Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 1

Early in November this year, I turned 70.  My wife Gwen and I have gotten to the point where celebrating birthdays and anniversaries only happens when they end in 0 or 5.  Otherwise, we acknowledge it but don’t do anything special for it.  For this one, we decided that a trip to Panama would be a celebration we both would enjoy.

Our usual method of choice for such trips is Road Scholar, as we enjoy the educational aspect to their tours, they are well-prepared, populated with friendly folk, and we’ve enjoyed them several times in the past.  This one is no exception.

On Sunday, Nov 11, we travelled from Los Angeles Intl. Airport to Miami to Panama City, Panama.  This was a long trip, but comfortable, as the plane rides were more or less on schedule.  We arrived late in the evening, and took a taxi to the Radisson Hotel for a comfortable day on Monday, and then the first meeting with our tour group on Tuesday.

Monday morning, we got our breakfast and began our holiday by studying our surroundings.

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Out on our balcony, we have a clear view of the Panama Canal.  It turns out all of us on the tour have rooms on this side of the hotel, thanks to our tour leaders.  To the left are several ships probably lining up to take their turns to go through the lock systems, headed from Panama City (the Pacific side) to Colon (the Caribbean side).

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To the right, we have a great view of the hotel’s huge pool area with the Panama City auto bridge in the background.  Panama City has grown into a large metropolis, and many of the people who work there live outside the city.  They are building two more bridges to help ease what we are later told is a Los Angeles-size traffic jam every week day.

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We also get our first view of one of the large container ships making its way to the first of the canal’s locks {just beyond the bridge}.  We would learn that this ship, while large, is not the largest now accommodated by the locks.


We took a stroll around the hotel, and came upon this unusual tree.  It’s huge, and its most distinctive feature are the roots that drop from the branches embedding themselves in the ground below to find nutrients and to help hold up the branch.  These are fig trees; we had seen similar ones in Hawaii.

Monday afternoon, we decided to take a taxi into the old town of Panama City (Casco Viejo), even though we knew we would see parts of it again on Tuesday with our tour group.  Mainly we wanted to get an opportunity to try a local restaurant and enjoy the good weather afforded to us.


The taxi driver dropped us at his recommendation for a good place to eat: the Casablanca Cafe, located across from the Bolivar Square.

The paella is tasty with spice, but the fish bits are rubbery and thus unappetizing, unfortunately.  Gwen’s chicken in sauce dish was bland, so this place does not get our recommendation.  As we are at Bolivar Square, however, we decide to take a look around.  Simon Bolivar lived in the early 1800s, and was the most memorable of the political and military leaders in the fight to free the central and south American peoples from domination by Spain.

On the other side of the square, behind the statue, is the Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis.

It is a pretty church, and we enjoyed visiting the sanctuary with the tremendous altar.  Encouraged to continue our self-guided walking tour, we come upon the Plaza Mayor, and to one side is the Cathedral at Old Panama, or the Sacred Heart Cathedral (SpanishCatedral Basílica Santa Maria la Antigua de Panamá).  or the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitan).  It is  currently closed for renovation in anticipation of the Pope’s visit in 2019. IMG_1795-1414.111218The outside is quite spectacular, making us wish we could have seen the inside.  It was built starting in 1688, and finally consecrated in 1796.  Why does it have so many names?  I am not patient enough to wade through the internet references to find the answer.  It probably has something to do with its age, the specific congregation it serves, or perhaps the level within the Catholic hierarchy of the religious leader to whom it serves as home.  Maybe all three.  I did find that roughly 69% of the Panamanian population regard themselves as Catholics, thus explaining the Pope’s pending visit and the number of such churches we have seen in our walk.

We continued our tour, eventually finding ourselves in a park that juts out into the body of water that serves on one side as the entrance to the Canal, and on the other borders downtown Panama City.  This is the Plaza de Francia, with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura as its central building and a giant obelisk as its central attraction.  A stairway winds around the obelisk and up to a walkway above the Cultural Institute, and so I leave Gwen at the bottom of the stairs and climb.  At the top is a view to a highway raised just above the water running all the way around this little peninsula.  Looking to the left, I am treated to a breathtaking view of Panama City’s skyline.


The picture does not do justice to the view, especially the first time I saw it.  The airport is on the other side of the city so we’d been driven through these buildings the night before, but I didn’t realize how spectacular the city’s architecture is until getting this view.  Like any city skyline, the buildings are each distinctive in their own way, but most emphasize the vertical geometry as they reach for the clouds in the sky above.  The one exception in this skyline is the one pointed at by the thick white wall that borders the walkway. IMG_1800-1434.111218Instead of emphasizing the vertical, this one twists as it rises and glows with a curious green color.  2018-11-13 09.06.21-0906.111318-2

This building is the F&F Tower named for the construction company that built it.  Called the Revolutionary Tower on the drawing board, this office building was opened in 2011.   Designed around the themes of a rotating geometry and a prism, it quickly became and remains one of the most iconic buildings in Panama.

Gwen shortly joins me on the walkway, and after we admire the view some more, we continue walking, enjoying the sights, eventually finding a taxi and returning to the hotel.

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