Panama: the Canal & the Capital

 


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We were up at silly o'clock for this trip  ... but we caught the Bridge of the Americas at sunrise, and that's quite a sight.

It is written, somewhere, that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That might be true for dates, job interviews and the like, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to places. We’ve visited a number of cities we weren’t too impressed with at first sight, but grew to like.

Panama City struck us as a warren of high rise: the guide said they weren't quite skyscrapers. He pointed out an ugly brown confection that was an attempt to ape Dubai's Burj al Arab ... by Donald Trump.

Our hotel was fairly comfortable and the food good. We needed to get an early night, for the cruise on the canal started really early. And, hopefully, that will give me a better impression of the place.

 

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The 'Pacific Queen' is a good sized ship carrying many passengers along the length of the canal. We didn't do the whole thing, but probably the best bit, though the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and through the Gaillard Cut, to reach the highest point of the canal, where we disembarked and boarded a coach back to Panama City.

 (Fun fact: The lowest ever toll paid to transit the canal was paid by American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who paid 36c to swim the length of the canal in 1928)

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What we saw was truly a marvel of engineering. We compared the locks with the Five Rise Locks at Shipley and the Caen Flight at Devizes ...and there was just no comparison. If you talk about canals to a British person, and they’ll probably imagine a scene of laid-back leisure, where nobody’s in a hurry. This is by no means the case on the Panama Canal. It’s all mainly business. Cargo ships, the occasional cruise ship, attended by the tugs flitting attentively about … and the locos, called ‘mules’ which haul the ships through the locks.

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(Another fun fact: The Caribbean end is WEST of the Pacific end! And, I’ll bet you just got out a map or an atlas to check!)

There are really three Panamas; the nasty concrete canyons we saw on the way in, and didn't like very much. We had to be driven through this, though, to get to ‘Viejo Panama' ...the original city founded by pioneering Spanish settlers

Unfortunately, being on the west coast of Central America, they thought themselves safe from attack. So, they didn't think to build defensive walls, and were vulnerable to attack by pirates, culminating in the burning down of the city by Henry Morgan, which persuaded the surviving citizens to build elsewhere.

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So, all that remains are ruins. But, a land train conveys visitors to a museum on the site, which, with models, artefacts and paintings explains about the site very well.

After we’d seen what’s left of Old Panama, a drive to a viewpoint on the Causeway provided an opportunity to photograph the 'new' Panama which, from this distance, looked rather impressive. After all, a lot of business goes on here. I once heard it said (but haven’t been able to confirm) that, if every ship registered in Panama were to converge on the country, not even the entire length of the Canal would be able to accommodate them. And, that’s just one business!

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