Welcome to the tenth and final post from our January visit to Panama. In this article, I’ll share a few highlights that didn’t make it into the other nine posts and some final thoughts on our nineteen day stay in Panama.
Let’s begin. We started our visit on a Road Scholar program that took us on a historical tour of the Panama Canal, one of the most significant engineering feats of the twentieth century. Our first day started with a beautiful view of the Canal from the lanai of our hotel room.
Our program started with tours of the Miraflores Locks and some of the sites pertinent to the history of the Canal.
The highlight of the program was the full day transit of the canal on a small vessel, the Islamorada.
After spending the night in Colon at the former School of the Americas now the Melia Panama Canal Hotel, we visited the Agua Clara Locks on the Caribbean side of the Canal and were transported back to Panama City by passenger train.
After the Road Scholar program ended we transferred to an AirBnb property in Panama City. Our one bedroom apartment was on the 12th floor of the Posada del Rey, it’s the shorter pinkish building in the center of the second photo.
Our apartment overlooked the Bay of Panama and the Pacific Ocean that provided stunning views of both the water and the city. We also faced west so almost everyday, we witnessed a stunning sunset, something we never tired of seeing. Every day we watched the tide come in and go out, a phenomenon we don’t experience here in the Midwest.
Our adventures in Panama City took us to many of the tourist sites such as Panama Viejo (Old Panama), Casco Viejo, the outstanding Biomuseo, an art gallery, a number of museums, and churches, all featured in earlier posts. We even made a day trip out to En Valle de Anton to see some of Panama outside the city. We mingled with the locals at some shopping areas, malls, grocery stores and restaurants.
Until we arrived in Panama City, we were totally unaware the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day was taking place during our stay. This event brought in hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from about 150 countries as well as Pope Francis. This event added a lot of people and tons of energy and excitement to an already vibrant community. And I must add did mess up the already heavy traffic!
Before the Pope arrived and after he left, we enjoyed evening walks along the Bay joining lots of families, dog walkers, joggers, bikers, tourists, young couples, really folks of all kinds getting some exercise as the air cooled and sun went down. We’d often walk to the plaza Cinta Costera with it’s large multicolored sign of Panama.
Now on to a few of our other experiences. As we made our way around the city, we’d often see these loud, multicolored buses on their routes, quickly stopping to load or discharge passengers and then quickly moving on to the next stop. These buses are known locally as diablos rojos or red devils. If you wondered where old school buses from the US go to be incarnated, this is the place! The buses are shipped to Panama (and other countries, I’m sure), repaired and modified with noise enhanced mufflers, flashing lights, loud speakers and beautiful paint jobs that are often works of art. The artwork reflects the tastes and interests of both the owners and artists, some honor sports figures, musicians, religious objects, landscapes and the list goes on.
The red devils came into existence to meet the needs of the growing population of Panama City after the start of World War II. There was a demand for labor to expand US defenses of the Canal that brought in people from rural areas who needed transportation to work, school and shopping. The privately owned red devils filled the transportation void until the 1990’s when it was decided to expand the public transit system and eventually phased out the red devils. In 2014 there was a movement to remove the red devils from service but bureaucratic bumbling by the city and federal government couldn’t fill the void with enough new, modern buses to meet the needs of riders. While there is a metro system in place and expanding with safer, more comfortable rides, the unregulated red devils continue to fill the gap until the metro is at fully deployed. So the red devils live on for another day!
They get their name from the driver’s erratic, somewhat reckless, fast driving, hard braking, blaring music and gaudy flashing lights. You can hear them coming for blocks and they always seem to be packed to the gills with passengers but there is always room for one more!
From what I could gather, the driver of the bus “rents” the vehicle from an owner so is highly motivated to make money by maximizing speed, minimizing long stops, and filling the bus to capacity or more. The driver usually employs what is known as the “secretary.” He (usually a young male) is the person that jumps out as the bus comes to a stop and begins shouting out the route and encouraging passengers to quickly enter the bus. As the bus begins to leave, the secretary hops back on to the steps of the bus repeating his lingo at the next stop. And so it goes. It’s fascinating to watch and you can’t miss these colorful, loud conveyances traversing the city.
A couple of night before our stay came to an end, we made reservations at the Restaurante Tinajas, well known for it’s good Panamanian food as well as their folk music and dance performance. We enjoyed both the food and the lively show.
Some final thoughts on Panama. We quickly learned that the people are pleasant, kind, and want to give a good impression of their country to visitors. They are also very proud people, proud of their heritage, their history, and their management of the Panama Canal. They’ll be the first to admit they have some issues to work on such as citizen/voter indifference, subtle racism, business and government corruption, inadequate infrastructure to meet the demands of the future, and what to do about inbound migration from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela. But they are a resilient, smart people willing to tackle these problems with what they hope is good and honest leadership. Sound familiar?
When we left Panama for our home in Madison, Wisconsin, we took with us a few souvenirs but more fond memories of our cultural experiences that will stay with us forever. We especially miss the daily warm temps, I think I’m still re-acclimating to the much cooler weather here in the midwest. Me thinks we should start planning another adventure to a warm climate for next January, where do you think we should go!
Next up, a few posts from our next adventure in Washington, DC.
Until then, happy travels!