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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Panamá Part 4: Casco Viejo's Plaza Independencia & the Golden Altar of Iglesia San Jose

Panamá's famous Altar of Gold is located within Iglesia San José. Later in this posting, I will tell you about the legend of the Golden Altar. Plaza Independencia, and the nearby Iglesia San José (St. Joseph Church) are both located in Casco Viejo, Panamá City's Old Town. In addition to showing you both of these sites, I will also provide some of Panamá's 19th Century history. There is a great deal to see in Casco Viejo, including a wide variety of architecture from the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. Many of these beautiful old structures are grouped around four major plazas. Unfortunately, our tour only allowed us part of one afternoon to explore Casco Viejo. A thorough investigation of all of the interesting sites could take several days. I encourage anyone considering a visit to set aside enough time to see as much as you can of this World Heritage Site.

Plaza Independencia 

Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is the Plaza's centerpiece. Plaza Independencia is also known as Plaza Catedral and Plaza Mayor. The Catedral is one of the largest churches in Latin America. As the seat of the Archdiocese of Panamá, it has had two predecessors. The original seat had been established in 1510 at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién on the Caribbean Coast. In 1519, it was moved to Panamá Viejo on the Pacific Coast. Following the destruction of Panamá Viejo during Captain Henry Morgan's raid in 1671, the Archdiocese was again transferred. When Panamá City (now called Casco Viejo) was founded in 1673, the Archdiocese finally arrived in its present location. Plaza Independencia got its name because it was here that independence from Spain was proclaimed on November 28, 1821, and independence from Colombia was declared on November 3, 1903. Both announcements were delivered from the steps of the Catedral.

The church's Renaissance style facade is sometimes called the "Jesuit" style. The first version of Casco Viejo's cathedral was a rather unimpressive wood structure, hastily erected in 1674. A few years later, in 1677, a devout parishioner contributed the sum of 14,000 pesos. The funds were used to dismantle the remains of the old Panamá Viejo cathedral so that the stone could be used to construct the new one.  However, it was not until 1688 that the first stone for the current building was laid by Bishop Lucas Fernandez de Piedrahita. Work continued in fits and starts for the next 108 years. In 1737, a great fire devastated Casco Viejo, severely damaging the partially-constructed cathedral. The bells, which had survived Panamá Viejo's destruction, melted in the 18th Century conflagration. By 1749, all but the towers and the ashlar-stone facade were complete. In 1751, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro began to supervise the project and the pace picked up. Born in 1695, he  was the first Archbishop of Panamá native to the isthmus. The Bishop died in 1777, before the church was finished. The Neo-classical bell towers were built between 1762 and 1796, during the last stage of construction. The towers are 36 m (118 ft) in height and are inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Panamá's Pearl Islands.

A statue of Manual Amador Guerrero stands in the Plaza in front of the Catedral. Dr. Manual Amador Guerrero (1833-1909) was a prominent physician who helped lead the successful movement to gain Panamanian independence from Colombia in 1903. He became a surgeon after graduating from the Universidad de Magdalena. For the last 30 years of the 19th Century, Dr. Amador Guerrero was associated with the Hospital Santo Tomás, an institution that had served Panamá's poor since the colonial era. During his tenure, he reorganized the hospital and acted as its Superintendent in addition to his duties as a doctor. In 1904, a Constituent Assembly elected the doctor as the first President of the new nation of Panamá. His wife, Maria Ossa de Amador designed the first flag of the Republic of Panamá.

Our Casco Viejo guide is clad in a pollera, the traditional dress of Panamá. Along with our Caravan Tour Director Pedro Palma, she shepherded our group as we walked a circuitous route up and down the narrow streets of Casco Viejo. It must have seemed to them a bit like herding cats, but they both managed to maintain their good humor. The role of cross-isthmus trade has been critical for Panamá since 1514. In that year Spain's King Phillip II directed the conquistador Pedro de Arias to build roads to connect the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts and to look into the possibility of a canal. The King wanted to facilitate the transport of Peruvian gold and oriental luxuries back to Spain. Panamá Viejo, and its successor Casco Viejo, were founded as key Pacific ports for this purpose. The trade flow continued throughout the colonial period and into the 19th Century, gaining great impetus from the California gold rush of 1849. In 1850, an American-owned railroad company began construction of a 76.6 km (47.6 mi) line across the isthmus. The project cost $8 million and as many as 10,000 lives before it was finished in 1855. It was one of the shortest railroads ever built, but it was a huge achievement against stupendous obstacles, including bottomless swamps, raging rivers, and deadly diseases. On a macabre note, the work was partially financed by the selling the corpses of workers who died during construction to medical schools for practice autopsies.

Two young girls stroll through the Plaza in front of Palacio Municipal. The Palacio is an early 20th Century building constructed in the Neo-classical style. In addition to housing the municipal government (similar to a US county government), the second floor of the Palacio is occupied by the Museo de la Historia de Panamá. The building was designed in 1907 by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri, the same man who designed Panama's National Theatre. Although the building is a 20th Century creation, it has the distinction of housing the oldest continuously functioning government body on the Western Hemisphere's mainland. Panamá City's municipal government is a descendent of the one established in 1510 by Diego de Nicuesa at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién. The current building was dedicated 400 years later in 1910.

The cupola of the Palacio Municipal is bracketed by two sets of Neo-classic sculptures. The sculpture on the left depicts the Greco-Roman god Mercury kneeling at the feet of the goddess Athena. The right-hand sculpture shows a standing man holding a pick and a seated youth holding various fruits. The municipal government's long history was, and is, a source of great pride for the isthmus community. In the late 19th Century, Panamá was still part of Colombia. and its leaders were bitterly frustrated because they sensed they had become a neglected appendage of the Colombian nation. However, they also desperately wanted a cross-isthmus canal. The canal idea was not a new one. After some experience with Panamá's wild interior, Pedro de Arias informed King Phillip of the project's enormous potential cost, difficulty, and overall impossibility given 16th Century technology. However, the vision would not die. In 1529, one of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's former lieutenants suggested four possible canal routes, one of which is close to the actual route chosen almost 400 years later. During the 18th Century, such figures as Benjamin Franklin and the German philosopher Goethe advocated for an isthmus canal. During the 1820s, the South American Liberator Simón Bolivar sent engineers to Panamá to investigate a route but, in the end, took no action. The explorer Alexander Humbolt also suggested an isthmus canal, but in Nicaragua rather than Panamá.

A trim and handsome young policeman walks across the Plaza. Although there are drug gangs that operate in the poor areas on the fringes of Casco Viejo, there was a strong police presence in the Old Town area where we visited. As early as 1826, the US tried to negotiate a canal treaty with Colombia (then called New Granada). However, the New Granadans backed away, fearful of becoming a US colony. In 1835, Col. Charles Biddle wanted to build a railroad, but the idea was scuttled by President Andrew Jackson, who favored a canal but took no action. In 1848, the New Granadans became fearful of British intervention and signed a treaty making the US the guarantor of isthmus neutrality. The opening of the isthmus railroad in 1855 led to more proposals for a canal. The deluge of Gold Rush enthusiasts, and their attitude toward Panamanians, caused resentment among the isthmus population. After riots broke out in 1856, the US Navy landed marines. This was the first of many military interventions to follow. During the last half of the 19th Century, there were sporadic US efforts to secure a canal agreement, but Americans were distracted by the US Civil War and the problems of westward expansion. In 1863, New Granada renamed itself Colombia, and by 1879 the Colombians were fed up with US inaction. They signed a deal with Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the Suez Canal. However, digging a canal through the flat sand of the desert was not the same as pushing one through the swamps and jungled mountains of Panamá. By 1888, the French effort went bankrupt. The last efforts to revive de Lesseps' project was abandoned in 1894. The Colombian government, based in Bogatá, then rejected a US proposal to complete the project. These twin failures had profound effects on Panamá's trade dependent economy. By 1903, Panamanians had had enough. They decided to separate from Colombia and go it alone.

Tomás Arias was one of the junta that led Panamá to independence. His statue stands in Plaza Independencia in front of the Palacio MunicipalTomás Arias (1856-1932) was a businessman and politician who was born in Panama City and educated in Panamá, Jamaica, and the United States. Like many other leaders of the independence movement, Arias was from an elite family. Also like the others, he had served the Colombian government in a variety of posts including Treasury administrator, assembly deputy for the Department of Panamá, representative to the Colombian Congress, senator, and government secretary. The new Republic of Panama was fortunate to have such enormous experience available in its initial leadership. After the separation from Colombia, Tomás Arias served the Republic as foreign minister, consul to Mexico, and chairman of Panama's National Assembly.

Iglesia San José and its Altar of Gold

The rather nondescript Iglesia de San José houses Panama's famous Altar of Gold. The church is only about two blocks from Plaza Independencia. Iglesia San José was built as a replica of the original Augustinian church, destroyed during the pirate attack on Panamá Viejo. Construction on the new church in Casco Viejo began in 1671, shortly after Panamá Viejo was abandoned. The unfinished church and its Augustinian convent were inaugurated in 1675. Work on Iglesia San José continued until 1677.

The main nave of the church, showing the Altar of Gold. The Altar itself was carved in the Baroque style popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The rest of the interior has been remodeled in the less-flamboyant Neo-classic style. In addition to the Altar of Gold, the church's single nave contains several other elaborate retablos, including one on either side of the altar area and two more on the right wall.

The Altar of Gold fills the entire end of the church's nave from floor to ceiling. The Altar has three levels and contains six niches. Five of the niches contain statues of saints or other religious figures. The top level contains a painting surrounded by a circular frame. The structure is not actually made of gold, but of carved mahogany covered with gold leaf. The figure on the second level in the center niche is San José, for whom the church is named. At his left is Santa Clara de la Cruz de Montefalco. To San José's right is San Tomás de Villa Nueva. On the bottom level to the left is Nuestra Señora de Consolation, and on the right side is San Agustin, patron of the Augustinian Order. In the bottom center is an elaborate cylinder that was closed at the time we visited.

View of the elaborately carved cylinder at the bottom center of the Altar. It is clearly constructed so that it can be opened, but what it contains remains a mystery to me. I have not been able to determine its contents. Just below the cylinder, Christ appears on a tiny crucifix. There is a wonderful legend about the Golden Altar and the pirate Captain Henry Morgan. When, in 1671, the residents of Panamá Viejo heard that the dreaded marauder was hacking his way through the jungle from the Caribbean side of the isthmus, they panicked and began hiding their valuables. At the time, an Augustinian monk named Juan de Villa de los Santos was in charge of the church.

Nuestra Señora de la Consolation, holding the Christ Child. This version of the Virgin Mary is especially revered by the Augustinians. As Captain Morgan's pirates drew closer, Juan the monk was faced with a difficult problem. The Altar of Gold was much too large and cumbersome to move. If Juan left it as it was, the pirates would no doubt hack it to pieces in order to carry off as much of it as they could. They would, no doubt, have been particularly angry to find that the altar was only covered with gold leaf, rather than solid gold. Who knew what sort of barbarities they might commit in their frustrated rage?

San Agustin, patron of the Augustinian Order. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 AD - 430 AD) was an early Christian philosopher and theologian. He is recognized as one of the four most important Doctors of the Church and his writings heavily influenced early Catholic doctrine. In Panamá Viejo, Juan the monk wracked his brains for a solution to his dilemma. He hit upon the idea of disguising the Altar as something greedy pirates might overlook. Gathering the few parishioners who had not fled into the jungle, he began to paint the great structure with albayalde (silver oxide).

San José, holding the Christ Child. San José is the patron saint of workers and the protector of the Catholic Church. When Captain Morgan himself burst into the church, eager to pillage it of its gold, he found a black altar rather than one of shining gold. The pirate chief grumbled that he had been badly misinformed and that this was a poor example of an Augustinian church. Juan the monk worked hard to confirm this impression. He pleaded poverty and even suggested that the Morgan should make a donation to help complete an unfinished part of the church.

The circular painting at the top of the Altar shows God holding the Scales of Justice. Above his head is a triangular halo, representing the Trinity. The ploy of Juan the monk worked! He persuaded the pirate captain to make a magnificent donation of 1000 ducats. The story has a charming end. While turning to leave after giving his donation, the Captain looked Juan in the eye and said "I don't know exactly why, but I suspect you may be more of a pirate than I am!"

Detail of the Baroque carving. Here you can see the fine carving of the artists who created the Altar of Gold. According to the legend, the Altar of Gold was not destroyed in the great fire that consumed Panamá Viejo.  It was cleaned and restored and shipped to a rebuilt Iglesia San José at the new site of Panamá City--now Casco Viejo. Unfortunately, recent professional examinations of the Altar indicate that it was probably created some time after the fall of Panamá Viejo. Historians and archaeologists can often be terrible spoil sports! I prefer the legend.

This completes Part 4 of my Panamá series. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, and 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 in the Comments box, PLEASE also leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Panamá Part 3: Casco Viejo, the city that replaced Panamá Viejo

Casco Viejo is the nickname of the city that replaced Panamá Viejo after its destruction. Following our visit to the ruin of Panamá Viejo and its museum (see Part 2 of this series), our next stop was Casco Viejo.  The new city was built after Captain Henry Morgan's pirates sacked and burned Panamá Viejo in 1671. The Spanish crown approved relocation of the isthmus' capital to a much more defensible position on a peninsula to the west about 8 km (5 mi) along the coast. The nickname Casco Viejo means "Old Town", but the term casco also means "helmet" which is appropriate for the highly fortified location. For a Google map showing Casco Viejo and its peninsula, click here.  (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Our Caravan tour

Our tour director, Pedro Palma, accompanied by his Panamanian assistant. She is attired in the traditional dress of the country called a pollera. Unfortunately, I neglected to note down her name. However, she was very friendly and helpful. At one point, with skirts flying, she sprinted down a side street in pursuit of one of our elderly fellow tourists who got confused and wandered off. Pedro seemed to have a limitless supply of pretty young Panamanians to assist, guide, and even dance for us. He is not Panamanian himself, but a Mexican with a great sense of humor. Many people working in Panama today are from elsewhere, as must have been the case even from the earliest days of Panamá Viejo.

Our Caravan Tours bus driver waits to supply his passengers with cold bottled water. I don't mind giving a plug for Caravan Tours now and then. It is an excellent company based in Chicago that provides tours to many places in the US, Canada and Central America. We have traveled with them not only to Panamá, but to Guatemala and throughout southern Mexico. We plan to use them when we visit Costa Rica this coming winter. The tour bus above was roomy, the seats were comfortable, and we seemed to glide along the roads. The windows were large, and the passengers rotated seats every day so that everyone got a shot at the best places to view the passing scenes. Caravan is extremely well-organized and seems to have thought of every detail. Even when the unexpected occurs, the tour directors remain unfazed and always seem to have a Plan B. Meals have always been sumptuous, and the hotels always at least clean and comfortable. Sometimes the accommodations have been truly spectacular, as you will see later in this series. In spite of all of this, the tour prices--although not cheap--are still moderate, considering what you get.

View of the seawall and the Casco Viejo from a causeway across the mudflats. The new location chosen for the colonial capital was on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by reefs and sticky mudflats that are exposed at low tide. This was intended to present a major natural obstacle to any hostile force approaching from the sea. Another indication of the seriousness with which the Spanish took the destruction of their former capital was the choice of the new governor. Antonio Fernández de Córdoba was a military engineer with long experience in building fortifications. Construction began shortly after the site was approved and the new city was founded January 21, 1673. Panamá City was defended by three great bastions known as Barlovento, Mano de Tigre, and Puerta de Tierra. The last of these protected the gate in the walls across the the neck of the peninsula. At the end of the 18th Century, a fortress called Chiriqui was added onto the tip of the peninsula.

Government buildings and private apartments line the seawall. The flag of modern Panamá flies from a pole on the seawall. In the upper left background, you can see the dome of Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi (Church of Saint Francis). The church overlooks Plaza Simón Bolivar, one of four beautiful old plazas in Casco Viejo. The ruins of Panamá Viejo were cannibalized for materials to build the new city. The great stone fortifications may have protected the city from attack, but the wooden structures inside them were still threatened by fire. Three catastrophic fires occurred in the 18th Century, destroying large portions of the city. As a result, much of what you see today is the product of 19th and early 20th Century construction.

On foot in Casco Viejo

The streets of Old Town are quite narrow, and lined by two and three-story buildings. Nearly every building, particularly those for residential use, is adorned with one or more balconies. I was reminded of the streets of New Orlean's French Quarter. Because of its historic importance and beautiful old architecture, Casco Viejo was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Parque de los Aburridos, one of many interesting signs we observed on our walk. Translated, this means "Park of the Bored Ones". The sign also refers to the "recuperation of public spaces" as an objective of the national government. Much of Casco Viejo is still fairly dilapidated, with many buildings vacant and almost completely gutted. This deterioration occurred because the US-controlled Canal Zone blocked easy movement between Casco Viejo and the rest of the city. Development moved elsewhere and Casco Viejo moldered away. The reversion of the Canal Zone to Panamanian control in 1979 opened up the area. In recent years, spurred by the World Heritage Site label, Panamá began a major effort to renovate and rehabilitate the old city. When we visited, scaffolding full of workmen could be seen everywhere.

A typical corner, with multiple balconies overhanging the streets. On the left is a gutted building, with vines growing inside. In the middle is another that is in better shape, but still could use some work. On the right, a newly renovated building displays a sign saying se vende (for sale).

An apartment shaped like the prow of a ship. This was one of the most unusual buildings we saw in Panamá. Apparently I was not the only one so impressed. Many photos in Google Images show the same structure, some from an almost identical viewpoint.

The old and the new. We found the ruins of the 17th Century fortifications across a brick patio from the ship's prow building. Behind the ruins a four-story building from the early 20th Century is undergoing extensive rehabilitation

Two of Panamá City's finest. We came across this formidable looking pair outside a police station along our route. I always ask permission to take someone's photo, especially if it is the police. They were friendly enough, however. In addition to their extensive body armor, the man on the left is clutching an Uzi submachine gun in his right hand. Drug trafficking is a major problem in Panamá and the extreme profitability of the activity means that it is often conducted by heavily armed groups. Parts of Casco Viejo adjoin some pretty rough neighborhoods that are dominated by such violent drug-trafficking gangs. Our guides kept a very close eye on us to ensure that we didn't wander into unfortunate encounters. 

A highly decorated balcony shows that this was once a rich man's house. The decorative elements appear to be of the late 17th or early 18th Century Baroque style. Now, the windows are filled with cinder blocks. However, I anticipate that this place will soon house a wealthy family again, as the Casco Viejo revives and becomes a "hip" place of residence for the well-heeled. Unfortunately, this means that low and moderate income residents will inevitably be pushed out of neighborhoods they have occupied for generations. This is always the down-side of gentrification.

A man, apparently fresh from his bath, enjoys the morning view from his balcony. Notice the wooden french doors and the exquisite wrought-iron work. I was again reminded of New Orleans. I could see myself living in a place like this, except for the brutally hot summers.

An equestrian statue of General Tomás Herrera stands in the plaza dedicated to him. General Herrera was a hero of the movement for Panamanian independence from Spain, and later from Colombia. When independence from Spain was finally achieved in 1821, Panama became a province of Gran Colombia, which included Ecuador, Venezuela, and New Granada (modern Colombia) at the time. Some Panamanian leaders were discontented with this status because the isthmus had historically played a leading role in colonial Spanish-America as the first mainland colony. In 1840, Herrera led a struggle to gain Panamá's independence from Colombia. He became the President of the Free State of the Isthmus. However, a substantial part the population did not want to break away and the Free State lasted only 13 months. Over Herrera's objections, Panamanian leaders agreed to become a province of Colombia once again. Panamá maintained this status until 1903, when it became a sovereign state. After the demise of the Free State, Herrera continued to play a role in Colombian politics and even served as Governor of Panamá and Colombia's Minister of War and the Navy. In 1854, a military coup led to his appointment as President of Colombia. A civil war then erupted and, while leading troops into battle in December of 1854, Herrera was mortally wounded. 

It's not only the buildings that are being refurbished, but the streets too. This street was being re-paved with bricks when we came by. The whole feeling in Casco Viejo is one of transformation, not to a glitzy modernistic future, but to past glories from the present decay. By the end of the decade, I imagine the transformation might be complete. In the meantime, all this work, particularly on the narrow streets, makes the place a nightmare in which to drive. 

Looking down a Casco Viejo side street, modern Panamá City suddenly appears. The difference is startling. Immense wealth is again concentrating in Panamá, particularly in its capital city. Revenue is pouring in from the Canal, from the city's new status as a financial hub in Latin America, from the tourist trade and, no doubt, from the underground drug trade. A forest of skyscrapers dominates modern Panamá City, with many more on the way. In my next post we'll take a look at Casco Viejo's impressive Plaza Independencia, as well as the Iglesia San José with its famous Altar of Gold.

This completes Part 3 of my Panamá series. I hope you have enjoyed it! I encourage you to leave any thoughts you may have in the Comments section below, or to email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim