Monday, 13 January 2014

Panama City

A 12 hour overnight journey saw us arrive bleary eyed and sleep deprived in Panama City. Bags dropped off at the hostel, we went out to explore Casta Viejo (the old part of the city). A strange combo of beautiful old mansions converted into boutique hotels, derelict buildings (a lot of which are slowly being renovated), churches and museums. Very nice laid back vibe, airy squares with people sat reading the paper pre-work and an army of cats hunting for anything they can find. 

Breakfast found - the tourist places weren't open that early so we joined the locals for yucca, eggs and orange juice (maybe a contender to Gallo Pinto) and then had a power nap in the main square until the Canal Museum opened. 

Good museum covering the history of the Panama Canal but we concluded it must be funded by the US as the atrocities that took place during the building and subsequent ownership battles were skimmed over so blatantly it led us to sit and discuss them for an hour. Maybe not the effect omitting them was meant to have but a strange edit of history. 

It's not a huge city and it's the first one we've been to with 'no go' areas blocks away from the main attractions so it was interesting to see the stark contrasts between the sky scraper offices and apartments in the finance sector,  the up and coming renovations in the old city, the vulture circled fish market (serving Ceviche & beer in paper cups to hide the fact they're selling booze without licences), the poverty stricken tower blocks of china town and el barrillo ... All within a few blocks of each other. 

Ceviche is a national dish- raw fish and sea food bits marinated in lime and served on ice In a cup. Not our bag but goes down a storm here. 

As Panama used to be part of Columbia there is a large Columbian population here. Whole families who grew up in the Canal Zone during its lengthy construction are called Zonians and have dual US/Panama identities. Every year any illegal immigrants are swept up in an amnesty and granted citizenship so quite a few Nicaraguans & Ticos live here too. Businesses are meant to employ 9 Panamanians for every 1 non-citizen but ignore this so lots of US people take the highest paid jobs in the corporate sector. Chinese immigrants have seized the market in supermarkets and laundrettes so are a growing population too. 

A big old melting pot which feels like it's not working for the low skilled Panamanians living in the ghettos.  In the 2 days we spent here we spoke to US, Zonian, Columbian and Chinese residents but no Panamanians other than the workers in the fish market. Ours was only a fleeting visit but I wonder if the lower classes are getting pushed further into poverty and under the carpet. 

Anyway, the thing Panama is most famous for is the Canal so we spent day 2 at the biggest locks (Colon) looking at ships.  As my view of this is ships, bla bla, engineering, bla, water levels bla, it's over to Chris for rest. 

BFO ships go through BFO locks is about the size of it (apparently BFO may need explaining, the first word is 'big'...) - but given the ships are 400m long, shifting a volume of stuff that's hard to comprehend, the sight was definitely worth the trip.  We arrived early-ish at about 8:30am ready to wave at several hundred people on a reasonable sized cruise ship slowly raised through the 3 steps up 26m.  Then watch a couple of the humongous container laden Captain Phillips style ships go through with just 2 feet to spare at each side of the channel.  The ships have to pay $100,000s just to traverse the full canal including the locks, it really is the fulcrum for the countries economy.

Our tourism style is such that we got quite used to they idea after an hour or so, we were glad we'd had so much time to do so alone when we were suddenly joined by 300 older western 'cousins' on the cramped viewing platform, complaining about having to climb the 20 stairs, searching frantically for a bathroom or just trying to out do each other on chino-shorts, sandals & sports socks combos, time for lunch...

Our hostel (and others we visited for Intel) had a few people stuck in city-limbo. There's no land crossing out of Panama into Columbia as despite all the progress made , the Darien area is not safe from guerrilla activity.  As such people are hanging around for small boats to confirm crossings across the Caribbean. Our preferred route (3 days sailing through the San Blas Islands then 1 day sail to Columbia) wasn't sailing for another 7 days, and then with the warming that the sea at this time of year is likely to cause delays.  Unwilling to kick around Panama for another week, or to take the more volatile open water crossing (I get seasick in a swimming pool) we booked a flight. 45 minutes vs 5 days on a basic boat: plane wins. 

Panama City to Cartagena (Caribbean coast, north Columbia), bonus of dousing myself in duty free perfume on the way through the airport & replacing my money belt (zip came off 4 wks ago so has been a money 'open bit of fabric' since). Felt almost civilised by the time we hit the 35 degree heat of Columbia's biggest port. 

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