Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Panama City, Panama– March 20–June 13, 2017

We explored Panama City (locally referred to as simply “Panamá”, leading to occasional confusion) first while moored at Balboa Yacht Club and later during two short tourist visits from Shelter Bay Marina near Colón, one with Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. Most of our time navigating Panamá was spent searching out goods and services necessary or convenient for every day life: the best grocery option, a barber, lunch, boat parts and theaters showing subtitled (vs. dubbed) English-language movies. But we were able to perform some Acts of Tourism – which is what we’ll share here.

Pre-History Panama

For those interested in the Isthmus of Panama pre-human residence, we recommend a visit to the Biomuseo. It provides an accessible explanation of the creation of the isthmus (think: first chapter of a James Michener novel) and the planet-altering effects of that creation. We learned (here conveyed in highly unscientific terms) that the creation of the isthmus:
  • closed an opening between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, altering ocean currents and thus the planet’s weather patterns; and
  • provided a land bridge between North and South America, allowing interaction between species which had not been previously introduced – the result of which was catastrophic for some species (in current political speak, “evolutionary losers”) which were introduced to predators they had not evolved to defend against. E.g., bye-bye giant sloths . . .
This information and more plus a 3-story, 360-degree nature video for only $18. The museum’s little coffee shop is good and the museum is housed in the only Frank Gehry-designed building in Central America:

Biomuseo By Sea - Taken From Abracadabra

Biomuseo By Land -
Taken From The Amador Causeway Sidewalk

Looking Out From The Biomuseo On La Playita Anchorage

Critters of Panama

Not far from the Biomuseo, also on the Amador Causeway, is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Punta Culebra. The Institute has a very nice display about the frogs of Panama:

Not Your Grandmother's Ceramic Ashtray --
A Real (poisonous) Frog

It’s also a place one can get close to:

Sea Turtles

Fish With Disney Faces and Coral

Outside of the exhibit spaces, one can observe:


Docents and Curious Children

Looking further, one can even see sailboats:

Abracadabra Anchored at La Playita
Next to Full Monty

Spanish-Era Panama

Spain’s first settlement on the north shore of the Gulf of Panama lasted for about 150 years -- until the city was sacked by a group of pirates led by Henry Morgan. Once Team Morgan cleared out the Spanish rebuilt their city several miles further west using a lot of the rubble Morgan had left behind.

A present-day visit to the site of the first settlement (Panamá Viejo or Old Panama) is an archaeological tour and a museum visit. Those with an interest in Spanish colonial history will find it very interesting. Others may simply enjoy walking among ruins and looking at the views of modern Panamá Moderno from what remains of the old cathedral tower.

Bryce and Bob - Exploring Ruins

Bob and Bryce - Taking In The View

The Spanish next built in the area now called Casco Viejo. In today's Casco area there is little that remains from the colonial era. There are several lovely churches to visit but the real draw are the mid- to late-19th century mansions which have been or are being re-purposed as hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.

[Note: The existence of two “viejo” (old) areas of town sometimes results in confusion for tourists. Cab drivers have learned to interrogate tourists to confirm which they are looking for. There also seems to be a move to re-brand Casco Viejo (Old Town) as Casco Antiguo (Antique Town) which can add another layer of confusion since Casco is not as antique as Panamá Viejo . . . .]

Casco Whichever is a nice place to wander during the day and we had a good lunch there one afternoon. Because it is reported to be a very “happening” place at night, and we are not very “happening” people, we have never looked for a hotel or gone to dinner there. But recently we talked to some yatistas who reported getting a good night’s sleep at a Casco hotel so we might try staying there in the future in search of a hotel with more "charm" than the Hampton Inn.

The Canal

Casco is also where the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (aka The Panama Canal Museum) is located, housed in the building that once served as the headquarters for the first French canal company. 

Interestingly, despite it’s location, this museum gives the French canal efforts short shrift and focuses primarily on the American canal and the transfer of the canal to Panamanian control. It is a must for those even remotely interested in the history of the canal or of the country of Panama.

There’s even a Northern California connection: some exhibits about the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, held in San Francisco. Molly was amused to see one of the bonds issued by the City and County of San Francisco to finance the exhibition because one of her first transactions as a baby bond lawyer (a few decades after 1915 . . . ) was a refinancing of the City and County of San Francisco's fire suppression system. However far we travel we take our history with us!

An Aside: We've said this before but really - it bears repeating: anyone interested in the history of the canal should read David McCullough’s The Path Between The Seas. That said, Bryce doesn’t think he needs to read it. He spent several weeks being interrupted in whatever he was doing by Molly’s insistence that he hear certain information from the book or listen while she read paragraphs to him. Read it before your spouse does in self defense.

Another canal museum is located at the Miraflores Locks Visitors' Center. We visited the locks as part of our pre-transit education and got to see several sailboats pass through these locks (some of those pictures can be seen in our canal transit post). We also enjoyed the museum, so much so that Molly toured it for a second time with our Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. She thought it was even more interesting after having gone through the canal.

Lock Control Building

Cargo Ship Bridge Simulator -
Miraflores Lock Museum

This museum also provides a lot of information about the recent canal expansion that was opened in 2016.

While moored at the Balboa Yacht Club, we had a front-row seat to canal traffic - car carriers, cruise ships -- even a Canadian destroyer and a U.S. submarine! We often didn't get pictures because the highest traffic time north/south was during our dinner hour -- way better than eating dinner in front of the television!

The Bridge of The Americas -
From Our Balboa Yacht Club Mooring

Panama City Today

[Travel Tip: Not so much a tip as a warning. Internet searches for “Panama City” done in English often bring up information about Panama City, Florida. It plays hell on trying to do travel research.]

Panama City, if you weren’t reading newspapers in 2016, is a big banking center and home to law firms specializing in international tax advice for the wealthy. There are countless sleek high rise buildings we presume are evidence of this wealth.

Panamá Moderno Shot From Panamá Viejo

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (1953)
And A More Modern Neighbor

Muy moderno!

But walk or drive (or cooler and calmer yet, taxi) a few blocks off Avenida Balboa and you will find charming, but deteriorating, buildings of the early 1900’s. Look to your right or left while traveling the highway to the Amador Causeway and there are ugly and blocky mid-rise crumbling concrete apartment buildings. The people’s housing. As in most countries, the wealth is not deep. We understand individual travelers can’t have a significant impact on a country’s economy – but we remind one another that the minimum wage is under $500 a month when deciding whether to tip generously.

Thus ends our short summary of Fun Tourist Things To Do In Panama City (Panama). We will be returning to Panama December-ish and may have time to engage in some of the other interesting activities the area offers. If so, we’ll report in!

Next stop: a family visit in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada. Our last trip to Lakefield was in 2015, so we have a lot of catching up to do.

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