Isla Taboga, an unforgettable panorama of Panama City

We decided to take a day trip to Isla Taboga – an hour’s boat ride from Panama City – despite the weather looking terrible. It wasn’t raining but the sky was grey and threatening. While we were hoping for blue sky and sunshine to enjoy Isla Taboga’s beaches, the rest of Panama was praying for rain. The rains that normally arrive at the start of May hadn’t materialised, causing major problems.

Much of Panama’s electricity is generated as hydro-electricity. In times of water shortages this has serious impacts on Panama, made worse by the fact that the Panama Canal – the country’s major economic driver – uses huge amounts of fresh water to operate the locks needed to transport ships. For the government the equation is simple: lose money and credibility by restricting the operation of the canal or take emergency measures in other parts of life.

To save electricity the government decided to close all the nation’s schools on the flimsy premise that since they weren’t allowed to use air conditioning during the drought, studying would be dangerous. Despite an extensive media campaign to conserve electricity and water in homes and businesses, we didn’t notice too many places in Panama City turning down the air conditioning…suffer the children, or at least their education.

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

While this played out in the background we jumped onto a passenger ferry to Isla Taboga. We didn’t really know what to expect, but the young Panamanians on the boat loaded down with cool boxes gave us an indication that it might be fun. The boat is worth taking just for the panoramic views you get of Panama City, including the weird and beautiful Frank Gehry building.

Isla Taboga, with sandy beaches, incredible views and good food, is a lovely place to spend some time. The ferry heads through ranks of ships waiting to enter the Panama canal, but when you reach Isla Taboga and climb a nearby hill you get the full impact of what is going on off the coast of Panama. It is a truly impressive sight, dozens of ships lined up reminding me of when all the allied ships appear off the coast of France in the WWII film The Longest Day.

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Most people visit the island for its beaches – although they disappear when the tide comes in – but the island has some history as well. It was settled by the Spanish in 1515 (after they had killed or enslaved the native population) and still boasts the second oldest church in the Americas, which was sadly closed when we were there. The island didn’t always belong to the Spanish though. English pirates made it their home and attacked Spanish shipping from here.

After a steep and hot climb up the Camino del Cruz, which leads you to the top of a hill crowned with a cross and offering panoramic views of the island, ocean and Panama City, we had a tasty lunch overlooking the water and wished we’d decided to stay for a night or two.

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Instead, we got on the return ferry and headed back to the mainland just as the sun was setting. Back on terra firma in Panama City, we walked up the causeway towards the Frank Gehry building that will one day become an ecological museum. The causeway offers great views towards the Panama Canal and as we strolled we saw a giant cruise ship emerge from the Panama Canal underneath the Bridge of the Americas.

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

The great inter-oceanic railroad, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on the Panama Railway

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama by rail has to be one of the great rail journeys in the Americas – not that there are many of the continent’s once magnificent railways left. Although I’m no train spotter, the journey is worth the $25 one-way ticket for the historic and atmospheric route passing through jungle alongside the Panama Canal.

At only 77km it isn’t a particularly long trip – it takes an hour from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean – but the route has a history that has defined Central America. The overland route has been used for over three hundred years from colonial times onwards; people and cargo were unloaded on one side and crossed overland to the other. By the nineteenth century the growth in global trade and the arrival of steam trains gave rise to a daring plan to construct an inter-oceanic railroad.

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Spurred on by the California Gold Rush, construction of this incredible engineering feat began in 1850 and was completed in 1855 – just as the Gold Rush was coming to an end. During the American Civil War troops and materials travelled along the railway between the coasts of the United States because it was quicker and safer than travelling overland. In the 1880s and 1900s the railway played a pivotal role in the attempts to build a ship canal.

Today, the railway still carries large quantities of cargo from shore to shore. The huge container ships that won’t fit into the 100 year-old Panama Canal locks unload their cargo on one side of the canal, the railway carries it to the other side, where they are loaded onto waiting ships. Nothing has really changed in four hundred years, but now new locks, big enough to carry the super-sized cargo ships, are being constructed and the railway’s day may be numbered.

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The day we went, the rainy season seemed to have arrived, just without the rain. The sky was a battleship-grey and it looked like it was going to pour with rain at any minute. The journey began at 7.15am and we soon passed the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City. Soon though, we were travelling through dense forest with views of the canal and ships heading towards the Gatun Locks and the Caribbean.

I’ve read some accounts where people have felt cheated by the journey. While its no Trans-Siberian, I thought it was great. Tourists get put into a panoramic carriage with air conditioning and, while the complimentary coffee was welcome, the snack box was very underwhelming. Customer care aside, we saw lots of boats from the outside viewing platforms and the dark, brooding sky seemed to add an extra dimension to the journey.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

If there is one down-side to the whole trip it is arriving in Colon. There isn’t a train station at Colon and passengers are just disgorged onto a platform in the middle of nowhere, where a number of touts and taxi drivers try to sell vastly inflated trips to the Gatun Locks, an old Spanish fort or to the beaches on the coast. We were planning to do a trip but on arrival in Colon it started to rain and we decided a hasty retreat was probably wiser.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Being stuck in Colon isn’t a great experience, it is Panama’s most crime ridden city and the idea of spending more time in it than necessary is not appealing. The train back doesn’t leave until 5.15pm, giving you nine hours to fritter in a city with nothing to fritter it on. In the end we negotiated a taxi to the bus station and took one of the regular buses back to Panama City – an eye-opening experience, as it passed through very poor and run down neighbourhoods that you’re unlikely to see on any tourist borochures.

Casco Viejo, Panama’s colonial star in the making

It is one of the oldest and most historic towns in Central America, pride of the Spanish empire and wealthy beyond belief during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has classical Spanish colonial architecture, extraordinary colonial churches, lovely plazas, a sweeping view over the Pacific Ocean and an easy-going feel that could rival Cartagena in a few years time.

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

That will only happen when they finish renovating Casco Viejo, the former capital of Panama before the skyscrapers and strip malls of modern Panama City were constructed around it. When that process is complete, Casco Viejo is likely to be more lovely to look at but equally likely to be less interesting as its traditional life and inhabitants are forced out by boutique hotels, rising prices and a government determined to lure tourists away from neighbouring countries.

Even though contemporary Casco Viejo resembles a giant historic building site it is still a fascinating place to walk around. Although it was so hot and humid we had to keep diving into cafes to hydrate and take advantage of the fans/air conditioning. By hot, I mean riverlets of sweat literally running off me – it wasn’t pleasant and this is the ‘dry season’.

Leggy street art in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Leggy street art in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Leggy street art in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Leggy street art in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Building in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Building in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Building in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Building in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

While just wandering the streets is rewarding in its own right, there are some must-sees in Casco Viejo. Opening times seem erratic due to the redevelopment of the area, but if you get the chance the Iglesia de San Jose has a remarkable and ornate alter; the Iglesia de San Francisco is worth a look; Plaza de la Indpendencia is leafy and surrounded by beautiful buidings, including the Cathedral; and the huge theatre has a beautiful interior.

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama hats, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama hats, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Although Casco Viejo is safe to walk around day or night, a few short blocks away are poorer neighbourhoods which are anything but safe. A taxi driver told us he wouldn’t drive through these areas at night, and if you happen to be partaking of some of Casco Viejo’s excellent bars and restaurants at night be careful not to wander too far off the beaten path. Fast forward a couple of years and those areas will, no doubt, have been ‘cleansed’ as well.

Facade of the Cathedral, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Facade of the Cathedral, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Interior of Iglesia de San Jose, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

The Panama Canal: one million ships and counting

Arriving in a new city, especially one as disorienting as Panama City, is always more difficult after dark. Not that we arrived in Panama City after dark, we arrived at 4pm in bright sunlight. Unfortunately for us, the next three hours were spent stuck in nose-to-tail traffic while we travelled the relatively short distance from airport to hotel. Panama City has the worst traffic imaginable.

As the sun set and our taxi driver nudged interminably towards our destination I was regretting coming to the city. Our route seemed to take us past a ‘still under construction‘ Latinised version of the United States. I haven’t seen so many fast food outlets and strip malls ever.

Still, it is impossible to avoid Panama City, especially if you want to visit the nearby Panama Canal. Something I kept telling myself as our taxi driver finally got us out of the traffic and on to a suburban street, only to realise he’d mis-read the address and we were still 30 minutes away from the hotel.

Panama City, Panama

Panama City, Panama

Panama City looked more agreeable the following morning. A taxi arrived and whisked us to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks a short distance away. We got there around 9am as the bigger boats tend to go through between 9-11am, and although we didn’t see any giant cruise ships, watching huge boats effortlessly negotiate the locks was a real thrill.

Connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans the Panama Canal is, and has always been, all about global trade. Owning the canal is like having a license to print money, the average cost for a ship’s passage is US$100,000, while some pay more than US$400,000 for the privilege. The lowest fare goes to Richard Halliburton who paid US$0.36 to swim through in 1928.

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal, Panama

The whole process of a boat passing through the locks takes only 8-10 minutes, which is amazing given the size of the ships. The whole visit was fascinating and there is a museum at the Miraflores Locks detailing the history and construction of the canal; it even has a simulator of a ship, you can stand at the helm and watch as the boat clears the locks and travels down the canal.

Simulator at Miraflores Locks museum, Panama Canal, Panama

Simulator at Miraflores Locks museum, Panama Canal, Panama

The French were the first to attempt to build a canal in 1881, but were finally defeated 1889 by a combination of death and disease amongst the workforce, massive logistical problems, terrible weather repeatedly flooding and collapsing the excavation work and eventually lack of money.

When the United States got involved at the start of the twentieth century, modern-day Panama was still a province of Colombia. The deal President Roosevelt originally negotiated was with Colombia. When it became obvious that Panamanians wanted independence the US saw an opportunity and gave significant military backing to the rebels, including deploying warships.

In November 1903, Panamanian independence was declared and the US quickly recognised the new country, negotiated a very favourable deal for itself (granting the US the indefinite right to administer the Panama Canal Zone) and got on with the construction of this man-made wonder. The building of the canal was global power-politics at their most ruthless – not many engineering projects found a new country at the same time.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Panamanians had to wait until 1977 for President Carter to renegotiate the deal. The canal was eventually returned to Panama on December 31st, 1999. Today the huge American sector which ran the full length of the canal and was filled with military bases, is open to Panamanians and tourists alike.

There are endless statistics about the canal, but the most striking is that over a million ships have passed through it since it opened in 1914. Every year an average of 14,000 extra ships are added to that total. The canal is the vital link in 144 different sea routes and conducts a huge amount of global trade through its locks. The biggest users of the canal are the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and, somewhat surprisingly, Chile.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Panama

The Atlantic and Pacific locks are connected by a series of lakes, all man-made and replenished with rainfall. The other fascinating watery fact is that the entire lock mechanism works only with water and the power of gravity, an engineering marvel that has lasted for nearly 100 years and shows no sign of letting up yet.

In 2007, the first work began on new locks that will run parallel to the originals. When these open (in 2014) the canal will have the ability to take much longer and much wider ships, doubling the capacity of the locks. Currently these giant ships that don’t fit into the 1914 locks have to unload their cargo – mainly containers – which is then transported by rail to the other side of the canal and reloaded.