New Lock Gates Arrive for Panama Canal Expansion

A major milestone in the expansion of the Panama Canal took place when the first of the new rolling lock gates arrived from Italy. This is a good shot because of the workers in the photo giving you a sense of the size of these gigantic gates.

It took some two hours to unload each of the four lock gates that will become part of the biggest locks in the world when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed.

The gates, which arrived Tuesday, August 20, took 30 days to travel from Trieste in Italy. The ship that carryiied them is on its way back to Italy to continue ferrying the remaining 12 gates. Each one is 30 meters high and 10 meters wide.

To unload each one, at a specially constructed dock. took four flatbeds each with 120 wheels.
The 16 gates that will allow the passage of post panamax ships that currently have to make the long voyage around the Horn, will be in place by April 2014. [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

And here’s the video complete with the dramatic music the ACP likes for this kind of thing.

Views – Vistas

Sunrise Over The Pacific

The other day I received an email from a retired teacher who was planning a trip through the Panama Canal.  His kids had given him McCullough’s PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS and my Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition book to read in preparation for their trip.

McCullough’s book is the definitive history of the building of the US Canal and is a weighty tome somewhat intimidating because of its size.  I had one Captain who said, “Richard, every night I read McCullough’s book and it puts me to sleep.  What am I doing wrong?”
I asked him what page he was on and he had only gotten to page 80.  I said, “Hang in there for 150 pages and you will be hooked” and sure enough he was.  But I suspect because of the comparative sizes and the fact that my book is about cruising through the Canal, the retired teacher read my book first.  And he found a few mistakes and happily emailed me.  I really do appreciate when readers do this!  Really!  But one of the things he questioned was “sunrise over the Pacific.”

Well in Panama from certain vantage points it happens!  Although the Isthmus runs East-West and the Atlantic is on the East and the Pacific on the West, in Panama City you can see the sunrise over the Pacific and just to prove that . . . I took this picture early one morning from the top of Ancon Hill looking out to the Pacific.

Panama Sunrise Over The Pacific

 

The Stuff of Espionage Novels & Movies

Who knew . . . the Panama Canal!

At the center of the current international brewhaha is tiny Panama and the Panama Canal. As one might expect in this day and age the Panama Canal Authority is very interested and demanding in know what is being transported through the Canal across the country. Apparently those sneaky North Koreans were transporting undeclared arms from Cuba hidden underneath tons of raw sugar. The ship had for whatever reason, probably emails and phone calls, attracted the attention of the US, hence Panama, and guess what . . .

Inspectors digging through the sugar . . .

Unidentified Cuban weaponry hidden beneath 10,000 tons of raw sugar

During the inspection prior to entering the Canal the crew resisted, and at one point when the crew refused to host anchor and move to a new location and Panama authorities had to cut the ships anchor chain.  In the melee the ship’s captain attempted to commit suicide by slicing his throat and he is now in a Panama City hospital.

Panama has requested the UN, US and Great Britain to assist with investigation.  Cuba claims these are old weapons being sent to North Korea for refurbishment.  Panama has granted permission to North Korean diplomats to come to Panama to aid in the investigation.  Boy, given a little imagination and artistic license, does this story have entertainment potential!

See these two stories from Panama Newsroom . . .

Detained N. Korea ship’s captain tried to slit throat

SHIP SEIZURE: North Korean diplomats heading to Panama

Although the Canal is officially neutral it has allowed warships from the US, Russia and other countries to pass.  The problem here is UN sanctions on North Korea and the fact that the illegal cargo was obviously hidden, not declared, and was attempted to be smuggled through the Canal.

Meanwhile construction continues on the amplification of the Canal . . .

Here’s a VERY nicely done update from the ACP . . . I only wish my workers moved as fast as this guys appear to move!

And now is the time to book your Panama Canal Cruise

2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal and this is the time when many people are planning and booking their Panama Canal cruise for this fall and next Spring.  If that is you . . . be sure to get ahold of my book Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition.

The more you know about the history of the Canal and Panama, the more you will enjoy your trip! My book is designed to be readable and a helpful guide both preparing for a Canal cruise and for the actual day crossing the Canal.

 

 

About these ads . . . Facebook, like everyone else, is looking to monetize their application by presenting these ads.  I don’t have any say in what ads you see . . . but if you do click I make a penny or so for my grandkids’ college fund.  Actually several of these ads are really great ads and fun to watch.

 

 

“Spanish? Start learning Chinese?”

As I struggle with learning Spanish, some are suggesting I should be learning Chinese instead.  While in Seattle I visited a contact at Holland America’s corporate offices: he was learning Chinese.  Why? China is emerging as one of the hottest markets for cruise passengers going!  On my last contract on a cruise ship for three Med cruises in a row we had groups of over 250 from China.  And what is generating a lot of discussion is the approval of Nicaragua to grant a canal concession to a Chinese businessman.

There was this, for example, at Newsroom Panama:

The delivery of a 100 year concession award for an Inter-oceanic Canal to a company without the capital or experience to carry out a project of this magnitude could be the result of a brilliant long-term operation by the Chinese government.

Jorge Cobas, writing in CentralAmericanData says:

As a commercial project, the Inter-Oceanic Canal in Nicaragua is economically unfeasible, in particular because the uncertainty over the return on investment to be made is so large. But for a country destined to be a world leader, as is China, for whom finance of $40 billion is no small thing, possession of a dominion over a waterway in the backyard of its greatest commercial competitor makes this investment a bargain.

President Obama conducted a routine visit to Central America in his second presidential term, and the most important thing he left behind was stories about the menus at the formal dinners. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping left hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for projects, which are, of course, well tied to the convenience of Chinese companies.

Xi Jinping did not visit Nicaragua. However, it could become the most important country for China on the American continent, in this century and the next.

Nicaragua is, under its current institutional conditions, with a Sandinista government which rules with the factual and dubiously democratic style of leftist Latin American governments – often going above the heads of opposing minorities – the Central American country where it is possible to develop this brilliant geopolitical Chinese operation.

Clearly, franchising the Inter-oceanic Canal directly to the Chinese state would have been much resisted and even unfeasible in political terms, both inside and outside of Nicaragua. As we have seen, the government of President Ortega found no obstacle to giving ownership of this concession to a nearly non-existent company. However, given the style of Chinese developmental policy, it is highly unlikely that the company will not be dependent on a government that has a clear need to ensure mastery of global sea routes, not only in terms of trade but also of military strategy.

It is clear that the construction of the Inter-oceanic Canal – if realized – would revolutionize and boost the economy of Nicaragua, to the well deserved benefit of its inhabitants, but it could also convert the country – and region – into a focus for geopolitical tensions, with unpredictable consequences.

What is absolutely certain is that we should hurry up and learn Chinese …

And just the other day the LAS VEGAS SUN ran this Associate Press article.  And what I find particularly interesting about this article is the references to the boom in Panama attributed largely to the Panama Canal.  Now frankly I don’t think Panama’s success is just due to the Canal, although it certainly is a major factor.  Fortunately the US built the Canal and ran it as a service generally breaking even.  When the Canal was turned over to Panama many naysayers in the  US predicted either that Panama would be unable to run the Canal independently, or that it would run it into the ground.  Panama decided to run the Canal as a business and it has become a hugely profitable business.  Although run by an independent, mostly non-political, authority, each year the Canal contributes huge amounts directly to the government in addition to all the residual contributions of the country’s major industry.  Even with the downturn in the economy and fewer containers from China bound for Wal-Mart, the Canal has continued to make money.

Panama’s boom helps drive Nicaragua canal dreams

Curundu used to be a warren of ramshackle wooden houses and reeking open sewers, one of Panama City’s most notorious refuges for street gangs and drug dealers.Then, three years ago, the government tore down the shacks and built a bustling new neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings, freshly paved streets, basketball courts and fields with artificial turf.

“We live more decently here now. People see a prettier neighborhood, kids playing soccer,” said Ronny Murillo, a 45-year-old ex-convict who helped build one of the billions of dollars in projects made possible by an economic boom driven largely by the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal. Behind him, enormous cranes loomed over a skyline that has been transformed by dozens of new skyscrapers, many filled with luxury apartments, high-end stores and fashionable boutiques.

In a little more than five years, Panama has slashed its unemployment rate by two-thirds and nearly tripled the rate of government spending as the double-digit growth of the canal-fueled boom has made it the hemisphere’s hottest economy. Just to the north, Nicaragua has watched years of slower growth fail to move it out of its position as the hemisphere’s second-poorest nation, after Haiti.

The deep discrepancy between the fortunes of two Central American neighbors goes a long way toward explaining the Nicaraguan government’s fervent promotion of a Chinese company’s vague proposal to build the hemisphere’s second trans-ocean canal across Nicaragua. Despite deep reservations among opposition lawmakers, environmentalists and independent shipping experts, the country’s leftist-controlled National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to grant Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. an exclusive, renewable 50-year concession to measure the feasibility of a new canal, then build it and take the lion’s share of the profits.

Underlying much of the enthusiasm in Nicaragua is the hope that the massive new canal could bring a bit of Panama-style prosperity.

“I don’t think we’re going to be just like Panama, because they’re already 100 years ahead of us. But yes, I think this is going to help Nicaragua put poverty behind it and generate jobs,” said Roberto Pasquier, an electric appliance salesman in a market in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Panama’s prosperity has drawn tens of thousands of job-seekers, mostly from Nicaragua and nearby Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Almost 40,000 such workers have been granted legal status in Panama since 2010 under a government program meant to feed the roaring demand for labor to build projects that include Central America’s first subway, a $1.452 billion investment.

Panama has the highest level of human development in Central America according to the United Nations Development Program, which measures factors including life expectancy, health care access and education.

“You can make money here in Panama, buddy,” said Mauricio Hernandez, a 29-year-old Colombian who sells food in the streets of Panama City. “We’re all coming for dollars.”

Panamanian Abel Aparicio, a 49-year-old hotel chef, earns $1,000 a month, twice what he made when he started 20 years ago, and has bought two small apartments that he rents out to supplement his income.

“Nobody’s that worried about losing their job,” he said. “If you leave one job, other opportunities open up, and there are ways to make money besides hotels, which there are a lot of these days,” he said.

Panama’s economy started booming around the time that authorities began the Panama Canal expansion in 2007. By 2010, the annual growth rate rose to around 10 percent, where it’s stayed.

The canal expansion generated 30,000 direct jobs and the administration of populist right-leaning President Ricardo Martinelli estimates that the government will have put $16 billion into public works between 2009 and 2014. That amount was $4.4 billion between 2000 and 2004. A 13.5 percent unemployment rate in 2004 dropped to 4.6 percent in 2012, in a workforce of 1.6 million. The poverty rate dropped from 36 percent in 2002 to 26 percent today.

Wealthy investors, many from Colombia and Venezuela, have built real-estate and tourism projects, restaurants, clothing stores, car dealerships and computer businesses around Panama City.

Nicaragua, meanwhile, doesn’t have any obvious means, besides the possibility of the canal, of rapidly accelerating its growth.

The government says it has created 700,000 jobs since President Daniel Ortega took office in 2007 and poverty has dropped from 50 percent in 2006 to 42 percent last year. But 1 million people remain out of work in a country of 6 million. If the canal is built, the Nicaraguan government says, within five years GDP would go from $11 billion a year to $25 billion, generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

“Those who oppose the canal want this country to keep suffering from underdevelopment and poverty,” said Edwin Castro, congressional leader of Ortega’s Sandinista Front.

Nicaragua is betting on businessman Wang Jing, who first appeared in Nicaragua last year as the head of the Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group, which signed a contract with the government to improve the country’s telecommunications system and promised to invest as much as $700 million dollars. So far, there’s virtually no sign of any spending yet.

“We can’t believe that they’re going to build an inter-ocean canal, when from here it looks like they haven’t even built a single telephone line, or done anything else since they made the announcement. It’s all a lie,” said opposition congressman Eliseo Nunez.

The head of Nicaragua’s state telecommunications institute told reporters last week that the first new telecommunications antennas would be installed by Xinwei in late July or early August, and the delay had been caused by Xinwei’s high manufacturing standards. Still, such problems have fueled widespread doubts inside Nicaragua, where many are skeptical about dreams of Panama-style riches.

“It’s all a grand illusion that they’re selling us, it’s untrue that we’re going to turn into another Panama,” taxi driver Francisco Siles said as he picked up fares outside a Managua hospital. “We’re going to keep being the same poor Nicaragua.”

Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. Luis Manuel Galeano contributed from Managua, Nicaragua, and Kathia Martinez contributed from Panama City.

A couple of additional comments about the points I’ve highlighted.  If you are thinking about retiring abroad, about an expat life style, about escaping your home land for one reason or another, wouldn’t you choose a country with an established democratic government [albeit at times just as raucous, screwed up and maybe corrupt as the government in your homeland]?  Wouldn’t you choose a country not at war with anything except poverty?  Wouldn’t you choose a country that didn’t need a military? [The second US-Panama Canal Treaty promised that the US would protect the neutrality of the Canal in perpetuity - than you very much! - so who needs an army when the US spends so generously on its industrial/military complex?]  Wouldn’t you choose a country that is building its infrastructure and is in the midst of an economic boom?

And a second point usually just a by-the-way in this discussion, but one which has enormous world-wide implications: no one has done any environmental impact study.  It is said that had de Lesspes been successful in his original plan to create a sea level canal across Panama that the result would have been an ecological disaster.  A sea level canal across Nicaragua using Lake Nicaragua might well create environmental chaos.

For more about the fascinating history of Panama and the Panama Canal read my book Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition. 

I’m very pleased that one private university in Panama which specializes in teaching students American-style English is using Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition as a text in their history classes.  They like my presentation of Panamanian history, a wow to me as a guest in their country, and it forces the students to read and discuss in English, and not in a formal, rigid, boring style.

Canal Expansion Unearthing Fantastic Paleontological Findings

Although the Canal is all about business and getting the job completed, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) recognizes that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for scientific exploration and discovery.  Working closely with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which has had a presence in the Canal almost from its inception, scientists are making amazing discoveries about the bridge between the continents.  This video, although in Spanish – not English or Chinese! – is fairly easy to follow even if you don’t know a lot of Spanish.

San Francisco, Panama & The Canal

Much as I love San Francisco, I’ve decided I am not a city boy any more.  Yesterday was a beautiful day in San Francisco, a little fog, certainly not beach weather, but warm enough since San Francisco in the summer can be the coldest place in California.  I spent most of the day, actually all of the day, negotiating traffic to and from the city, and mostly unsuccessfully looking for a place to park.  If by some miracle you do find a place to park you can only park for 2 hours so forget the idea of parking and going off to explore.  And parking lots, even at $25 a day, are rarer than genuine gold nuggets.  And the drivers are almost as rude as in New York, laying on their horns if you don’t jack rabbit start when the light turns green: not what I remembered about San Francisco.  Maybe their are all just transplanted New Yorkers.  It was all I could do not to give one woman in a brand new, black SUV the size of a motor home a Bronx-style hand salute.

008The Panama San Francisco Connection

Of course San Francisco owes it’s prominence to Panama since man of the gold seekers during California’s famed Gold Rush came to California by way of Panama.  There were three routes to the Gold Rush, the long trek across the Continental US, the passage around the southern tip of South America, or the shortest and quickest route across the Isthmus of Panama.

And the Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of San Francisco, was made from steel fabricated by the Bethlehem Steel Company and shipped to San Francisco via the Panama Canal.

The Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915 was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal the previous year and to showcase San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake.  The beautiful landmark Fine Arts Pravillion and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium at Civic Center Plaza are remaining structures from the 1915 Exposition. [San Diego held a similar exposition and celebration of the Canal and a number of those structures remain in Balboa Park.]

SWOT Panama Canal

Like any business, the Panama Canal today has strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  The massive expansion of the Canal now underway and originally scheduled for completion next year is in direct response to the Canal’s opportunity as well as the threat that post-panamax ships would use other routes.

When the US decided to build a canal there was major disagreement as to where the canal should be built.  Panama and Nicaragua were the two competitors and each side had its proponents generally, in true US-style, depending on the proponents financial interests.  Panama won out by a slim margin but there has always been the possibility and talk of someone coming along and building a competing canal across Nicaragua.  The possibility of a Nicaragua Canal loomed again a few years ago when Nicaragua officially proposed the project.  Panama Canal planners were convinced that even if there were a Nicaraguan canal, a useable Northwest Passage, or some other “land canal” that expansion of the current Panama Canal was viable and that in today’s interconnected world there was enough business for all potential players.

Interestingly as the world financial crisis has started to impact China production of goods, Panama Canal traffic has started to decline.  Now comes word that Nicaragua has awarded a Chinese company a 100-year concession to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.

The Guardian reports that president of the country’s national assembly, Rene Nuñez, announced the $40bn (£26bn) project, which will reinforce Beijing’s growing influence on global trade and weaken US dominance over the key shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The name of the company and other details have yet to be released, but the opposition congressman Luis Callejas said the government planned to grant a 100-year lease to the Chinese operator.

The national assembly will debate two bills on the project, including an outline for an environmental impact assessment.

Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, said recently that the new channel would be built in the north of the country, through the waters of Lake Nicaragua.

The new route will be a higher-capacity alternative to the 99-year-old Panama Canal, which is currently being widened at the cost of $5.2bn.

Last year, the Nicaraguan government noted that the new canal should be able to allow passage for mega-container ships with a dead weight of up to 250,000 tonnes. This is more than double the size of the vessels that will be able to pass through the Panama Canal after its expansion, it said.

According to a bill submitted to congress last year, Nicaragua’s canal will be 22 metres deep, 20 metres wide and 286 km (178 miles) long – bigger than Panama and Suez in all dimensions.

Under the initial plans for the project, the government was expected to be the majority shareholder, with construction taking 10 years and the first ship passing through the canal within six years. It is unclear if this is still the case.

Two former Colombian officials recently accused China of influencing the international court of justice to secure the territorial waters that Nicaragua needs for the project.

In an op-ed piece for the magazine Semana, Noemí Sanín, a former Colombian foreign secretary, and Miguel Ceballos, a former vice-minister of justice, said a Chinese judge had settled in Nicaragua’s favour on a 13-year-old dispute over 75,000 square kilometres of sea.

They said this took place soon after Nicaraguan officials signed a memorandum of understanding last September with Wang Jing, the chairman of Xinwei Telecom and president of the newly established Hong Kong firm HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, to build and operate the canal.

Nicaragua has accused Colombia and Costa Rica, which also has a claim on territory likely to be used by the new canal, of trying to prevent the project going ahead. [Newsroom Panama]

Rough Seas for The Cruise Industry?

When the COSTA CONCORDIA ran aground I expected our stock in Carnival, RCL, and the Carnivalized Princess successor PLC to all tank. They didn’t. They took a hit, but rebounded given the public’s fascination with cruising as an ideal and cost-effective vacation and way to explore. But a recent study indicates that the CARNIVAL TRIUMPH fire may have had a bigger long range impact on the people’s opinion of cruising. According to a Harris Interactive poll taken between May 14 and 16th (before the GRANDEUR OF THE SEAS fire) and reported by the industry magazine SEATRADE,

“US consumer attitudes about cruising have not bounced back following the Carnival Triumph incident but have continued to decline, with lower scores on trust, quality and intent to purchase . . . While Carnival Cruises Lines’ quality score showed the steepest declines (down 28% versus pre and 12% versus post), all the other brands tested ranged individually from 8%-11% below pre levels.”

Interestingly Harris noted that “Holland America Line’s purchase intent score has largely weathered this perceptual storm, holding at just 2% below its pre level”

I find this interesting because if a major airliner crashes [or maybe even COSTA CONCORDIA goes aground] people lament the tragedy but intuitively understand that people and machines are imperfect, and so continue to fly [or cruise] knowing that accidents happen. Of course one hopes the accident never happens to them, but we understand the odds so continue to fly. Or buckle up and get back on the freeway. But let an aircraft be stuck on the ground for a few hours with passengers unable to leave the aircraft, get up or (God forbid!) be unable to use their cell phones and holy hell erupts! So the fires, although efficiently extinguished with all emergency operations working according to plan, but with passengers inconvenienced because no nearby island happened to have an 3,000 empty hotel rooms and charter aircraft standing by, people get all upset.

I predict that public fascination with cruise travel will continue in two directions. First there are folks who like the mega-resort cruise ships where ports are an incidental inconvenience and the main focus, like a land-based resort, is spending money. Although many of these folks would be happy with a “cruise to nowhere” (as long as the bars and casino remained open) a few hours in a shopping mall port (like St Maarten, St Thomas, or Nassau) or a visit to a cruise line controlled Disneyesque stereotypical “port” are all that’s wanted. Second, there are folks to whom ports are still important and see a cruise as a special opportunity to explore new lands, experience new cultures, and expand their knowledge. Most of these folks prefer ships that actually float, and rock and roll sometimes and aren’t just resorts floating just outside the 12 mile limits.

So I see the “dip” as a kind of “market correction” and think cruise lines need to focus more on clearly defining their philosophies, products, and target audiences.

Those of you who are interested in the final report regarding the COSTA CLASSICA which is the basis of the official charges now against the captain can read the full report.

And for those of you interested in the future direction of cruising, or who like me, are Carnival stockholders and fans of Carnivals family of brands . . . here’s the best news ever!

Bob Dickinson is back! Nobody knows more about cruising that Bob Dickinson, formerly CEO of Carnival. Dickinson, who like me is 70, is being pulled out of retirement to act as a consultant to Carnival Corp CEO Howard Frank. Dickinson, known for telling it like it is, is charged with making recommendations. This should be fun! When Dickinson was captain of the Carnival he warned about the cruise business becoming commoditized where the competition is based on price and brands are not clearly differentiated. [The act of making a process, good or service easy to obtain by making it as uniform, plentiful and affordable as possible.] Well that’s exactly what cruising has become. Each of the Carnival companies is competing with everyone else, including sister companies, basically going after anyone and everyone with disposable dollars. Many cruise lines have embraced the idea that a CEO is a CEO and it doesn’t make any difference if he or she knows anything about the particular product as long as they can hit the numbers. Clearly Micky Arison and Howard Frank realize that the problem is larger than just a horrible accident and a string of unfortunate situations.

“Because I’m not tied to any one brand, I have sort of a 30,000-foot look at it; I can be very, very objective,” said Dickinson, 70. “It may be difficult for a brand to say ‘Gee, I made a mistake’ or ‘Gosh, I should have seen that and I didn’t,’ or ‘Gosh, maybe this strategy was the wrong one.’”

While he acknowledged that “there will be egos involved, obviously,” Dickinson said his job will be simply to present solid facts and leave the action up to managers. “It’s not meant to be an adversarial effort, it’s meant to be a collaborative effort,” he said.

Retired Carnival Cruise Lines CEO back as consultant

Panama City 3rd Least Expensive Capitol City

CNN Travel discovers Panama City. Big city life without Sharia law.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(CNN) — When the Economist Intelligence Unit released its most recent Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, the spotlight, as ever, fell on the world’s most expensive cities.

Tokyo came in on top of the pile of places that drain the color from your wallet, while Osaka and Sydney were second and third.

But what about the other end of the spectrum — how about a holiday where you can live it up without hemorrhaging cash?

The world’s cheapest city is Tehran, Iran, followed by Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both have rich heritages, but Iran and Saudi Arabia are better known for generating controversial headlines than attracting tourists.

014In third place, however, Panama City popped up. The Central American country is best known for hats and a canal — now we’ve got a reason to make sure our passport is up to date!

Over the past decade, Panama has enjoyed the fastest growing economy in Latin America.

As a result, new hotels and restaurants have sprouted across the capital. Healthy competition is keeping standards high, and Panama City has a plethora of top-quality, luxury experiences for cut prices.
Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.

Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.

Logistics

Before stepping foot outside the airport, you’ve started saving. All tourists arriving at Tocumen International Airport are given travel insurance for 30 days. It is granted by the Panamanian Tourism Authority; the government has provided the service since it signed an $8 million deal with Assicurazioni Generali.

Next up: cash. The Panamanian balboa is linked with the dollar and the two currencies are interchangeable, so there’s no paying a commission for changing currency.

As for airport transfers, a standard taxi to the city center costs $25. You could arrive in style with a Panama Luxury Limousine for $88.50. The same service would cost $145 in Rio de Janeiro, or $427 in Tokyo.

More cents can be saved (and you can do your bit for the environment) by avoiding bottled water. Tap water in Panama City is safe to drink, not a given in the region.

Hotels

Waldorf Astoria Panama – Latin America’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel opened in March 2013.  Book early and rooms start from $159.  Located on Calle Uruguay, aka “restaurant row,” the 248 rooms have metallic, glass and crystal decor designed by Miami-based Ba-Haus/KNF. A stay here certainly doesn’t feel like skimping. The outdoor swimming pool is covered in gold tiles, there’s a swanky spa and each guest is given a personal concierge. Overseen by head chef Kalych Padro Alvarado, four restaurants include a sushi bar and a French brasserie.Waldorf Astoria Panama, 47th and Uruguay Streets; rooms from $159; +507 294 8000

Casa del Horno – Founded in 1501, Panama was a Spanish colony for three centuries. Known as Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.015Casa  del Horno (Oven House) sits on a colorful cobbled street in Casco Viejo. Surrounded by churches and plazas, it’s one of many colonial buildings to be renovated in recent years, making Casco Viejo feel like Cartagena in neighboring Colombia. Built in the 1850s, the eight-room hotel was originally a bakery. Stone walls remain, alongside art deco wooden furniture and all the modern fixtures, including LCD TVs and iPod docks. The hotel’s cafe and restaurant are reached via the pavement, avoiding the clinical feel that can befall hotel restaurants. Casa del Horno, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 212 0052; rooms from $250 for two-person suite. Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel\’s rooftop bar. Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar.

Tantalo Hotel – The year-old Tantalo Hotel has 12 rooms, each designed by a different Panamanian artist. Designs range from gentle and flowery to seductive, with red-and-black walls and silver ceiling studs. Downstairs, a “living wall” is made from 900 lush plants. The restaurant dishes up Panama-style tapas, such as octopus with lemongrass and ginger. Cocktails, wine and several dishes to share will cost around $30 a head. Each month, paintings in the communal areas change. “The idea is for the fourth floor to be like an art gallery that you can wander around with a drink,” says assistant manager Catalina Bermudez. The big, buzzing rooftop bar has panoramic views and hosts events including a monthly Cuban music evening. Tantalo, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 262 4030; rooms from $120

Canal House – Canal House is a creaky 19th-century mansion in Casco Viejo, and checking in feels like staying with a stately aunt. With just three suites set around a large wooden staircase, this high-end guesthouse is owned by two sisters and loved for its quirky charm and homemade cooking. It was called “the finest accommodation that exists in Panama,” by Panama 980 magazine. Canal House, Calle 5a Este; +507 228-1907; rooms from $195, suites from $320

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Dining and nightlife

Restaurante Angel (Via Argentina No. 6868, El Cangrejo; +507 263 6411) is the city’s special occasion Spanish restaurant. You’ll get impeccably prepared seafood, beef, lamb and rabbit in an elegant setting with crisp service for around $20-25 per person, not including drinks.

There’s big food and big atmosphere for reasonable prices at Las Bovedas (Plaza Francia; +507 228 8058), a French restaurant set in the arched vaults of a 300-year-old fort in Casco Viejo. Fresh seafood, steaks, snails (it’s a signature dish) and great service are the hallmarks at this dressy classic.

Panamanian food is a mix of European, Asian and African tastes. The best way to experience the fusion is at Maito (Calle 50, Coco del Mar; +507 391 4657). It’s not often you order plantain hash with fried ceviche and come out smiling. Then there’s the ropa vieja main of shredded beef with a goat cheese sauce. Panamanian chef Mario Castrellón trained in Barcelona and returned to his hometown with a mission to start a “new gastronomy” inspired by the canal — the idea being that the waterway literally brings these different influences to the city.

For the indecisive gourmand, Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, +507 228 4640) serves a set nine-course tasting menu for $36 per person. Busy and smart, yet relaxed, the open kitchen churns out seafood, meat and vegetable dishes made with local ingredients, the majority of which come straight from chef Caracol’s farm. Highlights include seafood bisque, corn tortilla with chorizo, and coconut fish curry with yuca tortillas.

Not exactly luxury but tasty and cheap all the same, Mercado del Marisco seafood market (Avenida Balboa and Calle Eloy Alfaro) is a great place to wander. When Anthony Bourdain came to Panama, this was his first stop. Here you’ll find rows of al fresco stalls selling ceviche for $1.25 a cup. There’s also an upstairs restaurant with a larger menu with hearty fish stews and filleted sea bass.

New Casco Viejo coffeehouse Bajareque sells the world’s most expensive coffee, Geisha, for a reasonable $6.50 a cup. Panama is the world’s only producer of this rare coffee, which typically retails for $172.50 per kilo. Fitting for its name, Geisha coffee mainly sells in Japan and costs $50 a cup at Tokyo coffee shops like Horiguchi Coffee.

The primary nightlife spots are Calle Uruguay and Casco Viejo, both of which are lined with places to sample Panama’s four national beers, Panama, Balboa, Suarana and Atlas, for a couple of dollars.

In Casco Viejo, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro y Calle 12 Este; +507 212 0152), isn’t just the hottest dance spot in the city, it’s an atmospheric salsa hall that recalls the elegance of old Cuba and Ricky Ricardo style. Live bands typically don’t hit the stage until midnight. For a typical $10 cover you’ll find fewer better shows (or more fun) anywhere.

Then there’s Barlovento (Calle 10 A; +507 6613 4345), a tropical-style rooftop bar where the beautifuls hang. With views over Casco Viejo (rather than the Panama City skyline over at Tántalo) and a DJ playing a mix of electronic music and Latin beats, the place is pumping on the weekends. Again there’s a $10 cover charge (if you’re male that is; women enter free) but you’d easily pay a $25 cover for the same deal in Mexico City.
The Panama Canal is one of the world\’s top man-made attractions.
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s top man-made attractions.

Attractions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPanama Viejo – The oldest section of the city, Panama Viejo was burned to the ground in the late 17th century by British pirate (or privateer, depending who you ask) Sir Henry Morgan. The crumbling remains of towers, forts and houses run along the coast waiting to be explored. The visitors center has a model showing the city before Morgan showed up. Panama Viejo; +507 226 8915; $3 for museum, $4 for ruins, $6 for both; open Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Volendam Mar 08 095Panama Canal – The Panama Canal took 250,000 people more than 10 years to build (not counting the original failed French-led effort), transports 40 boats each day (taking eight to 10 hours per transit) and costs an average of $85,000 per vessel. Luckily, tours are a little less, and a partial transit with Canal & Bay Tours costs $135 per person, including breakfast, lunch and transfer though two sets of locks. The Panama Canal celebrates its centenary in 2014, and to mark the occasion it’s undergoing a $5.25 billion modernization and expansion.

Progress is best viewed from above. Air Charter Panama arranges one-hour helicopter tours covering the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the canal from $749 for three passengers in a Robinson R44.

Camels in Panama

One of the benefits of the Panama Canal expansion project is that it has opened a new window to scientific understanding of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and it’s importance as “The Bridge of Life”.

According to Ari Daniel Shapiro . . .

When the Panama Canal was first built a century ago, it unearthed scientific treasure – countless fossils and geological clues to Panama’s past. But once the construction stopped, the jungle rushed back in, blanketing the land and concealing the geology.

“You couldn’t read the history anymore – you didn’t know where to look for fossils,” says Eldredge Bermingham, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama City. “As a result, our understanding of the history of Panama was sort of frozen in time in 1914.”

Now, though, the canal is being widened, and what lies beneath this slab of Earth is once again being revealed.
Unearthing the Past

Next to the canal, on a slope that has been graded by heavy machinery, Tony Singerhouse chisels away at the soft rock. Singerhouse is a field assistant with the Florida Museum of Natural History, and he just found a small fossil.

“It’s a jaw of a protoceratid,” he explains. (A protoceratid is an extinct relative of cattle and goats.) The fossilized jaw is embedded in four chunks of rock.

“So we will take it back to the lab and we will glue it together,” he says.

Tony Singerhouse of the Florida Museum of Natural History holds up his latest find – a jaw of a protoceratid, an extinct relative of cattle and goats. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

This fossil comes from 20 million years ago. At that time, North and South America were separated by about 150 miles of salt water. Panama was the southernmost extent – the edge – of North America.

That makes Panama an interesting place for scientists to learn about the animals that were living here before the land bridge between the continents was formed – before crossing over into South America became possible.

Many of the fossils turning up in Panama come from species that were known to live much farther north – as far north as the Dakotas. A discovery of a specimen here can mean a doubling of an animal’s known range.

University of Florida paleontologist Aaron Wood says, “That’s why this particular locality is important. We’re seeing a record of animals that were able to adapt to a diverse range of habitats.”

Recent digs have revealed a rich array of animals that lived here 20 million years ago, including miniature horses and tiny camels just a couple of feet tall. There was also a fearsome predator the size of a black bear, called a bear dog.

Over the last several years, scientists have taken the number of species they used to think lived here and multiplied it by a factor of ten.

Scientists are now filling in a detailed portrait of the animals and plants that were here at the moment when North and South America finally made contact.

But Eldredge Bermingham of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute says this burst of discovery will not continue much longer.

“[What will] happen is the expansion is going to finish, there’s not going to be new digs, those landscapes will overgrow just as they did 100 years ago,” he says. “And as a result, we’ll pretty quickly see a dramatic reduction in new discoveries.”

The canal expansion project is scheduled to finish by the fall of 2014, which is when this window on Earth’s history will begin to close. [PRI The World]

And then there is this article from Real Science by Michael Bradbury . . .

Paleontologists got a brief glimpse into Earth’s tropical past when the U.S. built the Panama Canal Zone almost 100 years ago. But the scientific world didn’t know what was there until the unearthed fossils housed at the Smithsonian were studied and Frank Whitmore and Robert Stewart published the first paper on Panamanian fossils at the end of the 1960s.

At the time they determined that South America was a giant island continent with its own diverse and unusual animal life until the isthmus of Panama grew through uplifting of tectonic plates, connecting North and South America and cutting off the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific.

With the Discovery of Ancient Camels 20 Million Years Ago, Tectonic History Needs Revision

A few years ago the largest expansion of the Panama Canal began and the $5.2 billion project is giving scientists another glimpse of our tropical geological past. This time, a PhD candidate from the University of Florida unexpectedly found camel fossils while doing field excavations at the construction site in Panama.

Aldo Rincon found the fossils of two species of small camel that roamed the area 23 million years ago, well before North and South America were joined together. Researchers from Panama, the U.S. and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute also report finding fossils of horses and marine vertebrates, including ancient marlins and turtles.

Rincon says he was very excited when he took the fossil pieces back to his lab in Gainsville and began piecing them back together. He realized that he had a nearly complete camel jaw that had been nearly perfectly preserved beneath a greenish coating of volcanic ash. He says, “It’s something like Pompeii.”

The 33-year-old researcher was most surprised by the camel’s teeth. He says they are crocodilian and is still trying to figure out why. Other paleontologists who have been following the fossil find for a couple of years believe that modern camels have flat teeth because they eat grass. Ancient camels may have needed sharp teeth to cut into fruit and thick foliage found in the area.

Lower Jaw of Aguascalietia Panamaensis, A New Species of Ancient Camel, Courtesy of University of Florida

So far five camel fossils have been recovered from the Panama Canal expansion project. Four belong to the larger species, which looked little like a modern camel. Besides having no hump, they probably only stood about three feet tall.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute biologist Carlos Jamarillo says, “It was like a little dog.”

The discovery by Florida Museum of Natural History researchers extends the distribution of mammals to their southernmost point in the ancient tropics of Central America. The tropics are home to the world’s most important ecosystems, including rain forests that regulate climate systems and serve as a vital source of food and medicine, yet little is known of their history because lush vegetation prevents paleontological excavations.

Bruce MacFadden, vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida museum and co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant funding the project says, “We’re discovering this fabulous new diversity of animals that lived in Central America that we didn’t even know about before.”

Jamarillo says scientists never expected to find a camel in the canal zone. He adds, “It’s really, really a surprise.”

Part of the reason that it’s such a surprise is that scientists thought they had pinpointed the date that North and South America joined together. But they may be wrong, given the discovery of these mammal fossils.

Researchers have long thought the isthmus of Panama rose about 3.5 million years ago, but now that scientists have discovered a camel species living in the area so much earlier, that hypothesis is being questioned.

Before Rincon and his team found the camel fossils in Panama, no one had spotted camels south of Mexico. The camel family likely originated in Florida and Texas about 30 million years ago and spread across most of North America and changed as they migrated south.

A construction project near San Francisco unearthed some ancient camel bones a couple years ago that dated back 11 million years. The camels Josh Wyatt at PaleoResource found in the Caldecott Tunnel excavation were from giant camels that he says were probably the size of giraffes.

Rincon made the Panamanian camel discovery over a two-year period but didn’t publish until recently. The study appears in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Since 2007, when the multi-year excavation project began, thousands of fossils have been recovered and sent to labs across the Americas for analysis.

Until the expansion project is finished and the new canal channels opened paleontologists will follow the footprint of the construction, searching for lost moments in geologic time, trying to piece together the planet’s past through the fossil record.

It really is a World Wide Web!

I thought you’d find it interesting to see where the folks are from who’ve visited this blog in the past 12 months!  Amazing!  It truly is a World Wide Web that is linking us together.

Web Visitors Feb 12-Feb 13

More Postcards

Cool Runnings?? The PANAMA BOBSLED TEAM!

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Panama Bobsled Team! It’s called THE SPIRIT OF PANAMA!

This works best if you let it download and then watch the whole video.

Those scratchy bug bites . . .

OK, we do have bugs in Panama.  Lots and lots of bugs.  But in Boquete VERY few mosquitoes!  Rarely do I see, hear or get bitten by mosquitoes.  But I lived in Wisconsin where during the summer you were attacked by hordes of mosquitoes.  Maybe my blood has developed some immunity, who knows.  But occasionally you do get bitten.  A local expat Gringo produces and markets something called Gruber’s Jungle Oil which a lot of folks, including my wife, swear by for stopping the itch from insect bites.

Recently a friend told me about another sure-fire cure for insect bite itching.  The product that is good for everything under the sun . . . WD 40!  Who knew?

A lot of folks who’ve never been to Panama worry about insect bites when they are on Panama Canal Cruises and wonder how much DEET they need to bring.  Or they visit tropical medicine specialists who load them up with expensive anti-malaria pills.  If you are transiting the Canal you’re unlikely to see an insect let alone get bitten.  The Canal channel is far from shore and frequently, especially at this time of year the wind is blowing so no bugs.  If you are going deep into the jungle, maybe on a trip in a little boat around Gatun Lake, a rainforest hike, or visiting the Embera deep in the Chagres National Park you may want to take along some bug repellant to use sparingly, and only if needed.

Speaking of bugs . . .

Unknown Insect aYes, there are loads of insects in Panama and one of the wonders of Panama is that almost every week we discover an insect that we’ve never seen before.  Last night I saw this fellow sitting on the arm of the couch.  At first I thought it was just a big piece of lint, or had a bird wandered into the living room and pooped on the couch?  Then I noticed it had four (four!) legs sticking out in front and was shaped something like a tiny, furry delivery truck.

Unknown InsectSo we grabbed our cameras and were shooting it from various angles.  Finally I decided to poke it and see what happened.  Amazingly, like a little boy’s transformer toy, it sprouted wings and flew!  If anyone knows any thing about our strange bug I’d like to know.

After 8 years in Panama we are still discovering new roads, new bugs, and new experiences some of which are delightfully decadent!

Speaking of delightfully decadent . . .

Boquete is known for its wonderful strawberries.  Having lived in Ventura County for twenty years, I’m well acquainted with strawberries.  Strawberries are a major crop in Oxnard which every year had a huge Strawberry Festival.  During the season we’d buy huge flats of strawberries and make OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAshortcake and fresh strawberry daiquirís.  But over the years we lived in Ventura something happened.  The very flavorful strawberry varieties were replaced by berries that looked better and most importantly were easier to ship and lasted longer.  They looked fantastic but the flavor wasn’t nearly as good.

Boquete strawberries are smaller, less perfect, but have amazing flavor and you can get them almost year-round.  So there are several roadside places that sell strawberries and amazing strawberry concoctions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since our daughter Rebecca OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAis visiting, Nikki and Rebecca were off exploring and driving some of the roads around Boquete.  The nice thing about Boquete is that you can take off on almost any road and eventually they all lead back to Bajo Boquete, our little town nestled in the mountains.  Bec and Nikki stopped at on one of the little strawberry cafes in Las Naranjas and had fresh strawberry ice cream and strawberries in real almond cream.

Joining the world . . . the Panama Canal

Work on the expansion of the Panama Canal continues day and night while US ports scramble to catch up so that when the super carriers are transiting the Canal they will have the facilities to accommodate the giant ships carrying up to 15,000 containers vs. the 7,000 container ships that can now fit through the existing Canal.  It is now a given that the Canal expansion will not be completed on schedule but will probably take another year to complete making the opening date in 2015 instead of 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the Canal.  This video by the ACP gives you a good idea of the enormity of the project . . .

If you are even thinking about a Canal Cruise, are going soon, or have cruised the Canal in the past you will want to get a copy of my book CRUISING THE PANAMA CANAL – CENTENNIAL EDITION.

I’m happy that I read Cruising the Panama Canal before our trip. I especially enjoyed having information about the Canal from south to north since we started our cruise in California and ended in Florida. I kept it with me the entire day during our journey through this awesome area. Nancy Robbins

Eco Tourism in Panama

In the past when people talked Eco Tourism in Central America they generally thought of Costa Rica, but Panama is quickly becoming the destination of choice for eco tourists.  From USA TODAY . . .

Panama is made up of a bridge of land that unites North and South America, together with numerous islands. Tourism is relatively new to Panama, which is currently viewed as an “off-the-beaten-track” type of destination, popular with backpackers. The country is so ecologically diverse, with rain forests, mountains, cloud forests and beautiful coastlines, that it has a great deal of potential for eco-tourism.

The government of Panama foresees that tourism will become a major contributor to the country’s economy in the future, as well as a sustainable source of employment for indigenous rural communities. It is therefore keen to develop a tourism infrastructure, which at present barely exists, and is determined to do so in a responsible manner that will conserve native flora and fauna and preserve the national culture. There is currently no national master plan for tourism, but Costa Rica’s model for nature-friendly tourism is being followed in some regions. There are also plans for creating eco-resorts within the Panama Canal Watershed.

Some rural communities are already involved in small-scale eco-tourism ventures, but research carried out within the Panama Canal Watershed suggests that both Latino and indigenous communities would be interested in working within the eco-tourism sector. Men would consider becoming guides for nature or adventure tourism, while women were most interested in craft making, educational activities, such as sharing their knowledge of medicinal plants, and providing food and accommodation.

With over 10,000 species of native plants, 1,500 types of trees, more than a thousand species of birds and miles of vulnerable coral reef habitats, wildlife conservation is taken extremely seriously in Panama. Almost 29 percent of the country is occupied by national parks, wildlife refuges and forest reserves, which are managed by the Government Agency for the Protection of Natural Resources. Darien National Park, one of Panama’s largest, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of these protected areas, such as the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, are already important tourist attractions, offering nature trekking, bird watching and water sports.

Eco-adventure activities available in Panama include swimming, rock climbing, kayaking, whitewater rafting and snorkeling, as well as guided hikes into the forests and mountains with the opportunity to take an aerial ride through the forest canopy on a zip line. Jungle boat rides at Gatun Lake are a good way of seeing monkeys, sloths and iguanas, while a visit to an indigenous tribal settlement provides a cultural learning experience. The Emberas, along the upper reaches of the Chagres River, are particularly welcoming and happy to share their culture with visitors.

Recently at a pre Super Bowl party I was chatting with Lyn Mckee who has followed this blog for years. Her and her husband Eric run a small eco lodge overlooking the Caribbean called Rambala Jungle Lodge.

No “green washing” here (using an eco theme because it sells, rather than actually being eco-friendly), Lyn and Eric have created a small lodge with a maximum of 10 guests with a minimal footprint and where all of the construction has been using dead fall wood from trees blown over by the winds. It’s simple accommodation, great meals cooked by Lyn, with amazing opportunities to explore.

While life at Rambala is basic and relatively inexpensive, on the other side of the Isthmus is the newly opened Isla Palenque Resort located on an island just off Boca Chica.  The resort is totally nestled within the island.  We cruised by a few weeks ago and from the water you could barely  see the corner of one building.

Isla Palenque is a resort/development that eventually will 220 homes and 80 hotel rooms with a sustainable development approach designed to preserve the island. The development footprint is projected to take up only 5% of the island.  At the resort the tented suite shown at the left goes for an all-inclusive rate from $299 to $569 a night while the more traditional “estate rooms” run from $299 to $799 a night.  Interestingly no matter how much you pay for your home site here, guest or resident, it costs $20 each way to take the 30-40 minute launch ride from Boca Chica to the island unless you have your own helicopter and I see no mention of a proposed helipad despite the pricey real estate.  There’s a great article about Isla Palenque in OCEAN HOME.