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Panama offers Hitler’s Crane, Baby Alligator Teeth and Canal Traffic

Trying to understand Panama is an exercise in mental dexterity. It’s the most fascinating place I’ve ever been. Amidst the sweltering muddle of skyscrapers and indigenous villages with thatched huts, there is even more. The Canal. The five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And of course, the Golden Alter. But Hitler’s crane? Did you know about that?

Join me on this magical visit to a country where the sights and sounds are mesmerizing. All of this is thanks to Apple Vacations and their fabulous Business Development Manager (BDM), Sarah Rau.

First up, Copa Airlines– can’t forget them. This is an airline where you’re greeted with a sincere welcome, free cocktails, warm food with real silverware, plus a pillow and blanket if you need one. Free inflight entertainment too, with limited but free selections! Upon landing, the airport underwhelms with a bathroom stall that is held together in a fashion with duct tape. There is a NEW terminal you can see being built but as our handsome Gamboa Tours guide, Octovio, explains it is being held up while the former president and his rascal buddies are rounded up for trial for taking all the money. Hmm, what money? No clear answer but the rumor is, he is hiding in Miami.

We weave through town, skimming fishing village slums perched over low tide shallows and skyscraper condo complexes along rocky shores. The heat undulates as my traveling companions ooh and aah all through town, then emerge to head across the Bridge of Americas. Here you can first grasp the magnitude of what the canal is. Huge tankers,

Canal from Bridge of Americas
The view looking west from the Bridge of the Americas.The entrance to the new lock is the little opening about middle left.

freighters and cruise ships line up waiting their turn to sail through (it can take two days waiting your turn!). I excitedly message my friend who loves these big ships and he tells me about the website where you can see what ship is lined up, what they’re carrying and where they’re heading. I know. Nerd stuff but it is really cool! A prominent feature is the drought which has colored what I knew as a very lush country, a crispy brown with green tips. More on that when I get to the canal section.

Swaying into the Playa Bonita area, we approach the Secrets. Noticeable en route is garbage on the side of the road. Pick up your garbage, Panama! But then there is the resort; gated, luxurious and waiting for me! This property had been the Intercontinental and sits

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just thirty minutes outside of town. I’m are greeted with a cool cloth (needed that, thank you!) and a spritzer drinks to refresh. Ushered into the Preferred Club (aaaahhh), I sit, waiting patiently for a room key because I had slept very little in the hours before my plane left. Finally released and headed to the room, it’s way down the hall at the very end of the building. I arrive to my room and the maids are still in there. A supervisor is lolling in a chair as a couple of uniformed maids move about putting finishing touches on. They are very sweet as I shove them out the door so I can strip my sweat soaked clothes off. No air conditioned hallways here.

This place is luxurious, the view over the canal is amazing and the room is just perfect. Everything I could want and more because yes, there is a robe and slippers. I always

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feel like I’m being punished if I check into a resort and I don’t have a robe and slippers. I know, delusions of grandeur, but please just let me have my moment. It is only three days. The evening tour showcases a beautiful spa, amazing gym overlooking the Canal and  lovely grounds. Dinner at Oceana offers scallops and shrimp on a skewer, and crab cakes. Our group continues to order crab cakes until they simply stop bringing them. A dessert sampler follows so I’m done. Sated, sweating, and staggering up the little hill to home base, I’m in love.

Morning’s ride features a sloth and vistas where the landscape has changed dramatically in the four years since I have been here. Mega shopping complexes, an incredible amount of development, both residential and business. The drivers are a tad crazy but you rarely see accidents. That is one of the things I truly wonder about when traveling to the countries with crazy drivers and traffic. I never see accidents. Playa Blanca is one of the beachy areas of Panama, a full two hours away from Panama City. The area is mostly rural and there is a regional airport RIGHT THERE but no US carriers have a contract yet, only Canada. It would be so convenient to be able to fly right into that area and then take a day to visit the city and the rain forest! The draw here is the beaches. The beaches here are white (with grey underneath), but lovely and very swimmable.

Let’s visit some hotels!

The Riu Playa Blanca is a nice family resort with a small water park for the kids. Families are having a blast and on the other side, the swim up bar is full. The rooms are decent and the views are lovely. This is for your middle budget traveler who wants convenience and comfort. Their buffets are always good!

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Next up is the Sheraton Bijao and this is of course, a little more fancy but with fewer restaurants. It also has a lovely golf course which is actually green and the rooms are very

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nice! This is a large resort with timeshares attached and many happy people strolling about. Lunch here at the buffet is dizzying with all the choices and my plate is full when I finally sit.

The sitting never lasts so it’s on to the Royal Decameron. This is by far the largest resort in Playa Blanca and it definitely has the most steps. There are many pools, many

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restaurants and two large water slides. Families are loving it and the sun is HOT. The salesperson proudly points out the beach here has the whitest sand in the area! Strolling through the lush, extensive grounds, I gaze longingly at the adult pool perched high up the stairs, overlooking a quiet area of the resort. This place has everything.

Another long ride brings me to the Playa Bonita area again and I’m dropped at the Westin. This is a large resort, splendid Westin luxury and I’m offered Gelato from their shop and it lingers on my mind, so smooth and creamy and delicious. The rooms are simple but offer

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deep elegance. The view from the Penthouse is the best so far (Joe Biden liked it). There are plenty of pools, restaurants, a lovely spa plus on water’s edge, a round glassed in room where they’re preparing for a wedding reception. Just lovely! This place would be perfect for groups because there is plenty of space for everyone with 611 rooms total.

 Adventure calls on day two -a trip to the Gamboa  Rainforest Resort and a sail on the Chagres River! Winding through the Soberania National Forest, the sites of the Canal keep me spellbound. That serenity is disturbed as we cross the “Oh My God” bridge, built in 1903 for the railroad, it made Canal construction possible. Wooden beams, a century old steel structure, it is a shaky crossing. A little scary, but past that soon enough, the bus heads up a verdant, lush slope. Perched on the hillside, this open air resort focuses on the natural wildlife and beauty of the rain forest. Many eco activities are available, including a two hour tram ride through the rain forest, an onsite butterfly house and orchid nursery, tours to the indigenous Embera village, plus opportunities to fish and hike. Overlooking the river, the view stretches far and the landscape is alive in the sun. Built specifically  to bring people closer to nature,this resort has achieved that. The hammock on the balcony calls my name as I see the dark clouds gathering in the distance. What a great place to lay and read a book mere feet from the deluge.

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Off to the boat dock and smashed into a big orange life vest, I can’t help but think about the pictures of the alligators I’ve seen that they have taken out of the Panama Canal. This is where they come to grow big and dominate the water. And I’m in a skiff with a bunch of excited people that may capsize us if they see a cute monkey. Moving through the area, the boat stops and our guide and driver start making really weird noises- to call the monkeys. We sit and wait. Another boat pulls up and some of them step out of the boat. I want to scream “Stop! Alligators!!” They seem oblivious to where they are. No one else is walking along that river bank. Get back in your boat! No monkeys appear so we sidle over to the other bank in this cove and there they are – a herd of alligators about twelve inched long scurrying all over the place. “Momma is underneath the water or these guys wouldn’t be here,” says the guide. “Most of them will not make it because of the predators, maybe one or two in forty.” I spot a turkey vulture sitting not far off. These are babies! Mom is watching you, you crazy bird. A scoop with a fishing net grabs one and it’s passed around and people are loving it.I touch it but I’m not the one who cracks his mouth open to see the teeth. No, thank you, no.

At the mouth of the Chagres, the tall orange crane on the bank is explained as Hitler’s crane, the Titan. Wait, what? Hitler? Panama? So yes, this is the crane he was using to build submarines. I tell a trucking pal of mine who is a history buff and he explains he used to see it in Long Beach, CA.

Titan Hitler's Crane
The Titan, the crane Hitler used during WWII for building submarines. It’s used now for repairing locks on the Canal.

Hmm, how did it end up here? I investigate. It is a floating crane, one of the largest in the world and the US seized it as war booty after WWII. In 1996, Panama bought it and it’s still in use because it floats and is helping with repairs and construction when needed. What you won’t see or learn in Panama. Amazing.

A little farther on, we spot black lumps in the tree and they’re Howler monkeys. A little farther, Capuchin monkeys and they are friendly and hungry. I wonder how they survive on this island, this tiny island. So many natural predators here and they’re the size of a kitten if you don’t count their tail. I imagine nightfall when, while the big ships still ply the waters, the scary predators come out.

Howler monkeys
The tiny black blobs? They are Howler Monkeys. They were not howling at all while we were going by.

Another drastic contrast in the land called Panama. First world goods (think Mercedes freighter) moving through the canal while on the banks, it’s surely close to a brutal and feral existence. It’s hard to reconcile how the two worlds coexist, intersecting but not interfacing, and mostly unaware of each other.

Back on land and not a minute too soon. The sky’s answer to the drought that has gripped the land is black clouds that unleash a torrent. It’s almost a violent rain and everyone is very happy it has arrived. “You brought the rain!”, our hostess exclaims. During lunch at Los Lagartos, she explains she is very representative of Panama’s history. Her ancestry includes Spanish, French, Asian, Indigenous Wounaan, English, and American. The perfect Panamanian.The torrential view and sounds are a fabulous accompaniment to a fabulous lunch buffet. To cap it off, I buy a boar’s tusk necklace. There. I embraced some wildlife.

Back over the Oh My God bridge and onto the Milaflores Locks. The museum here has bugs that could give me nightmares. The history of the almost insurmountable building of the Canal is aptly displayed and because it is a holiday, the place is packed. People have sat in stadium chairs for two hours to wait for a ship to enter the locks, be lowered, and then do it again in the next set of locks, then finally pass through. Spectators jockey for position in the sports arena atmosphere. This is an event and the latecomers are jeered for blocking the views of those who have sat and waited for two hours! Many ships pass through here night and

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day, but this one is being heralded like a champion race horse. It is very fun to be part of the excitement! Tolls are high for ships passing through. The record toll paid was by the Norwegian Pearl in 2010 (more than $450,000). Now, with the opening of the new channel on June 26, bigger ships will pass through so bigger tolls will be collected! This nation truly moves the Western World. It transports 70% of goods the US produces and that figure will rise when the new channel opens. There’s only one problem- the drought. Yes, Panama’s drought has lowered the water level and if it doesn’t start raining, ships will have to lighten their loads, thus lost revenue for the ships and the canal. Hurry rain! When running at peak performance, the Canal creates a revenue stream that has created opportunity for 130 global banks in Panama City. Global banks. It’s hard to wrap my  brain around.

Moving back into the city, weagain careen past areas where luxury high rises are being built and roar past slums. The Mercedes SUVs stand out next to the Red Devils or Diablo Rojos (individually owned buses that are totally pimped out to look a bit frightening). Arriving at Casco Viejo, there is supposed to be a moratorium on motor vehicle traffic on Sundays (it is Sunday). I’m left off at Plaza Francia, the area where the

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French are edified for their valiant (but doomed) efforts at building the Canal. Also remembered here are the 22,000 lives lost (mostly from malaria and yellow fever) during the building of the Canal. Here also are the dungeons used by the Spaniards and Columbians, sometimes under water at high tide so the prisoners simply had to wait until the tides went out again to become dry. Well, this is the tale I was told, and in Panama, anything is possible?

Climbing the stairs at Plaza Francia, the view over the city and Canal is fabulous. It is obvious that not only are the gringo tourists on the prowl, but that as a Sunday on a long weekend, many families have come to see and be seen. One tall beauty in Christian Louboutin stilettos is being photographed by a young man who avidly juggles all of his gear while trying to capture her. The indigenous Kuna women selling their handicrafts are deliciously covered in beaded leggings and cuffs. Two gentlemen wearing Panama hats sing passionately in the shade of bougainvillea vines on the Estaban Huertas Promenade . The breeze kicks up and scatters smiles while molas (indigenous Wounaan textiles) wave

Borrowed from Darrin Duford’s article and linked here, the culture of Diablo Rojos is a thing!

like flags. Heading back into the cobblestone streets, the buildings again represent the great divide – sleek stucco facades with flower filled balconies abut abandoned shells with feral cats and creepy graffiti. Looming over the Plaza Catedral  is the Catedral Metropolitana, built in 1796, with the two side spires covered in mother of Pearl from the Pearl Islands. The Canal Museum is here, so MUCH history is here and an interesting tidbit just steps away, the Iglesia San Jose. Here is the Golden Altar. The legend is it was hid under a layer of black paint by a devoted priest when pirates were actively sacking the area for gold in the 1700 and 1800s. It is immense and lustrous, a sacred and active church, candles flickering, prayers being murmured. A moving space I don’t really want to leave… Raveling back through the narrow, cobbled streets, the cars that aren’t supposed to be there Sundays honk at us as we squeeze through traffic.

Evening holds another splendid dinner at the Secrets. Tranquil surrounding, attentive waiters, and some of the best Caprese salad I’ve ever tasted. So fresh! A lot of stairs were climbed today, a lot of vistas viewed, all of them interesting. I’ve tethered my heart to this dream of Panama, and see why many people from all over the world choose to live here. The little isthmus of Casco Viejo holds enough history and magic that I could spend a month exploring and never grow tired. The view from my balcony after dinner is this, the darkness frames the lights of ocean liners waiting to cross the Canal. The night sounds from the adjacent dark treed hill are interesting, but makes me aware once again, being in Panama means walking the line between modernity and the primal. It’s a compelling vantage point that really calls to me.

Morning comes and so does room service. The woman who delivers it is very sweet. Coffee, croissants, fruit and juices, I’m in heaven. Packing, packing, I forget my favorite

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tan pants, hung by the curtains because they were damp and blended in with the curtains. Ugh. This day takes me into the heart of the city with the Riu Plaza our first stop! This place is fabulous. The buffet is really good and the rooms are exquisite. The Penthouse once hosted J Lo and Marc Antony. It is top notch.

Next stop is the Marriott Panama and forgive me if I gush about our host, Juan. He is a former Venezuelan lawyer and current body builder who loves being in charge of sales at the Panama Marriott. This is a fabulous location with the largest rattan light fixture in the

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bar area, possibly the largest on earth. The rooms are very nice and there is plenty of space for meetings, weddings, etc. There is also a casino on site plus a fabulous gym and pool area. And then there is Juan.Many reasons to return here!

Wrapping this up, I’m ushered into pure luxury at the Bristol Panama. The premise of this building was to bring the historical elegance of the Casco Viejo area into downtown. They have met and surpassed that target; muted colors with elegant details, fine furnishings, and a great lounge/dining area. The spa is immaculate and the lounge overlooking the

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downtown compelling.  Everything you need is here, sequestered in thick walls that move your mind out of the city and into relaxation. This is the premium property for staying in the business district. This property sits on a street with a wealth of construction/renovation and the ubiquitous telephone and power lines. It’s odd to see that when you’re not used to it anymore and in the business district, there are a lot of them!

Final stop – the F&F Tower for a final photo op. This building is 52 floors of twisting glass and steel, all offices. It embodies the spirit of Panama as it reflects upward movement,

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emerging opportunity, unlimited vision and clarity that mirrors every facet of this incredible country. Many reasons to return here, and I am excited about them all. I long to linger but just like Panama, very little is static and the airport calls.





Captivating Panama



I had few preconceived notions about Panama before I ended up taking a last-minute trip in November. There was no time to research or formulate a strategy of discovery for my trip. I was for a change, flying by the seat of my pants, courtesy of Copa Airlines! I had read one historical fiction book on Panama years back and took away from it a malaria riddled view of hopelessness against great adversity. Viva to the never-ending revival that this country continues to embrace!

Taken from the private club deck atop the Hard Rock in Panama City. The glass swirl building is a replica of one in Dubai.
Taken from the private club deck atop the Hard Rock in Panama City. The glass swirl building is a replica of one in Dubai.

First things first though- Copa Airlines and it’s amazing Sales Executive, Julieta! Be on your toes for a whirlwind tour if she is your host. This woman makes moves by Shakira look geriatric. Born in Columbia, the human dynamo greets us at the airport and whoosh, we are off. The motley agent crew consists of ten female Midwesterners, two from exotic Nebraska and one very brave twenty something guy from Chicago. The flight out is fairly empty so we get window seats and a huge surprise service with a smile, free adult beverages and dinner. Not just any dinner though; This dinner is served hot with REAL SILVERWARE by, gulp, pleasant and sincere flight attendants. It is one wow after the other, including the blanket and pillow in coach. Viva la Copa!

And then the airport; to me all airports are a necessary nuisance, inconvenience, annoyance filled with great people watching. No one pretends in the airport, they are who they are and I find it easy to gauge the pulse of a culture by assessing the environment/structure of the facility and watching people. For some reason, we are in a huge rush to get to the customs line. We pass amazing stores with brands that reflect a pervasive level of disposable income and elegance; Dolce and Gabbana purses, miniature LaCoste tennis shoes I covet and promise to buy on the return, tech stores, perfume stores, on and on. Then crunch, we were at customs and so is everyone else.

The line has great people watching; Suave men with curly black hair, expensive watches and crisp button down shirts smell of sandalwood and bay rum. European ladies complain as the line snaked along and one vivacious Panamanian gal complains to us non-stop in Spanish. Hahaha, as if we know what she is saying; her annoyance at being held up is radiating from every pore. When I grow tired of people watching, I turn my focus back to the group. Not that they aren’t interesting but I will be with them for days on end, so there is no rush to engage. I settle back and let the order of the day prevail employing my strategy of staying quiet, to see what I can see and hear.

This is going to be fun. Liking people isn’t hard when you know you’re heading straight for four days of being shown the best sites, fed the best food and informed by the best tour guide. Yes, meet Violeta! Violeta greets us after our anguished hour and a half delay at customs. She has a tour bus waiting and is excited to get the group going and we’re off!

A nice shot of me with our tour leader and Copa Rep, Julieta. This was the night a number of sushi virgins left Ginger ruined for cooked fish.


The first thing Violeta points out are all of the flags flying everywhere. November is the month when independence from Columbia, then France, then the US all took place, at different times of course. She explains that Panamanians like to celebrate everything and as often as possible. So far, so good! The bus ride is typical of any Latin America country and my gaze is riveted to the horizon, ears attuned to what she was telling us. It is rush hour and a gray sky plus heavy humid air lulls me into a ‘just off the plane, trying to grasp my surroundings’ zone. Everything is coming at me so fast with her story of the buccaneer Henry Morgan and gold and sacking the city and moving the city and priests and two high tides a day and all of this set against the back drop of some of the tallest buildings I’ve ever seen.

Approaching Panama City the traffic is horrendous, like any city at rush hour. I was told this city is very American because the Americans had been here for so long. It doesn’t look or feel anything like America to me. It is Panama through and through, a very astounding cosmopolitan city with modern construction stacked solidly against impoverished fishing villages that still cling to the bay. Not for long, says Violeta. They are being paid to relocate because they will be torn down for more skyscrapers.

Okay, suspicious by nature of government and rampant growth, I ask pointed questions about the main economic engines. What are they? Banking and tourism, I am told, service industries. No manufacturing? None beyond a couple of large cement plants. Banking and tourism, hmmm. A couple of American drug companies also. Careening off the main street, we squeak into a tiny street with high rises on all sides.  This is our spot for two days as we tour Panama City, loving every second of it. How could I not when walking into a brand new Waldorf Astoria in the center of a thriving metropolis? Oh, and did I mention that sushi extraordinaire from Ginger, the on site sushi restaurant is scheduled for dinner after a grand tour of this brand new hotel.

Check in is smooth but I barely notice because my senses are captured by elegant and textured surroundings. Whoever designed and decorated this place has a brilliant eye, knew intimately how to seduce with sumptuous luxury and bespoke design. Our host is a man more handsome than Richard Gere- Victor. Victor, Victor, Victor. I would have followed Victor anywhere and I did, to the rich smelling spa, to the lounge that had a ship’s prow above, to the infinity pool that had a peek a boo zone to the ocean,  and to Peacock Alley of course! Peacock Alley is a flagship icon in every Waldorf Astoria. It was christened that because at the original Waldorf in NY, the ‘peacocks’ would be out every night in their finery. I notice businessmen, women who could be models and of course, the Europeans who have a nose for locating the latest jet setter spots. I am there following Victor until back in the lobby, we are told to retreat, refresh and reconvene for dinner. Sushi virgins squirmed while I tried to figure out the button system in the elevator. Found my floor, found paradise.

Cosmoplitan and brand spanking new, the Waldorf Astoria Panama City is a stunner!
Cosmopolitan and brand spanking new, the Waldorf Astoria Panama City is a stunner!

Take me back, please take me back; the gold carpet, the white leather furniture, the view across a city twinkling with lights, the marble shower and of course the Waldorf Astoria robe. Did I mention the bed? I never sleep the night before a trip so the bed is screaming my name, but not as loud as my stomach is screaming “Ginger”. I jump into the shower, get myself ready and find the table segregated by sushi enthusiasts and sushi virgins. I straddled the group but am definitely of the sushi enthusiast bent.

Victor is there at the head of the table, elegant, gorgeous and informative of everything Panama. He has attended college in the US but is a bona fide Panamanian with a lot of knowledge, wine and sushi to share. As the wine flows, he relays the seriousness of the robust development Panama is experiencing. Everyone wants to be in Panama, part of the action and reaping the rewards of doing business there.

Ocean view suite at the Waldorf Astoria Panama City.
Ocean view suite at the Waldorf Astoria Panama City.

The hotel we are in is new build, nine months old. The movie “Steel Fist” is being filmed in Panama and yes, Usher is staying here tonight, Robert DeNiro arriving for the weekend. Nicholas Cage is a common sight on the streets and well, why would you want to be anywhere else?

Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, the sushi virgins have withered at the sight of a beautiful sushi tray set before them. Being good sports, they all decide that it is now or never and before it’s all over, that end of the table has out consumed us, the ladies brimming with compliments and surprise at how good it all is! Success! Travel does change people, even sushi virgins. The group sated, the wine glasses empty, the stories told, it is time to head into our suites to experience the magic of sleeping in the same building as Usher. Fond thanks expressed to Victor, I once again find the elevator to try to figure out the button system. Not bad this time because all I have to really know is floor twelve. Tomorrow we were going to a part of the city that is hundreds of years old to see the Golden Altar. I am nothing if not a history buff, so this excites me beyond words. Give me cobblestone streets, crumbling buildings, tales of piracy and tragedy and I am mesmerized.

The hotel has everything an agent from the Midwest could want- great views, plush furnishings, marble floors in the bathroom and a one demi tasse coffee maker hidden discreetly in the cabinet. Okay, I confess, I never figure out how to use it. I am technologically challenged, but this is the first time a fancy European coffee maker got the best of me. I didn’t want to admit that. Being coffeeless as I prepare for the day just makes me want to get going sooner. The fantastic buffet downstairs is a welcome sight, but not as welcome as the stiff brew of Panamanian coffee. Oh yum, it is good. I always enjoy the little interesting foods of other cultures and the buffet includes tiny glass ‘cocktails’ of fruit that  unrecognizable but so tasty. And plantains of course, for every meal.

A renewal of beauty is underway on the Casco Viejo.
A renewal of beauty is underway on the Casco Viejo.

Then into the heat and onto the bus with Violeta who was takes us into Casco Viejo or old town. This is where the fervent Panamanians moved the city after the pirate, oh excuse me I meant buccaneer, Henry Morgan sacked the city in the 1600s. This was a protected peninsula and so the city moved here.

For this, the pirate Henry Morgan sacked another part of the city. Iglesia San Jose and the GOLDEN ALTAR!
For this, the pirate Henry Morgan sacked another part of the city. Iglesias San Jose and the GOLDEN ALTAR!

But back to Casco Viejo. Oh the beauty, the architecture, the history, the people on the streets. Of course, a visit to the very important Cathedral Plaza is one of the stops. It was here that the canal offices were located, that the successes of the French were celebrated and then their failures were felt. It was here that the news arrived on a regular basis of the deaths from yellow fever and malaria.

And it was here where the two most important institutions held sway, the church and the government. I can’t describe the beauty of the two spires that had inlaid abalone shells; the sharp dichotomy of the tree growing out of the gutter and the obvious remnants of squatters. Old town is experiencing a revival and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but 15 years ago, it was a decaying remnant filled with the underbelly of a society that chose the far off peninsula because it was quite clearly off the radar. Crime and despair ruled until once again, Panamanian pride swelled and purposeful reclamation of this gem began. Our stop there ends with the plaza where busts of de Lessups and other notables in the French debacle period stand guard over the old dungeons. The initial French canal company had high hopes and threw money, men and equipment at a project they had no realistic grasp on.

Plaza Independencia, where the lilt of Panmanian history whispers true tales in your hear, just listen. Or you can listen to Violeta, the fabulous tour guide!
Plaza Independencia, where the lilt of Panamanian history whispers true tales in your hear, just listen. Or you can listen to Violeta, the fabulous tour guide!

The outcome was many lives, fortunes and reputations lost. In fact, the French government truly toppled a midst the canal’s failure and then what happened? Of course, the Americans stepped in. But that is a story for a different day or paragraph.

The striking thing about this area is that it is so popular! Groups of school children in uniforms are touring on the same day we are. Their obvious interest is explained by Violeta as partly due to the their eagerness for learning but also because it is November, the month of liberation from serial foreign rule. Their voices ring clear and the usual mischief is afoot until they line up to enter a building. Then it is all business and these little Panamanians are heading into their future with a great curiosity about their past.

A stroll through the historic streets, we locate our coach and off we go, though I feel a wrenching away of something near and dear to my heart- deep history, incredible vistas and a revival that bows to a sweeping past as it shapes the future. I have never seen a more diverse culture, history or economy up close and personal.


amador causway
The Amador Causeway was originally four smallish islands, but having been edified using rocks excavated from Culebra Cut and Gaillard Cut during the excavation of the Panama Canal, it is now a posh shopping area where sleek yachts moor. This picture was taken looking back toward the city.

Soon on to the next great thing, we head across the Amador Causeway, a narrow land mass to the marina area where snazzy little tourist shops overlook a marina with sleek yachts. Across the bay, high-rises loom. This stop has the one thing I will take home as a personal treasure, the book about the building of the Panama Canal by David McCullough. Having read some at home now, it is a long and droning on book, not because it is a boring story, but because so very much happened and it took so very long for it to happen and still isn’t finished.

The Panama Canal – legendary failure, incomprehensible opportunity; indeed, the little canal that could and does. The neighborhood approaching is once again, steeped in history. A winding road twists up the drive delivering us to a world-class visitor center at the Milaflores Locks. Museum, theater, opportunity to be a virtual canal captain, but most incredibly- the viewing decks overlooking the canal. We step inside to see the exhibit that shows the mechanics of it, but looking down on the canal, its countenance defies its relevance. It looks tiny, humble, insignificant. If a person were to stumble across it, it would hardly evoke mention. But with the knowledge of its progenitor and its importance to the world, the deep welling of its importance cannot be expressed. Here worlds collide.

The thin swath of muddy water that moves the economies of the word. The Panama Canal!
The thin swath of muddy water that moves the economies of the world – the Panama Canal!

A Mercedes Benz freighter is slipping away when we hit the deck. Here is the narrow, the locks that lift the vast ships up to the next level. Some pay a small fortune, like the Princess cruise ship “Pearl”- $468,000 to pass through. The wonder of it all as history, economics, politics, all converge in the narrow channel. I can barely stand to leave, but we must head then to the ocean! We steer toward an area called Buenaventura.

We travel across the Bridge of the Americas, covering the entrance to the canal. The road we take is a modern highway through hills and it is raining. The tropical jungle outside the bus window has rivulets of mud water rushing to lower levels and leaves that shake ferociously as the rain splats on their broad leaves. We go up and down and all around on this road until suddenly, we exit the mountain pass and we can see for miles. Emerald green peaks with nothing on them, just rising up to meet the hazy sky. As the road curves down we see fields with cows, small settlements and fabulously decorated graveyards. People walk along the road, even though it is a four lane highway.

We stop at a roadside market to use the restroom because some of the ladies on the bus are certain a day of touring without adult beverages just wouldn’t be right. The market has an odd mix of American colas and a lot of deep-fried foods- cheese and chicken and other things that don’t tempt me at all. What does catch my eye is a little stand-off the main building with seashells and carvings and hammocks. The lady inside never greets me or meets my eye as her husband watches me suspiciously. I feel guilty for being there and wonder why.

Yes I eat ceviche, squid and all. Try it! So fresh and healthy!
Yes I eat ceviche, squid and all. Try it! So fresh and healthy!

After a trip to the surprisingly modern bano, I head back to the bus and we go on. Another stop in San Carlos gives us the chance to visit a local grocery store- one of my favorite things to do anywhere I travel. It is interesting, many of the same products we use but in different trappings. I see nothing really unusual here which surprises me. We load back on the bus and grind through the sunshine and oppressive humidity and end up in an area that is remote, elegant and obviously very posh. I am told Shakira has a home here and that celebrities really do hide here in plain site.

The open air lobby of the JW Marriot is set in a building of impressive colonial architecture. Outside, a chapel and the largest Coturu tree I’ve ever seen (okay, the only one I knowingly have ever seen) stands overlooking a fabulous plaza area and the spa.

Immense Coturu tree in the courtyard area of the JW Marriott, Buenaventura. Their elegant spa is named after this tree and its healing properties.
Immense Coturu tree in the courtyard area of the JW Marriott, Buenaventura. Their elegant spa is named after this tree and its healing properties.

A host as handsome as Victor greets us after we are given wet towels and a cooling beverage. Everything about this place screams understated elegance. It is incredible and after making my way to my room, I am again overwhelmed by the opulence and attention to detail. I believe that the Waldorf and now this property are two of the finest resorts I’ve ever stayed in.

Super plush accomodations at the JW Marriott and by then, I was exhausted and grateful for the comfort!
Super plush accommodations at the JW Marriott and by then, I was exhausted and grateful for the comfort!

The room is furnished in colonial decor and the balcony overlooks the lagoon and pool. The lagoon has vacation homes, rentals and owned units but everything is so calm. It is a world away from the hustle of Panama City. It is the break one rushes to and then folds willingly into- the embrace of solitude, peace and relaxation. But wait, we have a site inspection to do.

Suite after suite of refined luxury; all amenities are of the highest quality. The  dining venues, the golf course and steak house overlooking the greens, the spa, the chapel and yes, the quiet. Even when a wedding takes place the following morning, it is all very subdued and elegant.

Dinner that night is in a private over the water palapa. Choices are again excellent with a focus on local seafood and vegetables. Could it be any more perfect? Yes, if paired with exquisite wine! However, with a full day of resort touring the following morning, off to bed it is. The bed is heavenly, especially after a great Jacuzzi bath in the oversized tub. With some famous pillows wrapped around my sleepy little head, I slip into restful slumber.

The morning sun is bright, languid and after a stolen cup of coffee on the balcony at dawn, I make my way down to the sumptuous buffet breakfast.

The view from my balcony in the thin, dense morning Panama sunrise.
The view from my balcony in the thin, dense morning Panama sunrise.

Honestly, it is nice to see how healthy the food choices have been all along. This is no different and if there’s something better than fresh squeezed orange juice and yogurt on a sun drenched patio with a weird hidden bird squawking in the palm tree, I don’t know what it would be.  Back on the bus, we visit a couple of Wyndham resorts- Tryp Playa Coronado and Wyndham Playa Blanca Grand and I get the feel of what the all inclusives have to offer in the region. They are very nice, with gracious English-speaking staff and managers that want to engage you in their product. The variety of resorts is interesting, from the small high-rise perched over a postage size stamp beach to the sprawling mega resort with a thrumming night life. That evening we visit the sprawling Royal Decameron, a place where everyone can find a perfect spot, a favorite meal, a special meal or activity. A large resort on a great beach filled with people from all over the world. This is a very good way to end a day of discovering what the beach life in Panama can be like for clients.

I return to write this weeks later, realize it has been two months to the day since I returned from Panama. I have endured bone chilling, soul stealing ice storms, too many weeks of holiday music and the depressing look of my home after lights have been packed away. Yet I am burning with a fever for one thing still- Panama. I am obsessed. I read their online newspapers. I Facebook chat with Violeta. I try to steer every one of my clients there and have one ready to book her flights now.

Moliere and Rossini grace the facade of the National Opera House in Casco Viejo. This area has experienced an incredible revival after being designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Moliere and Rossini grace the facade of the National Opera House in Casco Viejo. This area has experienced an incredible revival after being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I watch You Tube videos and revisit scenes in my mind: passing an indigenous couple who are walking on a street, their colorful clothes and especially the beads adorning her calves- her face obscured by her scarf, agonize over the missed opportunity to buy a painted feather on the terrace overlooking the mud flats at low tide, the ragged laundry hanging on the pied a terre next to the refurbished opera house and of course, the overwhelming feeling in the National Plaza as I was being rushed back onto the bus- that I was being torn away from something important, missing something I wouldn’t be able to capture again.

Other images capture my memory and linger- the drive past the fishing village on the mud flats and the inner city slums where we are told the residents are being bought out to move on to a better life. High rise hotels will be built after their homes are demolished and transplanted into the suburbs. The crazy guy in the parking lot at the local market we stop at. He wavers between being a parking lot attendant and  wants to sell something to someone, but no one is there. Panama’s version of the burbs, tract housing with large plastic tanks on rooftops to capture rainfall. The menacing presence of police after we have sat in backed up traffic. When the bottle neck breaks free, we are told a shooting had taken place and innocent people related to someone high in the government were killed, young women with bright futures.

One overriding element is the languid, tropical air, breathing into your lungs and pulsing with a life that seems just under the surface. The people of this country are so passionate that the running joke is that the only thing they take seriously is celebrating. Their holiday celebrations and their independence anniversaries and their religious holidays, all of them are woven tightly into how everything else works. They are not peripheral and as on Sundays, everything shuts down on holidays and people celebrate and eat and dance and oh how they love a parade!

I scan today’s news and see where Spain is rough housing about the canal expansion, workers are threatening to stage a slow down and I am happy. The vibrant tumultuous rhythm of life is tumbling along in a country where the world is constantly recreating itself. The modern world and the ancient world exist side by side. Mega ocean liners sail past regions that can only be reached by boat and indigenous people protect their lands without breach. The Trump Tower casts a shadow on fishing boats that return to the slums in the mud flights at high tide. And visitors to this place leave never to be the same again. Captive to Panama, I can make it through one more ice storm because in my future, there is Panama.

I truly did not want to return home. I knew what was waiting for me- winter, work and whining. I arrived back after midnight and was so tired driving home I was relieved to make it. It isn’t hard for me to move on after traveling, to leave a place when I’m not captured by it. By Panama, I am captivated.  Captivated captive longing to return; painted feather, marble statue, city skyline, poky over ripe mountains, noisy hidden bird, canal. Captive.