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The Sights of Panama City

Volume 58: Tues May 10, 2005

Regarding what befell our adventurers while touring the sights of Panama City

Amanda and I woke up for our first full day in Panama. A new crisis presented itself before I even had a chance to jump in the shower. While looking through my bag for the clothes I'd wear that day, I discovered something very important I had left behind in Seattle: Underwear. In my haste while packing, it seems that for some reason, I only grabbed three pieces of undergarments for two weeks in Panama. I tried not to dwell on the unexpected problem at the moment, telling myself that I only took a single piece of underwear for the six months I spent on the Appalachian Trail. This, I tried to convince myself, was not a big problem! By turning them inside out each day, I could stretch out my underwear supply to SIX DAYS!


The view of Panama City from the Parque Natural Metropolitano. While boasting a population of over 700,000 people, the area near the Panama Canal is surprisingly undeveloped!

The first thing on our list of things to do—visit the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a 265-hectare national park within Panama City. In it, our guidebook promised exciting mammals including tití monkeys, anteaters and sloths.

We packed small backpacks with lots of water, snacks and other necessities then headed downstairs to the street where we hailed a taxi.

Taxi rides in Central America, as you might remember from my previous adventures, can be an adventure in their own right, and our first taxi in Panama was no exception. Even before we got into the vehicle, our driver got out to open the door for us. We thought he was being kind. Turns out, the door's lock had a bad habit of staying locked, and he had to jiggle the handle on the door while chanting, "Abierto, abierto, abierto!" (i.e. Open, open, open) for a good fifteen seconds before the door popped open for us.

We piled into the car and considered putting on a seatbelt, but alas, they didn't appear to be in working order. Which was okay—most people don't wear seatbelts in Central America in the first place, though our guidebook did say that seatbelts actually are required in Panama. Which was rather a shocking statement when you think about it. They'll leave huge, gaping holes that drunks can fall into and kill themselves right there on the sidewalk, but seatbelts are required? Amanda and I doubted the seatbelt issue was actually enforced, but it was interesting they are technically required in the first place.

Our taxi made it about two blocks before it stalled. The driver tried to start it with the ignition that hung off the steering column like you'd see in the movies when the car is stolen. We could hear the engine trying to turn over. The driver pumped the pedals furiously. Vrrrmmm, rrrrmm, rrmmm... This went on for quite some time while the cars behind us honked their horns and our driver, using his free, tried to wave people around. Amanda and I looked at each other wondering if we should get out and hail another taxi—except that we were in the middle of a busy road and could possibly die if we dared to step out in it—that is, assuming Amanda could even get out the stubbornly locked door next to her.

Our driver seemed to finally give up on starting the car, opened his door, and got out. He popped open the hood where he tinkered around for another five seconds before the car roared back to life. We were on our way! For now, at least.


The viewpoint at the Metropolitano overlooked the airport for domestic flights throughout Panama

The driver jumped back in the car and raced through the next intersection, swerved between several cars, and several hard turns later, delivered us to our destination at the Parque Natural Metropolitano. Amanda and I exited the other back door to save ourselves the hassle of getting out the persistently locked one and paid the three dollars the ride cost. That's one of the nice things about taxis in Central America—they'll take you almost anywhere in town and it never costs more than a few dollars.

A couple of tourists ready to leave the park jumped in the door we just got out of. We considered warning them about the problematic car, but decided everyone should experience such an adventure as riding in that taxi. So we kept our mouths shut and off they went, clueless about the deathtrap they had just entered.


El Castillo is an old, abandoned-looking building found in the Metropoliano. Amanda and I weren't sure what its former purpose was, but we thought it looked much like a prison.

Coincidentally enough, the name of the street that runs through the park is called Juan Pablo II, or John Paul II in English. Yep, the street was named after the very pope who was currently on his deathbed and whose health (or lack thereof) was the biggest news to hit Central America since, well, his last visit to the country, I suppose.

Amanda and I checked out a map of the park, prominently displayed in front of the visitor center. Inside, we paid the entrance fee and bought the optional map to the park under the justification that it would be useful for creating letterbox clues after I planted the three letterboxes I had brought to the park.

The hike wasn't especially long—a total of about three or four miles—but the temperatures were already climbing well into the 90s and the humidity was so thick you could taste the water in the air. It was Amanda's worst nightmare, and she let me know that every step of the way.

"But we might see a sloth!!!" I would explain.

"We can see them on the Animal Channel!"

It was going to be a long hike for me....

The trail started off level and easy, though it quickly climbed to a lookout where, allegedly, one could see the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal and a fantastic view of the city. The view, I'll admit, was fantastic, but we never could see the locks. Instead, we could see the ships sailing through them and, from our point of view, looked like giant container ships floating over land rather than water.

I planted three letterboxes along our hike, but the only mammals we spotted were the two-legged kinds known as Homo sapiens. We were underwhelmed, to tell you the truth. We were more fascinated by the gigantic ants that were creating their own trail system throughout the forest than the exotic mammals that we couldn't find.


The view looking back into Panama City from the tip of Casco Antiguo. In case you're wondering about the strange color shift, I merged this from two distinct photos (one from Amanda's camera and one from mine) which captured the scene in two slightly different colors with slightly different exposures.


Plaza de Francia is dedicated to the 22,000 people who died while the French attempted to build the Panama Canal

Back at the visitor center, we hailed down another taxi—this one in seemingly much better condition than our last one. The dashboard sported a stuffed dog wearing sunglasses. You can't go wrong with that, right? We told the driver to whisk us away to Casco Antiguo, the origin of Panama City.

As I mentioned in the previous adventure, Panama City was sacked by pirates and rebuilt a few years later in a slightly new location that could be defended better from attacks by sea. The area named Casco Antiguo was where the new Panama City was built, casco meaning compound. Thus, Casco Antiguo means "Old Compound" or even "Ancient Compound." (Needless to say, it probably wasn't called "old" until much later!) Happily, this new highly-fortified location was never successfully attacked again.


I'm standing by interesting public art in front of the old dungeons that now house an art gallery

Our guidebook warned this area of the city is one of the more interesting parts of the city, though it has become quite dilapidated and crime can be a problem—even in the daytime. We were assured that the crime has decreased in recent years since they started beefing up the police presence, but we decided that it would be best to stick to the major roads.

Our guidebook also recommended a walking tour of Casco Antiguo, which I was all over. I love walking tours! We started at the Plaza de Francia where there was an impressive obelisk with a statue of a rooster on top. You've got to love those crazy latinos! =) The plaza is dedicated to the French who first started to build the Panama Canal and failed in a most glorious, shameful manner. The scandals at the time would have made Watergate seem like nothing in comparison, but I'll get into that story a bit later. On one side of the plaza, there are nine restored dungeons from by-gone years now full of art museums and restaurants.


Amanda is teaching this sculpture how to sew!

The history in the this small section of town could fill a large book. The Plaza de la Independencia was where Panama declared its independence from Columbia on November 3, 1903. A revolution, I might add, that would have never succeeded without support from the United States government intervening in matters where it had no business intervening in the first place. It's over a hundred years later, and some things still haven't changed.


This statue is in honor of roosters everywhere....

But until then, Panama was just a small part of Columbia. Not that the people in Panama wanted it this way—even then there was no overland road between Panama and the rest of Columbia so Panama was more like an island cut off from the rest of Columbia with little in common. The United States, at the time, wanted to build a Panama Canal while Columbia was demanding to be paid a reasonable rate for the right to do so. The United States, being impatient to build the Panama Canal, essentially agreed to defend Panama from foreign aggressors (i.e. Columbia) if they decided to declare independence—just as long as they could build their canal on their own terms. Which is what happened. Panama declared independence from the rest of Columbia, the United States supported the fledgling country then built the Panama Canal under draconian terms that the people of Panama resented ever since.

Columbia didn't have the heart to go to war over Panama—mostly because they were badly out-gunned, out-numbered, had no local support against independence, and didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of ever winning such a war. Columbia, however, did not recognize Panama independence until 1921 when the United States paid Columbia $25 million in compensation.

The plaza is pretty run down today, but it still exists with an information plaque describing the day that Panama declared its independence from Colubmia.

Adjacent to the Plaza de la Independencia was the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, or the Panama Canal Museum as most people call it, in the building that was once the headquarters of the original French canal company. Amanda demanded that we stop there for several reasons: (1) She was sick of walking, (2) she was sick of the heat and humidity outdoors, (3) she was sick of walking, (4) she was sick of the heat and humidity outdoors, and (5) she thought the museum might be interesting. Pretty much in that order.


The Plaza de la Independencia looks pretty run down, but there is an interesting looking church overlooking it!

So we entered the wonderful air-conditioned building and paid the entrance fee. All of the exhibits, we were told, were written in Spanish, but we could also purchase an audiotape tour in English. We selected not to and would rely on my Spanish-reading abilities instead.

The museum was quite extensive and very well done if any of you are ever in the area. Definitely worth the couple of dollars for the entrance fee. Armed guards patrolled all of the areas, convinced we would abscond with important historical artifacts from Panama. At one point, Amanda and I sat down on the floor, exhausted from all of our walking, to read one of the exhibits. A guard set upon us almost immediately, speaking Spanish much too fast to be understood and waving his arms about frantically. We assumed he didn't want us sitting on the floor where we might be considered dangerous. We pretended not to understand him—which wasn't a difficult thing to do under the circumstances—and nodded before taking our time to get up and continue the tour.

Afterwards, Amanda stopped at the gift shop to get some important shopping done while I sat around and waited before we finally headed into the dreaded heat and humidity outdoors once again.

Another Panama Canal related site could be found at the ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo. For years, a debate raged about where the best place was to build a trans-continental canal: Nicaragua or Panama? Nicaragua, as you may know, is much thicker than Panama, but due to a navigable river and an enormous lake in Nicaragua, the number of miles that would have to be excavated were almost identical along the routes. And Nicaragua included a couple of other benefits not found in Panama such as fewer cases of malaria and shortening the route between east coast and west coast cities of the United States even more than a Panama route would do so. And after the disastrous fiasco the French made of building the Panama Canal, it was assumed by most people that Nicaragua was clearly the superior choice.


These ruins contained the famed Arco Chato—allegedly one of the deciding factors that led to the Panama Canal

However a small group of people preferred the Panama route—especially the French who wanted to sell the work they'd already done and their rights to build the canal to the Americans. The French wanted to get back at least a little of their disastrous investment. So they claimed Nicaragua was far more unstable. Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Nobody would want to build a canal there because it would be destroyed by disasters! As evidence, they even submitted a Nicaraguian stamp displaying an active volcano behind a large lake—a lake to be used as part of the canal. Countries create postal stamps that represent their country and Nicaragua created a stamp of an active volcano right on the canal path!

And as evidence about how stable and safe a canal would be in Panama, they pointed to the Arco Chato, a long arch that stood there for centuries, unsupported. It's survival was taken as proof that the area was not subject to earthquakes and helped sway many important people into choosing the Panama route for the trans-continental canal.

Sadly, the arch collapsed in 2003, but it lasted long enough to see the canal built a few miles away due in large part to its remarkable longevity that engineers say should have collapsed decades if not centuries ago. Of course, Panama is subject to volcanoes and earthquakes just like Nicaragua, but this was nothing more than propaganda and getting your way was more important than technicalities like the truth. Some things never change.... *cough*weaponsofmassdestruction*cough*

But I digress.... Another ruin we passed was the Club de Clases y Tropas, an old Noriega hangout heavily damaged during the 1989 U.S. invasion. Our guidebook, we were assumed to see, noted, "Some fresh paint was selectively applied in early 2000, when scenes from the movie The Tailor of Panama were filmed here." Cool!


A church overlooking Parque Bolívar

We passed by Parque Bolívar where, in 1826, Simón Bolívar held a meeting urging the union of several Central and South American countries under the theory that a unified, single country—a "Grand Columbia"—would be far more advantageous than several smaller countries. Ultimately, he failed at this task, but Bolívar is still considered one of the greatest heroes in this part of the world. With an army never numbering more than ten thousand, he freed most of a continent from Spain and created the countries of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia in the process. Quite a remarkable scorecard which is why he's known as the "George Washington of South America." And therefore, the park where he urged the union of several smaller countries into a larger super-country was named after him.

At one point, along our walking tour, we passed what looked like a large heap of garbage that a dozen men pounced on like hungry wolves. Amanda and I were rather startled at the unexpected savageness of the group we could see fighting over what looked like left over food possibly thrown away by a nearby restaurant. We hustled quickly off of that particular street no longer feeling especially safe.

At the end of the street, we bumped into armed guards that had closed a road that our guidebook suggested for our walking tour. The white building behind it, our guidebook told us, was the presidential palace, and the president of Panama lives on the top floor. Amanda and I were shocked this was located in a such a run-down area of town, though the presence of armed guards alleviated some of the fears we had of being attacked by the roving band of hungry wolves behind us. I joked to Amanda wondering if I could talk the guards into letting me meet with the president of Panama—assuming he was even home at the time. She didn't think my joke was very funny.

Not sure if the street ahead was closed off just to vehicular traffic or also to pedestrian traffic, Amanda and I decided to follow the non-closed off streets around the presidential palace to be on the safe side.


The Altar de Oro was one of the few items saved after Henry Morgan sacked the original Panama City in 1671

One last stop we made was at the Iglesia de San José with its famous Altar de Oro, that is, the Golden Altar. Our guidebook explained it:

Its famous Alter de Oro was about the only thing of value salvaged after Henry Morgan sacked Panamá La Vieja in 1671. When word came of the pirate's impending attack, according to local tales, a priest painted the altar black to disguise it. The priest told Morgan that the famous altar had been stolen by another pirate, and even convinced Morgan to donate handsomely for its replacement. Morgan is said to have told the priest, "I don't know why, but I think you are more of a pirate than I am."

Whatever really happened, the alter survived the destruction of the original Panama City and was later moved to its present location in Casco Antiguo, so Amanda and I popped our heads in to check it out.

The church was actually the first Amanda had been to in Central America. This surprised me—I'd been in several during my travels and this one didn't look much different than any of the others I'd been in—but it never occurred to me that all of the other churches I'd visited had been without Amanda. The churches in Central America tend to be quite graphic when portraying images of Jesus being crucified, and this one was no exception. Every gruesome detail is captured in nearly lifesize statues. Candles burned all over the place, though not as many as I normally would see in churches in Central America. And in the front of the church was a large elaborate, golden altar.

At this point, we looked at the famous altar and scratched our heads wondering exactly what was the alter. That little part up front? That enormous piece of furniture behind it? We assumed it meant the enormous piece of furniture behind it, but it was HUGE! Could it have been painted black and hidden over 300 years ago? We also had our doubts that it was real gold. Probably just painted gold. Or at the very least just a thin layer of gold. Somehow, it seemed rather disappointing. What would Morgan have wanted with such an alter in the first place? It was too big to take anywhere!

We finally did conclude the Golden Altar really was the big monstrous piece of work in the back, so we took a few obligatory photos. Fortunately, the church didn't have any signs posted about no photos inside which most of the churches I had visited in the past included, nor was there anyone around worshiping that we would be disturbing. So we took a few pictures then continued on our way.

By now, Amanda and I were quite famished and decided to lunch at the Café Coca Cola because, darn it, we were Americans and had to support our national drink! In all seriousness, we walked into a typical Central American eatery. The place was bustling with activity and we stuck out like the obvious tourists we were being the only two gringos in the establishment. We placed our orders—Amanda ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich, and I ordered spaghetti with meatballs that, I'm happy to report, was quite edible.


These "pigeon condominiums" were all over the shopping district! (Notice the KFC sign in the background)

And that was pretty much the end of our walking tour. Amanda wanted to do some shopping, so after we finished lunch we walked up toward the Cinco de Mayo plaza, an area we were familiar with from the day before. Amanda found some Winnie-the-Pooh bags that she purchased for a dollar per bag. I, on the other hand, wanted to do something that really needed to be done: Getting a hair cut. It had been over two months since my last haircut and I had quite an afro going. I needed a haircut, and for the second time in my life, my mom wouldn't be around to do it.


The scene where our adventurous hero got his hair cut

And for some bizarre reason, I figured I'd get it cut in Panama. At the very least, I figured, it would be cheaper than here in the states. At best, it might even be worthy of an adventure in its own right. It takes a brave person to get your hair cut in a third-world country by someone who doesn't speak the same language as you do.

We found a shop that looked like business was slow—I wasn't in the mood to wait around to get my hair cut—and we walked in on three, overweight women sitting around talking. Hair from previous patrons still littered the floor—apparently there wasn't enough to bother sweeping it up. I asked how much a haircut would be and one of the girls said three dollars. I took a deep breath. Let's do it!

She sat me in her chair, pulled out a few magazines and asked me how I wanted my hair done. The guys in these magazines had straight, blonde hair like you'd expect from a surfer. Heaven forbid if my hair looked like that! I just wanted it shorter, not different.

We were clearly having a problem with the language barrier. The woman didn't seem to understand what I wanted, and none of the pictures in the magazines looked like anything I'd want to see on my head. Amanda watched us then suggested, "Show her your passport photo!"

Now that was brilliant! I pulled out my passport photo where I looked like a respectable gentleman and pointed at it. "This is what I want!" That was a corte normal she explained, then made me repeat the term so the next time I ever got my hair cut in Panama, I'd know what to ask for.

She went to work. She picked up scissors from the counter—an old, slightly rusty-looking thing. I remembered the blue, sterilized cleaning solutions my mom always kept brushes in and wondered how sterile these scissors were. What if the last person whose hair this woman had cut had lice? What if she cut his ear and he had AIDS, and I was just a nick away from a slow, horrible death? I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

Amanda, as if on cue, woke me from my nightmare with flashes of light from her camera.

Globs of my hair fell to the ground. She squirted water on my hair to get it to cooperate. More hair fell to my feet. Yes, things were shaping up just fine, I noticed with a peek at the mirror.

The woman finished chopping off hair and asked if that was good? I felt my hair—significantly shorter, though still not as short as I wanted—and asked for it to be a bit shorter and pretended to cut my hair with my fingers at the length I wanted.

The scissors went flying around my head again for a couple of more minutes before she stopped again to ask about the progress. "Perfecto!" This wasn't so bad!


Amanda ensured this particular adventure was well documented

I thought I was done at this point. I was wrong. Next she pulled out a razor blade. Ohhh, crap. She clipped it onto her scissors or something—I'm not sure since I think I started passing out at this point—and started shaving off the hair around my neck for that crisp, clean-cut look. I didn't even breathe. I held my breath and kept absolutely still, fearful one bad slip and my neck would be slit. I'd feel the blade, placed right at where the hairline was supposed to end, pushing against those small groups of hair with alarming pressure. Then it would gracefully cut through the hair, stopping at my skin. It was nothing short of terrifying. Then she repeated the procedure around my ears.

At last she put the weapon down and picked up a fluffy ball of powder than she brushed against the shaved areas, took off the tarp from around my neck, and declared me done. Shockingly, she didn't spill a single drop of my blood. It was nothing short of a miracle.

And damn! I looked FINE! =)

I paid the woman the three dollars and while heading out the door, I noticed she started sweeping up the hair around her station. I guess the little bit of hair taken off previous clients wasn't enough to bother sweeping up, but the mountains of hair I left on the floor was worthy enough to sweep. I felt special. =)


Amanda and I went out to celebrate my survival after the haircut. Cheers!

Amanda and I walked back to our hotel where we got some garlic bread and drinks in the restaurant on the bottom floor. Amanda was amused to see on the menu that Coke cost $1.25 while a Pepsi only cost $1.00. I was shocked at the sky-high prices—our drinks at the Café Coca-Cola only cost fifty cents per bottle. I ordered a strawberry milkshake instead. Amanda selected the popular national beer called Atlas. I just look drunk in that picture to the right, but really, there wasn't any alcohol in it. It's exhausting getting one's hair cut in Panama!

Amanda and I had survived our second day in Panama.

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