The country not the song
10.04.2011 - 15.04.2011 30 °C
The ten of us that left Fritz the Cat behind on El Porvenir arrived in Panama City after a spray drenched, 2 hour boat ride in a local Kuna fishing vessel, two bus rides and one taxi. We arrived latish and had to split ourselves amongst a number of different accommodation options but everyone managed to find themselves a bed.
The plan for Panama City had always been to see the canal and then get out as quickly as possible, as we had heard the city itself had a bit of an unsavoury reputation. We were pleasantly surprised, the old city, Casco Viejo, where we found accommodation was very similar to Cartagena, except that unlike Cartagena, the old colonial buildings have yet to be fully restored and this creates some great juxtaposition between the crumbling masonry, the bright colours of restored buildings and the a modern CBD skyline across the bay – the likes of which we have not seen since we left Sydney.
The Panama Canal was originally built by and controlled by the US who held sovereign rights over the canal zone under the original treaty which allowed for the construction of the canal. Throughout the 20th century the relationship between the US and the Panamanian people gradually soured, giving rise to a number of serious disputes and in 1999 the US handed control of the canal to the Panamian government and withdrew their significant military presence. However, the day to day US involvement over the previous 90 years has clearly had a lasting impact on the country, consumerism seems easy and there is an abundance of familiar fast food and fantastic shopping malls. Sounds terrible, but in some ways the city was a pleasant reminder of home after having been away for so long and certainly nothing like the crime ridden hole we had imagined. The range of goods in the stores was better than anywhere else in South or Central America and that meant that I was finally able to replace my broken Ipod at a price similar to what I would have paid back home.
Other than wandering around Casco Viejo, the first and only must see attraction in the City is the canal itself. Completed in 1914 the canal is an 80km link between the Pacific and Caribbean and is no doubt the economic backbone of the country. It takes advantage of both natural lakes and waterways for much of the journey, combined with artificial lakes and huge cuts straight through the mountainside. With the lakes acting as a huge reservoirs, gravity is used to fill and empty the locks, eliminating the need for massive pumping systems. Boats must pass through three sets of locks to cross the continent, the first near the Pacific Ocean, a further smaller set in the middle and the largest set near Colon on the Caribbean. As big as they are, the locks are not large enough to accommodate all of the vessels that ply the oceans waters and a significant upgrade is currently underway, with a larger set of locks currently being built which will cater for vessels carrying up to 10,000 containers.
First thing in the morning we visited the Milaflores Locks closest to Panama City to see ships entering the canal from the Pacific ocean. The whole process was remarkably quick and I would estimate each vessel would have taken no more than an hour or so to pass through the first set of locks. We stayed for a couple of hours but after you have seen one vessel you have seen them all and we decided to head back into the city to organise our next bus and buy the aforementioned iPod.
We headed north from Panama City with our new friends Kuba and Marzenka, a Polish couple who we had met on the trip to the San Blas and who were heading in the same direction as us. next destination was Bocas del Toro, a series of islands right on the border with Costa Rica and one of the only major Panamanian tourist destinations outside of Panama City itself.
To be honest we were not blown away by the place, the main town didn't make you feel that you were in a tropical paradise and there were more dodgy tour operators harassing you as you walked down the street than there were tourists.
To actually enjoy Bocas you needed to get out of the main town and we spent a couple of days visiting different beaches and snorkelling spots around the islands. Away from the town it was actually pretty pleasant, however, although the photos look really good, the islands were not a patch on the wild, uninhabited San Blas that we had visited with Fritz and the four of us were happy to leave after a couple of days and head towards the Costa Rican border and hopefully our first taste of the Caribbean coast.