There are Skyscrapers, and There is a Canal

Panama City blew us away, I think, a little bit. Used to the low-rise, grungy sprawl of the majority of Central American cities, Panama City dazzled with its sky-scraping downtown and the redeveloped Casco Viejo neighbourhood. We arrived early in the morning after our overnight bus, and as the sun hadn’t yet graced the city, we jumped into a taxi to take us to Luna’s Castle, our hostel in Casco Viejo. We arrived, as did quite a few others, to a sign telling us reception would open at 8:00. It was something like 5:30 a.m. Turns out reception did us little good when it opened, anyways, as we couldn’t get into our rooms until 1:00 p.m. Our bags joined the pile in the common room and we napped for a couple of hours on comfy couches and in hammocks before doing our best to freshen up before heading out for the day.

Panama City Taxi

I’d been recently reminded that, as a Canadian, I need a visa to enter Brazil. I had heard this can be a bit of a hassle, so I figured now would be the best time to get it done. We only planned to stay in Panama City for a couple of days, and somehow we managed to rush the Brazilian embassy in Panama to get it done in about half the time it normally takes. Information for this visa is pretty scarce online, so here’s a little bit of info on obtaining a tourist visa for Brazil for Canadian citizens:

  • Once obtained, the visa is valid for multiple entries in a five-year span (I had been told conflicting information about this, such as you must enter Brazil within 30 days of the visa being issued.)
  • The visa costs 65 USD (this could potentially vary depending on the issuing authority.)
  • I was required to present sufficient funds for travel (a copy of a bank statement was adequate), entry and exit tickets to and from Brazil (see your options for supplying this information here. I used the Copa Air option for this particular encounter, which worked fine.), a valid passport, and payment.
  • These visas generally take at least a week to process, so getting it done before you leave home or while you are based in a city for a little while is ideal.
  • All of the required information and documentation must be presented to your nearest Brazilian embassy.

After we’d sorted out my visa admin, we wandered a bit through the downtown of the city. It has little of interest to offer the average tourist: lots of business and banks, a couple of malls, and mainstream restaurants. Nevertheless, it felt rather novel being in what seemed to be such a modern city after such a long time. The city stretches for kilometres along the waterfront, and this gives the entire place quite a nice feeling.

Panama City

Casco Viejo, where we based ourselves, is much more interesting. The area has only recently been swept up in redevelopment plans, which involve pumping a huge amount of money into the area. Hostels, hotels, restaurants and shops are popping up all over the place, in and amongst older, run-down buildings that still house many lower-income residents of the city. This is old town, and the artfully crumbling buildings, innovative street art, and striking contrast between old and new make the area completely intriguing. Of course, one wonders at what cost this redevelopment comes: as their area suddenly becomes trendy what happens to the original residents of the area? Is it a case of slowly being phased out by increasing rent costs? One hopes not, but surely this is part of it. The likelihood of a lot of residents owning their property and being able to sell at a fair price is, I think, a bit slim. Perhaps the influx of tourism has some positive benefits, mainly in the name of increased traffic in shops and restaurants? It’s impossible for me to say what sort of impact this has on the locals. Nevertheless, the crumbling, contrasting beauty of Casco Viejo is hard to deny, and even if you stay elsewhere in the city I’d recommend coming to explore for an afternoon.

Casco Viejo

The other main draw of Panama City? The canal, of course. The Panama Canal is still seen as one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, and it has quite an interesting history. Originally undertaken as a massive project by the French, disease and spiralling costs made them abandon the project when it was then snatched up by the Americans. A truly unfathomable amount of money, manpower, and dynamite went into creating the canal, and it now cuts through the isthmus of Panama as a shipping channel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On one of the exhibits in the museum I read that the amount of exploding done to create the canal would have been enough to channel all of the way through the earth, and several hundred kilometres beyond.

Canal

The basic premise of the canal operates today much as it was designed in the early 1900s. Three sets of locks raise and lower ships and other vessels to different water levels, allowing them to pass through the length of the canal. This is incredibly interesting, though perhaps a bit anti-climactic to watch. At Miraflores Locks, where we visited the canal, a large cargo ship was making its way to the Pacific Ocean. It entered the set of locks, where the huge gates closed behind it, and the chamber it sat in was slowly filled with water, rising it up several metres. The gates then opened allowing the ship to travel through to the next chamber, where the process was repeated. Finally, it left the locks, now several metres higher than when it entered, and headed towards the ocean.

Please notice the different water levels.

Please notice the different water levels.

With our inner engineering nerd satisfied by watching the process of one large ship (and three small sailboats) make their way through the canal, we headed home. There is a big, red, double-decker bus that does tourist laps of Panama City – you’ll have seen the same ones around the world. This bus does make its way out to the canal. I can see little reason to take this bus, as public transport in Panama City is excellent, and the metro is actually free. Yes, I know. You are required to buy a metro card, which works for the buses and the metro (two people can use the same card) and costs $2. Bus trips run around 50 cents a pop, if my memory serves me correctly. And then there is the glorious, shiny new metro that connects the main bus terminal (Albrook) with about a 20 minute walk from Casco Viejo (Cinco de Mayo) to downtown. You need to swipe in and out with your metro card, but it doesn’t actually take any money from it. As I was flitting to and from on the metro, I remembered Sydney transport with a shudder, and the roughly $50 I would spend each week on it. I love public transport, and I really love it when it’s free.

And that was that: shiny city, crumbling neighbourhoods, excellent value transport, and the canal. Soon, we would be ocean-bound, on our way to Colombia.

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