We decided to take off from the boat for a week or so and travel around the interior of Panama to see what we could see. We began this leg of the journey in Isla Grande - we packed our bags and had Capt. Mark dinghy us over to the mainland where we were to meet a taxi-shuttle to transport us to Panama City. Stuart was interested in seeing the country as well, so came along with us. We had 8 or 9 days to explore Panama by foot, rental car and taxi and even though that would probably not be enough time, we were determined to do the best we could. Our incredible taxi driver and guide Tomas, spoke great English and had a wonderfully cheerful personality. He had an incredible wealth of knowledge about Panama, which he shared with us skillfully.
Tomas took us straight to Panama City and we arrived Sunday night after a 3 hour (rather bumpy) ride from Isla Grande. All along the way, we could see the aftermath of the Independence Day celebrations - some parties were still winding down with people and festivals everywhere.
Tomas took us to a few hotels before we found one with some room. We would up staying at La Cresta Inn on Via Espana. It wound up being a very centrally located area called El Cangrejo, we could walk to lots of shops and restaurants and really get the feel for the Latin American bustling metropolis, it seemed very similar to Miami. We could also take a taxi almost anywhere in the city for a couple of bucks and it seemed to be the safest way to get around. There is a lot of traffic in Miami and you must be an extremely offensive style of driver to survive in Panama City!!
We were able to set up a tour of the city with Tomas, who came back in his awesome and pristine Hyundai minivan to shuttle us around the city and give us the history and grand tour of all of Panama City. There are so many different areas to see, one more intriguing than the next. We started out with, Casco Viejo, the "Old Fort" dating back to 1673. Casco Viejo was in a state of revitalization and the architecture was much like New Orleans, with the French Style balconies and also some Spanish influence, some buildings were still in disrepair and at least half of them were absolutely stunning. There were numerous churches, buildings, ruins, cobblestone streets and old dungeon doors dating back to the 1600's and Tomas knew the stories behind all of them! There were monuments to the men behind the Panama Canal and incredible views of the entire city.
We then headed towards "Las Ruinas" the ruins or "La Vieja" the Old City. The ruins were from the first Panama City dating back as far as the 1500's that was burned to the ground. The Pirate Henry Morgan, on a rampage in 1671, traveled by foot to La Vieja on a mission for Gold. The City had lots of gold, most of it would be transported back to Spain. But Morgan and his men traveled by foot from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific to La Vieja. A priest received word that the pirates were upon them and ordered the golden altar of the Catedral to be painted black. As Morgan and his men reached the City they sacked it taking all of the gold except the Golden Altar, which they thought to have been made of metal due to the black color. Now either the pirates then burned the city to the ground or a townsman set of the magazine in an attempt to rid themselves of the pirates. La Vieja burned to the ground and all that remains are stones, rubble a tower from the catedral and the Altar de Oro, Altar of Gold. The Altar of gold is the only piece of La Vieja that exists outside of the buildings or ruins and resides in La Iglesia de San Jose in Casco Viejo. Morgan ran a successful attack and decimated Panama La Vieja. Two years later the rebuilding began with Casco Viejo, a more strategic location 8 kilometers away from La Vieja with a fort to protect it.
Another section of town were the high rises built on land brought in from the dredging of the Panama Canal. The booming metropolis of the very cosmopolitan downtown area had only existed since the early 1970's. There were cranes everywhere and in recent years the area has had incredible challenges from not being able to get enough concrete to continue building. The property values were much less than we would pay in the States. Most real estate seemed to go for 1/3 to 1/2 of what you would pay for a comparable piece of property in the States. Those prices were in the city, in the more rural areas you could get even better deals than that. The merchandise also seemed to be somewhat cheaper, but the restaurants were half as expensive or less than in the States. We have continually paid from $7 - $9 for Filet Mignon in very nice restaurants, and the beef is wonderful!! We have seen thousands of cows roaming the gorgeous hillsides eating Grass!! Imagine that?! The fresh seafood is out of this world and these people can cook! There is no doubt about that, we have really enjoyed the food here in Panama.
Other areas of town were the Amador Causeway, which was 4 miles of causeway connecting a chain of 4 islands. All of the causeway area was dredged in to connect the islands and originally this was a U.S. military area for workers from the Panama Canal. Now it has lots of restaurants and shops and is a tourist attraction where you can sit at the restaurants and watch as the ships prepare to enter the Panama Canal.
We also visited the Canal Zone area where the military personnel and their families lived, and where the administrative offices were etc. The American Flag used to fly high on the hill there at Ancon, but since the turnover to the Panamanians of the canal and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of buildings and property in 2000, the Panamanian Flag flys there now. There is a lot of hope for the government to do right by the people as they continue to bring in billions of dollars of revenue through the canal each year, now that Panama is in control of the canal. The locals are optimistic that the money will filter down to the people of Panama eventually, but the sentiment is also that the Americans did a better job of running things and keeping people safe. There is quite a bit more crime in areas like Colon since the Americans left.
We visited Punta Paitilla where Donald Trump and others are building enormous and glamorous high rises on areas of land also dredged in from the ocean. The entire Punta Paitilla only came into existence 6 years ago. There is a lot of dredging going on in an effort to have more & new waterfront property in the city, but you can't fool Mother Nature. There is also a huge problem as far as swimming in the Bay of Panama, which the entire town sits on, all of the toilets in the City of Panama flush into the Bay. Quite a large, messy problem, but it does seem to be "in the works" to install a sewer system!
Last and best of all we got to visit the Mira Flores Locks. One of the 3 sections of the Panama Canal where there are locks. There is a viewing platform to watch the ships transit the locks and you can pay a couple of bucks to go up a few stories and see the ships transit or even better you can head up to the wonderful restaurant with a viewing platform and get a front row seat and an excellent meal and watch as many transits as you'd like. It was fascinating to see the tankers, grain & container ships pass through the locks as some of them looked like they would barely make it in! We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and Tomas knew every spec on the entire operation from how many meters the ships would drop in how much time and how many containers would be on each ship etc.. It was by far the best part of an absolutely wonderful and exhausting day.
Just picked up by Tomas in his Hyundai van for the 3 hour ride from Isla Grande to Panama City
These were the "Diablos Rojos" or Red Devils, the graffiti painted retired U.S. school buses that took people all over the country, very cheaply
Mikey in Chinatown
Panama City's Chinatown
La Iglesia de San Jose
La Iglesia de San Jose
Casco Viejo looked a lot like the French quarter in New Orleans
Iglesia de San Jose
Part of Casco Viejo not yet renovated
There were tracks from the old rail cars that used to come down the streets, some of the streets are original
One of the oldest churches in Casco Viejo, Iglesia de Santo Domingo built in the 1600's
The church burned for the 2nd time in 1756 and was never restored
The arch inside is the famous flat arch or Arco Chato
Casco Viejo is in a state of renovation, the architecture is Spanish & French influence
The flat arch in the middle of this picture was a sign to the forefathers who decided to put the canal through here
They knew that if a flat arch had withstood hundreds of years here without falling from seismic activity, that the locks would last in this location
The flat arch - there is no keystone and no curve to it
It did finally fall, 3 days after the centennial celebration of Panama's independence, and has since been rebuilt
The locals are always looking for someone to blame and in this case it was the trucks that were allowed to drive thru Casco Viejo for a short amount of time, they are no longer allowed to drive thru this area of town
The National Culture Institute
The French Embassy
The view from Casco Viejo with the bridge of the Americas in the distance
The story of the Panamanian people was painted on the wall inside of the cultural institute
Nudity is always used wherever possible in Latin American Art
A cannon from 1620
Inside of the institute
Stu, Tomas & Kate in Casco Viejo, Panama - the old part of the city with a fort from 1673
The statue of the golden rooster is good luck, and a French tradition
The Panamanian people raised this statue in honor of the French & all the people who died trying to build the Panama Canal the first time
The old fort of Casco Viejo with the original doors
Still the original stone & door from the late 1600's
The memorial to the French, who first tried to build the Canal and lost 22,000 people to Malaria
These are the founding fathers of the Panama Canal
Information about the founding fathers of the Panama Canal
The scientist who came up with the cure for yellow fever, he saved the project and many lives
The view from Casco Viejo - The Old Fort
The monument to the French - the golden rooster
A bird sitting on the rooster
The view of the new section of Panama City - built entirely on rock and materials taken from the dredging of the canal
Stu, Tomas & Kate with Panama City in the distance
Mike & Kate on Casco Viejo
The Embera tribe children dancing
They are one of the many tribes of Panama - they are the only topless tribe
Noriega's Doghouse - name given to the place where you would be taken and tortured if you were in the "doghouse" with Noriega
Noriega's doghouse to the left with Panama City in the background
Tomas explains the history of Noriega's Doghouse to other interested gringos
Noriega's doghouse, one of his govt buildings now destroyed
There was not much love lost for "Pineapple Face" the locals called him
The policeman's mode of transportation in Casco Viejo was a bicycle
The Emerald Museum and jewelry store!
Mike & Kate in the emerald mines, this was the Emerald Museum - at the end of the tour, they had cases filled with emerald jewelry to buy, how convenient!
Kate hoping for a big Emerald!
Mike getting fresh with one of the miners
Mike touching the hiney of a miner
Iglesia y convento de San Francisco de Asis
The doors of the Iglesia de San Francisco
The top of the tower is not painted because when the moon is full it shines on the tower and the tower looks illuminated
Iglesia de San Francisco
Inside the National Theatre
The murals were the only original part of the theatre from 1907
Iglesia de San Francisco
Iglesia de San Francisco
The original floor of the church
The stones are from the 1600's
Bolivar Palace, now the Foreign Ministry building
The palace was a school for many years
Simon Bolivar is a legendary figure who is considered the father of Latin America's independence from Spain
This structure dates back to the 1920's Bolivar's Palace
The White House - The President of Panama traditionally lives in this house
A pair of African Heron's given as a gift to the President, they stand guard at the gates of Casa Blanca
Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion
Plaza de la independencia
The Plaza de la Independencia is where Panama declared it's independence from Colombia in 1903
Catedral de Nuestra Senora - began construction in 1688, but it took more than 100 years to complete
There were wooden statues of each of the disciples and Jesus, one or two had fallen out
Plaza de la Independencia
This is a monument to Major General George Goethals:
Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal, Master-Builder, Engineer of Genius, Man of Vision, This Monument is Dedicated by his fellow Americans
The Administration building of the Panama Canal
Administration Building for the Panama Canal in Balboa
Mikey photographing the Goethal Monument
The Monument is huge!
The three tiers of the fountain are fro the 3 locks of the Canal, Gatun Locks, Mira Flores Locks & Pedro Miguel Locks
Tomas's sweet Hyundai Van our limo for the day
Kate outside the van
The view from Cerro Ancon
View of the Port from Cerro Ancon
The view of Casco Viejo from Cerro Ancon
You can see a large sport fisher coming into the Bay
Panama City, notice all of the cranes, the city has had a problem running out of concrete they are growing so fast. Six years ago none of this existed.
Stu taking in the view at Cerro Ancon
Mike & Tomas at Cerro Ancon, or "the hill"
Panama's huge flag sits proudly atop of "The Hill"
The American Flag used to fly here, before the Canal was given to the Panamanians
Cerro Ancon is in the Canal Zone and was mostly Pan-Americans military and their families
The Bay of Panama, you can see the breakwater for one of the Marina's
The Bridge of the Americas or the Puente de Las Americas
This is the only thing connecting North & South America after the Canal was dug
A monument to the Chinese for their help in building the canal
People say the Chinese were harder workers than any other nationality
Bridge of the Americas
The Bridge of the Americas - links the InterAmericana Highway on the Pacific side of Panama, and crosses the Panama Canal.
View of the Port from the bridge
World Trade Center Panama
Mikey in front of the World Trade Center Panama
La Vieja was the Old Panama that was burned in battle with the Pirate, Henry Morgan
The Ruins are pre-1671
The city was burned in an explosion of the magazine where the ammunition and gun powder were kept
This was the oldest part of the ruins that is still in tact, our guide told us that this was where the natives would sacrifice virgins to their Gods, the head would be severed in the raised circular area in the middle
Mud Flats across from La Vieja- the oldest part of town
The Ruins of Panama La Vieja's Cathedral Tower - one of the few structures to survive the attack - it is now a national symbol it was built between 1619 & 1626
Hurry up Mike!!
The oldest bridge in the Americas from the 1500's
Our Guide, Tomas. told us that the bricks on the bridge were black from the fire in 1671 when Morgan sacked the City
The bridge is still in tact, you can walk over it
Crossing the oldest bridge in North or South America