16 Sep

Panama City and the Illustrious Canal

So far during this month’s trip away from our home in Cost Rica, it turns out that leaving behind the laptop’s power cable was not the only thing Travis was to forget. Upon flying out of Panama City at the end of our 4-day visit, he left his cell phone plugged into a power outlet at the airport! While the phone is not particularly expensive (it’s four years old), we did have a bunch of beautiful panoramic pictures of Panama City that were on it. Thankfully, we still have lots of nice pictures from our compact Canon camera to share with you!

Panama City Skyline

After five great days in the islands of Bocas del Toro, we took a 4-hour bus ride to the city of David. The next morning, we boarded a sweet air-conditioned double-decker bus and settled in for a 6-hour ride from David to Panama City. Since we were the first to book seats for the 9:00am departure, we were able to get the best seats in the house bus! Seats 1 and 2 happen to be on the upper level, above the driver and in front of huge windows! Amanda was happy with the view and Travis was giddy with the ample leg room.

This route is part of the Pan-American highway and, based on all the construction we witnessed, will someday be an awesome twin highway. For right now, the bulk of it is still a worn old road that curses anyone who drives on it. The bus crawled and crept, avoiding large potholes as we watched B-list American movies dubbed in Spanish (who knew Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara made a terrible movie called ‘Hot Pursuit‘??).

At the outer limit of Panama City, you cross over Puente de las Americasa gorgeous bridge that spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. This bridge, along with just a few others along the canal, connects the North and South American continents.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment ($45/night) in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, which is the ‘old quarter’ of the city. This sector was built up during the construction of the Panama Canal and the buildings are mainly of colonial Spanish and French architecture. Beautifully refurbished structures are sandwiched between apartments that are literally crumbling; their tenants struggling not to be pushed out by foreign money and gentrification.

Panama City - Casco Viejo neighborhood

Panama City - Casco Viejo neighborhood

One thing they do have lots of in this neighborhood is CATS!

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Travis often notices one of two things when he travels to a new place: “Wow, this place sure has a lot of cats!” or, “Have you noticed we’ve hardly seen any cats around this place? What the heck!?”

Panama City, it turns out, is the CAT CAPITAL OF CENTRAL AMERICA!!

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Just look at all these cats hanging around!

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These pictures were all taken right after we arrived and started walking around. We knew it was a good omen for our visit!

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From one end of Casco Viejo, you can sit at a rooftop bistro with incredible views of downtown Panama City.

Panama City Skyline

The skyline is impressive! Shiny tall skyscrapers with interesting architecture. Compared to all the other Central American cities we’ve driven through while traveling down from California, Panama City is in a whole different league of wealth and prosperity.

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Swing a cat in any direction and you’ll hit a condo building. People in the city are dressed quite nicely and for some reason there are a ton of brand-new Hyundai Sonatas driving around. There is also a shiny subway system that just opened up last year and costs $0.35 to ride! The city appears to be rolling in money!

Considering the Panama Canal currently charges cargo ships $72 per container and current Panamax-sized ships can hold up to 5,000 containers, then the fee to pass through the Panama Canal can be around $360,000 for each container ship! What kind of magical printing press of money is this?

The first set of locks on the Pacific side of the canal is 20 minutes outside the city, so we took a city bus to the Miraflores Locks to investigate. They have a nice museum there and viewing area of the canal, all for the questionable price of $15 USD per person.

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The canal has locks on the Caribbean and Pacific sides that lift ships up to Gatun Lake, which is 26 meters / 85 feet above sea level.

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It’s been over 100 years since the US Army Corps of Engineers originally constructed the canal with laborers mostly from the Caribbean West Indies. Now, far off in the background of this picture, they are undertaking the construction of a new set of locks that are nearing completion. This expansion will allow post-Panamax ships to traverse the canal, carrying up to 12,000 containers – more than twice the current capacity of Panamax ships!

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Unlike many of the other Central American countries which have violent histories of brutal oppression supported or outright created by the US, we’ve finally arrived in a country where US involvement has resulted in a net positive for the country. How refreshing! After construction was completed in 1914, the US kept ownership and control over operation of the canal and surrounding area for a period of over 60 years. Joint American–Panamanian control followed in the late ’70s and ’80s, until finally the canal was handed over in full to the Panamanian government in 1999.

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One of the ships we saw go through the locks was the Japanese vehicle carrier Century Leader 3, possibly packed full of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, or Subaru vehicles. Some of the crew were hanging out towards the back of the ship, occasionally waving and taking photos of all the tourists (us) watching them being lifted up by the locks. I’m sure we must have looked ridiculous.

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We had a great time in Panama and were thoroughly impressed with the city! Now we’re going to jet back to the USA for a couple of weeks.  Setting foot in the land of the TSA free for the first time in 6 months, we’ll be visiting friends in Washington, D.C. and hanging out in New York City before returning home to our backyard monkeys in Nosara (hopefully they won’t be missing us too much)!

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  • Very jealous of you seeing the Panama Canal! As a (retired) civil engineer, it’s on my bucket list. Maybe the new, larger locks will be open by the time I make it down that way. Thanks for sharing!

    • Travis

      Thanks Justin! If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend watching the PBS American Experience episode on the Panama Canal: http://video.pbs.org/video/1747929120/

      I had watched it a couple years ago and was quite impressed! Lots of quality old footage of the construction and a great summary of the history.

      • Thanks for the link to that PBS show. I’ll watch it during lunch today!

  • $0.35 subway?! Now that’s retirement friendly.

    Any chance you guys are interested in a meet-up with the NYC-mustachians. Even on short notice I’m sure a few of us would love to chat.

    • Travis

      Hey Philip! That’s actually a great idea, but we just got back to Costa Rica! (we’re a little behind on going through our pictures and making posts).

      We definitely got used to the $0.35 fares in Panama City, and then upon arriving in DC/NYC were slapped in the face with $2.75 fares!

      • Public transit was so expensive in NYC for our family of 5 that we decided to just drive into Manhattan, pay the toll, and pay for parking. Definitely missing the Latin American subway pricing (under $0.25 in Mexico City).

        • I’ve been trying to take advantage of the free bus transfer (2hr window) or just walking more often. It definitely adds up quick though.

          • Travis

            If you haven’t already, maybe check out Citi Bikes as well. We used them a lot during our week in NY and loved them. There are bike stations basically everywhere, and the cost is reasonable. We’ll be writing up a post soon with some pictures!

      • Dang, next time 🙂

  • Royce Remer

    I’m sorry you weren’t able to drop by sf on your trip back to the states. Rest assured I’ll do my best to make that stock worth your while in exchange for more foreign cat pictures!

    • Travis

      Good sir, I shall double my cat searching efforts!!