Jerry from the block
Aug 18, 2005
Stephane and Sacha were leaving for Venezuela in the morning, so for the last time we said our goodbyes. Today was a big celebration for Panama - Independence Day, and the main part of the action was to be going down in Panama Viejo, the ruins where the original city of Panama stood.
The main part of the ruins lay next to an extensive mudflat on the pacific shore; mostly just crumbling stone walls and rubble were all that remained of the original settlement that pirate Sir Henry Morgan sacked in the 1500's. The city was rebuilt in a much more defensible position a few kilometres west. Apart from people wandering around drinking, food and artisan stalls, a stage featuring traditional dancers and suicidal-looking ponies with children on their backs, there wasn't really much of a festival. Given the town peoples' partiality for partying, it was a bit of a let down.
On Tuesday morning, me, Marianne and Dale set off for the town of El Valle, two hours west of Panama City. From the Pan-American highway running along the pacific coast of the country, we cut inland and into the mountains to the town, sitting in one of the largest craters in Central America. Rain started to fall as we neared the town, which was enshrouded in cloud when we arrived. During a rainy afternoon we spent our time at the indigenous market in town, and at night, relieved our boredom by creating a palace of poon-tang out of a deck of nudie cards.
We were confident about seeing a bit of the valley the next day, so we walked out of town in the direction of a waterfall and some hot springs. On the way, we entered a church, and, spying an unguarded ladder, climbed to the top of the bell tower for something to do. By the time we had walked 100m down the road, it began to rain, perhaps as punishment for the sin of trespassing. We flagged down a minibus to take us to the waterfall. It cost $2.50 to enter the park, but if we had known how crap it was going to be, we never would have gone. A couple of kilometres south lay the town's hot springs, just an assortment of concrete tubs to sit in, but with the theraputic mud paste and hot shower, it was pretty relaxing.
We caught the last bus in the late afternoon to Panama City, almost getting caught in a rainstorm passing through the area. Back in town at night, we headed back to Wasabi, but instead of stylish deep house music, we were greeted with early 90's dance music classics such as Pump up the Jam. Nevertheless, we remained there, at least the decor was nice to look at.
Me and Marianne left early to visit the north side of the country, to the Gatun Locks at the other end of the canal and to Colon. Colon is home to the second-largest duty-free zone in the world behind Hong Kong.
Colon was an incredibly ugly place. From what we could see, pretty much the entire town was one gigantic slum. The streets were full of unsavoury people and horrible stagnant pools. The inhabitants eked out an existence in filthy flats or worse, rickety dwellings stacked on top of each other, reinforced by razor wire and rusted tin. From our bus, we were snared by a couple of locals and quick-marched to the bus to take us to the Gatun Locks.
The locks themselves, 20 minutes out of town, were huge. Three tiers of concrete-lined reservoirs made up the locks, the ships at this point stepping up almost 26m from the Caribbean to Lago Gatun, one of the biggest artificial lakes in the world. We had the place to ourselves and entry was free!
Back in Colon once again, concerned locals basically carried us to a waiting bus back to Panama City, and we made up our minds by proxy not to risk it on the streets at the duty-free area.