. The scenery for the entire journey was beautiful, particularly between Almirante and David which took us over mountains and through rural villages. We crossed into Panama City around 13 hours later, via a long bridge built over the pacific entrance to the panama canal, and caught our first sight of the huge ships queuing up to enter the canal. This was an awesome sight, particularly lit up at night (it looks just like an airport runway on the water with red and green lights marking out the shipping lanes) and with the impressive city skyline in the background. We pulled into the ultra modern Albrook bus terminal in Panama City at around 8pm and were greeted by the Dairy Queen, Ronald McDonald and much to Dan's delight the Colonel himself. Too nervous about taking one of the capital's infamous chicken buses at this time of night, we took a cab across the city to our hostel and within a couple of hours were sharing a bottle of Panamanian rum with a nice couple from Venezuela.
The rest of our time spent in Panama city went something like this:
Day 1 - The cultural experience
Along with our new Venezuelan friends Ricardo and Ma-Fe we took a bus across the city to the Panama Viejo ruins (the old city)
. This was once the site of a very important and impressive city housing a huge cathedral, a convent, a hospital, thousands of homes and the city hall, until it was destroyed in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan and never rebuilt. Following the attack, the settlement (which is the oldest spanish settlement on the pacific coast of the americas) transferred 8km to the current site of Casco Viejo (the old compound); this is surrounded by thick stone walls and shallow reefs where the city would be easier to defend against further pirate attacks. Today the ruins at Panama Viejo are very incomplete due to centuries of weathering and removal of stone for building materials elsewhere in the city. However, the now UNESCO World Heritage listed site is under-going extensive restoration work on the cathedral tower and we were able to climb to the top for amazing views of the new city skyline and enormous container ships waiting their turn to pass through the canal. The mid-day sun here was unbearable, and after moving from tree shadow to tree shadow we decided to move on and waited for another bus to take us across to the other side of the city.
The next stop on the culture tour was Casco Viejo, which survived the pirate era pretty much intact and until 1904 when the Panama canal construction began it was the entire extent of Panama City. This area, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, is also undergoing restoration and the buildings here are amazing. First thing on the agenda was lunch, and we went to the Coca Cola Cafe - an old school diner bursting with locals putting the world to rights and enjoying delicious and cheap food. We then spent a couple of hours looking around the colonial houses with big balconies and shuttered windows and the numerous churches in the area; the most famous of all is the Iglesia de San Jose which contains a golden altar that Henry Morgan came to Panama to steal
. Upon hearing this, a priest painted the altar black before the pirates arrived and managed to convince them that the altar had already been stolen. It still remains in the church today and minus the black paint once again is nice to see. After a hot and tiring day of playing the tourist, we arrived back at the hostel and Luis, the owner, was preparing a BBQ of steak, chorizo and fish. Perfect. We had a great night chatting to people from all over the world over another bottle of rum or two.
Day 2 - The not so cultural experience
When we woke up on Sunday with a hangover and to find that it was chucking it down with rain, we all agreed that taking a bus to one of Panama City's huge shopping malls was the only option today. We strolled around the Albrook mall for an hour or two before deciding a KFC was in order to keep our energy up. What a treat for Dan to have some deep fried chicken on a sunday...the only thing missing was Darryl and a repeat of X-Factor. We also bought tickets to see 'Grown Ups' at the cinema - a really funny, stupid film and just what we needed on a hungover, rainy Sunday afternoon.
Day 3. The Canal experience
First conceived in the early 1500's, the idea of a waterway joining the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean has been the answer to the long dangerous trade route around the bottom of South America. It would not be until 350 years later that the successful builder of the Suez Canal would be called in to build another across Panama. Work began in 1884 with 17,000 workers hired to dig a huge trench through the mountain range running across the country, and by 1903 the project was abandoned after falling victim to flooding, landslides and tropical diseases that killed more than 6000 men
. Later the same year, the USA accepted the challenge to complete the canal with the condition that they would control the 10 mile wide strip of the country running from ocean to ocean that housed the canal. In 1914 the canal was officially opened and has been in operation 365 days a year ever since. It was finally handed back to the control of the Panamanians on 31st December 1999.
We had heard that the best time to see big container ships passing through the Miraflores Locks was between 9 and 11am, so we were up early and caught a couple of buses across the city, arriving at the locks at 10am. We made our way straight up to the viewing platform just in time to see the last ship of the morning moving off into the distance on it's way to the next set of locks..."they went through early this morning" apparently and the next ships were not due until 2 pm. Great. Oh well, the visitor centre is brilliant; it was built in 2000 following the canal being handed back to Panama, and is very modern with a museum, big presentation room with cinema sized screen, restaurant and a big viewing platform 4 floors up above the locks. We managed to pass the next few hours looking round the museum, watching the presentation about the history of the canal and it's construction, and chilling in the cafe. At 2 on the dot we were back up on the viewing deck in time to see an enormous car container being towed across Lake Miraflores (16.5m above sea level) towards the locks by a tug boat and coupled up to 6 electric locomotives on tracks that run along the sides of the locks
. The locos pull the ships into the 330m long locks and hold them in place while during 8 minutes, 26 million gallons of water are released into the next chamber lowering the ship down about 8m. It was then towed into the next chamber where the process was repeated and with about 60cm either side, the giant boat steamed out of the locks and off towards the Pacific Ocean. It was amazing to see this going on and some interesting points the commentator made about tolls were that you pay by the size of the ship, the number of cargo items/ containers on board, the number of tug boats required, the number of locos required and the payments of as much as $200,000 must be made in cash. To say that I was in my element is an understatement and with not quite the same level of enthusiasm Lou patiently waited in the air-con until the boat was nearly out of sight and all other spectators had long gone.
Our last evening was spent once again in the garden of the hostel, minus the bottles of rum this time due to early start tomorrow. We met a guy called Cesar, who is a biologist / anthropologist / photographer / explorer from Venezuela. He told us about his expeditions to the amazon and how he has discovered numerous new species of frogs and lizards. His photos, which have been featured in wildlife magazines, were incredible - ranging from 6 metre anacondas and huge tarantulas, to glass frogs that are completely transparent and you can see their heart inside their chest
. We ended up going to bed wishing we could have longer in the city (and a little bit depressed about how boring our lives seemed compared to Cesar's), but excited to know that when the 5am alarm goes off we would be on our way to South America.
All of our journeys in Panama City were made on the diablos rojos
or 'red devils'. These buses are amazing! They have been pimped and blinged to within an inch of their previous lives as old US school buses. They are painted every colour under the sun, some with very skillful artwork, some decorated with flashing lights and hideous pink vinyl interiors. You never have to wait more than 2 minutes for one to appear heading exactly in the direction of where you need to go, and a ride to anywhere only costs 25c which you pay on departure from the bus. One of our biggest money saving ventures so far was swerving the hostel shuttle to the airport (it's only $20 you know) and making our way across Panama City and the 35km to Tocumen International, at 6am in the morning on the most beautiful bus you've ever seen, and all for just a quarter! It did take nearly 2 hours though...
We arrived at the dock in Bocas del Toro at 6.15am, just as we'd been told to, in order to catch the 6.30am water taxi back to the mainland. However, we were told that the boat was already full, and this for us was a bit of a nightmare as the bus left for Panama City at 8am and we weren't sure if we'd make it if we caught the next boat. After making a bit of fuss about being informed the night before that there was no need to pre-book a seat on the 6.30 boat, they somehow made room for us and our bags and we caught the early boat after all. The islands and bays looked stunning in the early morning light and the locals were out fishing in their wooden row boats. Relieved that we'd got to Almirante bus station in plenty of time for the 8am bus to Panama, we were then hit with the news that the bus was full, and that there was not another one until 7pm that evening. Argh. Instead we jumped on a bus heading to David that was leaving that second, and from David we could make the connection to Panama City. This route ended up taking us an extra couple of hours but worked out in the end and it was even a few dollars cheaper so all's well that ends well