Monthly Archives: October 2014

Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 3)

I’ve taken you to Panama City and through the Panama Canal … now it’s time to venture into the jungle! Our destination: the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River.

Eric and I paid close attention to reviews and recommendations about traveling into the rainforest area. Although malaria and Dengue fever are no longer so common, it’s still possible to contract them from mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes were guaranteed. We bought Bugs-Away insect repellant clothing from Ex Officio, sprayed other clothing with Sawyer permethrin spray, and slathered on the 30% DEET (opting for possible neurological damage over malaria). We were nothing if not prepared.

The unassuming entrance to Gamboa …

Entrance sign to Gamboa

… did nothing to prepare us for the stunning tropical beauty of this resort.

view from Gamboa lobby

Gamboa pool and main building

Gamboa pool

Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Photo – Gamboa Rainforest Resort

A room like this really says, “Welcome to the jungle.”

room in Gamboa resort

How about this blue-and-green view from our balcony? I tried the hammock, but my bad back said, “uh … nope … help.”

Gamboa balcony with hammock

Pool view from our balcony

The following morning we boarded small boats for a cruise on Gatun Lake. Stepping out of the bus, I felt like someone had thrown a hot, wet, wool blanket over me. The heat was suffocating, especially when wearing a life-preserver … but once the boats got underway the breeze was great. We passed under this 100-year-old bridge over the mouth of the Chagres River, which we’d crossed the day before. A little rickety, but still serviceable.

Gatun Lake cruise and Chagres Bridge

For part of the trip, our tiny boat was out in the shipping lanes with the big boys. Add this to our canal cruise, and we cruised a total of about two-thirds of the Panama Canal.

Ship in Panama Canal

In the quiet reaches of the lake, we felt like we were on the Disneyland Jungle Cruise. What, no hippos?

VIew from the boat

We pulled up close to this small island. The foliage was so thick, it seemed impenetrable. Can you imagine hacking a path through this jungle? Just before you caught yellow fever and died?

thick foliage on jungle island

Gatun Lake cruise boat

In mere seconds, capuchin monkeys appeared. They obviously know that these boats full of sweating gawkers bring treats. A couple of them were all over the boat. I don’t trust monkeys—they’re skittery and are known to bite (we were warned not to interact with them)—but these guys sure were cute, and they clearly delighted everyone.

Capuchin monkey

Another island offered up tiny Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys, and a surprise visitor: a white-nosed coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon).

Geoffroy's tamarin monkey


The next day the same boats transported us a short distance upriver to an Embera Indian village, one of several in the area. This particular village makes a good living off of resort visitors, thus helping to support their greater community. (About 80,000 Embera live in Panama and Colombia. Many have integrated into cities.)

Embera huts

When the tourists come calling, the villagers dress in traditional garb … but one gets the impression they dispense with some of that when no one is around. The kids get their primary education locally, but those who want to graduate high school have to commute four hours round trip by boat and bus to Panama City (and of course, they wear western clothing for that). Some go on to college in Mexico or the US and return to their tribe to work in conservation (their villages are in a national park). Many Embera are bilingual, speaking their native language and Spanish.

Embera tribe

We were treated to dancing and explanations of Embera crafts and customs, then we were free to wander part of the village, get temporary “tattoos” of a plant-based concoction with natural insect-repellant properties, and purchase some souvenirs made by the local families. Eric’s favorite story is how the tattoo painter copied an image from a tourist’s cell phone, and when the display timed out, she knew exactly what to do to get it back. They may live a simple, traditional tribal life, but they know what’s up.

woman painting a desing on leg

The Embera excel at carving wood and tagua nuts (also called vegetable ivory), and weaving colorful baskets from palm fiber. Tagua nuts are soft when first opened, but cure into an extremely hard and smooth substance that takes colored dye beautifully. I purchased a little iguana and a small woven plate for the kitchen wall, and Eric bought a tagua tortuga, which now hangs from my car’s mirror. (Next to them is an uncarved tagua nut.)

tagua nut carvings

palm basket

Later, we had lunch on a deck over the Chagres River, where we had a great view of more wildlife. Can you pick out the two birds in the center of this photo?

two birds

I couldn’t get a clear shot of this turtle. It was about a foot long, swimming with several buddies.


Can an iguana be handsome? This one was!


How many iguanas can you find in this photo?

find the iguanas

Hint: There are four! Click the photo to enlarge.

4 iguanas

I thought I could cover the rest of our trip in this post, but it’s getting too long. Next time, I’ll take you out to the beach for some R&R. Then, maybe I’ll get back to blogging about our bungalow projects. (Click the iguana to see detail.)

iguana carved from tagua nut



Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 2)

Panama City

Panama City’s skyline is something to behold—as wide and tall and magnificent as Chicago’s.

Panama City skyline

Our first foray into town (the one that was cut short by a torrential downpour) made one thing clear: This city is a study in economic contrasts. There’s a lot of money here  … and a lot of poverty right alongside. A few blocks from our hotel rose the financial district, with some of the swankiest skyscrapers you’ll see anywhere. Can you guess which one is affectionately known as the Screw?

Panama City financial district

A glance in the other direction revealed this urban drainage ditch. I would have to pay good money to buy these exotic plants, but in Panama they grow in the gutter like weeds. A mini-jungle right downtown.

tropical drainage ditch

We stayed a total of four nights at a Marriott in Panama City, next to the Multiplaza Pacific Mall, the most expensive mall in Central America. One of the first things I noticed was that all the billboards hawking luxury goods were in English. And many of them were mounted on tenements that housed people who would never be able to afford what was being advertised.

billboard on tenement building

The “haves” live in impossibly tall highrise condominium towers with views of the Gulf. (This was one of my favorite downtown buildings.)

colorful condo tower

The “have-nots” live here … but they also live colorfully! There was something fascinating about these laundry-festooned apartments. I would have loved to peek inside to see how the average folks live. The median annual income in Panama is $15,000.

Panama CIty tenement

purple tenement

How many satellite dishes can you count?

Panama City tenement 3

But there was much more to see … so we hopped aboard the blissfully air-conditioned motor coach that would tote us around the country for the next seven days.

our tour bus

Another contrast: The city has created a metro bus system that’s threatening to put the traditional Diablo Rojo, or Red Devil, buses, out of business. These former American school buses are privately owned and riotously decorated, blaring salsa music and twinkling with Christmas lights for nighttime visibility. We saw dozens of them racing around town and sometimes clogging the highways, endangering pedestrians. We were advised not to ride them if we wanted to get somewhere in one piece (their safety record is not the best) … but they sure looked fun. Not air-conditioned, unfortunately … but fun.

Painted Red Devil bus

On the tour’s first morning, we were transported to Panama Viejo (old Panama), where it all began in 1519. The original settlement looked like this until it was burned and ransacked by notorious buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1671. Today, the ruins are a World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination. We walked through a small museum before we explored the ruins.

model of old Panama City

Beautiful pottery and tile designs.

old Panama pottery bowl with blue pattern

old Panama tile design

We meandered around Panama Viejo for an hour. These red barriers looked like modern sculpture against the ancient stonework.

red barriers and ruins

The red brick you see in the ruins is new—it supports the original structure to keep it from collapsing.

stonework in Panama Viejo

I could almost imagine we had stumbled upon undiscovered ruins in the jungle …

Panama Viejo ruins

But the city wasn’t far away. The residents of this highrise can see where their ancestors once lived.

Panama Viejo with highrise

This Panama tree (Sterculia apetala, related to cacao ) is the national tree. “Panama” comes from an indigenous word meaning “abundance of butterflies and fish.” This tree is the guardian of butterflies and fish.

Panama tree

After the original town was burned, the colony moved a few miles closer to present-day Panama City. Now this area is known as Casco Viejo, or Old Town, and it’s also a World Heritage Site. It’s sometimes called the French Quarter because it bears the influence of the French, who were attempting to build the canal in the 1800s. Doesn’t it remind you of New Orleans?

Old town Panama

pink house with balcony

Although most of the neighborhood is in serious disrepair, restoration has begun. Panama has only had full operational ownership of the canal since Dec. 31, 1999. Now, money is flowing into the country … but improvements don’t happen overnight. Carlos, our guide, enumerated the improvements made under the previous Martinelli administration (infrastructure, higher minimum wage, reduced unemployment, and free medical care), but, although he couldn’t express his personal opinion, we could infer that he was skeptical about the present Varela administration’s intentions. I noticed that progress at some new construction sites seemed to have stopped, and I wondered if they’d been abandoned because of lack of funding.

However, we saw lots of evidence of restoration in Casco Viejo, such as this building. The front wall shows promise, but the interior still needs a little upgrade.

Casco Viejo exterior restoration

Casco Viejo balcony

Restoration had recently begun on this building in the cathedral square, “Plaza Mayor, Mercado Artesania Catedral.” This will be a lovely neighborhood in a few years.

restoration started on old building

Casco Viejo cathedral


Casco Viejo streetscape

Casco Viejo church

Back on the bus riding through town, we passed several open-air barbershops. Life is lived differently in the tropics! (It’s hard to take decent photos through a bus window.)

open-air barbershop

Panama City was fascinating … but we had lots more to cover. In part 3, I’ll take you into the jungle … and out to the beach.

Meanwhile … Happy Halloween!

ritual burial skeletons




Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 1)

Our bungalow was built in 1913 … so was the Woolworth building in New York City … so was this little building.

white building at Gatun Locks

That’s right, folks, to further stall progress on the side porch project, we fled the country for a week’s tour of Panama! The lengths to which we’ll go to avoid work!

I admit, I embarked on this adventure with considerable trepidation. For starters, I’m just not good with extreme heat and humidity. If you ask Eric, he’ll tell you I’m not even good with the slightest heat and humidity. For the bitchiness he was about to encounter, I apologized profusely in advance. To add to my anxiety, two days before taking off, my chiropractor diagnosed me with a herniated disc, which explained the debilitating back and hip pain I’ve been dealing with all summer. Not the kind of baggage I wanted to take on vacation with me … but we were going even if Eric had to strap me to a gurney, so I had to suck it up.

We exited the terminal at Panama City’s Tocumen Airport into air so hot and thick it was like trying to breathe under bathwater. When we hopped out of the air-conditioned taxi at our hotel, our glasses fogged up. Whoa—welcome to the tropics! The next morning we took a short walk in town. This is what happened. No coat, no umbrella. It rains fast and hard in Panama.

Panama City street in downpour

But, on with the tour. In part 1 of our adventure, I’ll tell you about our experiences on the Panama Canal. Part 2 will cover the rest of our visit—the rainforest and the Pacific coast.

First, a little background

The French began building the Panama Canal in the 1880s, thinking it would be possible to build a sea-level canal across the isthmus. However, they lacked the engineering expertise to make it work … and no one knew then that mosquitoes spread malaria and yellow fever. Over 22,000 people died from diseases and accidents. The United States bought out the French in 1904, and with more efficient steam shovels and better medical knowledge, in 10 years they had blasted a narrow channel through the mountains and completed a system of locks that raises ships up 85 feet when they enter the canal, and lowers them back down again at the other end.

As luck would have it, we were visiting the canal during its 100th anniversary of operation, which made our visit extra-special.

Panama canal crosssections

map of Panama Canal

Most people think the canal runs east-to-west, but it actually runs northwest (the Atlantic side) to southeast (the Pacific). The canal is 48 miles long, and because of the time required to get through all six lock chambers, a ship can take an entire 24 hours sailing from one end to the other. The Culebra Cut goes through a small mountain range. There, the canal is so narrow that only one ship can pass at a time. Therefore, ships travel  in one direction for several hours, then traffic reverses to the other direction.

Gatun Locks

The observation platform at the Gatun Locks put us so close to the action, we could almost reach out and touch the ships. To our left, the MSC Manu had just entered the closer third chamber on her way into Gatun Lake. To our right, another enormous container ship occupied the far chamber of the second set of locks … and an oil tanker was about to enter the near first chamber. Action is not fast. We had to be patient.

Container ship MCS Manu

container ship in Gatun Locks

view of Gatun Locks

The ships move through the locks under their own power. Small but mighty electric locomotives, called “mules,” keep cables taut to the fore and aft of each ship to prevent the ship from hitting the sides of the locks (the mules don’t pull or push the ships forward). “Panamax” ships are built to the largest dimensions possible to fit through the locks, with only two feet to spare on each side.

electric locomotive "mule"

The water in the third chamber slowly rose, and soon we were looking up at the MSC Manu instead of down.

MSC Manu lifted in lock

You can see the size of the gates compared to the man crossing them, and the difference in water level between the second (right) and third (left) chambers.

Gatun Lock gates between second and third chamber

The MCS Manu fired up her engines …

MSC Manu engines starting

The far gates opened, and she slipped into Gatun Lake, heading south toward the Pacific Ocean.

MSC Manu leaving Gatun Locks

Our canal transit

I could have watched the action at the locks all day … but a bigger adventure was still to come—our own transit of the Panama Canal. I was dismayed when Carlos, our tour guide, said that we’d have to leave our hotel at 5:15 AM to ensure we’d make our departure time. The Panama Canal Authority tells each boat when it’s scheduled, and you go when you’re told, period. So we went. We boarded a small passenger vessel, the Tuira II, with several other tour groups. Note the ominous skies. We saw a lot more clouds than sun in Panama, which was just fine with me. Besides, it’s all that rain that keeps the canal operating.

Tuira II passenger vessel

Our cruise started from the Pacific side. Out in the Gulf of Panama, ships waited their turn. Some wait for days for a slot in the schedule.

three ships in rainstorm

We sailed past the Biodiversity Museum (a Frank Gehry design, scheduled to open next year), a colorful splash against the Panama City skyline …

Frank Gehry design Biodiversity Museum

And passed under the Bridge of the Americas.

Bridge of the Americas

Ahead lay the Miraflores Locks, which step up two chambers to Miraflores Lake. Our sailing partner in the lock next door was the Island Princess. Holy cow! Cruise ships look extra enormous when viewed from a few feet away at the waterline!

Island Princess at Miraflores Locks

What is it about humans that makes us want wave at each other as if we haven’t seen other humans in weeks? We waved like maniacs. If we’d been dogs, the barking would have been deafening.

Island Princess balconies

Island Princess passengers

It was pretty awesome to think that the lock’s 50-ft thick walls and gates are about the same age as our house. They have a wonderful mossy patina. Legend  has it (there’s always a legend, wherever you go) that if lovers simultaneously touch the wall and kiss, their love will endure forever. Yes, of course we did it!!

greenish concrete lock wall

lock drainage system

Going through the locks took time, and a lot of water … and lots of waiting down in an airless hole … but then suddenly the water started boiling around us, and our boat rose to ground level—and a welcome breeze.

water entering lock chamberDIGITAL CAMERA

The gates opened, and we were on our way to the next chamber. Rinse and repeat.

Lock gates opening

B’bye, Princess! See ya later!

leaving Miraflores Locks

We crossed Miraflores Lake with the spectacular Centenario Bridge before us.

Centenario Bridge

Cute new tug boats chugged along everywhere, ready to guide ships through the waterways to the next locks.

leaving Miraflores Locks

Just past the Centenario Bridge we sailed through the Culebra Cut, with its terraced walls. This great excavation has never achieved an angle of repose. Every time it rains, more soil and rock slough off into the canal. Dredging is neverending.

Closeup of Centenario Bridge

Culebra Cut

Storm’s a-comin’.

tugboats in the mist

Just before landing at Gamboa, we passed this guy on the shore. Yes, that’s a real crocodile—about 15 feet long!

Crocodile on the shore

Our total transit covered about half of the canal. No one wanted it to be over. But it did come to an end, and so has this long post. Thanks for cruising the Panama Canal with us! See you later, alligator … after while, crocodile!