Living Outside the Boundaries
Town Square of Casco Antiguo
My time in Panama was a time of rest, relaxation, meditation and reflection. If the weather had been a little more cooperative I would have explored more areas outside of the city. The weather was extreme. I don’t like extremes in temperature. I remained inside most days because it was really too hot to do anything else. That is the beauty of leisure travel. There is no rush to accomplish anything when you have an entire month. I had an awesome view of the ocean in my Airbnb apartment and spent a lot of time admiring the waterfront and people watching from 20 floors up. Below you can see the view day and night. I prefer houses, but give me a view like this and I could come to love apartments.
There seemed to be an equal amount of heat in the morning, afternoon and night. Even when it rained there was no relief. Needless to say my days were pretty predictable. I ate breakfast every morning at a quaint cafe two buildings from my apartment. It helped that the route to the restaurant was 100% shaded. I became a master shade seeker and took routes around the city based on the position of the sun and shade to sun ratio. I got scientific on Panama! By 1:30 shade became elusive and the sun appeared to be directly over the city. If not touring I was back in the apartment by 1:30 every day without fail. Leaving the apartment later in the evening only provided a reprieve from the sun, not the heat. I have been in deserts that were not as hot as Panama.
Panama Canal and Miraflores Visitor Center
The Panama Canal was the main reason I chose Panama so I was super pumped to see it. It did not disappoint. It is a major feat of engineering. They took an entire country and cut it in half. Did you hear what I said? They cut it in half!!! Oh my goodness that is so awesome.
Construction began with a French company at the helm. Defeated by all of the problems including deaths they gave up the task. An American led company took on the project and completed the canal. During the course of building the canal 25,000 workers lost their lives mostly to yellow fever and malaria. At the time the medical community did not associate the mosquito as the carrier of the diseases. The workers worked 10 hours a day six days a week. Although people came from all over the world to build the canal, the majority came from the Caribbean and West Indies. In the early stages of building workers were shipped in from Africa and China to build a railway which enabled the workers to get from point to point along the route in order to continue building the canal. Today 13-14,000 ships pass through the canal per year bringing in about 1.8 billion dollars a year.
Speaking with a few of the locals I discovered that the canal pays for a college education for any student who gets accepted into college. I think that is cool. Each ship that passes through the canal pays a fee based on the weight of their ship. Most pay $100,000.00 – 450,000.00 U.S. dollars for a single passage. When you look at the wealth of the canal and the level of poverty outside of Panama City something just does not add up. But I don’t want to get into politics so I will stop here.
There is a wonderful visitor center, the Miraflores Visitor Center, at the site of the canal available for all visitors. There you will find information, pictures and a few artifacts from the making of the Panama Canal. I love history so I was there most of the day reading as much as I could.
If you go, make sure you are among the first people to enter the Visitor Center. I was early and ended up with prime viewing of the ships passing through. If you go midday it gets pretty busy. By the time I left, there had to be at least ten times more people than when I arrived early in the morning. I found it to be amazing. I’ve experienced the locks in the Netherlands but have never seen anything on the scale of the Panama Canal.
Tip: When visiting the canal it is cheaper to hop in a taxi. I thought it would be cheaper to get the metro to Albrook Mall and get a taxi from there. While visiting the mall I checked taxi prices and they were the same as from my apartment in the heart of the city. Always, discuss the price before you get into a taxi. They will try to give you gringo prices. If they quote you a price that is too much just walk away and try another taxi. Life is too short to argue about prices, that would be time you won’t get back.
Casa Viejo is an older part of Panama City which is going through extreme gentrification now. It is the historic district also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, settled in 1673. As you look at the pictures some of you will see that it looks similar to the New Orleans French Quarter, minus the beignets and Jazz music. Casa Viejo is a part of the remains of old Panama City and was designated as a World Heritage site. Signs of the extreme state of disrepair still exists as you can see in some of the pictures, many of the buildings are simply a facade and the buildings are gutted. The renovated buildings aregorgeous. In a few more years the shabby buildings will be beautiful and out of most people’s price range.
Embera Indians of Panama
The Embera Indians are found in Columbia as well as Panama. Their language is a mix of several tribal languages. For the Panamanian Emberá, the Choco and its river systems are their ancestral homelands, and the various dialects of the Emberá language correspond to different parts of that area and its river systems. The group I visited live in an area along the Choco River. There are only two ways to get there. Walk for days through the jungle or go 30 minutes by canoe. I went on a tour and of course we took canoes manned by the Embera. Their homeland was made into a National Park by the Panamanian government, who, as governments do, began to pass laws and regulations that negatively impacted how they live. They can no longer hunt in the park. They can no longer cut down trees to make canoes. I learned this from the guide but would love to read more about their history. Their main source of income now is tourism. This makes me happy because I got to spend time with them up close and personal and it was a wonderful experience. But in hindsight I can only imagine the negative impact that tourism will have on their culture. They are wonderful people with beautiful spirits.
This is a picture of me and the woman who gave me my Embera tattoo. It was so cool. When she finished it looked like a bracelet. Two days later it got really really really dark and I though oh my goodness it’s going to be permanent. But as promised, it eventually started fading but it lasted well over a week.The liquid used is all natural and comes from a local plant.
To my fellow teachers the building behind me in the picture above is the teacher’s home. And typical of teachers it is fill with books. You can see the bookshelf in the picture as well. Wouldn’t you like to teach here, at least for one semester. It would certainly be interesting.
The man above is the medicine man in the village. He showed us the various plants used for natural healing. There was one for arthritis but no one could translate the name into English. I was so disappointed. The little boy above just stole my heart. Just walked up to me and snatched my heart!!! Too cute.
The wooden pole is actually stairs carved out of a single piece of wood. If the stairs are turned backwards it means no one is home or the people inside do not want to be disturbed. Isn’t that cool?
Avenida Balboa is an avenue that snakes along the waterfront. If you look at the picture from my apartment, the road along the waterfront is Avenida Balboa.It has a track for walking and biking. There are places to stop and exercise, play tennis and basketball. These activities are open to the public. I walked the length of it a few times but the heat beat me down and I went home whimpering like a puppy with hurt feelings and sat in the air conditioned apartment with a cool drink and an expansive view of Avenida Balboa.
Never made it there but I could see if from my apartment. Does that count? Amador Causeway is a long strip of land developed using the excavation from the canal. I hear it has lovely shops, a wonderful BioMuseum and is very family friendly. It’s a place frequented by tourists and locals alike……well not this tourist but other tourist I suppose.
It’s a huge mall outside of the city. It is easy to get to on the metro. I am not much of a shopper these days but I took the ride to the mall because the metro was air-conditioned and I assumed the mall would be air conditioned as well. Boy was I disappointed and back on the metro within minutes. Actually the mall was air conditioned but I use that term loosely. When you walk into a building from 900 degree heat outside you expect to feel the difference in temperature.
Basic Trip Information
Transportation – Getting There
After being rejected by Panama at the border, yeah I’m still talking about that, I flew into Panama from Costa Rica. I had no problems with immigration at the airport.
I stayed in an Airbnb one bedroom apartment with full kitchen, living room and kick-butt view. There was a washer and dryer in the apartment and another awesome view of the city from the gym on the top floor. I try to get a hotel on the front end of any stay that involves an Airbnb. It’s tricky and complicated to do sometimes but I like to see where I am going to stay before I commit. I have a post coming up about Airbnb.
Rides on the metro are cheap at .35 cents U.S. per ride. Hooray!!! I loved the metro. The metro in Panama will get you just about everywhere in the city. If the metro can’t get you there a taxi sure can. I purchased a card and made sure I kept a balance on it so I didn’t have to buy a ticket every time I entered.
Taxis anywhere in the city were very affordable. You pay only 2.50 – 3.50 U.S. to almost anywhere in the city. With the heat I was hailing a taxi every chance I got. I worried that my arm might become permanently locked in the up position.
Days in Country – 30 days
My Overall Impression
I stayed for a month and I did not make a heart connection with Panama. I am sure it had to do with residual bad feelings about the “border issues”, the extra money it caused me to spend, the heat, and a lack of a feeling of community in this city of high rises. Panama City has no soft edges. This is not a place I would consider going back to or living as an expat. However, it “connects” with thousands of others as there is a huge expat community and they are happy as pigs in slop. Good for them. I think many of the expats live outside of Panama City. Maybe I would have had a different point of view if I had ventured to communities outside of the city. C’est la vie.