Postcards from Panama

Today’s post is 2170 words, 33 photos, a 9 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

Last week’s blog on Tortuguero, Costa Rica generated a lot of views, a few likes, and some comments. The most common comments were from folks that would like to visit there and are putting it on their bucket list. Good for you! I know you’ll have a lot of fun exploring the spit between the ocean and the canal including the Tortuguero National Park. Click here if you missed this story.

The first day of Spring is tomorrow March 20. You’d never know it here in Wisconsin, there is still snow on the ground and cool, breezy weather this weekend. The weather prompted me to continue blogging about warm weather places where I’ve traveled. This week I’ll take you to Panama with a transit of the Panama Canal and places of interest in Panama City and beyond.

The Trail to Panama

It was in mid-January when we boarded a flight from Madison to Panama. A polar vortex was coming, we were glad to get out of town before it arrived. It was late evening when we landed at the busy Panama City airport. As we walked to baggage claim and notice this big sign with the picture of Pope Francis. Little did we know that the Catholic Church World Youth Day event was happening in Panama City during our stay.

This is the view my Traveling Partner and I woke up to our first morning in Panama City. Just beyond the marina is the traffic corridor for the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. As we drank our morning coffee on the lanai on the pleasant warm day, we watched vessels cue up to make their way through the Canal. A few days later, we would be on a small vessel making the transit through the Canal.

The Transit

We were in Panama because we signed up for the Road Scholar program: Grit and Glory: Exposing the Panama Canal. The first few days of the program consisted of lectures about the building and administration of the Canal, bus trips to the Miraflores Locks, and field trip to Casco Viejo, the “old quarter” of Panama City.

On one of our stops, we visited the French Cemetery. The French began building the 51-mile Canal in 1881. For several years, they had problems with financing, engineering, and a high death rate of workers. The French abandoned the project in the 1890s. In 1904, the United States took over the project and it was completed 10 years later in 1914 when the first vessel passed through the locks. Beginning in 1977, the US began a gradual turn over of the Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanian government that was completed in 1999.

The Panama Canal Authority, a government agency, is in charge of running the canal. They collect transit fees, schedule and monitor traffic, provide maintenance, and personnel to guide the vessels through the six locks. About 14,000 vessels pass through the Canal each year, generating nearly $3 billion USD in fees.

The photo below is of the container yard taken from the Canal headquarters.

The next series of phots were taken at Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City. Spanish and French influences were prominent in this part of the city.

A view of downtown Panama City taken from Casco Viejo.

There is an open air market that caters to tourists in the old quarter. In the photo below, these girls were patiently waiting for their parents, vendors in the market. It was a photo op that I couldn’t pass up.

We spent a good amount of time at the Miraflores lock, the first lock in the transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The three locks at each end raise and lower vessels 85 feet. The photo below was taken from the observation deck at the locks. It was fascinating to watch the ship come into the lock, the gates close, the water  and the ship slowly rise. When at the correct level, the gates open and the ship sails to the next lock to be repeated again. A typical transit takes about ten hours to complete. The vessel in the photo, the Hawk I, a bulk carrier, flies under the flag of the Marshall Island. It’s about 625 feet long and can carry nearly 28,000 tons. As of today, this ship is in the port of Hong Kong.

We were up early, the morning of our transit. The bus dropped us off at the dock where we boarded the Islamorada. This vessel was built in 1912 in Massachusetts as a luxury yacht with wealthy clientele in mind. One of the early owners was Al Capone, the notorious Chicago Mafia boss, who used this boat from 1919-1933 to run rum from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to Florida. It’s said that the boat had luxury suites, a casino and a bar for friends and clients of Capone. When Capone was arrested in 1931 and sentenced to prison for tax evasion, the Islamorada was confiscated by the U. S. Government. It was then used as a mine sweeper by the Army during World War II. After the war, the vessel made it’s way to Panama and used as a hotel and tour boat. It’s now owned by the Canal and Bay Tours Company capable of taking up to 104 passengers through the Panama Canal.

After getting settled, the boat made its way out to join the cue to transit the Canal. To make the transit, a vessel has to have a reservation. Some of those reservation are made up to a year in advance, especially by large shipping companies like Maersk and COSCO. If a ship arrives early, they anchor offshore and wait until their reservation date and time. The Canal Authority holds a daily auction for one transit slot, bidding typical reaches a couple hundred thousand US dollars. I guess the price paid depends on the value of the cargo and who needs the cargo. Typical transit fees vary from $10,000 to $65,000 USD depending the size of the vessel.

Since the Islamorada was a small vessel, it was paired with the Star Laguna to go through the locks. The Star Laguna is a cargo ship that flies under the flag of Norway. It’s a little over 600 feet long and 105 feet wide, it has 5 feet to spare in the 110 foot wide locks. It’s a tight fit, width wise. The locks are 1000 feet long so there was plenty of room for both boats. Last week this ship left the US port of Brownsville, Texas bound for Brazil. How do I know this factoid? Check out websites that track ships such as Vessel Finder or Vessel Tracker.

In 2007, the Panama Canal Authority began building another set of locks to accommodate the New Panamax ships. The new locks opened in 2016 and can accommodate vessels 1400 feet long and 180 feet wide. Those ships can carry up to 18,000 containers, much of it bound for the United States!

After passing through the Pacific locks, the Islamorada made it’s way through the Gaillard Cut (the 8-mile long excavated gorge that cuts through the Continental Divide) and into Gatun Lake (the large man-made freshwater lake at 85 feet above sea level) for the next 20 miles. The day was beautiful and warm, I spent most of the trip standing at the bow of the ship.

When we arrived on the Atlantic side, more trips through the locks. This time we were in front of the Star Laguna where we could see the Coral Princess transit the locks ahead of us. This cruise ship flies under the flag of Bermuda, is over 900 feet long, and can accommodate over 1900 passengers with a crew of 900. This ship was in the news at the beginning of the pandemic. In early March 2020, the Coral Princess was in South America headed to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Because of the lockdown, none of the passengers were allowed to disembark. After several days, the ship was given permission to dock at the Port of Miami where most of the passengers were allowed to disembark and find a charter flight to their homes, many outside of the US. Several ill patients were kept on board until they could be transported to Florida hospitals. With a few remaining passengers and the mostly international crew, the ship spent several days at sea for a period of quarantine. According to Vessel Tracker, the Coral Princess is currently cruising around Australia.

Before entering the Atlantic Ocean, we passed under the Atlantic Bridge then still under construction.

After saying goodbye to the Islamorada, we spent the night in a beautiful hotel in Colón that was once part of the Panama Canal Zone. The next day, we rode the train back to Panama City. It takes about an hour to make the 50 mile trip. The ride was fun, we gazed out the windows at the jungle-like scenery. That evening, we had our Road Scholar farewell dinner at the hotel and bid adieu to our new found friends.

On our own in Panama City

After our Road Scholar program ended, we stayed on in Panama City for an additional twelve days. We rented an AirBnb one-bedroom 12th floor apartment overlooking the Panama Bay. In the photo below, it’s the brownish colored building left of center. It was surrounded by a lot of high-rise apartments. The location was convenient, we could walk to restaurants, shopping, and along the bay in the evening.

Below are photo of the view we had from our apartment. Note the difference in the water level as the tide goes out and comes back in.

Panama City, with a population of nearly two-million residents in the greater metro area, is the capital of Panama and an international center for business and banking. There are over 100 banks with offices in the city. In the 1970s and ’80s, many of those banks had a reputation for corruption and money-laundering. That is largely cleaned up through rigorous government oversight. For those readers old enough to remember, in 1989 President George H. W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama to overthrow the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. He was accused of racketeering and drug running while at the same time cooperating with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). At any rate, he was deposed and since Panama has been an open democracy.

Tourism is also a major business in Panama. The country has attracted an estimated 20-30 thousand US expats due to it’s low cost of living, comfortable climate, and welcoming attitude towards seniors. While the balboa is the official currency of Panama, it doesn’t print its own money, they use the US dollar as legal tender. No need to change money at the border. With banking a major industry, there is no shortage of ATMs.

During our 12 days, we visited many of the sites in and around Panama City. We spent a few hours at the Biomuseo, a museum focused on the natural history and ecology of Panama. 

Since the Pope and thousands of Catholic youth from around the world were in town, we visited one of the main cathedrals in downtown Panama City.

One day, we hired a driver to take us to El Valle de Antón, a town of about 7000 people about 80 miles from Panama City. Anton’s Valley was built on the caldera of an inactive volcano and sits at an elevation of around 2000 feet above sea level, making the climate much cooler. There we enjoyed many of the natural attractions and had a great time at Butterfly Haven. Below are a few photos I took during that stop. It was a fun, relaxing adventure that got us out of the city for a day.

The last evening of our stay, we made a reservation at the Restaurante Tinajas where they have dinner with a folkloric show of traditional music, dances, and costumes. The food was great and the show excellent.

One last tidbit from Panama: Have you ever wondered what happens to school buses when they are no longer serviceable in the US? Many of them make their way to Panama and are rehabbed into what are called “Diablos Rojos” or Red Devils. These colorful and often loud buses traverse the streets of Panama City picking up passengers, delivering them to their destinations. They got their start when there was no bus or subway system in the city and people needed transportation to jobs and shopping. These colorful buses are privately owned and continue even though Panama City has tried to outlaw them. They are often driven recklessly as they are in competition for riders with other buses. Their demise will be gradual but I’m sure they find new life in other parts of the country.

Well, I’ve gone long enough even though there are more stories to tell. I should point out that we returned to Wisconsin just as the polar vortex was moving off to the east. We were happy to have missed it!

We enjoyed our stay in Panama and wouldn’t hesitate to return, maybe even a few months in the winter. For more about tourism in Panama, click here.

Until next week, happy travels!