Episode 48 – A Man A Plan A Canal Panama

They call it “tendering” – the process of being shuttled from the ship to the shore via boat – and today was the first time we experienced it. The Viking Star’s 200 seat lifeboats double as tender boats, so we arrived on Isla Flamenco (the first island in the city’s causeway) in a bright orange craft and flying the Norwegian flag.

We did not visit the canal today, choosing instead to take a full day tour to the Casco Viejo (Old Town). Modern Panama City gleams with high-rises of every shape and colour, in heights up to 68 stories. It’s clear that architects have fun in Panama. The skyline is quite spectacular viewed in the sunshine. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately given the UV index this close to the equator – today was mostly overcast, incredibly humid, and 28C/83F. We were forewarned about thunderstorms, so raincoats and a huge red Viking umbrella came ashore with us. December is, after all, the beginning of the rainy season.

Panama City is proud of being the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. It certainly has a huge number of bank head offices, 5 star hotels, and upscale shopping centres, and it actively encourages tourism.

It didn’t rain, but it sure was humid. It was also incredibly lush and green, with herons, pelicans and other very noisy birds everywhere.

We didn’t see any mosquitos, but they’ll come with the rains. If we were to stay here, we would need vaccinations for yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria, as the original French workers on the canal in 1881 found out. They had to give up building due to the high mortality rate of their workers. The advent of effective vaccinations allowed the USA to take over the project in 1904 and complete it by 1914. In recognition of their efforts, there is a large monument to the French team in the Plaza de Francia.

Our tour started in the original settlement, dating to 1519. Unfortunately it is now just ruins (our guide pointedly called them “remnants”, not ruins – she also smilingly insisted that Panama has no problems, just “situations” !) It’s clear from how widely spread the remains of stone-walled churches, convents, and military buildings are that this was a large city. The stone remains reminded me a little if the ruins of the convent on Iona in Scotland, although those are a hundred years or so older.

L to R: model of the original city, showing the location of the cathedral; the cathedral ruins backed by the modern skyline; a portion of the convent ruins.
You can see some modern brickwork on the cathedral. This is simply to prevent the structure from collapsing – there are no plans to reconstruct it.

The original location of Panama City made it vulnerable to attack by pirates, and in 1671 the city’s governor ordered it burnt to prevent it being taken by Henry Morgan, the English privateer. His attack on the city came just after Spain and England had signed a peace treaty, so its timing was certainly “awkward”.

The city was rebuilt in a location that was more secure, where low tides prevented ships from landing too near. The only thing salvaged from the original city was an immense gold altar, which is now in the Church of San Jose in the Old City.

The altar is made of carved wood, covered in 23.5 karat gold “plates” (thicker than gold leaf).

As we wandered the streets, we were treated to architecture in many styles and colours: Spanish Colonial, French, and even Art Deco. Because of Panama’s importance on the east/west and north/south trade routes, and the large workforce needed to build the canal, many cultures are reflected in the architecture, food, and music.

Panamanians are very proud of their ethnic diversity and tolerance (everywhere except in traffic). The newest mosque in the city was designed by a Jewish architect, and the Biodiversity Museum was designed by a Canadian, Frank Gehry!

The Gehry-designed museum. The colours are somewhat muted because it was photographed from a great distance through the humid hazy air. The paints used are automotive paint to withstand the salt air,

As we set sail for Costa Rica tonight, we had our own personal show of ships of all sizes lit up against the hills, heading for the Panama Canal.

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