Depending on your interests, the word “Panama” may spark thoughts of superfine straw hand-made Panama hats – although my “Panama” hat was made in Ecuador and I bought it in Thailand. Ah well …
If you are a sailor or a shipping magnate, then “Panama” may mean a huge saving of time and money by avoiding the long journey around the bottom of South America by taking the eighty-kilometre shortcut through the amazing Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean at Colón.
And then there is Colón … but more of that later.
Panama is a tiny country of just 77,000 square kilometres and about four million people.
By comparison, Australia – the world’s oldest, flattest and driest inhabited country with the least fertile soils (according to Wikipedia) – is about 7.6 million km2 and has about 24 million happy little sausages. The UK has about 66 million people squished into a mere 240,000 km2.
Panama’s economy depends on service industries – banking, free trade zones and the Canal. The Canal generates annual revenue of over US$2 billion and this figure is likely to increase significantly in the coming years, following the opening of the huge new locks that can accommodate container ships the size of small cities.
Panama City itself is a bit of a paradox.
It is a place where huge glass and stainless steel banking and commercial towers such as the delightful F&F Tower (see featured image at left) and hotels dominate the skyline, where wondrous seventeenth century mansions in the old city – Casco Antiguo – are being restored and converted into art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. It is also a place where I wandered into an ancient cathedral that seemed to be air conditioned as it was just so cool. I looked but could not find any cooling vents – so perhaps it was those thick walls …
But if a visitor wanders just one or two blocks away from the Casco Antiguo, the charm of the restored colonial houses is replaced by the reality of squalid buildings on the point of decay, yet offering housing to many of the less fortunate in this apparently prosperous city.
I arrived at evening rush hour and the taxi from the airport to the hotel took almost an hour and a half – much of that time sitting still in a maelstrom of car and truck and bus horns.
Panamanian drivers do not seem to be noted for their patience or restraint.
By contrast, my very early morning taxi back to the airport a week later took just fifteen minutes: half an hour after leaving the hotel I had checked my luggage, gone through all the security and immigration checks and was quaffing a coffee in the Copa Airlines lounge.
My Panama City hotel was just north of “downtown” and very close to the excellent Metro station of Via Argentina.
The Metro – once you figure out how to buy a stored-value card and how to “charge” it – is wonderful. Currently it has just one line with a dozen or so stations from Albrook in the West to San Isidro in East. Line 2 is under construction and will link Line 1 to Tocuman International Airport and beyond. The trains are fast, frequent, cheap, clean and efficient.
The first European settlement in Panama is now nothing but ruins – thanks to the British pirate Henry Morgan who in 1671 stole almost everything worth stealing and then burned the rest. Perhaps his raids did little for Anglo–Caribbean public relations, but they did give Johnny Depp a luscious opportunity to braid his hair and to tin-foil his teeth and to battle animatronic and CGT critters of all sorts as he sailed the Carib oceans. Walt Disney also selected romanticised bits of Morgan’s bloody invasion when he created the wonderful “Pirates of the Caribbean” rides at the various Disney entertainment centres.
Nothing daunted – Pshaw! Henry! – the locals started up again, a kilometre or two to the west on a narrow neck of land that should have been easier to defend. A new city slowly evolved, with churches, fortified walls, public squares and stately mansions scattered along narrow cobbled streets.
Four hundred years later, many of these buildings are being carefully restored or renovated or re-purposed. The whole area reminded me very strongly of the old areas of Havana that I visited in 2002.
By Panamanian law, some space in the new luxurious condominium buildings must be made available to low-income families – but this seems to be tokenism at best as there is not really any integration in this very stylish area of the “haves” and the “have nots”.
In the undeveloped areas, people sat around doing not much of anything … as young kids played ball in the streets. In the trendy areas, clumps of bored-looking tourists (all bravely bearing sticky labels that showed which tour group they belonged to) trudged the pretty streets behind sign-wielding guides pointing out the fascinating history of yet another church or yet another scenic plaza.
In the interest of becoming as much a part of the local scene as possible, and trying to avoid being yet another bored-looking tourist clumping about, I had a very traditional Panamanian lunch at a little corner restaurant. Lessep’s Bistro Café is named for Ferdinand Lesseps, the French politician largely responsible for the creation of the Canal. My meal included such traditional Panamanian delights as coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, onion soup and Côtes du Rhône wines …
I was disappointed there was not a strolling typically Panamanian piano accordion player squeezing out Left Bank tunes.
Avenida Central leads from fantasy back to the real world and the Metro stop of Estación 5 Mayo. The avenue sweeps along a newly created pedestrian area with bicycle cops and cops on foot and cops on motorbikes, squat Kuna Indian women and people bearing rainbow donkey piñatas, ready for that night’s festival. The noise blasting out was almost tangible.
Music belted out of shop-front speakers, shop-front touts called out the current specials on shoes or shirts or salsas or sigarettes (sorry), and street-side lottery ticket sellers and CD-sellers and DVD-sellers accosted passers-by with calls to buy the latest Captain Sparrow film. I resisted the latter as I felt it was almost certain to be a pirated version of the original.
Sorry – again – could not resist it. As Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Av Central also featured all the usual suspects – McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s – as well as lots of local down-at-heel shops, flocks of pigeons, flip-flop shops and occasional cheap rooming houses and even more bicycle cops. And flip-flops.
My excursion to Bethania for a swim (I was missing my daily exercise) was also something of a flop. I had carefully researched the pool’s location on Google Maps and figured if I took the Metro to Fernadez de Cordoba Station, then walked a few metres in that direction, took a left and then a right I’d find it.
There is ONE thing that is even more rare than a patient car driver stopped at traffic lights in Panama City, and that is street signs.
After walking for an hour, I found a sign that told me I was then at Street 12 … but I could not find Street 12 on my map. Fortunately a passer-by asked if I needed assistance.
- Yes please, I am trying to find this pool but cannot find street signs
- Oh no – we don’t have many of those
Just a simple statement of truth. No air of resignation or embarrassment or sorrow. Today we have no street signs. Tomorrow we will still not have street signs.
Why is Colón?
I was lucky, I guess, to find that elusive Street 12 sign (and the Good Samaritan) but some days later when I went to Colón there were even fewer street signs.
There is an excellent train service that runs daily from Panama City to Colón, following the Canal. Well, it runs daily except on the day that I wanted to go there … so I took a bus that followed expressways and an autopista or two with no glimpse of the Canal at all. The train costs US$25.00 each way; the bus just US$3.50, so I guess there was some good out of it all.
Colón is the country’s second largest city and as far as I could see there was no good at all to be got out of it.
The bus terminal is surrounded by pot-holed streets overflowing with sewage and garnished with rain puddles. The taxi to my hotel moved at about five kilometres per hour dodging car-swallowing holes, stopping to pick up a friend or two, and also stopping at a hole-in-the-wall bakery to grab some eat-on-the-way empanadas, but did finally arrive at the Meryland Hotel. There is a hair salon is on the ground floor. There is also a sex shop and a mini mart: all travellers’ needs are catered for. My room was clean enough and the bed sheets were clean enough, but I felt I needed a chemical hazard suit when it came to touching the blankets. There were no towels so I strolled corridors until I found an open room with fresh towels and nicked them for my room. Two hours later the housekeepers brought me more towels so suddenly I was dying from a surfeit of towels.
- Or drying from a surfeit of lampreys?
Unemployment in Colón stands at about 50%, I was told, and the city is simply desperate. There are some indications that some work is being done to improve roads, and I did find one area where the houses were well-maintained (and had razor wire and broken glass on their high walls, and CCTV cameras covering entrances), but the rest is very sad.
Most housing blocks – several storeys high – were in terrible condition. Many had no windows, all were in advanced stages of decay, with crumbling concrete walls pierced by rusting iron security gates, and fronted by footpaths piled high with rotting discarded furniture, vegetable scraps, assorted bursting black plastic bags of rubbish and pipes leaking grey-green sewage.
People sat in clumps on doorsteps or on broken chairs in front yards, but apart from a crazy dog that attacked me in the main street, there was no sense of threat at any stage although I did not walk about at night. While the threat may or may not have been present, there were none of the cheery greetings that happened at every turn in Belize.
In Poverty DH Lawrence wrote
- I know poverty is a hard old hag, and a monster when you’re pinched for actual necessities, and whoever says she isn’t is a liar.
That hag dominates the atmosphere of Colón but incongruously there are several casinos in the city for those who may not be quite so pinched for necessities. I grabbed some food at a supermarket, went back to my hotel and left the city as early as I could the next morning.
The Canal at last
Because of my early morning departure from Colón I was back at the bustling Gran Terminal Nacional de Transporte in Panama City by about 10.00. A quick taxi ride took me to the Miraflores Locks, where I found that the first ships to pass through the locks were scheduled for 4.00 pm. I had repeatedly heard how busy the Canal was and how it was a twenty-four hour a day operation, so I do not know why there was nothing happening for five hours.
Fortunately there is an excellent visitor centre and a so-so restaurant for a long time-wasting lunch, but eventually there was some action – some very slow-motion action.
A huge cargo ship (the Panamanian-registered Harbour Bridge) slowly slipped from East to West along the horizon, using the new locks opened in 2016 to accommodate ships up to 360 metres long and almost fifty metres wide.
The babies (ships with a maximum length of only 320 metres) use the older and smaller locks that enable them to climb up twenty-six metres to Lake Gatun before locking their way down again at the other end. I watched as a tourist boat pulled into the Miraflores Lock, and a catamaran then tied up to the tourist boat. A huge grey ship then got dragged into place by twin locos. I found myself hoping its almost vertical grey steel walls would be able to stop in time before the catamaran and its bikini-clad crew were reduced to marine scrap wood and hamburger meat.
There is lingering resentment- and not much gratitude – for the USA’s involvement in the construction of the Canal after the French pulled out. The USA’s involvement in local politics and Noriega is not forgotten and some graffiti shows these feelings.
The Canal was one of the main reasons I went to Panama and I wasn’t disappointed.
I enjoyed the many hours spent walking unnamed streets and anonymous avenues in the capital, but found Colón a bit of a challenge. I wonder what Christopher Columbus (or “Colón” in Spanish) would think of his name place today, and hope that some of the anticipated fortunes created by the new locks flows back to the poor of Colón.
Text and photos © Christopher Hall 2018. Two Colón photos (*) from Internet
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship