulick, one of the many military compounds located when the US controlled the Canal Zone. Fort Gulick was once the home of the infamous School of Americas that trained many of the senior members of the armed forces of Latin America. Unfortunately, a number of the graduates went on to become dictators and accused of human rights violations. Case in point, Panama’s own Omar Torijos and Manual Noriega, both one time dictators, were School of Americas graduates. After the Canal was returned to the Government of Panama, the school was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia and is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
We were told that Melia Hotel was once a US military hospital. Renovations by it’s Spanish owners give this old building a “Club Med” type atmosphere. We were greeted on our arrival in the lobby with refreshing drinks prior to going to our very nicely appointed rooms where our luggage was waiting. Since it was dark, we really didn’t get to see much of the manicured grounds but a nature walk led by our Road Scholar guides at 6:30 AM the next morning provided us a look. Here’s the sunrise over the nearby fresh water lake.
Here are a few photos of the buildings and grounds. It’s quite large and can accommodate several hundred guests.
This Hotel featured one of the most impressive pools and spas that I’ve ever encountered in our travels.
As we made our way around the grounds just after sunup, we heard and saw a lot of birds including parrots. Panama has over 900 species of birds, a few very rare, making it one of the places bird enthusiasts like to visit. While I don’t have any photos of birds, I do have photos of the many flowers that were in bloom including one held by Robert, one of our Road Scholar friends. We were in Panama during the dry season and understand that when the rainy season begins sometime in March, many more flowers come into bloom in the wet, humid weather.
The greenery on the grounds was also lush, thanks to the access to water and carful attendance by the gardeners!
As we were preparing to depart the hotel for our return to Panama City, I noticed these workmen doing some painting and captured them in the act.
In the parking lot was a fine example of a “Red Devil” transport bus. I’ll tell and show you more about this interesting mode of transport in a future post but think of this question: “where do old US school buses go in their next lives?” Many to Panama!
As we made our way by bus (not the Red Devil!) to the train station, we passed through the city center of Colon. The greater Colon area boasts a population of over 200,000 people and sports a free trade zone popular with Asians and Middle Easterners but with little benefit to the locals. If I’ve got the story right, the decline of the Colon central city happened prior to the departure by the US military. Many of the military families employed domestic workers to help with the care of children and housework, labor was cheap. When a member of the military was rotated out to a new duty station, the domestic worker was let go, unemployed until hired by an incoming family. This period of unemployment could last for a few months resulting in the inability to pay rent. So a policy was made (not sure who made it, the locals or US officials) that people couldn’t be evicted from their living quarters during this period of unemployment. This policy change led people to quit paying rent resulting in the decline in living conditions and rise of crime. Apparently, there is a move to renovate the city center but funding and maybe a bit of racism is slowing progress. Here are a couple of photos I took from bus window. The last photo in this series is of the local prison, once the cold storage building for the military bases in the Canal Zone.
We boarded the passenger train in the Colon city terminal. The first railroad from Colon to Panama City was built in the 1850’s, fifty years before the Panama Canal was completed. The incentive to build this railroad was to provide transportation for passengers and freight headed to the California Gold Rush. It was later dubbed as the first transcontinental railroad in the world. That’s true even though it’s only 50 miles long! Today, in addition to making one daily round passenger trip between Colon and Panama City, the rail line transports over 30,000 containers every day between the two ports.
The passenger train while intended for use by commuters has become very popular with tourists. The comfortable seats and domed cars provide a magnificent view of the Canal. After taking our seats, we were provided with a cute snack box and a porter took drink orders.
I was too restless to sit during our one hour ride. I found the open air deck and had some fun taking photos. Here are a few results. The top photo is of the sun setting over the Canal.
I particularly like the abstracts taken with a slow shutter speed, showing motion. Might even make you a little queasy just looking at them!
After our arrival in Panama City, we said good bye our fun and interesting transport.
After another bus ride to our hotel in the city center of Panama City, we checked into our hotel and met for our farewell dinner. After a delicious Panamanian meal, we were entertained by music and folk dancers. The El Tamborito is a dance that is unique to Panama and reflects the influence of the Spanish culture. The dance symbolizes courtship, the man trying to impress the woman with his footwork while the woman glides in a circular pattern while holding her elaborate skirt in both hands. The colorful, hand made skirt or pollera is typically made of cotton and can cost from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars to create. First, a short video clip then some photos.
During a short break, the dancers came out into the audience to show off the polleras. When the music started, each dancer picked a person from the audience to dance with them. The second picture of a very nice Panamanian woman and her two left footed partner!
After the music, we said our goodbyes and exchanged contact information with our new found friends. We had a blast on this Road Scholar program, it’s one we can recommend. A big thanks to our guides Rina and Rey for making our journey so pleasant and enjoyable.
The next day, we set out on our own for an additional twelve day stay in the warm weather while the polar vortex was assaulting the Upper Midwest. Join me next week for more adventures in Panama.
Until then, happy travels!