Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Many Faces of Panama City

August 14th to 18th

We pause after crossing the Bridge of the Americas to calm ourselves – it's was a pretty hairy ride....

We want to stay in the old town and the road to Casco Viejo takes us through an overpopulated slum area and the locals tell us to “ride fast, don't stop”; excellent advice.

Panama City has a long history, and over time, has evolved into a real mixture. In the 16th Century, it was a massively important port where Spanish silver plundered in the high Andes of Peru was off-loaded before the arduous 50 mile trek overland to Portobello. From here ships could make their way over the Atlantic and back to Spain with their treasure. This route saved thousands of dangerous miles navigating Cape Horn around the Southern tip of Argentina and formed the route map for the famous Panama Canal that was to come 400 years later.

Originally Panama was located 5 miles East of the present centre and was relocated when it was sacked by Henry Morgan, a swashbuckling Welsh privateer tempted by all that Andean silver in 1671. The city was rebuilt within strong defensive walls to dissuade Henry and his marauding mates from returning – hence the name “Casco Viejo” which means “Old Compound”.

As a consequence of all the trade passing through, beautiful colonial style buildings were constructed and the town gained a certain grandeur reflected in the water front housing....

And also the incredible plazas with ornate statuary and the grand 'Hotel Colonial'...

This statue in 'Plaza de la Independencia' represents the signing of the treaty allowing Panama it's independence after separating from Colombia in 1903.

These are the grand bits. Much of the rest of Casco Viejo is a dilapidated collection of disused relics that are slowing turning to rubble under the destructive attention of weeds and tree roots.

Squatters openly occupy many of the buildings and you can see bare wires spliced into the street lamps that illegally power flickering TV's that illuminate the gloom of derelict buildings at night....

It's a slightly surreal vision; some kind of dystopian future where a great wrong has come to pass and a lone face stares from a tattered upstairs windows. He surveys the scene like a Charlton Heston figure in the Omega Man - “The last man”. Maybe that's going a bit far, but walking through this rotting capital city does conjure up that illusion.

Today many of the buildings are undergoing redevelopment or are about to as money floods back into this quarter of the city. Others sadly will just rot into dust and crumble leaving toothless gaps between the newly renovated bars and restaurants.

Across the bay you can see where the money and the developers are coming from. After gaining full control of the Panama Canal from the US in 2000, Panama has been booming and both local and foreign money has poured in.

Like a mirage rising across the bay to taunt the dregs that scratch a living over here, a new city has risen – newer and more sparkly than could ever have been imagined 20 years ago....

Boats in the harbour at low tide look as if they attempted an impossible voyage to this gleaming new world; but were stranded in futility....

Whilst a machine operator seems to stop and survey the transformation he has wrought....

Running between the old and new cities is Avenida Central, a pedestrianised shopping district that does more than just connect these two locations geographically. It seems to connect them in time, having a distinctly modern Central American feel that allows you to transition from a Colonial era of conquistadors and galleons of plundered silver to the space age of towering glass and steel....

It's typically bustling, chaotic, raucous and energetic. Music assaults the ears from wide open shop fronts. Street vendors distract to attract your attention. The sweet smell of the juice blenders mixes with the meaty aroma of the hot dog carts. A blast of cold air freezes you as you pass an upmarket clothes shop, then the warm wet tropical air envelops you once more as you move on.

Locals huddle in corners around squares of cardboards – arenas for dice and cards. Friendly, they call you over and encourage you to lose a dollar or two. More serious are the homemade boards of chess or checkers with coloured pieces taken from different soda bottle tops....

Roads seem to have just been laid down on top of each other - anyplace there was room and traffic is 'entertaining'....

Then, suddenly you are in Miami!

Dropping down to the newly formed boulevard you could be forgiven for thinking that a short walk had taken you across a continent. When was the last time I saw a roller blader in Central America, or a cycle path back-dropped by a glass skyline....

The new city is distinctly aspirational, with upmarket car dealerships and million dollar penthouses.

Entry level apartments with low level city views still command $200,000 price tags – an astronomical sum for Panamanians and quite a bit for ex-pats too. I can't help feeling that there is a bit too much optimism crackling in the air and that a developer somewhere is going to take a haircut now that the spray of foreign money has dried up a bit.

But then, what do I know. The building continues apace. Another 3,000 dreams of fine living reach for the skies....

Across the bay, far out to sea, the great Pana-Max cargo ships stack up in a queue all waiting to push through “The Canal” - the engineering marvel that is the lifeblood of this hungry city. Like a slow motion parody of airliners circling a busy airport they wait for their call....

Each will pay on average a quarter of a million dollars to pass through to the Caribbean and on to the Atlantic and I can see maybe 30 of them. Queues are long as that $250,000 is cheap compared to the 3 weeks of ship time saved by rounding Cape Horn; so the canal runs at breaking capacity. A national referendum gave an almost unanimous backing to ambitious expansion plans that allow this waterway to take ever more gargantuan ships. Building work is already underway to update this 100 year old superstructure and this important revenue stream should increase if all goes to plan.

Maybe, just maybe the property developers here have got it right and each of those new homes in the sky will find a deep-pocketed buyer. There is a contagious confidence in the air and this is definitely a place to return to in a few years to see how the story unfolds....


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