Panama City

Worth the back-tracking

Our South America itinerary has a couple of different times when we backtrack pretty significantly. I started with a list of the destinations we wanted to hit and then based on optimal times of year for each one and flight availability I pulled together a schedule. This means that we do things like fly 11 hours from Houston to Rio and then 10 days later turn around and fly 6.5 hours back to Panama City. Add on to that a lengthy landing delay and our journey from Sao Paolo to Panama City took well over 7 hours. From here on out thought we have generally short flights and we say pretty linear. Well, except for the fact that we fly from Quito to Lima via Bogota, but these are the things you do to fly using miles.

The complete Panama and Cartagena   travel party

We met my Dad and Step-Mom (aka, Granddaddy and M'Amy) in Panama City and spent about a week with them, 3 nights in Panama and 3 in Cartagena. Due to a scheduling snafu they actually arrived in Panama City a day before we did, so they had a bit of time to explore before we arrived. Given the long flight and delay we arrived pretty late. Fortunately, the 3 hour time change meant that we were still in time for a late dinner, which we had at a really crowded Lebanese restaurant across the street from the hotel. In a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of our time with Granddaddy and M'Amy, we stuffed ourselves silly.

The next morning we got up relatively early and met our tour guide, Alex, in the lobby. I had arranged a private tour to cover the highlights of Panama City: the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, Ancon Hill, the Casco Viejo neighborhood, and the Amador Causeway. We probably spent fully half of the tour at the Locks, as seeing the canal in action was one of our key to-do's on the trip. Heck, it's why we added Panama to the itinerary in the first place. We were fortunate in that we got to see a full crossing of the locks and two partial crossings (one boat finishing when we arrived, another starting when we departed). The sheer scale of the locks is something to behold and the pictures don't do it justice. On top of that, it was fascinating to see the mix of old and new technology in use to get the ships through. The locks themselves are essentially unchanged since beginning operation in 1914, though they have added hydraulics to open and close the giant doors. Gravity still does most of the heavy lifting, pulling in the water to fill the locks and raise the boats up to the level required to cross the continental divide. One more modern addition is the use of locomotives on each side of the lock that use cables attached to the ships to keep them perfectly centered in the lock. In order to get those cables on board, though, they quite literally send out two guys in a small boat with oars to ferry the cables over. Like I said, a mix of old tech and new.

The rest of the tour went well, though our guide Alex was extremely blunt in his recounting of the history of the city and of the canal. He didn't hold back in discussing the number of civilian casualties inflicted by the US military in the operation against General Noriega, or in discussing the execution of a number of university students in the 1960's because they had the audacity to attempt to raise a Panamanian flag over the canal, which at that time was controlled by the US. This honest approach is certainly much better than glossing over some of those details, but it also got a bit depressing after a while...

On our second day in Panama City we spent the morning hiking at the Metropolitan Park. This is a giant protected section of rainforest right in the city, just minutes from downtown. There are several different trails, and over the course of three hours or so we did most of them. The flora along the trails was excellent and the views from the top of the hill were very good (and well earned). We also saw a half dozen or so Titi monkeys, which was a nice little treat. After a good lunch near the hotel we took a taxi out to a harbor on the Causeway for a three hour sailing bay tour. Unfortunately, the weather turned against us and the bay was very choppy (apparently highly unusual), and even Granddaddy admitted it would not be an enjoyable sail for anyone. Fortunately, the tour company was gracious and refunded us everything but their costs.

Overall we came away feeling that Panama City was a worthy destination, but it's not one I think I'd return to any time soon. Many of the restaurants around our hotel, in the Area Bancaria, were expensive by American standards, much less South American standards. Traffic was abysmal and we found it a somewhat difficult pedestrian city as well. Further, every taxi ride was a negotiation as they routinely tried to charge us 2-4x the going rate for a ride. Granted, we didn't spend as much time in the old city as we should have, nor did we take advantage of public transport, so our sample may be biased. I've heard good things about the rest of Panama, especially the San Blas islands, so we may well find ourselves back here someday.