Friday, May 2, 2014

Panama City: ¡Vaya!

Often called the Miami of the South, Panama City is the capital of Panama and very much like the US city of Miami. There are high-rise hotels and condominiums located on the waterfront, heavy traffic, Latin music heard everywhere, and an electric energy. But Gus actually found it to be more like Bangkok than anywhere else. Like Bangkok, it was gritty, energetic, modern yet still developing. Like Bangkok, the high rises contrasted with slums that are still littered throughout the city.

We landed at Tocumen International Airport a few minutes before 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night. The flight was quite comfortable; we flew Copa, a Star Alliance member, and  we were complimentarily upgraded based on our status with United. After picking up our luggage we were met by our driver outside of arrivals. The drive took approximately 30 minutes and allowed Joan to practice her Spanish with Blas, our driver. We arrived at The Canal House around 9:30 p.m. and were greeted by Ivana and experienced an easy  check in process. 

The Canal House, recommended in an article in the NY Times, "did not look so special from the outside. Inside, it was another world, a quiet colonial refuge with rich wood floors, high windows and a cozy lounge." We were shown to our room by our hostess -
Pedro Miguel, one of only 3 rooms in the hotel.
 An intimate and cozy room with queen bed, wireless high
 speed Internet access, a flat screen television, an iPad with
 its own docking station, and a complimentary cell phone.
Well, at least the room had a plush queen bed. Although our iPhones were able to access WiFi, Gus' laptop was not able to detect a network. The television and its dependence on interfacing with SkyTV was impossible (staff of the hotel were also unable to get the "bloody" thing to work). The iPad's battery was down to 5% when first turned on even though it was docked; soon thereafter it lost all of its power and had to be replaced the next day. The cell phone was missing; the previous guest had regrettably taken the phone home to Toronto, Canada and there was no replacement offered. ¡Vaya!
N.B. The Canal House, was declared Panama’s “top boutique offering” by Lonely Planet Travel Guide in 2010 and Editor’s Pick by The New York Times in 2011. The  housekeeping staff is made up of women from the neighborhood whose training is made possible by Fundacion Calicanto.
We slept reasonably well and awoke to an alarm at 6:30 a.m. We had a pick-up at the hotel at 8:30 a.m. to take us to  begin our tour of the Panama Canal. A simple breakfast of coffee, fresh fruit, eggs, and toast was perfect. Our driver Katia ( who later, unexpectedly, served as problem solver and tour guide) delivered us to Albrook airfield (now known as Marcos A. Gelebert Airport). Gus had arranged a helicopter tour of the Canal. Air Charter Panama had committed to a 1 hour tour, departing at 9:00 a.m., covering both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Canal.
As we arrived at the airfield, Katia called Air Charter Panama a.k.a. Hunter Schultz to find out which hanger she should drop us off at to board the helicopter. Hunter had no recollection of the reservation and said that no helicopters were available. ¡Vaya! "Now wait just a "bloody" minute Hunter; we have travelled to PC primarily, if not solely, to view the Canal and you must find us a helicopter!" With Katia's help as a go-between and some scrambling by Hunter we got a helicopter.

The tour was in a Robinson R44. Joan sat in the front passenger seat with her door removed; Gus sat in the back with his door fully present and secured. Before takeoff, Gus queried the pilot as to whether he had much experience flying helicopters? "Not really. My dad just bought this heli last week and I have at most 10 hours of flight time." ¡Vaya!

Once airborne, we knew that we had a very experienced pilot and we were in for a spectacular experience.

 On the left is Miraflora Locks on the Pacific entrance of the Canal and on the right is
 Centennial Bridge

On the left is Gatun Lake and Gamboa Resort and El Renacer prison (current home of
 Manuel Noriega) and on the right are islands in Gatun Lake traversed by tracks of the
Panama Canal Railway 
Container ship in the foreground on the left and an empty cruise ship on the right heading
 toward Panama City to pick up passengers
On the left is the construction area for the new set of locks on the Pacific entrance  and on
 the right for the Atlantic entrance
On the left is Gatun Locks on the Atlantic entrance of the Canal and on the right the
 Gatun Dam just to the west of the locks

"The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war. Apart from wars, it represented the largest, mostly costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth. It held the world's attention over a span of forty years. It affected the lives of tens of thousands of people at every level of society and of virtually every race and nationality. Great reputations were made and destroyed. For members of men and women it was an adventure of a lifetime." The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough

Leaving the canal zone, our helicopter pilot did a fly over of Panama City which Joan steady handily captured.

Panama City has the most prominent skyline in Central America. There are currently more than
 110 high rise projects being constructed, with 127 high-rise buildings already built. The city, as
 of 2012, held the 40th place in the world by high rise buildings count.

Landing, offering our "Oo ees" and "Oo ahs" along with our thank yous, we bid goodbye!

Katia (a.k.a. Kats Tours Panama) had waited for our return and agreed to take us to see a few selected points of interest within the City.

Our first stop was Ancon Hill. It was under US jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone for much of the 20th century and therefore was never developed like most of the surrounding urbanized parts of the city.

Ancon Hill and surrounding area

View of the City's skyline from Ancon Hill

Monument of Amelia Denis de Icaza on Ancon Hill; her nationalistic and nostalgic poem, Al Cerro Ancón, influenced several nationalistic movements which decades later led to the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977.  A plaque commemorating the Panama Canal Treaties. When
 Panama regained control of the hill following the 1977 , one of the first things the country did was fly a large Panamanian flag atop the hill.
Leaving, we drove past the former residence of the Governor of the Canal Zone and through the lower slopes of Ancon Hill which contained beautiful residence after beautiful residence.  From Ancon Hill we drove a bit west and then south towards the Amador Causeway.
We got an early glimpse of the new Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo
 which is nearing completion of its multi year construction.
Frank Gehry’s iconic Biomuseo in Panama City—a project that has been in the works for over a decade. The vividly hued concrete and steel biodiversity museum sits dramatically along the Amador Causeway, former site of a U.S. Army base at the Pacific entry to the Canal. Focusing on Panama’s rich and diverse ecosystem, the 43,000-square-foot museum will function as an interpretive center and a catalyst for environmental stewardship. It is intended to serve as a “point of entry to discover Panama” as well, for both locals and the tourists it is hoped that the building will attract.

Another photo of Panama City skyline, this time including the
 Trump Ocean Club whose sleek design evokes a majestic sail fully
 deployed in the wind is  just peeking above the other skyscrapers
 on the right.
The Trump Ocean Club is actually a surprisingly beautiful piece of architecture. The tower was designed by Arias Serna Saravia, one of the most renowned architectural and engineering firms in Colombia.

Returning to our hotel, we decided that lunch and self guided stroll of Casco Viejo seemed just about right for the afternoon schedule. While we hoped to try Ciao Pescao, it had gone out of business. Responding to the challenge we selected El Virrey, a newly opened restaurant ... "out with old in with the new."

Innovative and well executed Peruvian inspired dishes yet it was on the expensive side for Panama City or even San Francisco.

For dessert we each had ice cream, Joan - her favorite vanilla and Gus - chocolate. A bit later Gus had a snow cone (shaved ice).

On the left  Granclement which serves extraordinary gelato. On the right a street purveyor of
raspao (Panama's fruity shaved ice). He prepared a light, fluffy snow cone with a razor-like tool
 scratching the surface a giant block of ice and flavoring the shaved ice with one of 3 flavored syrups.

While we had plans to  do an extensive tour of Casco Viejo and photograph all of the famous landmarks we chose instead to capture  and convey the mood of the area on this ordinary Saturday overcast afternoon. 
On the left a row of buildings, many residences, may have beautiful facades but stand
 in disrepair. On the right, only ruins remain of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, built in 1678
 but victim of several fires including one in 1781, from which time it was never rebuilt.
Poster of José Domingo Arias , 2014 presidential candidate
General elections were held in Panama on 4th May. Due to constitutional term limits, incumbent President Ricardo Martinelli was ineligible for a second consecutive term. Juan Carlos Varela, to the surprise of many, was declared the victor with 39% of the votes counted against 32% for Arias.

It was very interesting to watch, although very briefly, the election process in Panama. Candidates (local, state, and national) were out and about and making themselves as visible as possible. There were posters, banners, and flags all over the City. Katia told us that the candidates have to put up the money to take down all their stuff before they are even allowed to put it up, which sounds like a very good idea. People drive around with flags and signs on their cars, there are ads on TV, trucks drive around with loudspeakers, and there are rallies small and large. But maybe the most interesting -

Notice – Dry Law
The Tribunal Electoral makes public knowledge that from noon on Saturday the 3rd until noon on Monday the 5th of May, 2014, will close all the bars, saloons, centers of night fun (nightclubs), dance halls, and other places that sell alcoholic beverages and it is prohibited to sell, gift, transfer, use or consume.The measure has the objective of granting a climate of peace and tranquility for the general elections of May 4th which is a civic holiday, and once again will be evidence of the political maturity of the Panamanians.Excepted from this prohibition of consumption are foreigners in hotels where they are guests.
Can anyone image this restriction being applied in the U.S. ?
Turnout in this year's Panamanian presidential election was 75%
 whereas turnout in the 2012 American presidential election was
 58% ... thinkAboutit
On the left are two young girls walking alongside a colorfully painted fence; one is a typical
 Panamanian girl dressed in shorts and tee while the second is dressed in traditional Kuna garb
 including a patterned wrap-around skirt, a mola blouse, kuna arm & leg bead bracelets, and
 a red headscarf; what a compatible juxtaposition. On the right is a young woman lounging in
 an open doorway while Latin music blared from inside the building.
Leaving the center of Casco Viejo we ventured to Plaza de Francia. This beautiful plaza pays homage to the French role in the construction of the canal.
"Cultural Space", in French
Ferdinand de Lesseps
In May 1879 a congress of 136 delegates (including de Lesseps)
 assembled in the rooms of the Geographical Society in Paris, under
 the presidency of Admiral de la Roncire le Noury, and voted in favor
 of the creation of a Panama Canal, which was to be without locks, like
 the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was appointed President of the Panama
 Canal Company, despite the fact that he had reached the age of 74.

On the left, monument to Pablo Arosemena who, besides being the 5th President of Panama, was
 an integral member of a team that negotiated a the treaty with the U.S. to build the Canal. On the
 right, the Monument of Vaults,  an obelisk topped with a French coq (Gallic rooster). Surrounding
 the obelisk are busts of de Lesseps, Armand Reclus, Lucien Wyse, Leon Boyer, and Pedro Sosa and
 10 commemorative, marble plaques provide details of the labor of construction the Canal.

Walking up the steps, at the southern end of the plaza, we discovered a  bustling handicrafts market. Here we bought a beautiful mola panel from a Kuna woman. We left the market via Paseo Esteban Huertas and returned to our hotel.

After short naps , showers, and "dressing up" we were off to dinner.
Manolo Caracol restaurant reflects the country’s Caribbean-infused
 culinary traditions with a swaggering self-confidence. There was no
 menu; once we were seated, we received a parade of 10 small plates
 filled with eclectic blends of the finest, freshest ingredients. N.B. The
 restaurant did not adhere to the dry law of the Tribunal Electoral.
The next morning we had our simple breakfast, checked out and said goodbye to The Canal House ...
Large canvas in living room of the Canal House
... Blas, our driver, picked us up at 7:00 a.m. for our morning flight to Cancun. As Blas placed our luggage on the airport sidewalk I quickly paid our fare and tip and reminded him not to forget to vote; he turned, laughed, and pointed to his tee-shirt lettered ...

José Domingo
Vamos por mas CAMBIOS

... no worries señor, no worries.



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