Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Canal

A trip to Panama would not be complete with visiting the Panama Canal. Its a quick 20 minute drive from the downtown area, and is really an amazing site. There is also a Canal Museum in Casco Viejo, which we also visited. I didn't know this, but the French were the first ones to start the construction of the canal. They were trying to build it just like the Suez Canal, which is basically just a large ditch. However, with the continental divide coming through Panama, that really wasn't an option. The French worked for 20 years trying to build the canal before they gave up. Then the Americans came in, at first doing the same thing as the French. However, Teddy Roosevelt hired a new engineer who developped the locks system.
The locks use gravity and water from Gatun Lake (which is fed from rivers in the mountains) to raise and lower boats 80 feet total to reach the necessary height to cross the higher elevation in the middle of the country.

As ships enter, the first lock is opened to allow the water level to become the same. Then the lock behind the ship is closed, and the lock in front of them is opened to allow the boat to be raised. Each ship going through the canal runs on their own power, trains along side the locks help the ships to stay straight. After going through the first two sets of locks, the boats must go through Gatun lake to reach the other locks on the other side.
It takes a boat about 8 hours to go through the canal. Each boat pays for its passage by its weight. When smaller sail boats go through, they sometimes put them with other smaller boats in the locks. The locks are 120 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. We didn't get to see a really really big boat go through, but the one above was still a decent size, at least for us.
It amazes me the number of people that died in order to create the canal. There are memorials to those who died by the Miraflores locks, and a special exhibit in the museum as well. Most of the people who perished, did so because of tropical illnesses and poor medical treatment. The canal has helped the country of Panama became a wealthier and more developped country than its central American neighbors, and the Panama government took complete control over in the canal from the U.S. in 2000. The Panama government also has started an expansion project for the canal to help the canal accomodate world shipping needs.

The Kuna Yale

For part of our Panama vacation, Jesse and I went to the San Blas Islands, on the Caribbean side of Panama. The islands are an autonomous region of the Kuna people, so they refer to the islands as the Kuna Yale. There are over 400 islands in the chain, all controlled by the Kuna. Nobody other than Kuna are allowed to own land on the Yale, so all the hotels are Kuna run, in Kuna villages. Jesse and I stayed for three days on the islands.
Each day, the hotel would take us to a different island in the chain. Most of the people live on less than 30 islands in the chain, so most of the islands (the ones we did the day trips to) are deserted, white sand beach islands. We traveled to these islands by way of a dug out 12 foot (approximately) canoe. Now, I tend to be prone to a little seasickness sometimes, and traveling on windy seas in a canoe did not help. I got seasick almost everyday. However, the beautiful scenery and the completely empty beaches did help me get over it quickly.
The Kuna women still dress traditionally and create molas. Molas are part of their traditional dress that get wrapped around the women's stomach. They are created with several layers of fabric sewn together to create beautiful patterns. Each island that we went to had several molas on display for purchase. We also found molas all around Panama City, since they have recently become the tourist purchase of the country.
We enjoyed our journey to the islands, but we do tend to get a little bit restless, and I was sick of being sick, so by the time our stay was ending, we were ready to head back.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Panama Viejo

One of the most interesting parts of Panama City for me, was Panama Viejo. Panama Viejo is the original site of the city, built in the late 1500's/early 1600's. In 1671, Henry Morgan sacked the city, by coming up the Chagris River. Below is the Church tower, which was the most intact of the ruins.
Jesse wanted to be all arty, so he tried to do an artistic shot of the church tower.
Panama was originally used as a trading spot. Gold and silver came up the Pacific Ocean from Peru, went to Panama city, crossed the isthmus, and then was sent to Europe. The city was very wealthy, and for that reason, Henry Morgan sacked it.

The ruins are surrounded by the modern aspect of the city; skyscrapers and highways. It added an interesting dynamic to the ruins.

The ruins also contained a convent, a huge water well (that could hold somewhere like 100,000 gallons of water), and houses. The Panamanians moved their city to Casco Viejo after Henry Morgan's attack to use nature for protection. Henry Morgan burned the city to the ground, and only the ruins were left. Then he returned to England and was made a knight. The British royalty didn't realize that he completely sacked a city. He then was given a post on Jamaica, where he died.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Casco Viejo

The start of our journey to Panama began actually in San Pedro Sula's airport. A flight delay. Our plane wasn't going to be arriving at the airport in time to take us to San Jose, Costa Rica to catch our connecting flight, so we were granted the wonderful opportunity to hang out in the airport for 6 more hours. We actually headed back into town, had a leisurely lunch, shopped, and then headed back out to the airport to catch our new flight, which was headed to San Salvador, El Salvador instead. I was a little bummed, since the San Jose airport has Papa John's pizza, but I would just have to deal with it. Once we landed in Panama City, we caught a cab and headed to our hotel.

Our hotel is a new hostel in the Casco Viejo region of the city. "Casco Viejo" means old quarter, and this was where the city was rebuilt after Henry Morgan sacked the old city in 1671. The area has seen some better years, with buildings becoming run down and such. However, it was granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition a few years back, and now renovations have been going on to put the area back into its traditional glory. The area is surrounded on two sides by water, and comes to a point into the Pacific Ocean. After the original city was sacked, the townspeople decided to start using the natural protective barriers around them. The quarter is home to the gold altar,a church altar made completely of gold, which, story goes, a priest covered it in coal dust to turn it black, and told Henry Morgan that the original altar had already been pillaged.

Below is the Catedral of Panama. It is a beautiful old church, complete with a the Plaza de la Independencia outside of it.

The quarter also is home to the Plaza de la Francia, or the French Plaza, which tells the story of the France's role in buiding the canal. It shows some of the original wall that was around the city and the Puente de las Americas, or the Bridge of the Americas, which links the two continents. Casco Viejo is also the home to the Presidents Palace, which I think it really cool. The president lives in the historical part of the city instead of the flashy, modernized downtown.
The French Plaza

The President's Palace

Casco Viejo with the new, modernized downtown in the background.

Panama City, in itself, is incredibly rich in history and is moving towards the future. I enjoyed staying in the old quarter, where I felt the traditional feel of the city is still alive, in its cobblestone streets, and tall, stone buildings.

Semana Santa

For those of you uninformed of the ways of the Latin American world, they celebrate the week before Easter as Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Schools are off, many businesses are closed, and generally the entire region takes a vacation. Our school, following the culture, gives us this week off. Basically, its a spring break that follows Easter around. This year, following a killer deal on plane tickets, Jesse and I headed the furthest south either of us have gone: to Panama. Now, Jesse can claim that he's been to all the continental countries in North America, and I can claim to have been to every continental country starting at the U.S. and heading south. (In case you couldn't follow that, I haven't been to Canada.) The following posts will be telling the different aspects of the trip.