Greetings and salutations,
Welcome to the first in a series of articles on the country of Panama and the infamous Panama Canal. You might be asking yourself “why Panama?” or “Isn’t that a country with dictators and despots running the show?” You’d be wrong, they did have Noriega back in the 80’s but he’s in the past. It’s a relatively modern country with a pretty good economy and a fifty mile shipping shortcut that helps to pay a lot of its bills. More on that later.
Let me tell you how this all got started. Last August, after torrential rains here in our part of Madison caused some flooding in our lower level, we decided to forego our (still in development) plan to travel to the southwest of the US for couple of months during the winter. Instead we would spend the time getting repairs completed and downsize our “stuff” that’s accumulated over the past 26 years we’ve lived in this house. A few weeks after this decision, I was thinking how long the winter would be without an getaway to someplace warmer than here and besides that I was itching to try something new! It so happened later that day a flyer from Road Scholar appeared in our mailbox. The flyer described trips to all kinds of interesting and warm places. That’s when I spotted their programs on the Panama Canal. We’ve been on a couple of previous Road Scholar programs and found them to be well done and very educational. So with the consent of my traveling partner, I signed us up and plunked down the money for the January program. Done!? No so fast. Then I got to thinking, since we are making the trip down to Panama, let’s get our money’s worth out of the air fare and stay on for some extra time. After checking our January schedule (there was nothing on there!!) I convinced my traveling partner that we could stay an extra twelve days basking in the warm weather of Panama City. She said “whatever” and before she could change her mind, I’d committed to renting an apartment through Airbnb and made the plane reservations. So not to press my luck, I stopped while I was ahead!
Soon our first packet of materials from Road Scholar showed up providing more pre-departure information such as documents we needed to enter the country (a valid passport for US citizens), a tentative itinerary and a suggested reading list. From Amazon, I ordered the National Geographic Panama and the Panama Lonely Planet books to read up on the country and sketch a plan for our stay. I also purchased the nearly 700 page book “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough. I’ll admit, I didn’t read it all but it had good pictures! In retrospect, I wish someone would have written “The Panama Canal for Dummies!” While we both had good intentions on being good students and prepared for our experience on the Canal, life got in the way so at the last minute and en route we made some quick reads on Wikipedia, TripAdvisor and our guide books. Soon it was time for us to pack our bags and board the plane for Panama. We planned to go a day early because the airline we were flying didn’t arrive until almost 10:00 PM so that gave us a day to lounge around before the Panama Canal program began.
Our flight itinerary took us from Madison to Atlanta where we had a three hour plus layover. Knowing that the flight to Panama City would take almost four hours, I exercised by walking around our terminal and came across some interesting airport artwork.
Since the Super Bowl was being played in Atlanta on February 3, middle schoolers created artwork honoring every NFL team.
Of course, I had to find the Green Bay Packers displays, nicely done kids! Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers and Lombardi Trophy all in one image.
Once we boarded on our full flight, we were entertained by watching folks stuff their over packed, too large of carry ons in the overhead bins. Always amazes me!
After arriving in Panama City and a thirty minute ride to our hotel, we were ready for a good nights sleep. In the morning, we enjoyed our morning coffee and this view from the lanai off our room. The pleasure craft were moored in a marina just outside our hotel and the container ship was making it’s way on the first leg of the transit of the canal.
From our hotel, we could also view the Bridge of the Americas, the first bridge built across the Canal to join the east and west sides. It also has helped people who live on the westside make an easier commute into the city for work.
After a leisurely day, lounging by the pool and taking a walk along the Causeway we were ready for the program to begin the next morning. We started off with an orientation by our guides Rina and Rey, both US educated Panamanians. We also met the other 47 participants in the program from all parts of the US with several coming from Wisconsin and Minnesota, also trying to escape the snow and cold weather that was moving into our part of the country. We then boarded a bus to Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old historic quarter dating back to the 1670’s.
Rina showed us the main sites around Casco Viejo pointing out some of the old historic buildings and sharing the history of some of the former residents.
Casco Virgo is situated on the Bay of Panama and once was the most fashionable section of the city but it fell into disrepair. More recently it’s undergone rehab and has become a tourist attraction. In a future post, I’ll explain more about this area and display more photos. The view from Casco Viejo is stunning. Here are a couple of photos of some of the rehabilitated parts of the district along the bay. The second photo shows Anton Hill in the background with the Panamanian flag proudly flying over the city.
And here’s a view of the very modern Panama City.
Our next stop in Casco Viejo was at the relatively new Panama Canal Museum. While all the displays were in Spanish, there were a number of videos that showed some of the building of the Canal. Rina also provided commentary as we traversed the museum.
Then it was off to lunch at a typical Panamanian restaurant and a return to the hotel. Later in the afternoon we were treated to a very interesting and entertaining presentation by Roberto, an employee of the Panama Canal Company. I’ll share some of the things we learned about the Canal in future posts.
After an excellent poolside dinner, it was off to bed for more adventures and learning the next day but not before capturing the sun setting in the west.
Join me next week as we explore the locks and the areas around the Canal.
Until then, happy travels!