A view of a modern city skyline with a lot of tall buildings, seen across an expanse of water.

Panama City and the Canal

posted in: Panama and Colombia 2023 | 1

I arrived in Panama City yesterday morning, and now have had the better part of two days to see the city. Yesterday I wandered around the old city, Casco Viejo, on my own. Today I had a private tour by car and got to see some other parts of the city, and also visited the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal.

Here is the rundown of my time here so far.

Getting here

I flew on Copa Airlines from Guadalajara to Panama City. I got upgraded to Business Class, which was nice, though Copa’s Business Class is nothing to write home about. There was no lounge access in Guadalajara, and on the plane, other than a wider seat with a little more legroom and a hot breakfast served before we landed, it was not much different from flying Economy.

We were scheduled to leave at 12:58 am. They started boarding nearly an hour early, and I think everyone was on board by 12:30. Then we sat for twenty minutes before they closed the door and we pulled away from the gate. Ten minutes early departure translated to half hour early arrival. We were on the ground at Tocumen International Airport at 5:30 am (losing an hour with the time change). It was less than a four-hour flight, so not much time for sleep. Immigration and customs were easy, and my driver was waiting for me. I arrived at my hotel at 6:40.

Reception didn’t open until 7am, but the night security man was very helpful, getting me settled as best he could until then. (In fact, everyone here has been extraordinarily friendly.) When the front-desk person arrived at 7:00, she gave me such a warm welcome and let me know my room was ready (even though check-in isn’t normally until 3pm. She took the time to go through a page of nearby restaurant recommendations, describing each one in detail.

My room at La Concordia Boutique Hotel is fabulous, with the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen in a hotel (or just about anywhere else).

It was nice to be able to enjoy a shower and change of clothes before heading out on my day’s explorations.

Walking around Casco Viejo

A little history first

Panama City was founded in 1519, but Casco Viejo, the “old town,” wasn’t settled until the 1670s. Here’s why:

The original location of Panama City was about ten kilometers northeast of the location of Casco Viejo. (Northeast is actually down the Pacific coast.)

Casco Viejo is the peninsula at the bottom center. (The blue dot is my hotel.) The original location of the city was what is labeled on the map as “Old Panama.”

The city grew to about 10,000 inhabitants in 1670 in spite of several fires, an earthquake, and attacks by pirates and by indigenous peoples. But in 1671 Henry Morgan, a Welsh privateer and namesake of Captain Morgan rum, attacked by marching 1,400 men across the isthmus from the Caribbean Sea. In the course of the attack, a fire completely destroyed the city. (Whether it was set by Morgan’s men or by the city’s leaders in an attempt to prevent Morgan from acquiring a large bounty is disputed. The following year the relocated city began to take shape at the current location of Casco Viejo.

The streets of Casco Viejo

I visited a number of churches and museums yesterday, but the best sights were the ones I saw just wandering the streets. Delightful and lovingly restored houses, now shops, hotels, and restaurants, line the streets of Casco Viejo. The streets themselves are brick.

All this gentrification took place over the last ten years or so. Of course, gentrification brings other problems, displacing people who can no longer afford to live here. I’m not sure how the city has dealt with this.

Metropolitan Cathedral

Officially the Catedral Basílica Santa María la Antigua de Panamá, construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral began in 1688 and took 108 years. (Santa María la Antigua is the patron saint of Panama.) Pope Francis visited in 2019 and reconsecrated the cathedral.

Other sights

This is the ruins of Santo Domingo church. The arco chato (flat arch) supported the wooden choir loft that burned in a fire. In spite of having no metal in its structure, it stood for over 300 years and gave testimony to Panama’s low seismic activity, leading to the decision to build the canal here. But it finally collapsed in 2003 and was rebuilt with a metal beam and lined with the original bricks.
In the Iglesia de La Merced is this altar to Saint Hedwig. Saint Hedwig and her husband founded monasteries. After he died, she became a nun. Panamanians pray to her for a home, and they offer houses at her feet.
There is a museum in the Iglesia de la Merced, and these figurines are displayed there. This is not the way I would imagine the holy family.
I visited the Museo de la Mola. Molas are rectangular fabric panels that form the chest and back of the blouses Guna women wear. They are handmade using a reverse applique technique. 
This golden altar (actually, it’s mahogany covered in gold leaf) is in the Iglesia de San José. There is a story associated with it, more legend than history. Supposedly the pirate Henry Morgan went looking for the famous golden altar after the plundering of the city. The friar painted the altar black . When Morgan arrived at the temple to take the altar, the friar convinced him it was merely a worthless replica, and that a previous pirate had stolen the original. And the friar asked Morgan for 1000 ducats to help build a new altar. Morgan said, ¨This friar is more of a pirate than I am,” and gave him the money.
The modern section of Panama City as seen from Casco Viejo. All of these buildings were constructed in the last twenty years. The roadway in front is Cinta Costera III (coastal beltway 3). It opened in 2014 and serves as a highway bypass around Casco Viejo.

Check out my photo album of Casco Viejo to see photos of the other delights of this neighborhood.

Today’s Tour

My guide Miguel picked me up at 7:30 to begin the tour. Here’s roughly the route we followed:

This shows me walking across the water at one point, but I promise that didn’t happen. And the drive to Mirador Amador was on the same road in both directions. But more or less this shows where we went.

If you want to skip the narrative and just look at my photos, here they are.

The Panama Canal

The goal was to make it to the Miraflores Visitor Center to observe traffic through the locks there. Based on the schedule, we needed to get there by 8:00. Though we made it on time, there was a bit of a line waiting to buy tickets. But I did get to watch a huge car carrier make its way through the locks.

Entering the former Canal Zone (which was a US Territory until December 31, 1999) is like entering a completely different country. Almost everything there is as it was: homes, military complexes, roads, commercial buildings, none of it looks like it is part of Panama. Where there used to be a physical boundary, now is just a bounday of the imagination.

There are a total of three locks in the Panama Canal. Entering from the Pacific side (at the south end of the canal), ships come first to the Miraflores Locks, which consist of two chambers. That’s where I visited today. After exiting the locks, ships have been lifted 16 meters above sea level. From there, ships travel through another locks raising them 9.5 meters, cross the Continental Divide, enter a large artificial lake, and enter the final locks that lower them back down to sea level in three chambers. 

The car carrier in the first chamber. Boats and ships move through on their own power. The little trains are there to guide them through and prevent them from scraping on the sides. Ships are also piloted through the canal by Panamanian captains who come aboard at one end and disembark at the other end.
Here’s the ship in the second chamber, waiting to be lifted.
And here’s the ship ready to leave the Miraflores locks and continue through the canal. Meanwhile, several smaller vessels are in the parallel chamber, waiting to rise. Miguel tells me that a ship this size pays about $200,000 US to go through the locks. Larger vessels average about $700,000, and the most paid was $1 million. The charge is based on weight. The lowest toll ever paid was $0.36 by an American who swam through in 1928.

When I lived in Seattle I used to visit the Ballard Locks. This works pretty much exactly the same way, except for the trains. I imagine it would be more thrilling if I’d never watched locks in operation before. Of course, I never saw a ship anywhere near as large as this car carrier go through the Ballard Locks.

The former Canal Zone

This was the house of the administrator of the Canal when it was under US jurisdiction.
The Canal Administration Building. Until December 31, 1999, two flagpoles stood side by side. The one on the right flew the US flag.
Here is the scene on December 31, 1999, after the US flag was lowered for the last time.
Paseo el Prado in the Canal Zone
This is what Paseo el Prado looked like years ago, from the Administration Building

Día de los Mártires

I learned about some history today that I never knew about. January 9, the day before I arrived, is a national day of mourning in Panama called Día de los Mártires (Day of the Martyrs). This commemorates events of that date in 1964, when anti-American riots broke out relating to sovereignty of the Canal Zone.

Many American families had lived in the Canal Zone for several generations. Referred to as “Zonians,” some had never set foot in the Republic of Panama and knew that if the Panamanians took control of the Canal, they would have to relinquish everything. Some of the Zonians had strong negative feelings toward Panama and Panamanians.

In 1963 President Kennedy agreed to fly the Panama flag alongside the US flag at all non-military sites where the US flag was flown. After Kennedy was assassinated, the Canal Zone’s governor rescinded the order. Instead of flying both flags, neither flag would be flown.

This didn’t sit well with the Zonians, and they immediately began raising US flags all over. At Balboa High School, a public school, the students raised a flag, and school officials promptly lowered it. In response, students walked out of class and raised another flag, posting guards to prevent its removal.

When students at Panama’s top high school, Instituto Nacional, heard about this, a group of several hundred marched into the Canal Zone, planning to raise a Panama flag alongside the US flag. The Canal Zone police agreed to allow the students to raise their flag, but the Zonian students rejected this, and a scuffle broke out, during which the Panama flag was torn.

As word spread about the desecration of the Panama flag, crowds assembled. By nightfall, thousands of Panamanians gathered, attempting to tear down a fence separating a busy highway from the Canal Zone. The Canal Zone police responded with tear gas, the Panamanians began to throw rocks, and then the police opened fire. Panamanian mobs also turned against US-owned businesses in the city.

In the end 21 Panamanians were killed, many from gunshot wounds directed from the Canal Zone police or the US military who got involved. These martyrs are remembered each year on January 9.

Other parts of Panama City

After visiting the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone, we drove around to a few other places.

Punta Pacifica is the newest and most upscale residential area of Panama City. It consists of many tall apartment buildings, built mainly in the last ten years.

Mirador de las Americas affords nice views of the Canal and of the Bridge of the Americas, the first bridge built across the Canal. The bridge opened in 1962.

The Causeway leading to Naos Island allowed for nice photos of the city across the bay.

The Mercado de Mariscos sells fish, in case the name is not clear. It also has restaurants, and we had a great lunch there.

There have been so many surprises in my two days in Panama City. I had so few expectations and so little idea of what to expect. I can’t wait to see more of Panama in the next two days.

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