RobC: Today (November 10) was a holiday in Panama City. The holiday celebrates the independence of Panama from Colombia in Panama city. It' s different for different cities in the country, as they each celebrate it on different days .... depends on when the news reached the town, that' s the day they celebrate the holiday.
I had a tour of the Panama Locks while RobC did some computer work back at the hotel (he had seen the Canal before when passing through it on an Italian passenger ship in 1972). The locks were pretty amazing when you realize the amount of work involved in digging the canal and that it took place starting in the late 1800s. The actual construction was 1902 to 1913. The French first realized the dream, ran into trouble with yellow fever and other things. Sold it to the US. Apparently, for a medium-sized freighter it costs 97,000 USD to go through the locks from the Pacific to the Atlantic or vice versa and about 8 to 10 hours of travel time.
The US handed over the canal to Panama in 1999. The people of Panama had hoped this would translate into better lifestyle for them. In talking to the taxi driver, they are still waiting to see any benefits.
Had a tour of the old city, Casco Viejo. Panama City was relocated here in 1673 after the pirate Henry Morgan burnt down the original city. Most of the this town is in ruins, but there is a massive effort to renovate the town to its old splendor and from what they have done so far it has been quite amazing. In a few years time this will be an amazing place to visit. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997. Tonight, RobC and I walked around town visiting gift shops and had a beer in one of the plazas.
The odd thing is 2 blocks over is the poorest part of town. We drove through it to get to where we were going. The taxi driver stated that even in broad daylight you'll be lucky to survive 20min without being attacked. From what I saw, I believe him. Wow. Having said that there are very nice sections too, for example, the causeway out to the island where the yacht club is located. Plenty of nice shops and restaurants. The causeway was built using all the dirt and rock excavated from building the canal.
RobC: From previous visits, primarily in 1972, I remember a divided Panama City; part Canal Zone (US residential and commercial area) and the other part the Panama Republic, as they called it in those days. The Canal Zone was closed in by a high fence and Panamanians were restricted from entering. Now the whole area is open to everybody and the Canal Zone houses, commercial buildings and military installations are integrated into one community. It fact, it is quite evident that Panama is a melting pot of races and cultures, with everybody involved in some business activity or other.
One striking and disturbing characteristic of this cultural melting pot is a certain seriousness and unfriendliness of the people. Quite a difference from what we experienced in Mexico and Guatemala.
Here are some more pictures: