You can’t help being a little awed by Panama City (photos). The skyline is a seemingly endless array of skyscrapers – and the building continues. Wikipedia lists the population at 880,000 with a metropolitan total of over 1.2 million. It is spread along a long stretch of Pacific coastline. The old colonial nucleus of the city, Casco Viejo occupies a point of land at the western extreme of the city across Balboa Bay from the entrance to the Panama Canal. The city becomes more modern as you move to the east with the recently expanded and renovated Tocumen International Airport on the eastern fringe of the city. Panama assumed complete control of the Panama Canal from the United States on January 1, 2000, and freely touts its operational accomplishments since and has begun a $5.25 billion expansion project expected to be completed in time for the canal’s 100th anniversary in August 2014. Panama seems very confident in its future.
We made the trek up Cerro Ancon, a hill that can be seen from almost anywhere within the city and which allows panoramic views of the city. From the top, in one direction we could see the city stretched along the Pacific and from the other side we could see far along the canal to Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks and the Centennial Bridge.
Along the Pacific waterfront, there is the Cinta Costera, a coastal park with wide pedestrian and bike paths with parks and playgrounds mixed in with Balboa Boulevard which carries 4 lanes of traffic in one direction and 2 sets of 3 lanes in the other. We took the walk along this park to get to Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of the city which dates back to the late 1600’s. In recent times there has been a good deal of restoration activity leaving the area a mix of beautifully restored buildings next to crumbling ruins. But the result gives a sense of just how beautiful this area once was. Just outside of Casco Viejo is the Mercado del Mariscos where you can browse the fresh seafood on offer in the main floor of the market or have a meal upstairs. Outside there is a row of ceviche vendors where for $1 or $2 you can have a styrofoam cup heaped with ceviche made with sea bass, shrimp, squid, octopus or a mix. If we lived near this it would be a regular stop.
Panama City is one of the most “American-ized” places we’ve visited so far, in no small part due to the presence of the US military and canal personnel for so many years. One example is that throughout Latin America you are sternly warned to not put toilet paper into the toilet, it must be left in the wastebasket. However, in Panama City, this is no problem since the US was responsible for building the first sanitation and water facilities for Panama City in order to help reduce the threat of Yellow Fever and Malaria for the canal workers. Also, often while walking along the streets someone will greet us in English, saying “Hello” very formally or as in one case, with great dramatic flair a young man spread his arms and said, “Welcome to Panama”.
As we prepare to leave Panama, we will make our way on October 5th to the Caribbean coast where we will board a sailboat for the trip to Colombia. This was one of our “must do” objectives for this trip. These are independent sailboat operators that regularly make the trip between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia. We will spend 3 days sailing and snorkeling among the beautiful San Blas Islands before making the 2 day sailing trip to Cartagena. We will be aboard the Gypsy Moth, a 54 foot Gulfstar CSY sailboat. So we will be out of touch for a few days until we get settled in Cartagena around the 10th or 11th of October.