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From August 12th through August 19th, 2004, I went on a vacation to Panama, where I lived from 1971 to 1986. It was fun, there are a lot of new things down there but I was surprised at how similar it still looked to what I remember. They have several new highways that help with traffic a lot, there is quite a bit of new construction, especially on the Amador Causeway which has a bunch of new restaurants with several more being built, but the major landmarks are still there and very recognizable. Most things seemed to be in good repair, the Canal itself was very busy and seemed to be operating smoothly pretty much at full capacity. The regional airport at Paitilla is gone, and now trips into the interior take off from Albrook Field, the old United States Air Force base.
Since it had been so long since I lived in Panama, and when I did live there it was in the former Canal Zone, which was an American community separate from the rest of Panama (meaning my Spanish is terrible and my memories of the roads hazy), I decided to go with a tour company instead of trying to get around by myself. I went with "Panama Jones" tours, since they offered a complete canal transit and their tour took me close to things I wanted to see, so I was with a tour group of six other people most of the time: a couple from Cleveland, Ohio and four members of a family from Weehawken, New Jersey. I had investigated cruise ships initially but it turns out most cruise ships don't actually transit the canal, they just go through the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side and then turn around and go back into the Caribbean, which I wasn't interested in at the moment.
I arrived by air in the evening on August 12th, the pilot brought the plane in right along the Canal on the Pacific side, I started recognizing the terrain as we flew past Gamboa, the Pacific side locks, and the Thatcher Ferry Bridge.
Bright and early the next day we toured Old Panama, the original Spanish buildings from the 1500s. Balboa was next, I got photos of some of the houses we lived in, the Croton Street house, the Barnaby Street house, and the Los Rios house, but we only drove past Gamboa by boat and train so I couldn’t get the older Gamboa houses. The YMCA in Balboa is still there, being used as a commerical building for a few businesses including the Panama Jones tour company and an artisan market selling native goods that was in Stevens Circle when I lived there. The old DENI police station that used to be across the street from that (and was destroyed during Just Cause) has been replaced by a giant statue that was pretty impressive looking.
Then we did the full Panama Canal transit, it looks almost exactly the way I remember, it seemed to be in good shape and they were very busy, bringing something like 42 ships through a day, which is pretty much a nonstop pace. I don't think I had ever actually transited the entire canal, it was interesting to go through all the locks, Gaillard Cut, past Gamboa, and into Gatun Lake like all the ships do. We were on the Isla Contadora boat, it's a mid-size sightseeing launch that is small enough to fit through the locks with another ship as long as that ship is smaller than the "Panamax" size, which takes up the entire lock chamber. Since our boat was small, we didn't get assisted through the locks by the "mules" like big ships do, but I did see the mules in action quite a bit. The transit as a whole was very peaceful, quiet for the most part with just some occasional clanging and horn blowing to indicate ships' progress through the canal.
The funny part was I think we set the record for the slowest transit ever. The boat was an hour late leaving the dock, then our special canal pilot was an hour late getting to us, then there were so many Panamax ships in the canal that we had to wait for a smaller one to get clearance through Gatun locks so we could fit in the chamber with it, that took another 90 minutes, then when we finally reached the dock in Colon, a huge sailboat was already there that took up the entire dock, so our pilot took another 45 minutes to find a clear spot to dock! It was fun though, got tons of pictures.
Panama has just finished a new bridge across the canal called Puente Centenario, or the Centennial Bridge, we went under it but it had not quite opened for cars yet.
Next on the itinerary was El Valle, a very picturesque "valley" that is actually the crater of a giant extinct volcano about a 90 minute drive from Panama City. There was less up there than I remember, although we went to a nice waterfall called "El Chorro de Macho", which I'm told got its name from ancient warriors proving their manliness by jumping off the falls. Some of our tour group elected to rappel through the rainforest canopy there which was kind of neat. We also went to the local Sunday market where they sell all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables, plus handmade souvenir items. Then we went to a nice zoological garden there that had a lot of native plants and both native and non-native animals.
On the way back from El Valle we passed the popular Pacific coast beaches that I remember, Rio Mar and Coronado. Coronado has been really built up, there's even a big grocery store at the entrance which is a big change from how it was when I was there.
Then we visited an Emberá village deep within the rainforest off the Chagres river. The Emberá are a native "Indian" race that have for the most part kept their customs and traditions. They showed us their tradeskills, costumes, and way of life. The women served us a lunch of their traditional foods, patacones, which is fried plantain, kind of like a not-sweet banana, and tilapia fish, which was very good.
After an invigorating hike through the rainforest, we reached the Emberá's favorite swimming hole, just beneath a nice waterfall.
On our final day we took the newly renovated Panama Canal Railway across the isthmus to Portobelo, which is the former major Spanish port on the Atlantic coast. It still has the ruins of two major forts right in town, complete with cannons. There is a larger fort further out in the jungle called San Lorenzo that we used to go to, but our guide said the road was too rough to get over now, so we couldn't see it on this trip.
It briefly rained quite heavily, August falls within the rainy season in Panama but rain was only a problem on a couple days, it usually cleared right up after short, hard rains.
The Railway itself is quite nice, they have a luxurious passenger car with full service, it was an enjoyable if crowded run across the isthmus, the track parallels the Canal so there are some great sights of the canal and the jungle.
As we were returning from Portobelo, our guide Chuck Shirley took us for a quick animal-viewing trip through San Lorenzo Park, which is just across Gatun Locks. This was the only time we got good looks at native wildlife, we were able to see toucans, howler monkeys, and a sloth all along the same stretch of jungle.
The next day I returned here to Sugar Land, Texas! It was a fun trip, very interesting to see all the landmarks I remember from when I was living in Panama. Perhaps I'll return to see more of the western mountains, beaches, and wildlife!