Passage Note #59: Adventures in Panama City
We have a love/hate relationship with Panama City.
Surprising as it may seem, as yachties, we feel it has got to be one of the most cruiser-UNfriendly places we have ever been to. You wouldn’t think so since it is so boat oriented, but we small sail and power boats are not really welcome. It is attuned to mega yachts, massive cargo carriers and commercial traffic - we get lost in the background and hated its lack of safe, affordable, and quality cruiser facilities.
Yet, as a tourist flying in to do land travel, Panama City has a lot of beauty and adventure to offer.
A 2011 New York Times article described Panama City this way: “At the crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama City is a dynamic metropolis. Everywhere in this steamy, tropical town are foreign investors talking shop in upscale cafes, expat fortune-seekers toasting their fates in wine bars, cranes stalking the rooftops of a skyline that seems to grow before your eyes and — on the downside — traffic that puts even the most congested American city to shame. Central America’s capital of international finance is in the midst of a prolonged boomtown fever. All of this building and hype has local residents calling Panama City the ‘Dubai of the Americas.’ They’re only half-joking”.
And this still holds true three years later with projects that are currently underway: still more skyscrapers, a mega-convention center, second new-and-improved Panama Canal, controversial extension of the Cinta Costera (seaside parkway) and the vivid polychromatic BioMuseum designed by Frank Gehry.......as well as an ambitious subway system to handle that murderous traffic congestion.
From our arrival into Las Brisas anchorage on Nov. 13 until our cruising trip to La Perlas Islands on January 16, subtracting the Thanksgiving trip to the US and our haulout, we had just a few weeks to explore Panama City and its environs.
We had been looking forward to catching up with our old friends Margo and Herb on SV Bokonon who have been anchored on the Atlantic side of Panama at Isla Grande for many many years. Margo could almost be considered a “Zonie” (a person who grew up in the American-controlled Canal Zone) since she first came here to teach school 30 years ago. We last saw them when we were hacienda-sitting in Puerto Vallarta in 2010 and they were passing through. Now we were in their territory and we enjoyed their gracious hospitality.
Happy 100th Birthday, Panama Canal!
“Have you seen the Canal yet?” Herb asked after a lunch at Balboa Yacht Club shortly after we picked up a mooring there. “I know you are sitting at the entrance to it here at Balboa Yacht Club but have you been to Miraflores Locks?” Actually, no, we hadn’t.
So we hopped in their car and drove 30 minutes to the first set of locks in the Canal called Miraflores. Here there is a small exhibit about the incredible story of the Panama Canal’s construction, a restaurant, and a wonderful multi-level viewing area which is always crowded with tourists. We watched as two huge cargo carriers entered the set of locks from opposite directions, tied to the electric carts, called “mules”, which secure their lines. The massive steel gates swing shut slowly and let water rise, or open and let water levels fall depending on whether a ship is going northbound (to the Caribbean) or southbound (to the Pacific). Smaller craft usually tag along somewhere in the same lock, held by ropes controlled not by mules but by people on shore and line handlers on the transiting yacht. Off in the distance we could see the red dirt gash and massive earth movers of the new additional bigger-and-better-Canal that is under construction - a third lane that will handle bigger boats. It was supposed to open as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal celebrated this year but is hopelessly mired in cost overruns and budget problems.
The excursion served as our first introduction to this amazing engineering feat - one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The Canal enterprise was taken over by the Americans in 1904 after a failed attempt (1881) by the French who had built the Suez Canal. It took ten years to complete after a massive effort and a lot of hardship, opening on August 15, 1914. Now, with this 48 mile shortcut linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the Isthmus of Panama, ships could avoid the lengthy and dangerous trade route around Cape Horn. The U.S. relinquished control of the Canal to the Panamanian government in 1999.
Little did we know that later one of our bucket-list wishes would be fulfilled - going through on a boat transiting the Canal as line handlers (Passage Note #60).
Embera and Wounaan Villages
A short distance from Panama City the Canal is fed by the big and voluminous Chagres River. Some indigenous communities of the Embera and Wounaan have settled along its banks, splitting off from the main tribal settlements in Panama’s wild and remote Darien. Although they are known for their fine carvings in wood and tagua nut, they are more famous for their exquisite woven baskets. Margo maintains two craft websites: one selling molas from the Kuna Indians and the other selling baskets from the Embera. She has written a definitive book about Darien Rainforest Basketry which is used by the Panamanian government and sold in artisan shops; she knows her stuff.
So when she invited us to go with her to the villages on a buying trip, we jumped at the chance. We drove to the banks of the Chagres River not far from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort where we were met by a small group of Embera - two women carrying a few baskets, Rosalina with her young child, and a man holding a canoe paddle. Margo exchanged warm hugs and kisses with Rosalina - they were old friends but hadn’t seen each other for some time. The two other women were introduced and Margo inspected their baskets and purchased all of them...at a shockingly high price considering it was right from the source. These baskets, considered one of the finest contemporary baskets in the world, retail for hundreds and thousands of dollars and Margo paid the asking price of these women, eschewing bargaining, since she supports them in making a good livelihood. On her website, Margo will resell these baskets with a very small mark-up to keep them affordable.
We then boarded the man’s small wooden cayuca (canoe) and he paddled us out into the Chagres River following the water-lily lined shore. In 30 minutes we were disembarking at a wooden dock at the village of Ella Puru Embera where the man gave us a tour of his village. Thatched roofed houses were elevated above the ground and entered by a “ladder” made out of a notched log. A central clearing was the site of a large community hut and doubled as a grassy basketball court with a hoop attached to a palm tree. Two men were re-thatching a roof and one woman was tending her garden of yuca and papayas while the man’s young grandson joined us skipping and kicking a soft soccer ball. All the houses were colorfully festooned with the bright skirt material worn by the Embera women - either as makeshift curtains or as laundry hanging from the balconies.
We returned to the cayuca and were paddled to another village nearby. Here there was a raucous reunion with Margo as families came out of their houses to greet her. She attentively hugged each one and inquired as to their updated family news. This one’s son just graduated secondary school, that one has a new grandchild; one young girl is finishing her college degree despite just having had her third child; this teenage girl is studying hard and has a dream of becoming an honor guard for the President; the men are well and continue to make such beautiful carvings; look how the children have grown; a big hug from a topless elderly woman with a broad toothless smile, half Margo’s height. Margo bought a few more baskets that were brought out for her to see. A shy seven-year-old girl appeared with a small woven disk, coaxed by her 3 teenage sisters to show us her fledging first attempt at basketmaking. She beamed with pride when Linda bought it.
Casco Viejo is “old town” Panama City, an historical quarter that is filled with beautiful colonial buildings either in pristine restored condition or in magnificent decay. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Chic new eateries sit side by side with dilapidated housing or muraled parking lots. Among the new tourist hotels, galleries and restaurants, this area contains the Presidential Palace, the French Embassy on a Promenade, the National Theater, a wonderful Panama Canal Museum, and several churches and plazas. Casco Viejo is often described as Panama’s smaller version of Cuba's Havana Viejo.
New Years brought a special three-day experience at Canopy Tower, a wildlife sanctuary on the the top of a hill in the rainforest just outside Panama City - only 40 minutes away from Balboa Yacht Club. The old radar tower built by the US Air Force in 1965 is now a converted turquoise ecolodge with offices on the main floor, rooms and suites on the next two floors, a common lounge area with a dining area and library on the top floor, and a 360 degree observation deck on the roof surrounding the radar dome. On the deck you stood at the top of the rainforest canopy, surrounded by the green and yellow pompoms of the jungled hills of Soberania National Park but could see Panama’s City’s skyline in the far distance as well as the Bridge of the Americas and a section of the Canal.
Sunny mornings were delightful; we arose at dawn to climb the stairs to the top where the birdwatching with and without scopes was excellent. A three-toed sloth sat in the crown of a cecropia tree not 20 feet away eating the spongy white blossoms and turned to give us a marshmellow-mouthed grin (they always look like they are grinning anyway - it’s their natural expression). While we sat in the dining room eating breakfast, a troupe of mantled howler monkeys clambered almost at arms length in the trees around us, close enough to exchange monkey faces, and bellowed their eerie morning chorus. Palm tanagers and butterflies entered and exited the room freely though the large open windows; at night bats swooped in over our heads.
The rooms were comfortable; 12 guests whispered and tip-toed around quietly because the round metal tower acts like an echo chamber; there are foam-rubber earplug dispensers on each floor to combat the problem. Outside, the hummingbird feeders were always alive and humming with activity.
During our three day stay we went on several outstanding birdwatching trips, including one to the renown Pipeline Road. Too bad we don’t have a life-list (we are not terribly serious birders) because this excursion would have added considerably to it; but some of our favorite finds were owls, hummingbirds, trogons, puffbirds, toucans, motmots, vireos, and colorful varieties of tanagers. In addition we saw small river otters (not the giant kind of Amazon fame) and crocodiles in a pond off the Canal. Everywhere were drippy looking ant nests hanging from tree branches as well as long formations of leaf cutter ants, each carrying a flower or leaf section, winding their way home (the little insect sherpas turn the leaves and flowers into fungus farms for food).
It was another world.
There are three cruiser social events every week that in typical fashion gets the group together for cheap fun and a purpose - Thursdays is pizza night on the Causeway (discounted pies and beer), Friday is the Abastos run to the Public Vegetable Market followed by a stop at the Fish market, and Tuesday morning is Dim Sum which brings you to the Transistmica area with the opportunity to shop afterwards at a nearby supermarket, Do It Center, and several chandleries.
We loved going to Dim Sum on Tuesday mornings at a Panamanian institution called Lung Fung. Arriving at 9:30 in a prearranged group taxi, the doorman would open the front doors and we would enter the cold air of the red brocaded, dragon painted, shimmering gold-leafed confection of an interior. Tasseled oriental lamps dripped light over massive round tables with massive glass lazy susans in the center. Twelve or more of us would take a seat and soon the carts of stacked silver canisters arrived, wheeled in by amiable asian chauffeurs. Timo from SV Pipe Dream, our usual MC, would start pointing to the little Cantonese delicacies to be taken from the trays and stacked on the lazy susan - squee mai, chicken feet, pork buns, shrimp shumai, fish balls, a crunchy fried something-or-other, a translucent packet of watercress - along with tea, pitchers of ice water, and various sauces. The bill never amounted to over $6 each - especially after we all wrote down our real or bogus passport numbers to qualify for a senior discount.
Hunger sated for the day, we would then all go our separate ways to finish chores. Chuck would usually stop at the Do It Center or Abernathy’s chandlery and then meet Linda at the Riba Smith Supermarket where we could buy almost anything we could find in a large American chain.
Shopping Like a Kuna
The Kuna Indians, 70,000 strong, are an indigenous tribe in Panama who still stick to their traditional way of life in the Comarca de Kuna Yala and the small coral San Blas Islands in the Caribbean. The distinctive dress of the women constitute a brilliantly colored artform. Color, color, color!!! The traditional textile, the mola, has become the national folk art of Panama, sought after by collectors, and is now their number one revenue source (used to be coconuts). The mola, which is the Kuna word for clothing, is an intricately sewn picture made from layers of cloth in a reverse appliqué technique that may take 100 hours to make.
A Kuna’s every day wardrobe consists of: dark blue fabric with simple designs wrapped around her waist as a skirt; a short-sleeved blouse of billowy polyester with matching mola panels on the front and the back, outlined with rickrack and patterned ribbons; strands of seed beads wrapped around her calves and forearms, forming colorful geometric patterns; a printed headscarf usually orange with yellow designs; and several necklaces and rings. She often wears a gold nose ring with a black line painted down the length of her nose.
Linda thinks it is the most spectacular dress she’s seen and is enchanted by every Kuna woman who passes her on the street. So one day she went to the Cinco de Mayo shopping district and had fun buying fabric to go with the molas she has bought, making purchases right alongside Kuna women. She has fantasies of designing a contemporary interpretation of their outfits using traditional elements. Just perfect for the boat! :-)
Odds and Ends
Canal House Architecture
The architectural genre of “Canal House” was the United States’ answer to housing in the American-controlled Canal Zone when the Canal was being built and from the expansion that was approved in the 1940’s (the expansion was never completed). These planned communities were an interesting social experiment á la a sophisticated company town. Originally built to house 4 families, canal houses are large, airy, two or three story elevated wooden structures that today have quite often been divided into duplexes, each half reflecting the design tastes of the individual owners. It is interesting to walk along a residential street shaded by tall leafy trees, toucans flying back and forth overhead, with these schizophrenic structures on either side. While Jacaranda was hauled out last January, we stayed at nearby Hostal Amador, a handsome Canal House archetype whose integrity is fairly intact.
Ever wonder where the staid yellow school buses go when they finish their respectable service to the children of the United States? They get shipped to Central America where they become born again savages - reincarnated beasts careening about on wild wheels with demonic paint jobs and flashing lights! You can see them in just about every country down here but in Panama they are extreme and called “Red Devils” - and rightly so!
Panama Puddle Jump Party
Each year, the sailing rag Latitude 38, sponsors entertaining and informational parties for those cruisers leaving to do the Puddle Jump across the Pacific Ocean to the Marquesas and French Polynesia. This year’s Panama party held at the Balboa Yacht Club had 42 boats join in. Andy Turpin from Latitude 38 was the host and interviewed and photographed every skipper and crew for their “15 minutes of fame” vignette published in the magazine.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #59