Panama: Bridging Two Worlds

In many ways, both literally and figuratively, Panama is a bridge between two worlds: north and south, rich and poor, past and present. This was a common theme throughout our first full day on the isthmus as we enjoyed a hot, mosquito-free tour in and around Panama City.
First stop … the Panama Canal, a check off the bucket list for many of us. Completed in 1914, this modern world wonder took 10 years to build and cost thousands of lives. Three locks along the canal enable ships to travel from sea level to 54 feet elevation and back to sea level during the span of an 8-10 hour, 48-mile journey. We saw two Panamax ships (the largest allowed) navigate the Miraflores Locks, located a few minutes from the Doubletree in downtown Panama City. Because our visit was in the morning, the vessels were heading to the Atlantic (north) from the Pacific (south). In the afternoon, traffic flows the other direction. At night, smaller vessels travel north and south simultaneously. Nearby, crews are busy trying to finish the new locks that will expand capacity and enable bigger ships to pass.
We learned a new word during the bus ride. Our guide extraordinaire, Kenny, explained that “Zonians” were/are U.S. citizens living in the Canal Zone. Prior to reverting back to Panama in 1999, land within a certain proximity of the canal was sovereign to the U.S. While most Americans are gone the infrastructure remains. Many of the buildings, with red tile roofs, looked like they were plucked from Santa Barbara’s historic district.
The former Zonian neighborhood is a stark contrast to the El Carrillo district. The two areas, not far apart in distance, are worlds apart in every other way. The one-time home of Manuel Noriega, El Carrillo remains impoverished and unsafe. The buildings are dilapidated, the streets filled with litter.
A closed road at the edge of El Carrillo forced us off the bus. The guide was clear: walk towards the left, away from where we’d been. Within a block or two another drastic transition was underway as we left El Carrillo and entered Casco Viejo. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town is undergoing an impressive transformation. Facades are being salvaged and buildings are getting a fresh coat of paint, although a healthy dose of grit remains. We stepped back in time and yet we remained in the shadows of towering skyscrapers, too many to count.
After lunch featuring classic Panamanian dishes (fried plantains, yucca, among others delicacies), we stopped at the Biomuseo. Here the important role Panama plays as a connector was evident. As the isthmus rose from the sea millions of years ago, animals passed back and forth between continents for the first time. Panama remains one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The museum provided a glimpse of the past while looking to the future. Designed by famous architect, Frank Gehry, whose wife is Panamanian, the museum was a nice way to end the tour.

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As the next few days in Panama unfold, we’ll see what other “bridges” we cross.