February 25 – The Innovative City

Our second day in Medellin started at 7 am by loading the bus for a tour of some the city’s projects that aided Medellin being titled 2015 World’s Most Innovative City. We arrived at the Metrocable system for our introduction to this unique form of public transportation and a ride up the mountain.  The metrocable is a gondola lift system implemented by the City Council of Medellín, with the purpose of providing public transportation service into downtown.  It was designed to reach some of the least developed suburban areas and is largely considered to be the first cable propelled transit system in South America. Since starting operations in 2004, it carries 30,000 people daily and is operationally integrated into the rest of Medellin’s mass transit system, including train and bus Metro systems. Currently it operates 3 lines, with another 2 coming into operation soon.DSC_3904



In the neighborhood known as Comuna 13, we visited another example of innovative urban transportation – the escalator system. Previously, residents had to climb 357 stairs to get into their neighborhood. The addition of the escalators has drastically improved the quality of life for these residents simply by making travel in their community easier.

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Escalators and the view from Comuna 13

Escalators and the view from Comuna 13

In addition to adding these public transportation systems, city planners incorporated public space and green space into the systems’ design. The public space is utilized in a variety of ways depending on the neighborhood; common uses include computer labs, public libraries and classrooms which hosts classes such as language, math, art, nutrition, and dance. Collectively, this has impacted these communities positively with increased community inclusiveness and decreased crime.

Our second morning appointment, took us back into downtown Medellin to meet with Rutan.  Rutan is a collection community minded individuals that are focused on driving innovative economic development their city. Their main objective is to position Medellín as the most innovative city in Latin America by 2021. They concentrate their strategic efforts in the following areas: intensive businesses science, technology and innovation, and sustainability.

Ruta N Headquarters

Ruta N Headquarters

We ate a fabulous lunch at a restaurant located inside the Medellin Botanical Gardens before heading towards the airport for our flight to Bogota. In a surprising travel twist our flight was moved up two hours and despite a very “Home Alone” like experience in the airport everybody and their luggage arrived safely in Bogota.

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Many of us took advantage of the extra few hours in Bogota to acquaint ourselves with the area near our hotel and take in some local night life. We met at Andre’s for a group dinner. Andre’s provided us a very festive and entertaining evening before retiring to the hotel.

PROCOLOMBIA, USDA-FAS, and Indiana Duck — Feb. 26

We kicked off Friday morning with a trek through Bogotá to our first meeting. One of our tour guides from The Colombian Project (http://colombianproject.com/) is a fifth-generation Bogotá native, so we learned a lot about the architecture and history of the city along the way. It’s a fascinating place complete with the most beautiful, historic homes nestled alongside modern office buildings.

The morning also included a stop at Juan Valdez for some authentic Colombian coffee. As you can imagine, more than a few pounds of freshly ground Juan Valdez came home to Indiana with us.

After sufficient caffeination, we headed off to the PROCOLOMBIA (http://www.procolombia.co/en) offices where we met with an adviser named Margarita. She explained to us that the role of the organization is to promote exports, tourism, foreign investment and the Colombian country brand worldwide.

A few facts about Colombia that we learned during our visit:
* Colombia is 2nd in the world in flower exports and is the 2nd largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
* Inflation rate of 6.7 percent.
* One of the top 20 countries worldwide for foreign direct investment (FDI).
* 33 percent of Colombian land use is for agriculture (27 percent cattle, 3 percent forestry, 2 percent crops, 1 percent other).
* 6.1 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is agricultural production.


ROOM WITH A VIEW — The PROCOLOMBIA conference room offered breathtaking views of Bogotá.


Colombia, PROCOLOMBIA, Agriculture

PROCOLOMBIA — Moderator Guy Shafer offers thanks to PROCOLOMBIA adviser Margarita on behalf of our class.














Following a quick stop at the national museum for lunch, we headed off for a meeting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (http://www.fas.usda.gov/regions/colombia). USDA-FAS focuses on creating and facilitating foreign markets for US exports, leads USDA’s efforts to help developing countries improve their agricultural systems and build their trade capacity, and works with foreign governments, international organizations, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to establish international standards and rules to improve accountability and predictability for agricultural trade.

Anthony Gilbert, Agricultural Attache, gave a fantastic presentation about agriculture’s role in the Colombian economy and the relationship between Colombia and the U.S.

Some facts Anthony shared:
* Coffee, cut flowers and bananas make up 82 percent of Colombia’s exports to the U.S.
* Colombian exports to the U.S. in 2015 totaled $2.43 billion.
* 51 percent of Colombia’s agricultural imports came from the U.S. in 2015, compared with just 17 percent in 2012.

Anthony explained that Colombia has a number of challenges in advancing trade capacities, including infrastructure problems, difficult logistics, high transport costs, overly bureaucratic new-product registration and port inspections, frequent political leadership changes, and protectionist influence in spite of trade agreements.

But he also explained that Colombia boasts a lot of opportunities. For example, income shifts have created fast-changing tastes and preferences suited to U.S. consumer-oriented products, causing consumer-oriented trade to jump by 167 percent between 2011 and 2014. Other opportunities include peace and stability, government support for trade alliances, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation Development accession, and the Pacific Alliance and Trans-Pacific Partnership. USDA-FAS in Colombia also has been working on an in-country campaign to promote U.S. food culture and agricultural products. It’s called SaborUSA and you can learn more at http://www.saborUSA.co.

We also had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Agricultural Counselor Michael Conlon and Agricultural Specialist Juan Gallego.

USDA-FAS, Colombia, Agriculture

FROM LEFT: Moderator Jennifer Stewart-Burton, Agricultural Specialist Juan Gallego, Agricultural Attache Anthony Gilbert, Agricultural Counselor Michael Conlon, and Moderator Guy Shafer.

It was no accident that we met with PROCOLOMBIA and USDA-FAS in the same day. Hearing from an organization charged with promoting Colombia, followed by a presentation by a U.S. agriculture representative in Colombia, completely enriched our experience. It offered us glimpses of Colombian trade and agriculture through two different lenses.

ALP Class 16 would like to offer our most sincere thanks to Maple Leaf Farms (http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/) for sponsoring our closing dinner in Colombia. It was a surreal and delicious experience for us to dine on Indiana duck at Niko Café in Bogotá. Our class had a wonderful time celebrating our two-week journey abroad and talking about what an amazing and enlightening experience it had been. Thank you for being part of it, Maple Leaf!

Tuesday – February 23, 2016 – ALP Forest Adventure


February 23, 2016

The focus of our adventures on Tuesday was the impact of corporate responsibility in Colombia.

We started our day by travelling to the City of Yumbo to visit CDI EI Caracoli—an early childhood development center. Caracoli is the result of a successful public-private partnership between the government of Colombia, the Smurfit Kappa Foundation, and the First Big Step Foundation. The government of Colombia contributes 70% percent of the capital at these facilities and each foundation jointly contributes the remaining funds.

Early development is a persistent issue afflicting impoverished and rural areas in Colombia. The purpose of Caracoli is to bridge the development gap between infancy and elementary school. Teachers at Caracoli are trained in-house and teach basic values and responsibilities to the children that may not otherwise be introduced at home.

Smiling students at the Early Education Center in Yumbo, Colombia.

At its inception in 2011, Caracoli served approximately 20 children ranging from 6 months to 6 years in age. Today, Caracoli educates over 400 students and has reached its full capacity due to site spacing limitations. Additionally, three other early development satellite centers have been established to serve other rural areas.

We were accompanied on the Caracoli tour by Maria Fernanda and Nicolas Pombo. Maria is the Assistant Director at Caracoli. She was able to answer specific questions from the group about the students, challenges at the facility, and the impacts of the center on the surrounding community. Nicolas (Krannert, 2000) is the Director of the Forestry Division at Smurfit Kappa and serves on the governance board of Caracoli on behalf of the company. It was quite apparent that Nicolas is every bit as passionate about his service at the childhood development centers as he is about his role at Smurfit Kappa.


After our visit at Caracoli, we toured the Smurfit Kappa Forestry Project in Valle del Cauca. The company operates a fully integrated forest plantation that grows eucalyptus and pine trees on approximately 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of highland property.


Nicolas presented on the social responsibility focus central to Smurfit Kappa’s presence in Colombia. Outside of the child development aspect, Smurfit Kappa also has key focuses on repairing land degredated by third party deforestation, embracing the existence of endangered species, and fortifying local infrastructure, and top-flight safety training for its employees. For example, each lumberjack must go through approximately 80 hours of safety training prior to entering the workforce.

We were also joined by Byron Urrego and Carlos Alberto Rodas Pelaez, Ph. D. Byron is the Forestry Research Director at Smurfit. Byron received his education from the Universidade de Medellin and was a wealth of knowledge for any production-related questions. Byron led the group through the tree nursery and vivarium. Central to his discussion was an emphasis on creating continually stronger region-specific hybrids through cloning and seed therapy. Also interesting to note, due to Colombia’s proximity to the equator, the heat is too harsh for pine trees to flourish. To combat this problem, Smurfit offsets the heat with altitude—allowing for the successful production of a variety of eucalyptus and pine species.


Carlos is the Director of Forest Health Protection at Smurfit, serving as head entomologist and head of disease pathogen research in Colombia. Carlos is impressively credentialed, researching with several of the industry’s most respected leaders. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Carlos’ education is that he began as a technician in forestry prior to being spotted by a professor at the University of Pretoria for his work ethic and intelligence. The professor eventually urged Carlos  to research at that university as a graduate student (despite no formal undergraduate education). The core message that Carlos conveyed to us is that, unlike crops grown in the Midwest, Smurfit focuses on biological solutions rather than chemical treatment for nuisance pests and diseases. To illustrate, when Smurfit faced a “walking stick” insect invasion, they were able to introduce the biologic predator that specific insect to remove the threat to Smurfit’s plantation. When a classmate questioned about the applicability to our crops in the Midwest, Carlos just smiled and joked that they have a bit more time to deal with problems like this than with our grains. The typical time to maturity for a mature eucalyptus plant is 7 years and their pines are 28 years.

We returned to a quintessential “finca”—Spanish for farm—for a delicious lunch of a traditional potato soup, baked plantains, and a dessert of cheese with cane sugar reduction. The filling lunch was accompanied by remarkable vistas that iPhone pictures cannot do justice.


The tour of Smurfit Kappa “capped” off our time at Cali. We departed Smurfit by bus for the Cali Airport and arrived safely in Medellin a short time later.

Until next time.

Hasta luego,

Class 16


Moving on to Medellin – February 24

After arriving late yesterday evening in Medellin, the class boarded the bus bright and early for an hour-and-a-half ride to the small town of Santa Fe de Antioquia. The views from the bus windows were gorgeous. (Photos coming soon…Internet is a bit slow tonight.)

Once we arrived, it was quite apparent that it was much warmer outside of the valley in Medellin. However, we just applied more “solar block” (Colombian for sunscreen) and walked through town to one of the houses of the Hogares Juveniles Campesinos Foundation.

We met with Father Jaime Alonso Quiceno Guzman, director for the foundation, who gave us an introduction to the organization and its mission.

The foundation is a not-for-profit that started in 1963 for the comprehensive education of the family and promotion of rural youth and farmer communities of the country, under a concept of sustainable rural education. While most of their 85 homes in 12 different communities around Colombia have small plots of land to allow for food production, the house we visited did not have one so they concentrate on two other activities – fruit pulp production and a textile operation.

Sister Lia runs the home in Santa Fe de Antioquia where 25 girls from 17 different rural communities live for 10 months each year while they attend the local public school. The girls range in age from 10 to 18.

While most of the girls were at school, we did have the opportunity to learn about both the fruit pulp production and the textile operation from some of the young ladies who demonstrated the processes for us.

Some interesting facts from the visit:

  • By 2015, the foundation reached 6,432  children and youngsters of low economic resources from 3,332 rural families.
  • The families that send their children to the program pay a small portion (to be invested) either in money, work or in-kind.
  • The rest of the funding comes from public sector, donors and income from the farms and other production (fruit pulp and textiles).
  • The foundation worked with Goodwill Community Foundation to set up computer labs in their homes for the students to use.
  • The agricultural education centers around organic farming practices and the foundation has published its own videos and books for the students to use.

You can learn more about the foundation at their website: www.hogaresjuvenilescampesinos.org.

After our visit, we walked back through the town square to the Hotel Mariscal Robledo to have lunch in yet another wonderful setting. The hotel featured decor from the old Hollywood era complete with movie posters, antique cameras and much more.

Once we arrived back in Medellin, we had a free evening to explore the city. Many joined our local guide, Danny, for a bus tour of the city, while others took a run and others relaxed at the hotel.

Tomorrow morning we are off to Bogota on the last leg of our international experience (and hopefully faster Internet so photos can be added to this post).

Let’s Go Birding February 21st

The day started with a drive up the mountains around Cali, Colombia. This trip included passing a police officer with lights on for no apparent reason in the center of Cali. Throughout the trip in Panama and Cali we were in one large travel bus. Today, however, we were in two 15 passenger buses because we were told larger bus would not fit on the roads we were to travel. The trip up the mountain were sketchy, increasing everyone’s nervousness – and some widespread car sickness. Once on the mountain, we were welcomed on to a traditional Colombian mountain farm, owned be a family. The farm, at 12 acres, was the largest conservation area in the district. They have dedicated the ground to native plants and birds from that area. Breakfast was incredible and our hosts were gracious, waking at 3 AM to start cooking for our large group. Fresh croissants, eggs, and coffee, of course.


The next stop was to visit the educational and cultural center “right next to the farm” (about 200 yards of hard walking up a hill). The center was the only one of it’s kind in the area in and around Cali. Built to educate community and visitors about both what is found naturally in the hills there and what is becoming extinct due to lack of awareness of the precious species and ecosystem elements there. While at the center, Carlos for the Asociacion Rio Cali gave us a presentation. The presentation shared that their organization is a non-profit organization that works to promote ecological and socially sustainable conservation practices for the Cali River basin. The Cali River basin supplies drinking water for 500,000 people in city of Cali and is one of the most diverse ecosystem areas in the world. One primary interest is to decide how land is split so that it is both profitable for local land owners and ecological at the same time, all the while saving natural resources. One example is work the center did with a local farmer to diversify local plant life on his cattle farm. Today, he is growing 80% of his family’s food and all of his cattle’s feed are grown on his farm of 18 hectors. Another program hosted at the center is the education for conservation. The purpose is to enhance the knowledge of local people on the importance of conservation.

The surrounding community is very involved in the center. Through education, they had demonstrated there is money to be made in bird tourism. Last year, they hosted their first Bird Fair. Mapalina birding travels is an organization that has grown out of the education of bird tourism. Highlights of the group includes the guides are locals who are experts on the 220 species. The area represents one of the best spots in the world.


10% of the funds collected go back into the foundation for the River Cali basin. For more information on the upcoming 2016 Bird Fair, visit their website www.colombiabirdafair.org. Colombia has 20% of the world’s birds and only 1% of the area.

After this presentation, we visited the local town square of El Felidia, which stands for struggling faith. Here we took the opportunity to visit with local towns people and shop owners while we waited for mass. We enjoyed fresh made pastries, coffee, and chicken. In true Latin American fashion, mass was delayed by 40 minutes due to a very strong rain shower. The rain was their first in three months, backing up traffic coming up the mountain, and delaying the priest. So he had a good excuse.

After mass, we loaded into the vans and went further up the mountain where the rough and twisting roads got rougher and more twisted. If you like guardrails, don’t take this road. Our destination was approximately 8,000 ft. above sea level. There Mapalina prepared a lunch in a park close to what a state park is in the US. After lunch we went for a bird watching trip through the park in the rain soaked trail. With a group of 26 people, we didn’t see many birds and we all enjoyed sliding and slipping down the mountain. The drive back down the mountain was just and slippery.

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Feb. 20th Adios Panama – Hola Colombia

This morning we bid a fond farewell to Kenny and Salvadore, our tour guide and bus driver from Panama and headed on the next leg of our journey to Cali, Colombia.

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When we landed in Cali, we met our new tour guide, Brian.


We hit the ground running.  As we traveled to Central Cali, Brian pointed out the new transportation center being built in the city and other interesting sites.

We soon arrived at Forming Futures Foundation (www.fffcali.org).  FFF is an organization that helps at risk young adults in Colombia learn life skills.  There we met Heidi and Marta, both who have a passion for helping vulnerable children and young adults.  Their enthusiasm and energy were contagious.


We were served a delicious lunch by the volunteers and residents of FFF while we learned more about the organization.  A couple of the young adults told us their stories of how FFF has helped them find purpose. Daniella shared that she recently had saved enough money from her job to purchase a bed.  She had never owned a bed before.  As the stories were shared, the realization hit hard of how truly blessed we are in America and how much we take for granted.



After lunch, we were divided into groups to work on projects that will help FFF raise money for the organization by growing and selling plants.  Each project group had a task to complete and we worked along side our new friends from Cali.   Group Megan, Maria and Laura had the privilege of cleaning and organizing Marta’s office.  Marta was so proud of her office and brought her husband, son and others back to check out our progress.  Even though we had a language barrier, once we realized we were both grandmothers, the language difficulties evaporated.

Some of the other projects completed were:


Displaying the plants in an attractive manner in the entranceway to market to the public


Cleaning out a storage room to facilitate roof repairs


Designing a water system


Setting up the computer lab


Building tables to pot the plants


Once we finished up our projects for the day, we came back together and reflected on the experiences we had and what we learned from working together.  We laughed and cried together.



The evening wrapped up with a backyard BBQ, fellowship and even a little salsa dancing.


February 19 – Out to the Fields

Today we ventured into the country to put our boots on the ground on a farm- the highlight of the day was visiting Verba Odrec Farm (http://verbaodrec.com/)- an active pineapple, chicken and papaya operation.

We departed the Gamboa Rainforest Hotel, and headed to the farm in La Chorrera, Panama.

Ready for departure from Gamboa Hotel

Departure from Gamboa Hotel

Along our hour drive on the Pan American Highway enroute to the farm, we made a couple of stops.  The first stop was at the Xtra Grocery store in Vista Alegre.  The grocery store was the largest we had seen thus far during our travels.  Most grocery stores we had experienced thus far were small stores and street vendors.  This grocery store was similar to a Super WalMart with everything you would need, including refrigerators, stoves, paint, and even the kitchen sinks!


The next stop along our drive was the Melo Y Cia pet and garden store in La Chorherra.  We found lots of farm supplies, boots, medicines, machetes and chicks.  Several classmates peppered the staff with questions about farming practices and attitudes in Panama.

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By midmorning we made it to the farm for our tour.  We were greeted by Ricardo Vergara who shared with us the history of the farm and how pineapples are grown.  Pineapples have only been grown in Panama the last 20 years, a relatively new crop.  Verba Odrec Farm is a about 1oo hectares (250 acres).  Newer farms are much larger than Verba Odrec.

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Pineapples grow on a small tree and take 11-13 months to mature from a small sprout with a root.  The sprouts are planted directly into plastic covered mounted beds.  The plants are irrigated from an on-site pond.  As we toured the farm, we saw plants in varying lifestages.

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Everyone in the class planted a few pineapples….


and we all harvested a few too.  Although the leaves are very tough and jagged, the harvesting of the fruit is surprising easy.  The pineapples twist right off the top of the plant.

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After our small harvest, we enjoyed a pineapple in the field.



After the first harvest, pineapple plants will produce a second fruit from a new sprout in about another year.  After the second fruit is produced, the plant is pulled and a replacement sprout planted.


View of extinct volcanoes during our hilltop lunch overlooking Verba Odrec Farm.

After lunch, we toured the processing and packing facility.  Pineapples are harvested everyday year round on the farm.  The pineapples are stacked on the edge of the field as they are picked, and then within a day brought to the on-site processing facility.  The fruit is washed, sorted and weighed (must be at least 2.5 pounds).

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The pineapple is then packed, stacked, and move to cool storage where is can stay for up to a month.  The bulk of the pineapples from Verba Odrec Farm is shipped via containers maintained at 7 degrees to New Zealand, Korea and Turkey.  The pineapples pictured below are headed to Turkey (about a 3 week journey).  Although the outside of the pineapple is green, the fruit inside is now ready.


We learned that pineapple production is going down in Panama and more people in-country are now eating chicken and other sources of protein as income rise.  In fact, Verba Odrec Farms also grows chickens and was building a new barn while we were there.  Ricardo thought over the next few years, the farm would continue to build additional barns.


Verba Odrec Farm also has a small papaya grove near the processing building.


We all enjoyed LOTS of fresh pineapple and learned quite a bit about Panamanian agriculture during our visit to Verba Odrec Farm.

Photos with People and Places



Most of us are quick to take photos of places and things while on a trip like this. We often forget to include the people in those photos.

I have heard it more than once this week that many of my classmates want “more people” in their photos.

So, here are a few photos with “more people” in them from our trip so far.







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February 18 – Where does your food come from (in Panama)?

Today, several activities allowed our class to explore where Panama procures their food.  A few highlights of today include; Cold Chain seminar presentation at another hotel, visit to Casa Esperanza; visit to Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, and visits to local fish and produce markets.  So here we go…

Thursday started off with a 7:30AM departure from the hotel after a hearty, “American” style buffet breakfast.  The group enjoyed a monkey sighting in the trees directly outside the hotel lobby.  After surviving Panama City morning rush hour traffic, we arrived at our first stop of the day – a cold chain seminar hosted by the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.

Jose Manual Samperio, a cold chain consultant employed by the group who is from Mexico, was delivering a lecture to 80+ local representatives from Panama supermarkets, food distributors, and other associated food chain professionals.   His primary message is helping local Panamanians realize that frozen food IS fresh.  The local culture is accustomed to warm food as fresh.  Example:  you grew up watching your grandmother process chickens for dinner ‘fresh on the farm.’  Now as an adult consumer, you still equate buying warm, hardly cooled meat as being very fresh.  Additionally, unlike the USA where eggs are purchased cold in the grocery – many local markets still sell fresh unrefridgerated eggs.  Jose demonstrated the egg sink test and egg spinning test to show how to prove if an egg is still fresh or not.  Ask your favorite ALP member for a demonstration at home!  Below, the guest speaker is pictured giving ALP class member Paul Hodgen and the table a demonstration!


We departed the downtown Panama City hotel where the seminar was held and traveled to Casa Esperanza.  This center is for at risk youth and provides them a safe alternative to receive health, nutrition, education, and social services.  In Panama, public school is only from 7-12 and again 12-5.  They do not have enough teachers so school is in ‘two shifts’.  Many youth can cease attending school, or are left free after 12pm while their parents are at work.  This leaves youth at risk – including being exploited as farm labor workforce (especially coffee farms), or working the streets peddling goods and services.  Casa Esperanza is a similar to a Boys and Girls Club.  In operation for 25 years, the center has multiple locations and provides 2 meals a day, recreation, education, and many other services.  Over 10,000 children have received services in the organization’s history.  Current participation is about 50-60 students ranging from ages 3 to teens.  Our group received a center toured, met a few children, and left donations for the center.  A pre school class and our guides are pictured below.


Following the center tour, we enjoyed a hearty lunch ocean side!


Next, we departed for the nearby Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  This was a self guided tour of an outdoor ‘zoo’ / research center.  The center coordinates many research projects throughout the year.  However the highlights were the sea turtle tank and some sloth / raccoon sightings.  See pictures below.


Following the Smithsonian visit, as we made our way back to the hotel – we stopped at the local fish and produce market.  These were two highlights of the day.  The fish market is utilized by local restaurants, hotels, and other markets to procure fresh seafood daily.  Sea Bass (corvina as the locals call it), red snapper, grouper, and many other fresh catches are all on display.  Our group bus made a brief stop that allowed us to walk through the market and see adjoining fresh fish stands that cook and sell the final product.  This is definitely as fresh/local as seafood gets!  They even have a mixed ‘surprise’ bin for $2.50/lb.


The final stop of the day was the local produce market.  This is the wholesale distribution network for local produce.  According to our guide, 100% of the fresh produce we saw was locally, Panama grown.  Each vendor had a narrow area/store front where they sold produce. The sellers were sometimes referred to as ‘truck farmers’, or in our terms a dealer network.  These truck farmers had relationships with farmers.  They traveled to the farm and bought a truckload of product to take to the market and resell.  The buyers at the market could be consumers looking to buy a few days worth of produce for their family; but the majority of buyers are supermarket or mini mart owners looking to supply their store to resell to producers in the local communities.  This market was truly a ‘local’ experience to see how their agriculture markets work – we were likely the only Americans who have been through it in recent times.  We had several police escorts to ensure our security 🙂 !.  Some of the class bought fresh made fruit smoothies, while another classmate procured 20 oranges for $2!  Beat that price back in the States!  Following the produce market tour, we headed back to the hotel for the evening.  It was another great day full of educational experiences.


February 17 – Traversing the Continent

We knew before we arrived down here that the Panamanian lifestyle was laid back and that being “on-time” meant being at least 20 minutes late. Our tour guide Kenny was pleasantly surprised when we had all checked out of our first hotel and boarded the bus by 5:40am this morning, 20 minutes prior to our pre-determined departure time.

After an early breakfast at a local 24/7 cafeteria-style chain restaurant, we headed to Balboa, just outside of Panama City, where we reached the Panama Canal Railway Pacific Passenger Station. The railway line runs parallel to the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific stretching about 48 miles across the Isthmus. The infrastructure of this railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Canal. It was the most expensive railroad to build, per mile, costing about $8 million USD. Its construction also led to the death of about 12,000 people from Cholera, Malaria, and Yellow Fever. When the line was completed in 1855, it cost $25 per person for the train ride. This morning, our tickets were the same price.

paulALP 16 Class Member Paul Hodgen gets ready to board the train!

We effectively traversed the continent in just under 1 hour in what was one of the most beautiful journeys through lush rainforest over Gatun Lake. Glass windows that climbed up the ceilings of the train allowed us to spot monkeys, sloths, and exotic birds high up in the treetops. Crocodiles peered up at us from the fresh water below.

SlothOne of the sloths we saw today.

Once on the Atlantic side in Colon, we visited the Zona Libre de Colon, or the Free Trade Zone. It’s a large, geographically distinct entity dedicated to importing and re-exporting a huge variety of merchandise as well as some agricultural products. It’s utilized by over 1,700 companies which can conduct international business with zero duties or quotas on imports and zero taxation on profit from re-exportations. It’s the second largest free trade zone in the world, trailing only behind Hong Kong, and provides numerous jobs to local Panamanians.

Zona LibreThe Free Zone was almost like a little city.

After leaving the Free Zone, we had the privilege of visiting the construction site of the New Panama Canal expansion project on the Atlantic side. The final project will double the capacity of the canal by creating a new lane of traffic and allow larger “New Panamax” size ships which are about one and a half times the current maximum length and width and can carry over twice as much cargo. The new locks have water-saving basins to reduce the volume of water that is needed in lock operation. Pictures just cannot capture the breadth and enormity of this construction project.

Expansion ProjectCanal expansion construction from the viewing deck.

For the next couple of nights, we’re lodging at a resort in Gamboa which is a small town in Panama, and one of a handful of permanent canal zone townships built to house employees of the Canal. A single lane iron and wood bridge crosses the Chagres River and is the only road access to Gamboa.

Hammock A view of the rain forest from the hotel room patio     

CapyberaA Capybara, the world’s largest rodent, on the hotel grounds.