Monday, March 30, 2015

Panamá Part 5: Modern Panamá City

Modern Panamá City, viewed over the mudflats along the seashore, looking east. The stunning skyline stretches all along the Bahía de Panamá for over 18 km (11 mi). The first time I saw this amazing array of modern structures was from the air as our plane circled around the Bahía. On that visit, we stopped for a brief layover on the way to Guatemala. I was amazed by a shoreline that reminded me of Miami Beach. I had been expecting a rather seedy, down-at-the-heels city, like Casco Viejo before the renovation. When we returned in 2013 for our Caravan tour of Panamá, we were told that the city has over 100 skyscrapers, with another 150 under construction. In this posting, we'll take a look at the  modern city, along with its harbor and marinas, and enjoy a dance performance that was arranged especially for our visit. For a Google map of the new city, click here.

The modern city skyline

The view from the ruins of the cathedral tower at Panamá Viejo, looking west. The Bahía is on the extreme left, beyond the raised causeway which crosses the mudflats seen above, between the trees and the skyscrapers. At high tide, the mudflats are covered with a few feet of water. Until the end of the 20th Century, only four buildings in the city exceeded 150 m (492 ft). Then, in the early 2000s, a building boom began, leading to a veritable arms-race of skyscrapers. As of February 2015, there were an additional 45 structures that exceeded 150 m, ranging from the Golden Tower at 152 m (498 ft), to the Trump Tower which soars to 284 m (932 ft). Many others are proposed, approved, or under construction. The aptly-named Megapolis Notria Tower, when completed, will reach 333 m (1,093 ft).

A view to the east across mudflats and a patch of coastal jungle. The weather was constantly changing during our visit, one moment cloudy, the next sunny with blue skies. This made photography a bit tricky. We visited in March, the driest time of year. Even so, it averages 10 rainy days during the month. March temperatures typically range from a mild 77 to a warm 90 with a humidity of 59%. That humidity may seem high to some, but in Panamá City it is the lowest average level during the year. From July through December, humidity averages a sopping 93%.

The city retired its famous Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) the day we arrived. These former US school buses were imported decades ago by their Panamanian owner-drivers. They became the core of Panamá's public transportation system. In fact, although now officially retired in the capital, many Diablos Rojos still operate in other cities and towns. The buses are painted with wild images inside and out, reflecting the individual tastes of their proprietors. Each vehicle has its own name, seen above, printed just below the windshields. Many Panamanians mourn the end of the Diablos Rojos as the loss of a colorful part of their culture. However, the Red Devils tended to be badly maintained and often spewed clouds of diesel fumes, contributing to the city's heavily polluted air. They could be dangerous not only because of poor upkeep but also because of the recklessness of the drivers. The Diablos Rojos have been replaced by modern, roomy, air-conditioned vehicles that are operated by employees, not driver-owners. The night we arrived in Panamá City, the chaos caused by the transition to the new system filled the evening's TV news. Hopefully things have settled down since.

In the background, the Trump Ocean International Hotel and Tower rises above all. Its curved profile reminded me of Half Dome in Yosemite. Developed by the ever-flamboyant Donald Trump, the tower gives meaning to the term "trumped up". The structure rises 70 stories above ground level and is currently the city's tallest building. If the buildings seen above appear to be jammed together, sardine-style, it's because they are. Although the available land is limited, the egos of the builders are not. Consequently, the city's nightmarish traffic jams are legendary. This is one reason that the anarchic Diablos Rojos bus system was scrapped in favor of a more modern, if less unique, system of transportation.

The cylindrical Plaza Paitilla Inn provides another interesting shape to the cityscape.  The hotel boasts 272 rooms with spectacular views in every direction. I am dubious about the hotel website's claim that the airport is only 15 minutes away. Given the previously mentioned traffic difficulties, perhaps they mean 15 minutes by helicopter.

The F&F Tower looks like a giant corkscrew. It was formerly called the Revolution Building. The first 13 stories are a parking garage, while those above form a twisting helix. The building's 52 stories rise 242.9 m (796.9 ft) from ground to tip. Emporis GmbH, a real estate data mining company, rated the F&F Tower as #7 of the ten best skyscrapers in the world for 2011. The building offers commercial office space, perhaps aimed at those with a twisted sense of humor. There is some talk of making the F&F Tower Panamá City's official symbol.

The city's unique Aquabuses

Keep your feet up and they won't get wet! As we crossed a bridge spanning a lagoon near a marina, I spotted a bus voyaging in the opposite direction. The startling view out my bus window resulted in the following series of shots. At first, I thought the bus was traveling on a slightly underwater bridge, or perhaps the water was just extremely shallow. Later, I found out that this was one of the city's famous amphibious Aquabuses.

Land Ho! The Aquabus nears a landing ramp. Somewhat like the Diablos Rojos, the tour operators acquired vehicles from the United States that were created for an entirely different purpose. The US military originally developed them as a way to carry troops across rivers and other bodies of water where no docking facilities for a normal boat were available. As a veteran, I suspect that the original vehicles were a bit less comfy than the tourist model.

The Aquabus begins its climb up the ramp, becoming a land vehicle again. Tours cost $49 (USD) for adults and $39 for children. The two hour tours are given Wednesdays through Sundays, starting at 10:30 AM and 2 PM and must be reserved in advance.

High and (mostly) dry, the Aquabus looks and functions like any other bus when on land. The tours take the adventurous on a route that passes through several bodies of water This includes crossing the Bahía to the mouth of the Panama Canal.

The Bahía, Harbor, & Marina

Ships ride at anchor outside a breakwater, with the city skyline in the background. The size of the Trump Tower can be appreciated in this view. What is the origin of the mind-boggling wealth that created modern Panamá City? There are several sources. The service sector comprises 78.4% of the economy, while industry takes 17.9% and agriculture only 3.7%. Almost 65% of the workforce is involved in providing services. The Panamá Canal forms a major part of those services and has produced over $7.61 billion (USD) in profits between the time the Canal came under Panamanian control at the end of 1999 through 2013. $1 billion of those profits were accrued in 2013 alone. Closely related to the Canal are other important activities such as the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, and the flagship registry.

A beautiful old yacht gently rocks in waters of the Bahía. This old craft has the look of those owned by Gilded Age tycoons at the end of the 19th Century. I am not sure of its current power plant, but the smokestack indicates that it was once steam-powered.  Another key part of the economy's service sector is finance. Panamá is ambitious to become Latin America's international trade and banking center. More than 100 multinational corporations use Panamá City as their regional headquarters for Latin America. Almost 100 international and local banks operate here. A good part of the mushroom-like growth of skyscrapers is due to this ambition. In addition, important parts of the industrial sector include construction, and cement and other construction materials. Since these are all related to the skyscrapers built to house the burgeoning service sector, this further points to the domination of that sector.

Detail of the yacht. A wisp of steam rising from the top of the smokestack indicates the presence of a steam engine somewhere below decks. As the old saying goes, if you have to ask how much a craft like this costs, you can't afford it. Someone else once described a boat as a hole in the water into which you pour money. Unless this is a local boat, the owners must be extremely well-heeled tourists. Almost 9% of Panamá's economy is related to tourism. The World Bank estimates that, in Panama, each $1 of tourist spending generates another $2.87 through the "multiplier effect." Tourist spending here falls into three general areas: beach resort visits, adventure/eco-tourism, and foreign retirees. However, much of the tourist spending never ends up in the pockets of ordinary Panamanians. A hefty portion is repatriated by foreign-based tourist corporations. In addition, supplies and food for tourists often comes from out-of-country sources.

Row after row of sleek yachts are anchored in the harbor's marinas. Sometimes the sources of income of the owners of these expensive boats can be mysterious. The illegal drug trade has been a fact of life in Panamá since at least the early 1980s. The country's free-wheeling banking system, and particularly its bank secrecy laws, created an ideal environment for money laundering. In addition, Panamá occupies a key geographic position between North and South America, and between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This geography plays a major role in the transportation of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. As a result, the drug cartels of Colombia have had a long and well-documented working relationship with corrupt members of the Panamanian government. Some of these officials have included Panamanian presidents and supreme court justices.

This yacht seemed more like a small ship than a boat. Panamá City's forest of skyscrapers fills the skyline. The US invasion of Panamá in 1989 was billed, at the time, as a police action aimed at capturing military dictator Manuel Noriega. He had just been indicted in Miami for his involvement with the Colombian cocaine cartels. Only later, it emerged that Noriega had been a paid agent of the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two decades. The CIA helped bring him to power after the mysterious death of his predecessor Omar Torrijos. Noriega had been recruited by the Agency while studying at a military academy in Peru. In 1967, he was trained in counter-intelligence at the US Army's School of the Americas (SOA). The SOA's graduates form a rogue's gallery of Latin American military dictators and human rights abusers. Noriega remained on the CIA's payroll up until 1988, only a year before the invasion that led to his ouster. Up to that point, top US officials turned a blind eye to his drug affiliations in spite of their lip service to the importance of the US War on Drugs. Noriega's defiance of the Miami indictments forced the hand of the George H.W. Bush Administration. After Noriega's capture, the US turned over power to a junta of so-called "democratic politicians." However, nearly all of them had held high positions with the same banks that had laundered Colombian drug money for decades. Top US officials were well aware of these connections, and former President Gerald Ford even lobbied on behalf of the banks. Although some anti-drug reforms have been implemented since the invasion, many of them appear to be window-dressing to hide the continuation of business-as-usual.

Dancin' up a storm

Restaurant at the marina where we stopped for lunch during our tour. In the distance you can see a ship sailing across the Bahía toward the Pacific entrance of the Canal. Pedro, our tour director, arranged for some special entertainment during our meal.

These young dancers performed a local version of the tango. Panamanians are famous as party-animals, even among Latin Americans. There are numerous areas in Panamá City where nightlife is abundant, and after-hours clubs pop up like mushrooms all over the city.

Puttin' down some steps. Given the warm weather and the athletic moves of this dancer, if she had worn any more clothes than this, she would have been drenched with sweat. Doubtless that was the reason for the limited nature of her outfit.

The sensuality of tango was considered shocking in the 19th Century. Tango originated in Argentina in the late 19th Century, but its roots go back to Cuba and Aftica. It became popular among the Argentine working class of Buenos Aires, and then migrated to Europe and North America where it caught on with the middle and upper classes in the 1920s.

Panamanians are a wild mixture of races and cultures. Only about 9% are indigenous. This young woman appears to be mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous) while her partner appears to come from an African, or Caribbean-African background. Because of its important position in international trade, people from every continent can be found here

This completes Part 5 of my Panama series. In my next posting, I will focus on the operation and history of the Panama Canal. I hope you have enjoyed this week's posting. If you would like to leave a question or comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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