More than the famous Panama hat, the Panama Canal is a symbol of the nation. And for good reason because most of the world naval traffic traverses Panama through this 48 miles ditch. But what a ditch and what a technological feat was employed in creating it in 1914. The canal crosses the continental divide where the famous Cullebra Cut was trenched. It has three sets of locks: at the Pacific are the 2 level Miraflores locks that bring the ship to the level of a Miraflores Lake, 26 meters higher than the ocean. Another one level lock, Pedro Miguel, brings it to the level of Gatun Lake. Further the ships traverse the Cullebra Cut and Gatun Lake and they are lowered after that in the three level Gatun Locks at the Atlantic, The water used by the locks is coming through pipes to the locks from the artificial Gatun Lake that was made by damming Chagres River. The river was used by Captain Morgan and other pirates to navigate inland and attack the cities established by the Spaniards. Nowadays the dimensions of the canal locks represent the standard of ship building around the world: 300 meter length and 33 meters wide. If you are bigger than that you are sent for a 8000 miles detour around the tip do South America. Daily around 40-80 ships cross the Panama Canal bringing a revenue of close to 1 billion US$ annually. To get to the locks I got a City Tour with a double-Decker bus. There are two lines but the attractions on the way are way less dense than in many other cities. I found quite funny that several stops are either at Convention Center or at a number of malls that sport all American brands but probably represent a major attraction for many who come on these tours. However the tours are giving a perspective of the city and you are able to get a glimpse of the entire city.
I cruised on top of the bus through the new part of the city, Bella Vista with the skyscrapers that are mostly dark in the night. The architecture is impressive with very sleek modern lines built on tiny space lots. Like everywhere in Panama the land is not cheap and any lot that was bought, for example in Casco Antiguo, for almost nothing after the UNESCO declared it monument it appreciated to millions. However the reason the buildings are almost dark in the night is because very few people live there. Most of the money is suspected to be laundered, coming from abroad on a very permissive country policy, drug money from Colombia or escape money from Venezuela that are attached also with full residency if you open a business. The government is corrupt like in any country in Latin America but more stable and business oriented and the skyscrapers stand in stark contrast with a city where sidewalks are in desperate need of repair and all canals are uncovered, the metal grid vanished in time, a warning not to walk looking at the tips of the buildings. As long as the Panama presidency has only one term with no recourse, in the current elections the front runner chose as Vice President the wife of the current president. Friends help each other…
In 1519 the not-so-gentle Pedro Arias de Avila founded Panama Viejo, as the first and for many more years the only, colony on the coast of the Pacific. Its role was to be a stop on the plundering of the gold of the Inca, that was first transported here, initially by road and latter by ships, before was mulled over the Camino Las Cruces across the Continental Divide and stored in Colon to be shipped first to Cuba and later with all the other plundered gold, finally, to Spain. The enterprise was very lucrative and kept employed many soldiers that served as deterrent against the pirates and buccaneers that were plundering the seas. Everything went well and the city prospered and developed. Many churches, hospitals and a very strong community but all went to complete ruin in 1671 when one corsair who was bolder than others, Captain Morgan, the rum guy, sacked the city, killed all the troops and looted absolutely everything of any value. The destruction was so catastrophic that the Spaniards decided to move the capital to the current location of the city, 7 km away. Nowadays the only reason to visit is to see the remains of the oldest only Spanish colony on the Pacific but otherwise is not much to see. The only remaining standing structure is the tower of the cathedral that was renovated and can be climbed to the top for interesting views across the area and mainly towards the new religiousness towers of the city.
After a quick detour to the bus terminal in a failed attempt to buy advance bus tickets, they don’t sell, I finally got to the carnival. It started to happen the previous night when I walked to Casco Antiguo, with a mob playing drums in salsa rhythm, explosive and energetic attracting all people around to move in the vibe. Saturday, before the Ash Wednesday, is the official starting date and after passing a very “patty” control organized by police and “militares” I entered the enclosed area that was packed with people, moved chaotically around, with kids playing, old ladies watching, men drinking beer and everybody dancing. Carnival floats were cruising rotating for several times to the enjoyment of the audience. On each float beautiful girls were waving to the crowds being hired only if they were able to keep the smile up the entire night. The balmy night was so pleasant and held me for way longer than I planned and finally was able to drag myself out of the frenzied crowds for a tranquil dinner in Casco Antiguo.