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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Panama: The Bridge of Life

20 million years ago there was no Panama. The ocean covered Panama what is today the Isthmus of Panama and the gap between continents allowed the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to flow freely. Beneath the surface, two plates of the Earth’s crust were slowly colliding into one another, forcing the Pacific Plate to slide slowly under the Caribbean Plate. The pressure and heat caused by this collision led to the formation of underwater volcanoes. These submarine volcanoes built up under the ocean until eventually they stuck their heads above the waters and 15 million years ago islands begin to emerge. Over millions of more years ocean sediment (sand, mud, soil) fills in between islands. The seeds of mangrove trees took root and their roots trapped more sediment until eventually dry land formed. By about 3 million years ago, an isthmus had formed between North and South America.

Scientists believe the formation of the Isthmus of Panama is one of the most important geologic events to happen on Earth in the last 60 million years. The Isthmus of Panama became the bridge of life linking together the continents. In North America the opossum, armadillo, and porcupine all trace back to ancestors that came across the land bridge from South America. Ancestors of bears, cats, dogs, horses, llamas, and raccoons all made the trek to South America across the isthmus.

It is in celebration of Panama’s role as the bridge of life that an exciting new biodiversity museum will open this summer on the banks of the Panama Canal on Amador Peninsula. This exciting and dramatic museum structure will be viewed by everyone using the Panama Canal as well as by visitors arriving by air. It is designed by the noted architect Frank Gehry who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Experience Music project in Seattle. The key to getting Gehry to design this exciting building: his wife is Panamanian. The design is intended to reflect the colliding of tectonic plates that brought the Isthmus of Panama into existence and the official name of the museum is “The Bridge of Life: Museum of Biodiversity.

Interestingly, while it was under construction and just steel I-beams stuck into the ground at odd angles, I had a guest on a cruise ship ask me, “What is that thing that looks like a bombed out building?”

Also planned for the Amador Peninsula are a new international conference and convention center and a new cruise center that will allow ships to dock next door in the Balboa area.

Here is a sneak preview of what to expect . . .

So what happened? Near miss in the Panama Canal

You will remember back in November I posted this incredible footage . . .

The pilot loses control of a 57,000 deadweight bulk carrier [built 2012 estimated $24.5 Million value] which comes within about a meter of taking out the rail/automobile bridge crossing the Chagres River. Due to the efforts by the tug boat/captain and the vessel’s crew dropping the anchor (see splash) they were able to just barely divert a serious accident. Go ahead – click the picture!

So what happened? Well if you watch the following video, with subtitles in English, you can see the Panama Canal ceremony honoring the pilot who prevented an accident and find out what happened.

13 Years Since The Canal Was Turned Back to Panama: How Has Panama Done?

Zuiderdam 1357There were a lot of naysayers in the final days of the US occupation of the Canal Zone who predicted Panama could never run the Canal successfully and would probably destroy it.  So what is the record?  How has Panama done?

Quite well, actually.  Not only in the stewardship, maintenance and expansion of the Canal but also in the business of running the Canal.  Today the Canal is making money for the country hand over fist.

The Panama Canal celebrates 13 years under Panamanian administration.

During this period, the Canal has strengthened its role in international commerce as a result of investment in the modernization of its infrastructure, its expansion and an alliance with its natural surroundings.

“The Panama Canal reaffirms its relevance in international commerce more than ever as a result of the decisions and actions that Panamanians have taken with regard to its management,” said Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Luis Quijano.

Quijano highlighted that the Panamanian management model has enabled the efficient and safe operation of the Canal, allowing it to offer a world-class service. Furthermore, its sustainable and profitable management generates increasing contributions to Panama’s development.

A Cutting-Edge Canal


Under Panamanian stewardship, the Canal has invested US$2.09 billion in several projects to update its operational infrastructure and has acquired new equipment, guaranteeing its clients an efficient, safe and competitive service.

The main projects developed during these 13 years include:PC/UMS tonnage during the most recent fiscal years of the Panama Canal:

- Straightening and widening of Gaillard Cut.

- Purchase of floating equipment, including tugboats, a cutter-suction dredge and a backhoe/dipper dredge.

- Replacement of the original lock system from electromechanical to hydraulic.

- Replacement of locomotives and the rehabilitation of the locomotive tracks in the locks.

- Reforestation programs with more than 2 million planted saplings in the Canal Watershed.

In addition, there is a list of projects currently underway such as the construction of the new bridge on the Atlantic side of the Canal, which will foster the development of this region.

Furthermore, a new Visitors Observation Center, with a view to the expansion work on the Atlantic side of the Canal, was inaugurated in 2012.


In 2007, the Panama Canal expansion project began as a result of a widespread approval by Panamanians in a national referendum. The Expansion Program will create a new lane of traffic along the Canal by building a new set of locks which will allow the transit of bigger ships with more capacity.

After five years, the project has generated 28,690 direct jobs. On September 20, 2012, the awarded contracts totaled US$4.3 billion.

As of November 30, 2012, the Expansion Program registered an overall progress of 48.9 percent, with several components almost completed – mainly the dredging works at the Panama Canal entrances on the Pacific and Atlantic sides.

The Panama Canal Watershed

In the past 13 years, the Panama Canal has maintained a natural synergy with its surroundings and the communities that live in the Panama Canal Watershed. This ensures the conservation of the environment and the protection of water resources which are essential for human consumption as well as for the waterway’s operation.

As part of the efforts to sustain the natural resources of the watershed during this period, the Panama Canal Authority encouraged the delivery of more than 10,000 land titles to its inhabitants and works with them in several reforestation, environmental education and economic incentive programs to improve their quality of life.  [PanCanal news release]

April ll Volendam 192

“If I Were Not Upon The Sea”

There are many traditions that have evolved over the years on board cruise ships, some good, some bad, some indifferent.  “If I Were Not Upon The Sea” is a spoofy skit [or read goofy if you prefer], drug out over the years by cruise directors and their staff and involves a lot of pawing, double entendre and generally burlesque humor.  And, maybe unfortunately, it still makes occasional appearances on board.  One night you may be entertained by a show that cost $1.6 million to produce (that is the figure given by the cruise director for Princess’ “British Invasion” which to date has only been used on one ship with a mostly British audience).  The next night, in these days of cutting budgets wherever possible, the evening show might be a crew variety show with a highlight being the cruise staff’s production of “If I Were Not Upon The Sea.”  Knock offs of old TV game shows featuring passenger participation are also a low-cost favorite.  Ironic: one night a $1.6 million show and the next night a knock-off of “To Tell The Truth.”

When I started on cruise ships, in the late 60′s, it was a different world.  Holland America had a Dutch crew.  My table for two (the Roman Catholic priest and I) had a waiter and bus boy who ONLY served our table, plus a wine steward and bar steward standing by. Entertainment, such as it was, usually included an aging dance duo, a dance band, and a soloist.  A few spotlights, no stage, no production crew, simple, and frankly rather boring.  There were movies in a genuine theater, all of which was followed by a sumptuous and lavishly presented midnight buffet.  There was no casino.  The purser organized bingo games and tracked the money to insure that all the money paid in was returned to the winning passengers.   The cruise director would tell you what to do in the ports and where to shop, and when in port you’d see the cruise director visiting all the stores and attractions to collect his money.  Cruise directors in those days lived large and they all had nice villas somewhere.  Cruising was expensive but it WAS an all-inclusive vacation.

Volendam Mar 08 004Well life has changed!  I was on Holland America when they announced they were scuttling the Dutch crew.  My wife was on Cunard when they announced they were terminating the British crew.  Today’s crews, although wonderful and without attitude, are mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe.  On most ships today a waiter and assistant waiter take care of three  to five tables, including getting bar drinks and being the expert on wine.  There may be one sommelier on the entire ship!    And all he revenue from the ports and the shops and the Bingo goes to the cruise line.  I remember when Carnival started up and all the other cruise lines looked down their noses at Carnival.  Royal Caribbean introduced 6 slot machines, tucked away in the dark corner of an upper deck, for gamblers (presumably and other degenerates) who simply had to gamble no matter what.  Now the casino is the most prominent location on most ships.

“All-inclusive”: you’ve GOT to be kidding!  Expect to pay extra for everything.  You want the “good” food: pay for it.  Forget about the Midnight Buffet [which was an extravagant waste anyway].  Food is all portion controlled which not only cuts cost but is better for the environment as well as the health of passengers.  Entertainment has changed as well.  Cruise lines will do almost anything to be “different”, so much so that “different” on cruise ships now consists of being the same as everyone else.  Cruise lines are like lemmings.  One line introduces something, then everyone follows suit.

One of the early concerns about cruise marketing was something called “commoditization.”  [Defined by Wikipedia as: "the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers."]  The fear was that eventually cruise lines would compete solely on price and cruising would become a commodity .  There would be nothing unique about the experience or about a particular cruise line.  So everyone has big-screen, outdoor movies, circus acts, and $1.6 Million shows.  Cruising has become Vegas at sea and people love it!  Cruising is big business and is making big bucks.  Don’t let the price competition fool you: that’s commoditalization.  Royal, regal, majestic, princely . . . think of any of the royal terms you can imagine.  Let the marketing departments go wild with promises, but the bottom line . . . What determines what you get – as usual – is the price.

When I started cruise ships had a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and a Protestant Chaplain who was sometimes me.  Eventually they dropped the Rabbi, except on High Holy Days, and now most cruises don’t even have a Rabbi then.  The Protestant Chaplain was the next to go, except on Easter and Christmas, and now many cruises just have the cruise staff fill in and read some kind of generic service designed to create warm feelings.  Last to go, the Catholic priest.  Every accommodation that can be sold is sold.  And most people don’t care since they are on vacation and if you’re getting away you might as well get away from church as well.

The other thing we used to worry about when I had cruise only travel agencies was something I called “peeling the onion.”   Twenty years ago we’d watch as cruise lines eliminated one thing, then another, all to cut costs.  My concern was that if you remove enough layers from the onion, pretty soon there is nothing left!  But the cruise industry has, successfully I might add, been peeling the onion for twenty years and continues to do so cutting back here, there and everywhere, hoping that customers either don’t notice or don’t care.  And since the customers keep coming back . . .  Anything that does not create onboard revenue is, or will soon be, history.   Theaters don’t create revenue, so you either watch a movie while swimming or on your stateroom TV, but don’t worry about missing anything because these are the same movies you’ve been seeing for  years.  The shows are there to entertain you, but also to give you the opportunity to buy drinks.  But that too may be changing.  Norwegian Cruise Line has introduced a “Dinner & Show” extra where, by combining two previously free items, they can charge $25-35!

Set in the 217-seat, two-floor Spiegel Tent, Cirque Dreams is a theater-in-the-round show with a surreal mix of motor-mouth monologues, singing, acrobatics, audience participation and food. Reviews have been mixed; those who like it really like it, and those who don’t have a viscerally negative reaction.

Everything is for sale!  On board shopping malls with the same “special discount” sales every cruise.  Teeth whitening, acupuncture, Botox, dozens of spa “treatments” making promises that would never pass FDA muster.  Cruise lines used to pride themselves in their onboard collection of art: now it’s all art for sale.  Pictures, videos, coffee cards, soda cards, good brewed coffee, ice cream, quality food, tours of the ship, special luggage  handling, Internet, special suck up treatment from the staff . . . you name it and it’s for sale. And it’s probably only a matter of time before plastic surgery is offered as well! “Oh, after your world cruise Janet you look so much younger!”

Cruise Critic, an online forum popular with frequent cruisers and where I occasionally contribute on the “Panama Canal” board, has a fascinating article Nickel and Dimed? 22 Cruise Ship ‘Added Fees’ Compared  that’s well-worth reading.  It’s not just one cruise line, but across the board everyone is scheming and dreaming up ways to make more on board revenue.  Cruise Critic readers were allowed to vote and hands down the most obnoxious extra was . . . drum roll! . . . Royal Caribbean for charging an extra $15 – $37.50 + 15% gratuity for the items they know guests love to eat and have always been staple menu items in the main dining room.   Nothing special here . . .  other than the added charge.

On several of its ships, Royal Caribbean’s main dining room menus encourage passengers to celebrate their cravings with a $15 filet or $37.50 surf ‘n’ turf. Since cruise-time immemorial, these options were fee-free on at least one night in the MDR. The freebies are still there in some capacity, but they’re shrinking in size and, many say, quality. But what might be more frightening than the food is the confusing 15 percent gratuity Royal levies. The food is certainly unique; the service and venue are not. There is no special presentation of the lobster, no dancing crustacean or opera-singing claw.

You gotta admit, these guys have balls!

Now I have a vested interest in this.  Years ago, when it was relatively cheap, I bought Carnival stock, Princess stock [now UK Carnival stock], and Royal Caribbean.  The stocks have done well and I’ve made money.  I know people like to grouse, complain and winge about all the extra charges on board, but the fact is that it is the onboard revenue that makes the difference between profit and loss.  And the cruise line makes a whole lot less than you might expect.

Consider this breakdown from WORLD CRUISE INDUSTRY REVIEW:

Cruise Passenger Spending

I’m sure most cruise passengers assume that the cruise line is making a whole lot more than 10.7% before taxes [and taxes are another whole issue]!

The mantra for working on board a ship as well as in the cruise industry is “Things Change”!  And they do.  Face it: most people could NOT afford to have taken those cruises back in the late 60′s.  Today most people can afford to cruise and cruising is one of the most cost-effective ways to vacation and see the world.