Panama City and Getting a Canal

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Folkloric performance in the 1519 Spanish colonial ruins in Panama City, Panama.

Today we are docked in Fuerte Amador, the port is located right at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. It is a one-mile causeway that extends out into the Pacific Ocean constructed from fill from the Panama Canal.  The causeway also connects four small islands. There is a yet-to-be-completed cruise terminal under construction at the site.  The dock itself is finished as are the passenger bridges to the terminal.  The docks are being used; the bridges are just sitting on them.  Fuerte Amador includes the cruise port, marina, two shopping centers, a museum, and convention center. Puerte Amador is twenty miles from the center of Panama City

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The cruise port terminal at Fuerte Amador is still under contruction. In the photo in the upper left are the passenger bridges to the terminal waiting for the terminal to be completed so they can be attached. Our ship is upper right. The buses drove right out onto the dock. Passport Control/immigration was in tents on the pier.

Unlike the other ports we have been to so far, we were required to have a face-to-face meeting with government officials as part of passport control in Panama.  They set up tents on the dock.  Oddly, the lines going in and out of the immigration tent kept crossing each other.  I am sure glad this is a temporary setup.  We were over 1 hour late getting into the port and then installing the gangway took a long time.  I suspect this has to do with the transitional situation at the port.  Tours ran about 1.5 hours late.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. From the deck of our ship in port in Fuerte Amador, I could see The Bridge of the Americans and the Biodiversity Museum.

We are going on a city tour with an emphasis on the colonial part of the city, the second oldest city, Casco Viejo.  As we left the construction zone, I noted that the area beyond the cruise port already has some shops, restaurants, and a boardwalk in place.  You can rent a multi-pedal carriage for your trip down the boardwalk. The area is very popular at night.  We passed the Biodiversity Museum near the port.  The multicolored panel structure was designed by Frank Gehry.  Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbo that we saw on a previous trip to Spain.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Panama City’s Biodiversity Museum designed by Frank Gehry

We made what the guide called a “Japanese stop”, meaning a quick (10-minute) photo stop.  From this location you have a fabulous view of the Panama City skyline.  I was shocked to see so many high-rise buildings in very modern designs.  The view made for some great pictures.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The skyline of Panama City as seen from Fuerte Amador.

Leaving Fuerte Amador, we passed many empty buildings left by the Americans.  A guide later in the day told us the spaces needed to be available if the canal was ever subject to a terrorist attack and the Americans needed immediate offices and housing when they responded.  The reason for non-use sounded made up to me, what our destination speaker would have called “guide lore”.  An agreement reached in the 1970s under President Carter, gave the canal to the Panamanians but insured ongoing protection from the United States.  The transition occurred on December 31, 1999.  The original agreement reached gave the Americans the canal in perpetuity.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. These condos were visible from the port at Fuerte Amador. Not sure I would be comfortable with quite that much overhang.

We passed the new convention center.  It is extremely large but with no character or charm whatsoever.  The older convention center is abandoned and just next door.  It was obviously a lovely building in its day.  The older venue hosted, among other things, the Miss Universe Pageant.  It was last used as a Covid-19 center during the height of the pandemic.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sorry about the color; this was taken through the tinted bus window. These are the ruins of a church that was part of the 1519 Spanish settlement in Panama City.

We passed the ruins of the 1519 Spanish settlement destroyed by pirates in 1671.  I mentioned that Casco Viejo is the second oldest city; this settlement is the first. At its height, the settlement included 10,000 people.  Only 24 Spanish defenders supported the settlement when it was besieged by over 1,000 pirates lead by Henry Morgan.  Morgan raided the original city and set fire to it.  The fort structure was very small, but there were several churches and a convent that are larger structures.  Panama City was the Spanish port on the Pacific.  Gold brought from South America was then transported from the city overland to the Caribbean side (the Atlantic Ocean) for transport to Spain.  What is present day Panama City was also the starting point for Spanish expeditions to the Inca civilizations in South America.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Panamanian flag in Casco Viejo

“The first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded in 1510. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martín Fernández de Enciso agreed on the site near the mouth of the Tarena River on the Atlantic. This was abandoned in 1519 and the settlement moved to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (present day Panama City), the first European settlement on the shores of the Pacific.  Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513–1821).”  –Wikipedia

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in Casco Viejo.

Less than a century after the end of Spanish rule, Panama was just a neglected peninsula in Columbia.  The Columbian Government did very little to support the people living in a region that was difficult to inhabit.  Passage between the oceans had long been sought after and thoughts of a canal were moving forward at the end of the 19th century.  The French acquired a contract with the Columbians to build a canal through Panama.  The man in charge, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had successfully built the Suez Canal so he tolerated no disagreement with his approach.  The percentage of engineers on the canal team was ridiculously low.  De Lesseps was more a fundraiser than a designer.  Many people, including Gustave Eiffel, told Ferdinand de Lesseps that a sea level canal would not work.  What was needed was a system of locks.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Casco Viejo

The French approach failed for three major reasons.  First, the plan for a sea level canal was doomed to fail.  Second, the conditions of the isthmus were difficult at best.  There were jungles, the climate was hot and humid, and the area was disease ridden.  22,000+ people died during the French construction effort.  Yellow fever was rampant and control unknown.  Nothing was done to create sanitary conditions.  Third, the French completely underestimated the cost and ran out of money.  There were even schemes at the end-like a lottery to the French citizens-to raise money.  The original cost estimates were based simply on how much money they had.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Casco Viejo

The French spent $287 million (translated into American dollars) on their work creating a canal.  When the Americans approached them about buying the rights and equipment, the price demanded was $80 million.  The offer was rejected and the US then considered a plan to put a canal through Nicaragua.  When shown the Nicaragua government’s postage stamp showing the volcano sitting next to the proposed site, the Americans shifted back to a consideration of the Panama option.  Finally, an agreement was reached that the French would accept $40 million for the rights, work done, and the equipment.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Casco Viejo

Seeing the United States as having deeper pockets, the Columbians demanded more money.  Instead, the United States supported the locals in withdrawing from Columbia, a bloodless revolution.  The country of Panama was born.  The Americans developed a canal plan with a system of locks, using existing lakes in the region.  They consulted medical experts on the eradication of yellow fever by controlling the mosquito population, cleaning up areas with stagnant water and providing clean water and more sanitary conditions for the site and the workers.  The project would never be a money maker.  The US did not break even until 1987.

Photo ©Jean Janssen In Casco Viejo

There are many ways in which the American influence is still felt in Panama.  Used to the wages that canal workers were paid while the canal was in US control, overall wages in Panama are higher than in other Latin American countries.  Panama’s currency is tied to the US dollar.  They have coins worth no more than one dollar (the Balboa), for anything higher US dollars are used.  Panama is the only Latin American country where Thanksgiving is celebrated.  Lots of American chains stores and particularly fast-food restaurants have outlets here.  There are fewer Catholics in Panama than in other Latin American countries, only around 70%; Protestant groups have a significant presence. Although football (American soccer) is popular like in other Latin American countries and Panama has a friendly rivalry with Costa Rica, the number one sport in Panama is baseball. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen The old and the new in Casco Viejo

As we entered present day Panama City, we saw a sea of high-rise buildings, mostly apartments.  In the city, housing cost a minimum of $1,000 per month.  However, you can get a nice home in the suburbs for $350 per month.  Commuter traffic is very bad.  The bridges crossing the canal have made a difference. The first one, the Bridge of the Americas, was completed in 1962.  The second bridge constructed was the Centennial Bridge built by a German engineer; it opened in 2014 to celebrate the canal’s centennial.  The third bridge is the Atlantic Bridge and it is at the other end of the canal.  Panama City workers who lived outside the metropolitan area but worked in the city used to have to take ferries, then transfer to buses, etc.  Today however, it is not unusual to have one car per family member.  It is easy to get credit to purchase a car in Panama.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. On Plaza de la Independencia, Casco Viejo, Panama City

It is near the end of their summer.  The children go back to school on March 1.  Everyone is out of town-in the country for the weekend and summer’s end.  Traffic was very light and it looked like a ghost town among the high-rise buildings.  Carnival parades and festivities are underway with Ash Wednesday and Lent just days away.  Some of the roads in the old sector were blocked in anticipation of parades.  Those that live in the city, spend holiday time in the countryside or traveling.  Panamanians vacation in Columbia or other Central or South American countries where the exchange rate into pesos is highly favorable to them.

Photo ©Jean Janssen In Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen In Casco Viejo

We finally arrived at Casco Viejo, the colonial old town, the second oldest settlement.  (The 1519 settlement being the first.)  “Completed and settled in 1673, [Casco Viejo] was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panamá Viejo in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997.”—Wikipedia.

Photo ©Jean Janssen There is French, Spanish, and Baroque architecture in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen These wall were built in the 16th century in Casco Viejo to keep out the pirates. Unfortunately, the pirates were already there by the time they were constructed.

The area is a mix of architectural styles-French/New Orleans, Spanish, and Baroque.  We passed by the Plaza Herrera and an old wall built to keep out the pirates.  Of course, by the time it was built the pirates were already there.  It will come as no surprise that there were lots of churches in Casco Viejo.  We saw the Jesuit Church, Franciscan church (both in ruins), the twin-towered Cathedral (Mass going on) on the main square, and the San Jose Church with the baroque golden altar (mahogany wood covered in gold leaf) and Panama’s largest nativity scene.  

Photo ©Jean Janssen Remains of the Jesuit church in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen Remains of the Dominican church in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen San Jose Church in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen The nativity scene in San Jose Church in Casco Viejo

Back when pirates were looting the area, lore has it that San Jose’s pastor asked for money from pirate Henry Morgan to restore a beautiful silver altar that the pastor had actually painted over in black to conceal it.  “We are such a poor parish; we need your help.”  Morgan made a substantial donation.  Upon later learning the truth, it is said that Morgan claimed the pastor was a better pirate than he was.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The cathedral in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Plaza de la Independencia, Casco Viejo, Panama City.

The Cathedral is on the main square, Plaza de la Independencia.  The plaza is faced by beautiful renovated buildings, including churches, government buildings, museums, and famous hotels.  A lovely gazebo sits in the center of the Plaza.   The canal museum on the square is in the building where the French had their canal building offices.  The beautiful Central Hotel, which opened in 1974 has a central staircase just like the central staircase one on the Titanic.  It was done by the same designer that worked for the White Star Line.  The doorman only admits guests to the hotel, otherwise I would have peaked inside.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The Canal Museum, formerly the office for the French who made the first attempt to build a canal in Panama. The museum borders Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo

We had some free time in the district. When we returned to the ship, we had to deal with the construction site and uncertainty on where to park the buses.  After a short break and a buffet dinner, we were off again for the Azamazing Evening, an Azamara Cruises signature event where they bus guests to a significant local venue for regional entertainment.  We have seen some wonderful shows in Cuba, Spain, Liverpool, New Zealand, etc. to name a few.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our Azamazing Evening was held at the cathedral of the 1519 settlement ruins in Panama City.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Folkloric performance in Panama City.

Tonight, we returned to the 1519 settlement ruins and enjoyed wine and a wonderful folkloric show in the lighted ruins of the Cathedral with its iconic tower (often used as the symbol of Panama) as the background.  It was a wonderful show, although it lasted only 30 minutes and the ride over and then back was 45 minutes each way.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Red Devil mask spotted in Casco Viejo
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Red Devil in the folkloric performance in Panama City.

One of the legends featured in the performance was that of the red devils. Our guide told us the Spanish used the tale of the red devils to get people to go to the Catholic Church as there method of protection against these creatures. I saw of the masks earlier today in Casco Viejo, but I didn’t understand the significance at the time.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Folkloric performance in Panama City.

Tomorrow is our full transit of the Panama Canal, the highlight of our cruise.  I can’t wait!

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our position in the world.


About travelbynatasha

I am a retired attorney who loves to travel. Several years ago I began working on a Century Club membership achieved by traveling to 100 "foreign" countries. Today, at 49 years of age the count is at 82. Many were visited on land based trips. Some were cruise ports. Some were dive sites. Most have been fascinating.
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