Panama City is a big modern city – surprising in its modernity. There are a lot of skyscrapers and there are even more being built. Despite running out of land there are proposals to fill in some of the coastal strip to enable more skyscrapers to be built. However many of the tower blocks of apartments are empty, having been bought as a means of laundering money !
We decided to leave the Beast outside town at XS Memories – a real RV Park – which is about 100km outside Panama City. From here it was easy to get a bus into the main Panama City terminal – called Allbrook.
We had arranged to meet with a driver here – posh I know – to see some of the sights of the city. Alex had come to us by recommendation of the guys at XS Memories and it was a great recommendation. Having a driver was a brilliant luxury as the attractions of Panama City are very spread out and you would need to take a number of taxis between the various areas. He also spoke very good English and has wealth of knowledge about Panama and Panama City (If you want to use Alex is phone number is 6-672 7663).
The first place that we went was up to the top of Ancon Hill to get a view of the city. From one side you can see the Canal area and the terminus of the railway. The other side gives you a view of the old town and the city centre with its strip of skyscrapers.
After this we headed out on to the Amador Causeway – the former American army base which has now become a popular recreational area. After a quick lunch at a local workers restaurant we drove back to the city and into the old town or Casco Viejo. The view from the old town back towards the new city is pretty spectacular.
To get to this area you drive through one of the most dangerous parts of town, called Chorrillo, and we’ve been told that only the last 8 blocks (the old town) are really safe. These are guarded by the Presidential Police which makes all the difference !
There is an enormous amount of building work going on in the old town and in a few years it will be restored to its former glories. For now however most of the buildings are fairly run down. It has the feel of Havana but obviously much smaller.
After the old town we went out of town to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. After the French failed to build a sea level canal the Americans succeeded with building a canal with locks fed by water from Gatun lake, which when it was created was the largest artificial lake in world. This guarantees that the interior around the lake will stay undeveloped as the forest is needed to maintain the water catchment of the lake and the prodigious amount of water that the canal uses. The canal was completed in 1914.
I was surprised to learn that a second canal is currently being built alongside the original which is much bigger and designed to take the very biggest ships. This one will recycle the water used in its locks. This will redefine the Panamax standard of ship increasing it by 30% and is expected to be completed in 2014.
Whilst at the locks we had the opportunity to see a couple of big ships cycle through heading for the Pacific, at the same time as there are two lanes to the locks. The water level in the locks moves pretty quickly and took less than 10 minutes to equalise. The ships are held steady by small locomotives connected by steel cables to the ship. The whole operation is pretty slick as you would expect from something that operates 24/7 365 days per year.
The canal is of critical importance to Panama as not only does it bring in a large amount of income but also ensures that other countries keep cordial relations so as not to endanger their ability to use the canal.
It had been a real pleasure having Alex drive us all day as he was an enormous source of knowledge about what we were seeing and the history of Panama. All day of Alex’s services – 11am – 6pm cost us $70 which seems like pretty good value to me – and we paid for his lunch but given lunch was only a couple of dollars each no big deal.
Our final stop for the day was our hotel in the EL Cangrejo district. We were staying in an upmarket hotel as it was Sarah’s Birthday and in the evening we went out to a well known local restaurant called Martin Fierro where we got to overdose on meat !