BEYOND RYE: Down Panama Way
When we told friends that we were going to Panama, we got the following responses: 1) Is Panama in South America? 2) Doesn’t it rain all the time in Panama, isn’t it blistering hot, and don’t lots of people die from malaria and yellow fever? 3) Why would anybody want to go to Panama?
By Cynthia MacKay and Warren Keegan
When we told friends that we were going to Panama with Cynthia’s sister Lynn, and her husband Peter Bienstock, our trip planner extraordinaire, we got the following responses: 1) Is Panama in South America? 2) Doesn’t it rain all the time in Panama, isn’t it blistering hot, and don’t lots of people die from malaria and yellow fever? 3) Why would anybody want to go to Panama?
Answers: 1) Panama is in Central, not South America. It lies between Costa Rica to the north, and Colombia to the south. 2) It does rain all the time on the Atlantic coast of Panama, which is hot and humid and swarming with mosquitoes. This coast gets up to 300 inches of rain a year (New York gets 50). However, the Pacific coast, where we stayed, is much less humid and hot. We came during the dry season (January through April), and we were more comfortable than in New York in July: 80s during the day, 70s at night. 3) Read on, and you may want to put Panama on your bucket list.
When the United States handed back the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999, Panama got an extra 30 billion dollars to spend each year, and it is plowing a huge chunk of that money into infrastructure. So many of the roads are under construction that we often had to discard our maps, and rely on Cynthia’s smartphone to get around. The skyline of Panama City has so many towering skyscrapers, in such fanciful shapes, that our eyes were popping, especially when we heard that many are “narco towers” built with drug money.
We drove down the Amador Causeway for lunch, which, like much of Panama City today, was built on rocks dug and taken to create the Panama Canal. The Causeway connects the mainland to three small islands. We had an excellent view of the narco towers, as well as the Pacific entrance to the Canal and the monster boats waiting to go through. We were underwhelmed by Frank Gehry’s garish, half-completed Biodiversity Museum. The Panamanians were hoping for a grand, gleaming, silver-colored building like the museum he designed in Bilbao, Spain. Instead, they got something that resembles an explosion in a toy chest.
The Old Town in Panama City was founded in 1519. It is the oldest Spanish city on the Pacific. It quickly grew rich as gold from Peruvian mines flowed through on its way by mule train across the isthmus to the Atlantic, and thence by ship to Spain. The churches had altars of pure gold until the city was sacked by the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. He took all these altars but one, which a clever priest covered with mud. You can see it today in the Church of Saint Joseph.
The Old Town fell in to ruin during the last century, but it is being restored with mindboggling speed. Half is spanking new, the paint barely dry, and half is still a wreck. The cathedral, a vision of striking black and white stone flanked by white bell towers, sits in a lovely plaza that is cheek-by-jowl with roofless buildings strung with the laundry of squatters. Where the stucco had fallen away, we could see the ancient thin bricks brought to Panama as ballast on ships.
We had dinner al fresco at the superb Casablanca restaurant in the Plaza Bolivar. As we dined on paella under the stars, enjoying the warm tropical air and admiring the vibrant colonial architecture and the graceful monument to South America’s liberator, huge construction machines like giant monsters rumbled past every 15 minutes. A tenor with a guitar strolled in, offering to sing soulful love songs. Jugglers spun lighted balls in the air.
Humans had dreamed of building a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so ships could avoid the long, dangerous journey around Cape Horn, since the time of King Carlos the Fifth of Spain. His surveyors reported to him in 1524 that a canal was impossible because high mountains run down the spine of Panama and the raging Chagres River floods 18 feet during the rainy season. Fernando de Lesseps, fresh from his triumph building the Suez Canal, failed miserably in the 1880s to build a canal across Panama. After losing 20,000 men, he went bankrupt.
It was the United States, a brash, young country with a brash, young president, Theodore Roosevelt, which finally carried out the world’s most ambitious construction project since the Great Wall of China. Roosevelt supported a coup that gave Panama independence from Colombia. Roosevelt’s engineer, John Stevens, succeeded where de Lesseps failed by building a water elevator over the mountains, instead of digging a ditch through them. He damned the Chagres River, creating the largest manmade lake in the world, Lake Gatun, and then he built locks fed by gravity to carry boats 85 feet up and down.
Dr. William Gorgas eliminated the mosquitoes that cause malaria and yellow fever by draining, or covering with oil, all standing water. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it was the wonder of the world. We should be proud of our country, first, for building this extraordinary canal, and second, for giving it back to Panama.
We drove 45 minutes north of the city to the Miraflores Lock to see the canal in operation. The canal runs 24 hours a day. Forty ships per day take eight to ten hours to go through the double locks, at an average cost of $200,000 apiece. Panama is building a third lock system, which will take and move even bigger ships.
We marveled as we watched giant ships navigate the two side-by-side locks with mere inches to spare on either side, pulled by giant motorized “mules”. We enjoyed the sketchy, but interesting, visitor center, but you can skip the brainless 3-D movie.
Panama has the most accessible rainforest in the world, and a 45-minute drive north of the lock took us to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is smack in the middle of 340-acre Soberania National Park. This place is so interesting, and so beautiful, that we extended our visit from two nights to three.
All 166 large, well-appointed rooms have gorgeous views of the Chagres River. Ask for rooms numbered 400 and up; the view from the lower three floors is partially obstructed by trees. Exotic birds, butterflies, bats, animals, and plants were all around us. From our balcony hammock we watched capybaras, rodents the size of large dogs, grazing peacefully on the lawn. A mother sloth cradling her newborn baby was in a Cecropia tree off the parking court.
We took a sunset boat trip with an indigenous Embera Indian, who grew up in the nearby village of the same name. He is a whiz at spotting caiman (like crocodiles, but smaller) by their glowing golden eyes, from 50 yards away. He usually eats them after he finds them, but he generously let us just photograph them.
The Panamanian rain forest is a world-class birding destination. Many of our fellow guests were toting cameras the size of small cannons. The Panama Audubon Society has set the world record for the Christmas bird count for two decades straight. We saw eight different species of pinkie-sized hummingbirds during our walk on the famed Pipeline Trail. We tried with little success to avoid stepping on the hordes of leaf-cutter ants as they filed busily along bearing neatly cut green trophies ten times their size.
The best beaches in Panama are on islands an airplane ride away, but in the interest of time we drove down the Western coast to the less good, but perfectly adequate, beaches around Playa Coronado. We stayed at El Litoral, a B&B run by a couple from Montreal, Anne Marie and René. The rooms are simple and basic, but their warm welcome and big outdoor terrace and garden and swimming pool made us feel at home immediately. Our hosts were not intrusive, but they were attentive if you wanted them to be. The soft clacking sound of wind through palm trees, and the light flickering off the pool, soon had us napping on the big, comfortable porch couches over the two cats that were napping under us. El Litoral makes fancier hotels, where everything is spotless, new, and matching, seem sterile.
There are no public tennis courts there, but René snuck us in to the nearby big resort to use their (never in use) courts. The two beaches near the B&B have black sand, and one had a few jellyfish, but the water was clean and a perfect temperature. A half-hour drive took us to the beautiful, broad, white-sand Playa Blanca, where we had a delightful time until some Panamanians started a smoky fire to cook their lunch (moral: stay in the gringo section of Panamanian beaches.)
We took a day trip to El Valle de Anton, a pretty hill town at 2,000 feet nestled in the partially collapsed crater of an inactive volcano. The steep switchback road took us past the dramatic flutes and cones of other volcanos. The Saturday and Sunday mercado offers high quality, inexpensive local Indian handcrafts —colorful hammocks, purses with dazzling geometric designs, and jewelry made to your specifications from semi-precious stones.
After a short, steep walk through the rainforest to visit the Chorro El Macho waterfall, we had the best lunch of our lives at La Casa de Lourdes, which features Lourdes herself, a flamboyant former beauty queen.
If you’re thinking of moving out of the country to escape high taxes, Panama is fiscal paradise. The government makes a big effort to attract foreigners. If you invest $600 a month in this country, you get 25 percent off your airfare, 50 percent off your electricity bill, and zero income tax. Unlike Costa Rica and Mexico, foreigners are allowed to own land outright here. There were over 300 ex-pat families, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, in the small town of Coronado alone, and one of the richest men in Colombia, a top-ranked polo player, has just moved there.
There are many good reasons to travel to Panama.