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Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 5

Thursday, Nov. 16 — We’ve traveled on planes, taxis, buses, and boat.  Today we get to add the train.

But before that we took a bus tour of the Colon area, and then headed to the Agua Clara locks.  These are the new locks that run parallel to the Gatun locks for the larger ships.

Rey told us a lot about the Colon area, as he lives here, and has most of his life.  During the period of US control of the Canal, he worked for the US, and lived on the base near our hotel.  We were given the tour on the bus, which also kept us out of the rain.  As part of the transfer to Panamanian control at the end of 1999, the bases were turned over to the Panama Canal Agency.  Much of the housing was sold to private ownership, and while the basic structures are all still quite similar to the eye, many have been improved and maintained.

2018-11-16 12.17.11-1217.111618Our next stop is the Agua Clara locks complex, opened in 2016.  In 2007, the Panama Canal Authority was authorized by popular vote to bring the aging Panama Canal up to a higher capacity.  The vote authorized the building of the wider canal lock structures to allow ships that exceed the old Panamax size vessels into the Gatun Lake and to deepen and widen the lake channels so more traffic could flow more easily.

2018-11-14 13.36.54-2-1336.111418Agua Clara locks on the Caribbean side provide this extra access.  This aerial view of the locks shows clearly one of the obvious improvements over the older locks.  Each lock bay empties its water into three reservoirs, which then are used to fill the bay back up when appropriate.  The older locks on this end get water from Gatun Lake and dump it into Caribbean as they were designed back in the days long before global warming.  The new design diminishes the water necessary to operate the locks.  As with the older locks, there are no pumps, the water is moved strictly with gravity flow from place to place.

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The picture above shows the Gatun Lake side of Agua Clara, coming up to the first gate.  Note in the lower picture that the gates are car-capable-road width, and are pushed across the lock bay using hydraulic pressure rather than the electric cable systems used by the smaller gates in the older locks.

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Above you see the lock bays emptying into the Caribbean, each bay slightly lower as your vision moves from left to right.

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Here can be seen a number of ships that have either just completed the Canal crossing or are waiting for the next opportunity to head for the Pacific side.

2018-11-16 12.25.52-1225.111618After looking around awhile, we headed back to the bus.  When we got there, we discovered that there is a family of howler monkeys in the trees behind where the bus is parked.

2018-11-16 12.28.37-1228.111618.jpgIn the trees could also be seen this vulture, well camouflaged.

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As we drive out toward our next stop, the driver (whose keen eyes provided us the more unique animal sights we saw along the way) caught sight of this sloth and her baby resting themselves.

2018-11-16 12.37.08-2-1237.111618While we are on the animals we saw from the bus, here’s a Coatimundi that was kind enough to pose for pictures.  I’m told this animal is related to the raccoon that we know and periodically see in Michigan.

2018-11-16 13.18.47-1318.111618Next up is our train ride back across the isthmus to Panama City.  I want to compliment our tour guides for their excellent timing on this trip.  Even though we were visiting at the height of the rainy season, we almost never were out in the rain.  As can be seen in many of the pictures, there were often huge cloud formations above us, but to our comfort, when we were outside (like on the boat trip, or walking around old town Panama City), the rain held off.  This comes up now because our train ride back to Panama City finds us happily sitting in the domed car while the rain pelts down.

As with most train rides I’ve been on, this one opens with a view of the not-so-impressive parts of Colon.

2018-11-16 14.18.11-1418.111618This one is in some senses worse than usual, as we are treated to a view of the garbage dump on our way out of Colon.

Most of the trip (total time one and a half hours, compared to the nine hours on the Islamorada), gives us good views of Gatun Lake.

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2018-11-16 14.31.13-1431.111618The clouds break up as we head south (yes, the Canal runs basically north-south as Panama itself can be seen on a map to run basically east-west).

2018-11-16 14.44.31-1444.111618The sun never really comes out from behind the clouds, although we do get some color from the sunset.

When we get to the station on the Panama City side, we are met by our favorite bus and its expert driver.  He uses his considerable skill to take us to our hotel for the night in downtown Panama City.

IMG_1835-2042.111618We have a bit of time to settle in, and then its out onto the terrace looking out on the buildings near by to have our dinner.  It is actually one of the best dinners we have had, and then when we are done eating, Juan Carlos has a surprise for us.  For our entertainment, a group of dancers and musicians perform for us native Panamanian dances in spectacular costumes they have made themselves.

IMG_1858-2049.111618The men in the group wear hats that don’t look like what is considered a Panama hat.  The Panama hat, which is sold by every souvenir store we walked by, has a flat brim all the way around.  The hats these men wear are bent back front and back to be parallel to the rise of the part that fits over the head.  These hats are considered authentic Panamanian hats.  The souvenir Panama hats are modeled after a hat worn by President Teddy Roosevelt when he visited Panama during the building process.  This visit, by the way, was the first foreign visit by a sitting president.

IMG_1865-2055.111618The ladies costumes are quite intricate, as shown by the picture.  These are traditionally made by the dancer herself.

The dancers went through several traditional dances, and then invited a few of the group to join them for the final dance.

IMG_1914-2110.111618After the dancing was completed, Rey, Gabe, and Juan Carlos (l to r) were thanked by all of us for the wonderful job they did throughout the program.

Tomorrow, we go back to the airport for our return to Palm Springs.  The return trip turned out to be a lot longer than it should have been, and we missed our plane from Miami to Palm Springs.  We were rebooked on the next flight to Palm Springs, but instead of a comfortable trip on a 777, we had to settle for an uncomfortable one on a 737.  Oh, well, the visit was fun, and quite a very well done tour!




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Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 4

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 — A leisurely trip through the Panama Canal on the good ship Islamorada.

2018-11-13 09.50.12-0950.111318The Islamorada now takes tourists through the Panama Canal, but it has quite a history.  It was built in 1912, and purchased by Al Capone in 1919.  He used it as a “rum-runner”, bringing then-illegal booze to the US from the Caribbean.  It was eventually confiscated by the US government, and served as a mine-sweeper during WW II.

So we are off.  Our journey begins in familiar territory, going down the channel we overlooked in our hotel room, now following the course of the large ships we have seen.  On our right, beyond the pelicans, is the Panama City skyline.

Coming up to us is a small boat which will deliver our pilot to us.

2018-11-15 04.52.38-0452.111518He will guide us through the Canal, as he and fellow pilots do for all the ships in the Canal.

We go under the Bridge of the Americas.  Off to the right, we notice that there is enough traffic on the Canal to make billboards a creditable source of advertising.

2018-11-15 05.14.48-0514.111518Beyond the bridge, there are ships being loaded with containers.  This port area is a large storage and redistribution yard where containers can be left off, and others going to the ports where a ship is heading added on.  These large ships are thus able to better maximize the value of their trips.

Low and behold, we are headed toward the first lock!  Come to find out we have been given permission to enter the gate, and proceed without any other ships in the lock with us — a very rare opportunity.

Very soon we are in the lock bay, with a rope tying us to the side to keep us from drifting too much.  The rear gate is closed, but for some reason it takes awhile for the water to start to lift us up.  The birds watch for fish.

Once the water has gotten us to the right level, the gate in front of us opens, and into the next bay we go.

That bay brings us up to the level of Miraflores Lake for our brief trip across to the last step up at the Pedro Miguel Locks.

At Pedro Miguel Locks, we will be put into a bay with a tug boat and a large tanker.

We are tied to the tug boat, and come extremely close to the back end of the tanker.

The bay fills from the bottom through several ports that are opened together to bring the boats up evenly without much motion front to back or side to side.

2018-11-15 07.06.50-0706.111518Thus the mules engines, tied to the larger vessels, have a steady change as the ships rise relative to the position of the mule on the side of the lock bay.

Now we are at the height of the Gatun Lake and are ready to enter the Calibra Cut area.  The tanker leaves, followed shortly by the tug.  The tug pulls up behind the tanker, and it seems as though it will end up pushing it.  But no, it ties on just behind the tanker.

We are told that the tug boat in that position serves as a large rudder for the boat, helping it to steer through the channel.  Looking back, I notice that the large container ship we saw at the entrance to the Miraflores Locks (the pink one) is coming toward us.  It came through the newer locks.

We enter the Culebra Cut.  Work is ongoing here to widen the channel through here.  The big challenge is the landslides that bring dirt and rocks back into the channel.  They have developed two obvious tricks to counteract this movement.  The first is the terracing evident all along the channel.

2018-11-15 07.37.40-0737.111518The second are the rectangular geometry of pads on the higher vertical surfaces drilled into the sides to hold the earth in place.

Gatun Lake spreads out before us, and we have a nice leisurely cruise through it, taking in the scenery.  Making the trip are a number of large ships.

The large cruise liner is the first we’ve seen.  We’re told that due to flooding in Colon, our destination on the Caribbean, it had some trouble getting into the Canal, so it will have a foreshortened cruise.  It is in the process of turning around and we will see it in Gatun Locks.

2018-11-15 11.28.21-1128.111518Gatun Locks are the next stop.  This is the three-step down part of the process as we go from the height of Gatun Lake back to sea level.

Sharing our bay is another large tanker.  For some reason in the lock bays where the height is lowered, smaller vessels go in first, and the larger tanker second. The tanker steams up behind us.  It doesn’t come fast, but it does bring scary images to mind as it moves up toward us.  Also sharing our bay is another tourist vessel, the Discovery.  It is smaller in length than our boat, but large enough to have a group of perhaps 20 people on board.

2018-11-15 11.50.56-1150.111518The Gerakas, the ship we accompanied at the Pedro Miguel Lock bay is in the bay beside us here.  It sits very high in the water compared to the ship coming up behind us, clearly empty of cargo.

We go through the process of lowering to the next level and then moving to the next bay in sequence, and then we are on our way to Colon.  The Discovery hurries on ahead of us.

2018-11-15 12.59.48-1259.111518It seems we have to wait for a spot to dock, so we spend quite a bit of time motoring around the harbor, first going by some interesting ships, then watching the cruise liner dock, and finally we get our chance.

The blue ship with the white top is a car carrier.  Tied up next to it is a tanker which says its cargo is liquified petroleum gas.  The ships off to our left side are smaller freight vessels. We haven’t seen any of these smaller vessels during our trip through the Canal, and I wonder if these are just used to haul containers around the distribution yard here.  The storage and distribution center here is at least as large as the one on the Miraflores end of the Canal.

Our trip through the canal has taken nine hours by the time we dock.  The plan allows for 12 to 13 hours, so our trip has been swift.

After landing, we find our bus, and it takes us through the town of Colon and to our hotel.  Tomorrow we will do some touring around, and get on board a train to take us back to Panama City.

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Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 3

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 — a long day in a bus.  Our trip today is ultimately to the first of the locks, Miraflores.  However, before we get there, we have some other places to visit.  Once on the bus, we head over the Bridge of the Americas, our first such opportunity.  Note the Biodiversity Museum on the left hand side.

IMG_2018Once we are over, we head into Panama City for a short shopping stop.  On the way, we pass below the terrace we stood on yesterday at the Panama Canal Agency’s headquarters.2018-11-14 06.26.47-2-0626.111418

The store, called Rey, is huge;  certainly larger than any market I’ve been in lately.  It has a profusion of products, many of them US-sourced.

Perhaps the best comparison is Costco, or Sam’s Club, although the ones in Michigan do not compare in size to this store.

Time for an economics lesson: living accommodations.  In Panama City, many of the buildings that are viewed as part of the skyline are actually high-rise apartment buildings.  Out here on the edge of the city, there are many apartment buildings, just not so high. 2018-11-14 07.23.57-0723.111418Once out a bit further, the land use is a little different.  Juan Carlos tells us that many of the small houses built on the cleared land are squatters — people who put up shacks and make a home for themselves.

Once they have been there for awhile, they get together with their neighbors and demand city-like services: connection to electricity, water, sewer, garbage collection and so on.

Once those things are in place, they then claim the land they occupy, and they have successfully established ownership rights. 2018-11-14 07.46.32-0746.111418The houses we see along the way are in various stages in this process.  The farther away from Panama City, it seemed, the earlier in this process the buildings seem to be.

Our bus continues on, and our next destination is Madden Dam.  This dam, completed in 1935 was built to prevent the occasionally torrential flow of the once wild Chagres River from interfering with the navigational route for the ships through Gatun Lake and to control the level of water in that lake during the dry season. Water from the dam’s reservoir is also used to generate hydroelectric power and to supply Panama City with fresh water. 2018-11-14 08.04.47-0804.111418

2018-11-14 08.22.42-0822.111418Whenever we stopped along the way, we were visited by the police.  There is only one police agency in Panama, the National Police.  There are no independent city or other entity police departments.

Our bus driver, who was very good at finding animals along the way, pointed out crocodiles in the lake.

On the way to Miraflores Locks, we stop as our route crosses the Camino de Crusces, the historic road from Panama City to a small village on the Chagres River called Venta de Cruces.

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The cannon marks Camino de Cruces as it crosses the highway

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when Spain controlled Central and South America, gold would be brought to Lima, Peru and other main ports along the Pacific coast then shipped from there to Panama City.  It was then transported overland along the Camino de Cruses to Venta de Cruces.  There it would be put on small boats to transit the Chagres River out to the Caribbean and along the coast to Portobelo.  From there it would be put on ships for the trip to Spain.

Pirates were a constant danger.  In 1671, Henry Morgan reversed the path with an army of 1200 men, devastating Panama City, as well as Venta de Cruces, and taking 250 mules and 600 captives for eventual sale.

2018-11-14 11.25.49-1125.111418From here, it’s on to Miraflores Locks.  The visitor center sits across from the lock control center.  The control enter sits on the strip between the two parallel lock bay channels.  The viewing decks give access to watch the ships pass through the three lock bays on their way into or out of the Canal.

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We are told that the Control Area is quite spectacular, with electrically connected controls to perform all of the operations necessary to the operation of the lock bays, but much to the disappointment of our engineers, it is not on display for visitors.  When it was built, it was (along with many other aspects of the Canal project) a marvel of design, ahead of its time.

At Miraflores, each ship must pass through two lock bays.  Here, the Navig8 Turquoise, a chemical/oil products tanker, sits in the lock bay at full height, and then 15 minutes later, it been lowered approximately 27 feet ready for the lower lock gates to open allowing it to move to the second bay.

Now it has moved into the second bay, and 15 minutes later, it has been lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean so it can continue, as shown below.

2018-11-14 12.56.55-1256.111418Ships carry many things in addition to the chemical and oil products carried by Navig8.  They all seem to have similar lines, but they vary widely within those lines depending on the actual cargo they are built to carry.  A couple of examples include

the Golden Rose, a bulk carrier, and the Dusseldorf Express, a container ship.

These large ships fit snugly within the walls of the lock bays, and well they might, as they were built to fit.  They move forward only on their own power, but to be sure they don’t bump the walls of the bays and damage themselves or the locks, the little engines, called “mules” that can be seen at the lower right in the last picture are used.  Through coordinated effort, lines tied to each of the mules maintain the right pressure to keep the tankers parallel to the bay walls.

Not too far beyond the lock bays in front of us can be seen a ship moving parallel to the ships going through the locks.  It’s larger than the ships in the near locks, and it is going through a new set of locks designed and built starting in 2004, and opened for business in 2016.  These locks enable ships carrying up to 13,000 40-foot containers to go through Miraflores.  We’ll visit the parallel new lock structure at the other end of the Canal (Agua Clara) in a couple of days to get a closer look.

We have dinner in the restaurant here at the visitor center, and then head back to the hotel.  Tomorrow, we sail through the Panama Canal!






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Road Scholar Trip to Panama, Nov. 11 – 17, 2018 Part 2

Monday, November 11, 2018 — the first day of our official Panama Canal tour, and arrival day for everyone else.  We spent the day relaxing and reading about our adventure ahead.  We ate dinner at the hotel’s independent restaurant, TGIF’s.  It is a bit of a surprise to see this restaurant here.  The offerings on the menu are not significantly different than what I would expect to see at any TGIF’s in the US; definitely not local Panamanian fare.

Tuesday, November 12, 2018 — we meet after breakfast and spend a little time getting to know one another.  Our group numbers around 43, so it will not be possible to get to know many of them in this short week.  Many are retired (like us), and as might be expected there is more than one admitted engineer. interested in the design of the canal and the details of how it was built.  We have three group leaders (Juan Carlos, Rey and Gabe), each offering his unique perspective on the canal, its history and context including the current political situation here and the flora and fauna of this country carved out of the rain forest.  Juan Carlos is of an age with our son Kyle, and like him, he has a new-born keeping him and his wife awake at night.  He is the leader of the leaders.  Rey is the veteran of the crew, perhaps in his 60’s, he lives in the Colon side of the canal, and has done a number of things in his long life.  He provides the perspective of one who has lived through the transition of Canal control from the US to the Panamanians in 1999.    He was employed by the US prior to the transition, living and working on one of the US bases we will visit on that side of the Canal later on.  Gabe is the youngster of the crew, and our expert in residence on the rainforest and its residents.

Next up is the tour of old town Panama, so we load up three small buses (the local streets are too small for the standard-sized tour bus we will use the rest of the journey), and off we go.  On the way, we pass by this local monument to Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid. He was founder of the Panameñista Party and a three-time president of Panama during the 1940s. Each term ended prematurely by a military coup. The ensemble depicted on the monument represents the classes of citizens who followed the popular political leader.

Our first stop on the tour is the Headquarters of the Panama Canal Agency, an arm of the national government.  Our tour leaders take us to the central rotunda of the main building, a place that has the feel of a small version of the US capitol building.  Our group fills the rotunda completely.  Above us are four paintings depicting scenes from the build process.


2018-11-13 06.46.10-0646.111318This picture depicts the bulk of the digging and rock removal.  Digging the Culebra Cut, the place where the canal cuts through the Continental Divide, was one of the major engineering marvels of the whole construction.  It remains the narrowest place along the canal route, and the reason that the canal is a one-way traffic only operation.

2018-11-13 06.46.05-0646.111318This next picture depicts a railroad structure.  Temporary railroad tracks were laid to move heavy equipment to the Cut, and more importantly to transport the dirt and rocks blasted out on a daily basis to the designated landfill areas.  Upon completion, the peak of the Continental Divide had been reduced from 210 feet above sea level to 39 feet across a 299-foot-wide base.  This effort required the removal of approximately 120 million cubic yards of earth and rock.  For comparison purposes, a so-called half-ton pick-up truck can carry approximately half a cubic yard of dry aggregate material.  The bottom of the Cut at 39 feet-above-sea-level is covered by water to bring it up to the 83 feet-above-sea-level of the Gatun Lake water contained between the locks of the canal enabling the large vessels to travel safely through.  The surface of the water at the Cut is approximately one-third of a mile (1760 feet) across.

2018-11-13 06.46.27-0646.111318Continuing around the dome, this picture is centered on the circular drainage culvert running between two side-by-side lock bays.  This central culvert is 18 feet in diameter and is connected to smaller culverts that run below each of the bays.  The picture also shows several of the different types of cranes used to move equipment, concrete, framing timbers among other things around the lock sites.

2018-11-13 06.46.18-0646.111318The last picture gives a closer view of the framing and structure of the miter gates (so called because they come together in a wide “V” shape) used to hold the water in or out of each lock bay.  Each gate leaf is 64 feet wide by 7 feet thick, varying in height from 47 to 82 feet, depending on the bay’s height.  Hinted at in these pictures is the science and engineering developments necessary to form, mix, shape and let harden appropriately the concrete used.  Concrete is a precise mixture of sand, water and cement with rock of defined size.  Construction use of concrete is something that was new in the late 1800s, and use in the quantities and structures of the Canal was unprecedented.

Beyond the rotunda our leaders took us to the terrace looking down on a small park with the Goethals monument at its center. 2018-11-13 07.05.06-0705.111318Colonel George Washington Goethals was appointed Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal in February 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The president had decided after some wrangling with interested parties that it was best to have the Army Corps of Engineers run the canal construction instead of an independent contractor.  Goethals managed the job to a successful conclusion two years ahead of schedule.  He was widely acclaimed for his work on the Canal, garnering numerous awards and accolades. In 1914, shortly after completion, President Woodrow Wilson appointed now General Goethals the first civil governor of the Panama Canal Zone.  He left this post in 1916 to become Quartermaster General of the US Army as the US was preparing to enter World War I.

Now it was back to the buses and on to the old town of Panama City.  The first stop on this walking tour was the Panama Canal History Museum, where we received our first instruction in the more detailed history of the building of the canal.  After we completed this, we walked to Plaza Mayor.  Here we had an unscheduled stop as a group of protestors were walking around the plaza announcing their concerns with loudspeakers.. 2018-11-13 08.43.38-0843.111318Juan Carlos explained to us that they were retirees who were complaining that the Panamanian version of Social Security was not sufficient for them to live on.  He explained that the average monthly entitlement was around $250.  This is far below the minimum wage of approximately $600 per month, so the protest was reasonable.  He also said this was part of a yearly process, and in the past, such protests had led to improvements for the retirees.

When we were allowed, we continued our tour.  Shortly thereafter, we came upon the ruin of Saint Dominic’s Church.  The major feature of this ruin is the internal arch which supported the choir, designated the Flat Arch.


This arch (15 meters long and 10 meters high) was a popular tourist attraction in the 19th century, despite being part of a ruin.   It was declared a national monument in 1941.  Unfortunately, for reasons unknown the arch collapsed in 2003, but has been rebuilt with the same bricks.  The photo was taken from the terrace where Gwen is relaxing.

We continued on to the Plaza de Francia, as Gwen and I had seen it the day before on our own walking tour.  The picture below, taken from the walkway shows the obelisk and if you look closely, you can see the twin towers of the Cathedral at Old Panama.


Spinning about a quarter turn from this spot, off in the distance can be seen the distinctive roofline of the Biodiversity Museum.  After a brief stop for lunch, our tour group broke into parts, and I chose to visit this museum.


Situated on an isthmus that parallels the Canal entrance channel, close to our hotel, the Biodiversity Museum provides a look at the biological history of Panama in the context of the the broader biological history of the Earth.  The museum discussion starts with some broad statements about what biodiversity is, then we are drawn down a corridor leading to a diorama of life size animals all of whom have lived in Panama at one time or another.

Down below the diorama there are columns with pictures and stories concerning the change of biological life from prehistoric to modern times, with some further discussion concerning future problems and efforts to solve those problems.  After that, it’s on to the biodiversity gardens outside the building.

The building’s architecture is even more colorful when seen closer up.

Fascinating information: did you know that plants reproducing via seeds, the predominant method used by the vast majority of flora in today’s world is only the latest mechanism?  From 350 million years ago until 280 million years ago, plants reproducing through spore production dominated the damp rainforest-like landscape.  As the earth continued developing, the continents separated and dryer land became common, the much more efficient seedling approach became dominant.  This information, along with example gardens developed around the theme of sustainable food production with walkways around and through form much of the area behind the building.

There, as well, is another spectacular example of those large fig trees with roots extending from and supporting its branches.  On the one side of this area is another spectacular view of the Panama City skyline,

2018-11-13 12.56.41-1256.111318and from the other side is a grand view of the Bridge of the Americas, the bridge we’ve seen from several angles before.

2018-11-13 12.51.54-1251.111318From here it is a simple walk back to the hotel.  Well, maybe simple, but longer than anticipated.  Along the way, there were some interesting sights.  A great heron caught my eye.

There were also several large houses that upon closer examination appeared to be abandoned.

The tour group gathered again later in the afternoon and heard an excellent presentation given by a gentleman named Jaime, who has worked for the Canal Agency since before it was turned over to Panamanian control.



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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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