Checking out the Hub of the Americas: Panama City

There is more to Panama than a canal and structured shell companies. Panama’s ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the world. The isthmus was a key pathway for both human and animal migration ages ago and is still used by many species of birds that do not handle long-haul flights well over the ocean.  The country has two beautiful coastlines on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as fairy-tale archipelagos including Bocas del Toro and the idyllic San Blas Islands.  It also has a number of world-class surf breaks and national parks dense with all sorts of unique flora and fauna.

And then there is Panama City, a vibrant city of 1.5 million that feels a lot larger.  It is a very modern city compared to other major cities in Central America.

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We spent a few days in the city, and it was a perfect amount of time to check out the canal and some of the surrounding national parks as well as spend some time in the downtown area to experience the city vibe.  Panama City is not as developed as some cities in South America (such as Lima, Medellin or Buenos Aires) (but more developed than other cities in Central America), and it has a lot of gritty areas.  However, it is an interesting spot nonetheless, and the outdoors are very accessible via a short taxi ride or even the train.

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The city surrounds a beautiful bay and most spots are never too far from the waterfront. There is a beautiful promenade and walking path that runs the length of the city and is a great spot for a run, a bike ride or just a stroll to check out the scene. It can get really hot and even more humid in Panama City so heading out early or later in the day is a good call. Check out Avenida Balboa for maps and details.

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Casco Viejo is an older part of town that is a bit out of the away from the modern city center but has a lot of character and worth a visit. You can hop on a bike or walk from downtown along the waterfront for 3-4 kms. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants, bars, colonial architecture, churches and squares. It is a little raw, but they are working on it.  At this point, there are not a lot of hotel or hostel options that offer good value, but there is a lot of building and renovating activity.  Casco Viejo could be a very nice spot in a couple years. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth a visit especially for the Panama Canal Museum which is much better than the one at the canal.

IMG_6211IMG_6213Slightly farther afield is the Biomuseo, a stunning, Frank Geary designed museum set on reclaimed land (they had to put the dirt from the canal digging somewhere) out in the bay. The design is classic Geary and a sight to see, even if it feels a bit out of place. Apparently he married a Panamanian woman who may have done a bit of lobbying for its building. The museum has a great set of exhibitions that provide details on Panama’s geographic history as well as its historical and present ecosystems.  The Biomuseo is another spot which is definitely worth checking out.

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Compliments of the Interwebs

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Panama has a fascinating ecosystem as it connects both North and South America and the Atlantic with Pacific. Creatures that roamed this land in the past are truly horrifying and include the giant sloth bear and the massive shark, Megaladon.

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Giant Sloth Bear averaged 15 feet tall
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The Megalodon was about the size of a schoolbus

For years, Panama City has been regarded as one of the best spots for retirement for US citizens.  A mostly modern infrastructure, lower cost of living, cheaper real-estate, good healthcare and great weather put it on the retiree radar.  However, prices have been increasing. We found it a bit more expensive and less charming than other cities in the area such as Cartagena,  Medellin, ColombiaAntigua, Guatemala or even Mexico City. But if you are in the area or heading to one of the Panama coasts, it is worth a stop in the city for a few days.

 

The Path Between The Seas; A Good Read on the Creation of the Panama Canal

A friend recommended the book, The Path Between The Seas, by David McCullough, and I am thankful he did.  The book is as much about the challenges associated with building the Panama canal, first by the French and later by the US, as is it a biography of the leaders needed to complete the monumental project.  The initial tale describes the challenges that the French, the original diggers of the canal, encountered and ultimately led to their downfall.  Similar to many complex problems, many contributing factors combine to limit progress and find solutions.  This was the case in the French’s attempt but ultimately a key factor leading to France’s demise and abandonment of the canal project was De Lesseps’, the lead developer of the Panama Canal (and the successful developer of the Suez), inept leadership skills due to an inability to listen to those on his team.  Conversely, the US building of the canal would likely not have happened had it not been for Teddy Roosevelt’s strong leadership and his manipulative steps taken to enable the Republic of Panama to formally separate from Colombia.  Even for the US team, the project was extremely challenging and arduous spanning 12 years.  Two of the three Chief Engineers, Stevens and Goethal, had to employ strategies to build morale and motivate the work force, while they battled harsh conditions,  to ultimately get the work done.

There are times the book gets mired in the technical details of Pathbetweenthe Seasthe building of the canal, but it includes many interesting tidbits:

  • The US conducted extensive surveys of Nicaragua evaluating it as a potential site for the canal and almost went to war with Britain over the rights to Nicaragua land for the potential site.
  • The canal opened six months early.  A confirmation of the leadership and dedication of the those working on the canal.
  • The US canal project was a clean project unlike when the French were attempting to build the canal. There is no evidence that corruption or even excessive profits were made by companies working on the canal. (One of these companies happened to be an unknown (at the time) and small engineering firm from upstate New York, General Electric)
  • Stevens, one of the Chief Engineers that was instrumental in the building of the canal, has a pass named after him in the Pacific Northwest, Stevens Pass. Before working on the canal, he worked for the railroad and found this key pass for train travel in Washington state.
  • Between 1904 and 1913, approximately 5,600 workers died due to disease or accidents.Many of these earlier deaths had been caused by yellow fever and malaria. Dr. Gorgas, who would later go on to be US Surgeon General, was relentless in his pursuit of eradicating yellow fever and malaria and is no small reason why the project was ultimately a success.

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats and a true testament to American ingenuity.  Visiting the canal was a special experience and reading this book in parallel with the visit made it that much more interesting.

 

 

Birding in Soberania National Park, Panama City

We will try anything once, and a few times if it doesn’t kill us.  So when we found ourselves staying less than 10 km from Soberania National Park which has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world as well as a dense avian habitat with an incredible number of species, we thought “let’s go birding” – not really knowing what that meant.  After some TripAdvising and Googling to find some guide options, it was off to the deeper sanctums of the  interwebs for some investigation of the popular birding blogs.  We quickly learned that this is a very serious sport where birders will spend gobs of money ($32B by North American Birders 15 years ago!) on travel and gear to travel to the ends of the earth chasing (or twitching) a particularly rare species and to dense habitats to achieve a record Big Year, Big Day or Big Sit. Given it was our first time, we were smug with the realization that we would be setting personal bests throughout our outing – an outing that began at 5:45am.

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Not surprisingly, in the oppressive April heat and humidity of Panama City, birds and animals (and humans with any sense) are most active in the early morning and the late evening. Soberania National Park is just about 30 min. from Panama City so it is a very do-able day trip.  We were headed to the Park’s famous Pipeline Road but would stop at a couple other spots first.  Our guide was Gonzalo who is a passionate birding guide with a wealth of information on the birds as well as the flora and fauna of the region. And for the few bird calls where his whistle was lacking, he had recorded calls on his smartphone (check out Cornell’s bird identification app).  His first questions to us were which species were we after and what was our count expectations for the day. Attempting to hide our ignorance, I mumbled a couple species into my coffee and indicated that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t hit his Pipeline day count record of 130, but we needed to see at least 50 different species.

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We pulled into the eerie ghost town of Gamboa just about 6am. Gamboa is an older township built to house workers of the Panama Canal.  Its parks and streets are overgrown and homes are in disrepair. Oddly, the Smithsonian foundation just built a beautiful research facility that stands-out as if Apple were to build their new headquarters in downtown Detroit. And indeed the only people we saw (granted it was EARLY), were a couple of bearded and bed-headed P.H.D. students heading off to an experimental greenhouse to presumably record some early morning data of some sorts.

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But Gonzalo did not want to talk about Gamboa or the Smithsonian activities, he was laser -focused on birding. We cased the abandon park from the windows of his truck to locate some calls. After just a few hundred yards, we pulled over and he pulled out his spotting scope with a tripod and his two sets of binoculars (we blamed our travel on our lack of birding equipment), and we were off and running. Parakeets, toucans, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and so many more.  Birds were everywhere  – in trees, on fences, on the ground, on homes.  We roamed the area for a couple hours.  He would locate a new species by their calls first and then with his trained eye, set up a scope and have us take a look.  We were scolded more than once if we were not quick enough to the scope – he was serious about finding the birds for us.

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Our second spot was just down the road at a location named “the ammo dump“, which was the site of an active ammunition dump that houses some of the armaments that were used to protect the Canal in the past.  It is directly across a dirt road from the canal, and we saw a number of tankers float by while we were there.

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Gonzalo and his trusty scope. Panamax tanker on the canal in the background.

There is a small pond and some marshland that attracts aquatic birds as well as iguanas and lizards (including the “Jesus Christ” lizard) Here we found some vultures, parrots, herons, and a number of migrating birds (Panama’s isthmus provides a very popular route for the migratory birds that travel between North and South America but are not equipped for long pelagic journeys).

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We also ran into a tamandua, or anteater, that was busy checking out ant nests on the ground and high above in the trees.

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Our final stop was the Soberania National Park where we roamed around the pipeline trail and its vicinity. (note: the pipeline is a East to West pipeline that was covertly built by the US during WWII to ensure that fuel for fighter planes protecting the canal would be available on either side of the canal).

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While in the park, we bumped into more professional birder travelers, completely decked out in their travel gear and weighed down by scopes, books, and cameras. They were quick to point out birds as well as other oddities such as the leaf-cutter ants that create a trail through the underbrush after weeks of transporting leaves from high above in the tree canopy down to their nests in the ground hundreds of meters away.

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We also ran into a few foreign mammal species, including the agouti, tayra  and the aggressive coati. Unfortunately, much like many places in the world, Panama is also experiencing a very dry climate which is killing animals and forcing others to be much more active to search for alternative water sources. The howler monkeys were also out in force and we have been hearing their howls for months now but we did get a close up view of one while on the pipeline road. It was hard to determine who was looking at whom.

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Woody

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Agouti

All up, we were out for about 6 hours and managed to see 65 different bird species as well as 5 different mammals and some reptiles. Not bad for our first outing (a fact which we ultimately admitted to Gonzalo- although he was way ahead of us and knew immediately  when we asked some rookie questions early on).

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If you are in Panama, we highly recommend getting out into at least one of the parks. There are many – near and in Panama city and on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Panama’s unique geological history and location make it a truly unique spot for wildlife and it is worth understanding and witnessing it.  For more of our travels and thoughts on Panama, check out our posts here.

 

 

Amazing American Engineering in Panama

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat. —THEODORE ROOSEVELT”

From Cartagena, Colombia, we flew to Panama City for six days.  A key objective was to check out the Panama Canal, a fascinating feat of American engineering, human spirit, and resilience.The complex engineering problems combined with the  immense hardships of the environment and living conditions of tens of thousands of worked created an almost insurmountable challenge.  Indeed, the French tried before the USA and gave up.  Many risked their lives and died from malaria and yellow fever.  From 1904-1914 mostly under Teddy Roosevelt’s leadership , the US began and completed a lock system canal on the Isthmus of Panama.  100 years later, 5% of the world’s shipping traffic continue to use these locks on an annual basis. The Panama government took control of the canal in 1999 and continue to invest in its infrastructure.  This spring, they will open a larger set of locks that, incredibly, will allow ships that can hold as many as 13k containers to pass (The current Panamax tankers have a capacity of only 5K twenty-foot units or TEUs).  China has started work on a competing canal in Nicaragua (originally one of the sites considered before building the Panama canal) but have recently stopped digging, and Nicaraguan support for the project seems to be decreasing among many.

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When visiting Panama City and the canal, there are at least two key places to visit:

  1. The Miraflores Locks
  2. Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum

The Miraflores Locks are about 40 minutes from downtown Panama City.  At Miraflores, there is a short (10 minute) movie about the canal, a small museum and viewing decks to watch the boats passing thru the Miraflores Locks. The viewing deck is the key reason to visit so that you can watch the super tankers and cruise boats squeeze through the channel.

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We visited the Miraflores Locks before the museum due to some logistics, but recommend visiting the museum first in Panama City.  The museum and movie at Miraflores is more fluff than information or data on the canal and is poorly done, in our opinion.  The main attraction  is clearly the locks and the viewing platform that allows you to view the operation. Be sure to check the the locks operation schedule for best viewing time of the boats though because there is limited boat traffic from 10am-2PM when they change the direction of the traffic.  We visited from 1-4:30 pm and the boats started coming thru around 2 pm including three private sailboats, two tankers and a cruise ship.  Intrigued by the engineering of the locks, the process and just watching the boats, we could have stayed longer.  Our current home city of Seattle also has a set of locks that work on the same principal and during the summer months, can be very busy and also worth a visit. So the empty Panama locks were not all that foreign or interesting to us initially, but when the enormous tankers started to enter that changed.  The size and scale of the boats passing through the Panama locks are quite incredible.

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In the Casco Viejo neighborhood in Panama City, the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum has better details on the history starting with the French failed attempt to the American undertaking of the building of the canal to the challenges in the 1960’s when there was fighting between the US and Panama to the signing of Torrijos-Carter Treaty (one of many) signed in 1977.

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The architecture of the building (inside and out) housing the museum makes a visit worth it.  The building was built in  1874 and served originally as the headquarters of both the French and U.S. companies engaged in the construction of the canal.

Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the museum, but we did get one shot of the stunning lighthouse beacon designed by Gustave Eiffel (you may have guessed that he designed some other things as well)  It was to be put on top of a lighthouse had the French completed the Panama Canal but they abandoned the project and the light was never used.

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A friend recommended The Path Between the Seas to us for more information on the building of the Panama Canal. We are currently reading it so stay tuned for our book review.

Panama and Panama City were a surprisingly, fun visit and a good stop when in Central America. The diversity of the flora and fauna so close to a large city is quite amazing.

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