Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Diablos Rojos

We rented a car and drove ourselves around. We like having the freedom of coming and going as we please. The roads are crazy! Driving takes courage in Panama We got lost occasionally even with a GPS! In the city, there are very few stoplights or stop signs. Everyone just converges on the intersection and tries to inch through without running in to anyone. Like I said, there are 2 freeways. And during rush hour, it is literally dog-eat-dog as you near a city. A big challenge to inexperienced drivers are the city buses called "Diablos Rojos" or "Red Devils" They are crowded, decoratively painted school buses, often without air conditioning, with a flat rate of 25 cents to any location in Panama City. These buses used to transport American schoolchildren. They were then brought down to Panama and no longer look like the big yellow schoolbuses you might be used to. They race each other on the roads trying to get more passengers and make better time. Watch this video for an education.

Portobelo & San Lorenzo

Panama is a very small country. It doesn't take long to get from one end to the other. But there are not too many major roads. There are 2 "Freeways" in Panama: Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur. Portobelo is North so this is the way to go. It actually takes you to Colon but we will need to branch off on the way. It's about an hour and a half's drive and the last leg is along the Caribbean coast.

From Lonely Planet: "‘Puerto Bello, ’ the Beautiful Port, was named by Columbus in 1502, when he stopped here on his fourth New World voyage. Since it was common at the time to abbreviate Spanish names, the beautiful port quickly became known as simply ‘Portobelo.’" 

Fuerte Santiago
UNESCO says it is a "Magnificent example of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture...on the Caribbean coast forming part of the defence system built by the Spanish Crown to protect transatlantic trade."

The Black Christ
The city comes to life every October 21 for the Festival de Cristo Negro (Festival of the Black Christ)and the statue of the Black Christ housed in the Iglesia de San Félipe.

Visit the Portobelo Royal Customs House Museum to learn more. The entrance fee is nominal. This is the old headquarters of the Spanish customs offices when they were importing African slaves into the New World. It is now a museum - a dedication to the thousands of Black immigrants who are an important element of Panamanian culture and constitute the majority of the population of Portobelo and Colón.

To get to Fort San Lorenzo, you drive over on the old military base Ft. Sherman. There is a $5 fee required to access this World Heritage Site. This is a Spanish fort located where the Chagres River enters the Atlantic Ocean and was a critical defense point for the Spanish. You should read up on the place a little before heading out to see it. Fort San Lorenzo is located on the Atlantic side of Panama.
On the way, we saw some Coatis on the side of the road. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Miraflores Locks, Balboa, Casco Viejo

There are 3 Locks on the Panama Canal but only Miraflores has a Visitor Center. There is a $12 fee to get in and it is worth it. There is a movie presentation on the bottom floor which gives you some good information about the building of the canal. Later, you continue upstairs for various museum displays. There are a couple of decks outside for viewing. One of them is on the floor with the Restaurant and tables outside. We proceeded to the 4th floor. There is a guide with a microphone who narrates the activity down below. We saw several ships moving one way or the other through the canal. This was very interesting and educational.We were there before noon and stayed for a couple of hours. As we left the Locks, we were able to drive by the housing that was built for the canal workers. 

We are watching the water on the left rising to meet the water on the right so the gate can be opened and the next ship can move through.

We then headed toward the old city of Balboa. The town of Balboa was founded by the US during the building of the canal and was home for families from 1904-1979. It's interesting walking through the town, identifying all the old buildings, imagining what the place must have looked like years ago. Below is the Teatro Balboa with it's very Art Deco style.

Next we were on our way to Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is designated a World Heritage Site. It is an amazing place. There is construction going on everywhere. Some places have been completed and some are currently being worked on and yet other buildings just sit in ruin. We learned what we could through tour books but we saw a group of tourists being led around the city by a guide who was sharing what seemed to be some great information. This is probably a better option. Walking around the city is FREE and you can spend a couple of hours or the better part of a day. There are restaurants and shops.
Here's what UNESCO says about it, "Founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedrarías Dávila, Panamá Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It was laid out on a rectilinear grid and marks the transference from Europe of the idea of a planned town. Abandoned in the mid-17th century, it was replaced by a ‘new town’ (the ‘Historic District’), which has also preserved its original street plan, its architecture and an unusual mixture of Spanish, French and early American styles."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Driving Across the Centennial Bridge to Pequeño Paraiso

We wanted to leave El Valle for Panama City early enough so that we would have time to explore a little and go out to   eat dinner. So we left in the morning, figuring it would take a few hours. We crossed the Centennial Bridge and tried to follow our directions. However, we somehow made a wrong turn. And it started to pour.

After about 4 extra hours of driving around the country, we found our Bed & Breakfast. There are 3 rooms added on to the side of this home, about 20 minutes outside the city. The rooms are nicer than many hotel rooms we have stayed in. 
The Pequeño Paraiso cost us $54 per night and that included breakfast. Rick, the proprietor, was very generous and let us use his GPS device for our rental. We got lost far less than we would have. Breakfast was carefully prepared for a vegetarian with lots of choices. Really special.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Square Trees and El Macho

There is a grove of Square Trees or Arboles Cuadrado in El Valle. We drove there from our hotel but it's really not that far. The Square Trees are outside the Hotel Campestre and there is a sign pointing the way. This is FREE.

Apparently, this is the only known place in the world where trees
have rectangular trunks and the shape is probably due to some 
unknown but purely local condition. The tree rings also are square. 
So this is a very worthwhile thing to see. You will 
actually hike through the rainforest and see lots of interesting plants 
where there's water running through and plenty of Leafcutter ants to view.

We also went to search for El Macho, but somehow missed it! But our quest to find it proved to be a nice walk. The waterfall is actually just a short walk from the road and we are sure you can find it. You can also view it from the Canopy Zip Line ride. We passed on this. El Macho is free but you'll pay about $65 for the zipline.

El Valle

Now, is this 'the life' or what? The third floor of this Hotel has numerous hammocks set up for the guests to climb into and relax. This hotel was $88 total for 2 nights. Very basic, very clean and right on the main street.

This is William, our guide at the petroglyphs, which are at the end of town at the base of the mountain. There are little boys, like William, who will charge you 50 cents to give you a tour. They tell a great story, in Spanish of course.

Next we walked down to El Nispero, the zoo. The zoo is practically free at $2. One of the most interesting things to see is La Rana, the Panamanian Golden Frog. They are endangered and being protected here.

The Sunday Market

The Sunday Market in El Valle is outdoors in the middle of town. Indigenous artisans gather from the surrounding areas to sell sculpted pots, carved soapstone figurines, wooden toys, woven baskets and other arts and crafts. There is also a large selection of fruit,  vegetables, and plants. I picked up some inexpensive souvenirs and we also purchased a lovely painting from one of the artists.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Panama Arrival

After paying $557.40 to American Airlines for 2 round trip tickets to Panama City...we arrived at 6:15pm on Friday, August 9. It took about 2 hours to get through customs and get our rental car. The guy at Avis took 20 minutes just to walk all around the car with us, pointing out every nick, dent and scratch. Finally, we were on the road. There is one major highway that runs from North America to South America and that's the Trans American Highway. We looked for it, found it and started the drive to El Valle de Anton. By 10:30 pm, we had arrived at the Residential El Valle. We paid a total of $88 for 2 nights.