December 30, 2021 86°F/30°C
Our last South and Central American cruise touched on the Pacific coast of Panama, and included a tour of Panama City’s “Casco Viejo” (old quarter), where we marvelled at the juxtaposition of historic buildings and the modern city’s skyscrapers and the brightly coloured Frank Gehry biodiversity museum building (Episode 48 – A Man A Plan A Canal Panama).
On our 5 hour included tour today we revisited some of the same sights, but came at them via a 90 minute drive across the isthmus from the port in Colón (where we’re docked since we’ll actually be sailing through the Panama Canal tomorrow, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean). We also had the advantage this time of blazing sunshine as opposed to last visit’s overcast skies, so the colours of the city were that much more vibrant.
What was most interesting to me was the contrast between Colón and Panama City, given that both are major ports. Prior to the completion of the canal, Colón was the endpoint of the railroad that brought gold from the California gold rush to the ships waiting in the Caribbean to transport it to Europe. The city was a thriving centre, home to people and business interests from all over the world. After being almost destroyed in 1885 during the Colombian Civil War, it was rebuilt, but further damaged by a huge fire in 1915. By then, the Panama Canal was completed, and the railroad began to take a back seat to shipping. In 1940, 1/3 of the city was again destroyed by fire. Many of the wealthy inhabitants moved their homes and businesses to Panama City, leaving empty buildings behind to be taken over by squatters. In a tropical climate, with twice as much rain on the Caribbean side as the country sees on its Pacific coast, and high salinity in the atmosphere, buildings where no rent was being collected, and no maintenance done, quickly deteriorated. It was quite shocking to see the crumbling concrete, missing windows, and general squalor. Whether the city’s plan to demolish and rebuild as an economic centre is successful remains to be seen.
Our drive was a fairly leisurely one, past Gatun Lake, through the architecturally beautiful Balboa area, home to many of the administrative buildings related to the canal, and along the flower-lined main coastal highway. Unfortunately, we did not stop for pictures in Balboa.
We even got a good view of the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the canal.
Driving in the insane traffic in Panama City we had the chance to marvel at the scarily tall (to me) skyscrapers, in many different shapes – some so narrow they look like they would have to tip over. Fortunately, Panama is not prone to earthquakes. The skyline has been compared to Singapore; if all goes as planned, we’ll be able to judge the comparison ourselves in February.
Having toured the old quarter before, my focus during today’s walking tour was COLOUR. The vibrant colours in all the gorgeous flowers is reflected in the colours of many of the buildings – especially those which have been refurbished.
For Ted, it’s almost always all about the birds, and we certainly saw some interesting ones.
I felt that today of all days I needed to be sure to wear my “Panama” hat, which of course is really from Montecristi in Ecuador, but was popularized by the workers building the Panama canal and in famous newspaper photographs published of President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one at the opening of the canal. In 2019 we watched the hats being made by hand – a fascinating and time-consuming process of weaving and shaping. Thank goodness I did, because we were caught in a flash 10-minute torrential downpour, and my hat was surprisingly waterproof!
The downpour put us behind schedule, so our driver Beto fairly flew the bus home. We think we saw a 115 kph speed limit sign at one point, but it whizzed by way too fast to be sure. The only time we dropped out of warp speed was going through the toll booth. It was exhilarating!
After a very full tour day, it was a treat to have our first dinner at Manfredi’s, the ship’s Italian restaurant. To say that I’ve been looking forward to their bread basket for two years is not an exaggeration. The breads served here are served nowhere else on the ship: (detail plus pics). There will undoubtedly come a time when dinner here is just the bread basket and the lovely cheese plate… but not tonight.
A pretty perfect day topped off by another performance by Juliette Primrose on violin.
Life is good.