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Close encounter of the third kind...

Mexico was epic on the road but all in all manageable, Costa Rica was more orderly but congested whereas Panama was downright a chaotic racetrack...a close encounter of the third kind of...driver....

 

To paraphrase Obelix, "They're crazy, those Romans", well, I'd say "They're crazy, those Panamanians", at least on the road. We'll come back to this absolutely seductive country in a moment, but armed with our SUV, like Romans, we suffered the torments of road barbarians.



No signage, none...in the roundabouts, which are a circus, as well as in the city, and even more so on the expressways, and worse when the lanes combine and there is no right of way. It's a road jungle with a very high biodiversity of morons. We came out intact, but more traumatized than in Mexico or Costa Rica. Driving in Los Angeles with its 8-10 lane highways was easy-peasy compared to the urban jungle of those Panamian roads...



Let's put the road considerations aside for a moment and talk about what we saw in Panama, and to be precise, what we saw in and around Panama City. After all, we were only there for seven days, which isn't much compared to our time spent in Costa Rica and Mexico.

 

Panama really is a hub, not just because of the canal, but from a geopolitical point of view (thanks to the museums) as populations from the north and south meet here, including Indigenous cultures. Panama City is all skyscrapers!



The flight from San José to Panama City takes just over an hour. The Tecumen airport in Panama City is vast, nothing like the "hut" of San José or Cancun, and it's well run, with no fuss at customs, luggage or SUV rental.

 

On the other hand, similar to Mexico or Costa Rica, the condo that we rented had no real address. You have to find the building on 43rd Street... After a lot of back and forth, we finally get there and our condo is on the 17th floor, overlooking Panama Bay and the entrance to the canal, a beautiful view. This is in stark contrast to our RV life on the lowlands.

 

There's a lot to do in Panama City, so we went to bed early to be ready for our exploration the next day.

 

First stop, visit the old town, Casco Viejo, established in 1673 and which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has an air of Havana, inherited from the Spanish colonial period, with some sections flamboyant and others in disrepair. The old town, with its parks, churches, narrow streets and authentic restaurants, is a veritable firework for the eyes. It was bustling with life on this hot, sticky Saturday morning.



Independence Park is packed and overlooks the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana Santa María La Antigua. Traditional dancers were performing here, and schoolchildren were taking part in cultural activities (like in France, they go to school on Saturday mornings!). We strolled through the streets to reach the famous Panama Canal Museum, which also touches on the country's history. It is a superb museum. We discovered the important role played by France, but above all by the United States. I had forgotten that the United States invaded Panama in 1989 to get rid of dictator Noriega.

 

There's a beautiful circuit leading to the Plaza de Francia, which offers a breathtaking view of the city. Then, at the bend in a random street, an alley of hats appeared out of nowhere to delight us.



We were looking for restaurants to try Panamanian cuisine, and we found a little gem, the El Nacional Sabores de Panamá, serving affordable and tasty guisados (stews) and escabeches (marinades for meat and fish)! It was so tasty that we went back a few days later for a second meal.



Then we came across some amazing ruins. El Arco Chato (The Flat Arch) is what remains of the Santo Domingo convent, built in 1675 but burnt down in 1756. The arch remains in place and played a role in the decision to build the canal. In fact, this fragile has shown that the region was unaffected by earthquakes and confirmed that Panama was a stable site.



Finally, we visited the Museo de la Mola, a museum of indigenous Guna textile art. This is not only an appliqué technique, but also an important cultural movement for the role of Indigenous women in Panama, reflected in these highly significant garments. It takes a good two days to explore the old town.



Our epic journey took us to Colón, a city on the Pacific side to see the Agua Clara locks of the Panama Canal. It would have been easier to go to Miraflores to see the Atlantic locks, but Agua Clara, a 90-minute drive from Panama City, shows off the new 2016 locks, has a more tourist-friendly infrastructure and there are fewer crowds.

 

Passing through a lock takes between 60 and 90 minutes, and it's a ballet of engineering to see it all in action. Now we could see our second engineering wonder of the world (see American Society of Civil Engineers, 1994) after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (Chichén Itzá in Mexico, which we saw, is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the New World).



We continued our journey to a historic fort located at the mouth of the Chagres River and the Caribbean Sea. The Castillo San Lorenzo is like the Citadelle in Quebec, a fort built to protect the Spanish colonies, but it was built in 1598, over a hundred years before the oldest parts of the Citadelle.




The drive to San Castillo takes us over the Atlantic Bridge, newly built in 2019 at a cost of $328 million USD and spanning the canal. A cable-stayed bridge, it is of comparable length (but less wide) and resembles the Samuel-de-Champlain bridge, which cost over $4 billion CAD in 2019, but hey, I'm no engineer or architect, and there's surely a good explanation for why ours cost ten times as much 😊



Our excursions also took us to Gamboa, an old abandoned village not far from Soberanía National Park. Built during the construction of the canal, Gamboa is now more or less abandoned, but is home to the Smithsonian Institute's tropical research stations. There's also a peculiar church that does what it can to attract tourists...



One week is not enough to discover a country as fascinating as Panama, even if it is relatively small. There's much more to discover here than just the canal, and whether it's San Blass or the other islands, there are some heavenly spots. So why didn't we visit these islands? After California, Baja, Mexico and Costa Rica, our two boys shared a confidence with us when we arrived in Panama...they're sick of going to beaches! Can you believe it?

 

N.B. In Panama, road deaths were 14 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019. In Mexico, just under 13, but close to 15 in Costa Rica. Canada? Just over 5...We're lucky to have the SAAQ! (Crown Corporation in Quebec responsible for drivers’ licence and road safety programs which came under a lot of criticisms last year when they launched an innovative on-line platform that collapsed and paralyzed access to services for months).

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