The Shaping of Panama

Fall Waning Autumn Moon

Two very South American experiences. Buying a Panama hat. Check. Crossing the equator. Tomorrow. The Neptune ceremony will be at 2 pm for those of us who are equatorial virgins. I can’t wait. I’ve read about this ceremony in books about the sea for years. Now I’ll participate. It is, in a sense, a traveler’s baptism, a watery confirmation of changing one hemisphere for the other, even if only temporarily. Our next port of call is Manta, Ecuador, just a bit below the equator, so we’ll be at sea all day tomorrow.

Today though was Panama. Kate and I went on a 5 hour excursion focused on the shaping of Panama. Our guide, a black Minerva (literally), referred to those on her bus as “my people.” As in, Panama, my people, has been a focal point for travelers for centuries, even thousands of years.

The tour took us past Balboa, a town built to imitate a midwestern city with a town square, city hall, drugstore, dry cleaners, theatre when the Canal Zone was US territory. Since, as Minerva referred to it, the reversion, Balboa and Fuerte Amador, a former naval base charged with protecting the Pacific entrance to the canal, have undergone dramatic changes. On the old base many restaurants and chic businesses have sprung up, including a TGI Friday and Bennigans.

In an odd bit of US history, an old wooden boat, looking like small ferry and previously owned by Al Capone now does tourist duty out of one of Fuerte Amador’s many marinas.

Panama City has a very poor area, filled with multiple story tenements, painted various pastel shades, where General Noriegga was raised as well as a famous Panamanian boxer whose name I have already forgotten.

Panama City, looking down Balboa Avenue toward the northwest, has many skyscapers including a recent apartment and hotel building shaped like a sail and paid for by the Donald. A building, the Revolution, has glass window wall floors, each turned at a slight angle to the other, going up 51 floors, giving the hole a twisting, almost serpentine appearance.

Panama has a lot of money sloshing around right now thanks to the reversion of the canal, construction of the new, wider canal and locks and tourism, and has an unemployment rate, according to Minerva, of around 4%.

The original Panama City, now only ruined walls, was built by the Spanish as a shipping point for gold back to Europe. The Spanish came in, made slaves of the original inhabitants and developed a wealthy municipality. Worked pretty well until the many European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries spilled over to the Caribbean. Henry Morgan, the notorious English privateer, sacked and burned the old Panama City and all its churches and convents, stealing the gold in the process.

Legend has it that one clever priest, warned of Morgan’s arrival, painted the golden altar of his church. Black. We saw this altar in its new location in Colonial Panama City to which all the institutions of the original city moved after Morgan’s attack.

Old Panama City occupies land near a large mud flat that serves now as it has for millennia as a feeding station for migrating birds on their way south or north. Between old Panama City and its mudflat and the Colonial City lies the contemporary city of skyscrapers, condominiums for wealthy expats, office towers, hotels and restaurants.

Those interested in culture and history will pass over, as I did, this gleaming new city, think of it as a future ruin, interesting only much later and head straight for the charming colonial sector. This area, home to many Panamanian government offices, including the Casa Blanca, spent several decades slumbering, abandoned for the most part, so much so that squatters took up residence in the building with second and third floor iron balconies and narrow, winding streets. The French Quarter in New Orleans is a very small area similar to this large neighborhood, or, many neighborhoods rather, in Panama City.

That old urban phenomena, gentrification, has caught up with the squatters, however, and block after block of the colonial area buildings are either under construction or recently completed. If I return to Panama City, and I might, I will stay in the colonial area.

An interesting side light is a building soon to be the first 6 star hotel in Panama. This again according to Minerva, I don’t know if there are such things as 6 star hotels. These lovely ruins overlook the Caribbean side of Panama City and were demolished courtesy of the US government who bombed the place in our seize Norriega affair some years back.

I’ve not given much thought to Panama, but I found it a vital, intriguing country with rich ecological resources and a lively metropolitan area that, by the way, holds half the countries population.

Tomorrow we will we cross the equator into the southern hemisphere.

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