Sunday, July 29, 2012

Visiting the Panama Canal from Panama City - 7-25-2012

Panama Canal 

Want to satisfy everyone at home who'll ask "did you visit the canal while in Panama?" Want to bask in the glory of human achievement? If so, then visit the Panama Canal. Two separate superpowers (19th century France and 20th century America), poured unfathomable amounts of money and lives into their effort to link Atlantic and Pacific. It is indeed one hell of an engineering feat, and getting out there and back from Panama City can be half the fun. The end of this article tells you how to get out there a couple different ways.

The nearest set of canal locks to Panama City are in nearby Miraflores, about 10 miles north of Panama City. First, I cabbed from my hostel to Albrook Bus Terminal for $6.00. All city bus routes in Panama City end at Albrook, and all buses leaving Panama City start there too. Traffic was awful; the 15 mile ride to Albrook took one hour. I did get to see a lot of Panama City, though. the cab driver dodged main thoroughfare traffic by ducking into working class neighborhoods hidden in hills. Back on the main road to Albrook, we passed ghettos and favelas, as well as American style strip malls anchored by recognizable chains like Office Depot.

Finally, we arrive at Albrook bus terminal. Albrook is a one-stop location from which passengers can grab buses leaving Panama City for other locales and grab buses that run routes through Panama City. Ticket windows line one side of the terminal from which customers can purchase tickets for intra-city trips. Buses that run routes within Panama City can be boarded by walking out to the main street. The new orange Metro Buses list their destinations on electronic signs on the bus' front. The diablo rojos, or red devil buses, usually have the neighborhood their route originates in painted on the front windshield. The red devils are heavily decorated (and heavily dilapidated) old US school buses pressed into service as public transportation. Most of these buses run incomprehensible routes through the city, but some run routes connecting Panama City to other places as well. A bus from Albrook to the locks at Miraflores costs $0.35 and takes about half an hour. You'll want to take the bus to Gamboa -- Miraflores is on the way. Pay upon disembarking from the bus.

Red devil drivers routinely pack their buses so heavily that people have to stand shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. My bus is no different. I ask the woman next to me if Miraflores is far and she gestures that it is. She also gestures to say she will let me know when we arrive. Sure enough, she touches my arm half an hour later and says "Aqui," as we pull up to a sign that says "Miraflores, home of the Panama Canal." I thank her and disembark. I cross the highway and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. It's about a 15 minute walk from the bus stop, partially uphill, that also passes a dammed river. Finally, I reach the Visitor Center. Prices for non-Panamanians are $8 for adults and $5 for students and retirees. It's three dollars cheaper if you want to skip the museum and theater and only see the observation decks. I came this far, so I pony up $8 and walk inside.

Container Ship at Panama Canal
Straight ahead is the lobby and past that, the first floor observation decks where throngs of people watch ships pass by. Just behind the observation decks is a small snack bar that sells hamburgers, hot dogs and similar fast food. The canal is busiest from 8AM until 11AM, and again from 3PM until 6PM. On the left side of the lobby are two theaters, but both were closed during my visit. There is an additional theater outside and to the right of the observation decks. This theater shows a 10 minute informational movie covering the history of the isthmus of Panama, the failed French efforts to build a canal, the American success, the handover of the canal from the United States to Panama, and the $5.5 billion expansion that is set to finish in 2014.

Panama Canal Museum, Miraflores, Panama
Back in the Visitor Center, you'll find the museum on the right side of the lobby. The museum has four floors; enter the first floor from the ground floor of the Visitor Center. The first floor covers the history of the Panama Canal's construction. It has videos, interactive displays, and several scale models of the dredging ships and locomotives used during construction. The second floor contains displays and videos about the relationship between the canal and the local environment, including life-sized displays of various butterflies and other indigenous animals. The third and fourth floors were closed during my visit.

The Visitor Center is also multistory. The second floor contains additional observation decks and administrative offices. The third floor contains Miraflores Restaurant and Bar. For $20, you are treated to a sumptuous Panamanian style buffet and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the canal. The fourth floor also held a restaurant, it was closed during my visit.

Your Author at the Panama Canal, Miraflores, Panama
Partway through my visit, I watched a few ships come in. Watching massive tankers and container ships navigate the locks and dwarf the crowd of spectators is indeed humbling. A loudspeaker announces the nature of each ship passing through and its length. Throngs of people crowd together to snap pictures of loved ones in front of each passing ship. I finally find someone to take a few pictures of me, too, but the ship has passed by then. It's OK. It's still a good picture.

The ride back to Albrook was uneventful, but steamy, loud and bumpy. Again, $0.35 and half an hour gets you from Miraflores to Albrook. Back at Albrook, I ask a few folks where I can find a bus home. I find the Panama Viejo diablo rojo bus and get on. This ride took nearly 90 minutes and cost $0.25. All diablo rojo bus rides within Panama City cost only $0.25. This ride took so long because I was riding at the start of rush hour. Off-peak, the ride should take about 60 minutes.

Getting here:
There are a few ways to get here via cab or bus. First, you can try to catch a cab here from Panama City. Some drivers will refuse depending on traffic into and out of Panama City. If you do this, don't pay more than $10 for each leg of your trip. I caught a cab to Albrook for $6.00 and then a diablo rojo bus to Miraflores for $0.35. Diablo rojo bus rides from Albrook will cost $0.35 for each ride. Finally, you can take a bus from Panama City for $0.25 to Albrook and then take a $0.35 diablo rojo bus ride to Miraflores. If you take a bus from Panama City to Albrook, I recommend the orange Metro Buses for their relative comfort and their air conditioning. Pick one up most easily along the Via Espana or the waterfront expressway that runs along the Cinta Costera between Panama Viejo and Cascao Viejo.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Four Beautiful Sights in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama - 7-25-2012

Teatro Nacional in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Situated in the far southwest of Panama City, Casco Viejo is the city's "old town." The district was built shortly after English privateer Henry Morgan burned and looted Panama City in 1671. Panama City's surviving residents moved their city five miles east to the more defensible, rocky outcropping that became Casco Viejo. Today, the district is an eclectic mix of colonial era buildings restored to their colorful, 17th century grandeur, standing next to dilapidated apartments waiting patiently for urban renewal to work its magic on them. Work crews are aggressively renewing Casco Viejo, so don't be surprised to see new construction equipment next to a hidden plaza or stashed away in the district's narrow alleys.

Luna's Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Once in Casco Viejo, the cab dropped me off not far from the hostel Luna's Castle at the corner of Calle 9a Este and Avanue Alfaro. Luna's Castle is perennially full and owns a reputation for being that quirky place you talk about for weeks after your trip ended. The hostel is situated in a three story restored apartment building. There is ample room for hanging out, reading, and sitting all throughout the reception level. Please note that they do not accept reservations for private rooms; those rooms are first come first served. Walking south along Avenida Alfaro, I followed the waterfront while admiring Panama City's impressive skyline from across the Bahaia de Panama.

Iglesia de San Francisco in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Moving southeast at Calle 3a Este I passed the small Parque Bolivar. The 19th century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, held meetings in a schoolroom across the street from this park in 1826. Today, the park contains a bronze statue of the man, and provides a quiet shady respite from Panama's steamy afternoons. Walking further along Calle 3a Este, I pass the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Teatro National, right across Avenida B from each other. Iglesia de San Francisco holds the Golden Altar, one of the few valuables recovered from Henry Morgan's sack of Panama. The Teatro National is a beautiful, ornate operating theater. Its red and yellow archway echos those of Italian opera houses.

Paseo las Bovedas in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
From the Teatro National, I hang a left and follow Avenida Central south east and around a bend to the Paseo las Bovedas. Flowering vines climb trellises alongside and over the paseo, providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun. Today, the paseo is peaceful with only a few tourists and some indigenous artisans set up with tables upon which their quilts, bracelets, and other trinkets are displayed. The Paseo las Bovedas opens and ends at the Plaza de Francia. In the middle of the plaza is a huge column surmounted by a rooster. The plaza also displays stone tables commemorating the the memory of 22,000 French colonial workers who died while building the Panama Canal. Following the plaza around, I follow Calle Oeste north past the small Plaza Carlos V. This flowery square holds a small bust of Emperor Carlos V.

Statue in Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus
I move on to Avenida A, which leads northwest. Several blocks later, I pass the Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus. The church is a colonaial era building that still operates and holds a convent. Walking inside, I snap a few pictures of its gold and wood altar, as well as some exquisitely carved, painted and dressed statues of Jesus.

Cutting across Casco Viejo using Calle 5a Este, reach the Plaza de la Indepencia. Several restaurants line the square and offer outdoor seating. Casablanca, an upscale eatery decorated as a sophisticated wine bar, offers large salads and other entrees for an average price of around $12. Try their Andre's Salad, which offered two meals worth of food for $10. After a late lunch, I follow the waterfront for several miles towards Panama City's skyline before catching a cab back to my hostel.

Getting Here:
I recommend taking a taxi or walking along the Cinta Costera, but a bus would work too. I paid only $4.00 for a cab ride from my hostel in the far eastern neighborhood of Channis to Casco Viejo. I did have to ask three taxi drivers to take me across the length of Panama City, though, because Channis is on Panama City's eastern fringes and traffic in this city is so terrible that many cab drivers actively avoid traveling between certain districts. If you take a bus, I recommend you make your way to the Via Espana, Panama City's major east-west street, catch a Metro Bus that lists Casco Viejo or Casco Antigu (Casco Viejo's other name). If the bus does not enter the old city, just get off at the waterfront and walk east until your each the old city. Pay careful to avoid the high density slums north of Casco Viejo. Always take a taxi at night instead of a bus.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Arriving in Panama and the Purpose of My Trip - 7-24-2012

Panama City Skyline from Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

I arrived in an overcast, drizzly Panama City, Panama this morning after a 2:00AM flight from Los Angeles. I booked my tickets three weeks ago when I started to get antsy after being home for five weeks from my springtime trip to Costa Rica. Like that Costa Rica trip, I've booked a 29 day trip. I've begun my trip at a German-owned hostel called Hostal Aleman surprisingly far out on Panama's eastern suburbs. It's in a safe, purely residential neighborhood, but we're so far out and the traffic is so bad in Panama City that no fewer than six taxi cab drivers refused my requests for a ride back to the hostel today even after I had already walked east for two hours from Panama City's old town, Casco Viejo. Regardless, I got a nice walking tour of the high rise office buildngs and apartments along the Cinta Costera waterfront area. Panama City seems quite cosmopolitan, and somewhat similar to Miami.

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
So...since I'm all about purpose...what is the purpose of this Panama trip? Panama is a new country for me, so I want to bounce around a bit and see what it has to offer. I want to meet new people on the road and learn more about myself through conversations with others. As I learned during this year's Costa Rica trip, we are all mirrors for each other. I want to see myself reflected in lot of different mirrors on this trip. I also want to see if I can get better at just letting things happen instead of meticulously planning or controlling the trip. For example, I haven't booked transportation or lodging for my next city. I don't even know where I'll go after Panama City. And I'm OK with that...for a change. I also want to continue some of the self-improvement work from this year's Costa Rica trip. Inhale love,
exhale attachment, as my yoga teacher back home, Dana, might advise me.

So, like this year's Costa Rica trip, this Panama trip is about personal growth. But it's also like the 2009 Costa Rica trip in that I want to be adventurous see new places, meet plenty of new people and immerse myself in a new country. I'm curious to see how it all turns out. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Coming to Love Travel part 1 - Paris, Geneva, Cozumel

This is the first of an occassional series of posts addressing how I came to love traveling and why I do it today.

My love affair with travel started young, and built slowly.

Paris Night
Sadly, I did not take this.
I was 10 years old when I first visited Europe. My dad had business in Geneva one summer, so my parents and I added Paris to the itinerary and made it a family vacation. I remember how Paris and Geneva dazzled me so. How unique and fairy-tale looking those cities were compared to the generic, cookie-cutter look of my native Southern California! Didn't great empires fight wars over these cities? Didn't my fourth grade teacher tell me that? And speaking of history, hadn't history been written in far away cities across the Atlantic in countries like France and Switzerland? Gothic cathedrals, stone villas, endless green hillsides, and the romance of strange languages spoken in winding cobblestone alleys through which kings and crusaders once walked left a magical impression on my 10-year old mind. "Paris must be the most exotic, exiciting city in the world," I told my parents the day we walked past Notre Dame Cathedral.

Nope. Didn't take this, either.
Dad had meetings to attend in Geneva, leaving Mom and I ample time to explore the city and its calm environs. One afternoon, she and I just sat on a bench along the lakeshore and watched the people go by. I remember they were well-dressed. Young men wore dark colored three piece suits and hats. Young women wore conservative dresses and heels. Old men in plaid jackets and dress pants held the hands of stately dressed old women wearing pearl necklaces and walked slowly past. Everyone carried themselves with a certain understated elegance lacking in beachy Southern California. These Swiss seemed me. "Geneva must be the most beautiful, wealthiest, and peaceful place in the world," I thought in between lunches at outdoor cafes and afternoon strolls with my Mom around Lake Geneva. I wanted to see more of Switzerland, of Europe. All too quickly, though, Dad's meetings ended and the vacation did too. The three of us returned home. School started again in September, and so did the afternoon cartoons. Slowly I forgot how wonderous it felt to be far away from home, but my daydreams took me back to Europe every once and again.

I had visited family in the Phillippines prior to that Euopean summer trip, and again as a teenager. It was not until my late 20s, though, that I rediscovered how free traveling made me feel...and how exciting travel was. In March 2004, I went on a a spring break trip to Cozumel, Mexico with friends from my MBA program. I thought getting out of frigid Pennsylvania and into some tropical sun would do me a world of good. And I had never traveled abroad with a group of friends before. I wanted to see what that was like.

Sascha, your author, Kristen, and Lee (March 2004)
For five days, my friends and I snorkled, explored, ate and drank. More importantly, I made memories. I fondly remember my friends Sascha, Lee and Kristen trying to teach me how to drive a stick shift on a dirt road with the old jeep we rented. After stalling out four times and forcing terrible noises out of the ancient transmission, I gave up; but I didn't stop laughing about the experience for days. I remember, too, exploring vine-covered old ruins with my friends, snorkeling in a crystal blue sea, and langorously sunbathing beneath a sapphire sky.

One night around one in the morning, I left my friends at loud, gaudy Senior Frog's to explore San Miguel de Cozumel on foot, alone, in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I'll never forget walking away from the strip of tourist bars and through the town's residential area. The night was humid, steamy, and I had it all to myself. I walked the deserted streets and alleys for an hour, just enjoying the night. An hour after I started, I found an open air restaurant in the front of someone's house. The owner, his wife and their friend were gathered around a TV watching an awful 1980's gang fight movie that I remembered was a staple of late night TV in my youth. I rolled up with a big smile and an "Hola!" and sat down at one of the many open tables.

Hamburguesa? No! (March 2004)
The owner looked a little confused as to why a tipsy gringo would wander so far from the main strip in search of food at 2AM on a Saturday and helpfully asked while pointing at a picture of a hamburger, "Hamburguesa?" A hamburger? Damn it! They know I'm American! But how? Could it have been my New Balance sneakers, khaki shorts, and Polo shirt? But I'm sporting a tan! "No gracias," I calmly replied. "Tres carne tacos por favor y queso y papas y agua." I hung out there for an hour, eating and conversing with my hosts in laughably incompetent Spanish. I tried to tell them how the terrible movie ended but I didn't have the Spanish to describe it, and they lacked the English to help me. They did nod often, though, and smile frequently too. It must have been nearly sunrise when I finished the last French fry, bid my hosts "adios", and located a cab to take me back to my hotel. Ha! Now that's a Saturday morning. Take that, boring Orange County, CA and frigid Pittsburgh, PA.

Sascha, Lee, and Kristen (March 2004)
That early morning sojourn wasn't even my favorite memory from that trip. My favorite memory came at the end of a day driving around the island with my friends in our beatup, old rented jeep and stopping to explore whatever caught our fancy. We left mid-morning that day to give us plenty of time to be out. By late that afternoon, we finally reached the far side of the island, the western side. We were tired and the afternoon light was just starting to show hints of gold as the sun moved lower in the sky. We came upon a reggae bar on the beach, not far from some cute houses, painted brightly in yellows, oranges and blues. We stopped the jeep, got out, ordered a few rounds of cerveza, drank and talked. Mostly, though, we savored our beers and the breezy afternoon together as our trip, and the day, wound down.

A decade of career ambition put my wanderlust in hibernation, but did not bury it. I HAD to do this traveling thing again, I thought.