DAY 453 - PANAMA CITY
DAY 453 - Panama City, Panama - 8920 km
I have booked my ticket from Panama City to Bogota a while ago, so I need to speed up through Panama to be on time. Before taking off to South America I would like to spend a few days in Panama city, to see the old centre and visit the Panama Canal museum.
Why flying? In between Panama and Colombia is the so called Darian gap. A lawless stretch of jungle full without any public roads going through. There are people however who have undertaken the ordeal to cross borders here. By foot, bicycle, even by motorbike. It’s a big challenge and strongly discouraged. Not only because of the impenetrable jungle and its wildlife, there are also reports of robbery and kidnapping. Most overlanders travelling with a vehicle take a boat to Colombia. I even know cyclists who’ve taken their bike on a canoe... Flying is the fastest and cheapest option and I’m looking forward to spend some time off the bike in Bogota.
Through Panama I don’t go off the Pan-American highway, which is the only continuous road crossing the country. Highways are great to cover a lot of distance in a day, but there is not much interesting to see. I remember the long days on highways through Turkey in 2015. They are part of this journey too. There is hardly a moment I pull out my camera. Everything looks the same. The weather doesn’t help either. It rains every day with ongoing thunderstorms in the afternoons. Being sandwiched in between two oceans Panama has a long rain season from May to December, with the most rainfall in August. I don’t get to see the pretty side of the country. Just the long and hot highway and some run down restaurants serving pre cooked meals. Panama does have the pristine beaches, beautiful rainforests and some volcanoes, but they are not on my way.
In 6 days I reach Panama City. Crossing the canal is quite an experience. There’s a narrow footpath on the left side of the bridge, where I spend some time watching the ships go in and out the canal. Heavy traffic rushes by. It feels adventurous, considering myself in a great moment crossing from North to South America. I had read that somewhere, but it turns out that border is in the Darian gap. A river feels like a logical border between countries or continents, like the Bosporus, dividing Istanbul between Europe and an Asia.
Panama City is full of contrasts. I’m staying at an Airbnb in a 23-story modern, polished, apartment building. It’s a nice condo, but once outside of the building it’s a mess. First of all the amount of car traffic. There is no room for the cyclists in this infrastructure, a typical car city where people call Ubers or taxis to go from door to door. To avoid the homeless people, the drunks, the criminals. It’s unpleasant to be on the streets. The tropical weather is hot and humid, even while the sun is covered by the clouds almost the entire day. The moist affects the buildings, the paint, the old wood of run down colonial houses. Trash smells on the street. Black exhaust smoke stings in my eyes. My clothes stick to my body. There’s a lot of poverty on these streets, where people hang out on their porches, children playing outside. It’s mostly black community here, descendants from the thousands of workers that migrated here during the built of the Panama Canal. I’m clicking pictures, but police warns me to keep my camera away. It’s not safe.
I am not far from the historic centre Casco Viego (Old Quarter), which dates from 1672 and is a well preserved neighbourhood with a mix of Spanish and French architecture, strategically built on a small peninsula, surrounded by a wall and the sea. A big contrasts with the surrounding neighbourhoods, which look more like slums. Here the streets are clean and the houses are occupied by upscale restaurants, cafe’s, bakeries and boutique hotels.
I visited the Panama Canal Museum, a beautiful 19th century building, which has a detailed exposition from the first colonial involvement in Panama, to the failed French attempt of building the canal, and eventually the involvement of the US in supporting Panama to become independent from Colombia and constructing the canal from 1904 - 1914. I was never quite aware of the inhuman scale of this project and the life consuming challenges it came with. Digging a canal at sea level would never be possible through the hilly landscape, so the canal is situated 26 meters above sea level. All ships need to be raised through locks to this altitude to cross the canal. At the time this was never been done before at such a scale. It was the largest engineering project ever undertaken and it came with its costs. 25,000 workers died from yellow fever, malaria and accidents, mostly during the first attempt in 1880.
After 3 days in the city I’m heading to the airport, the bicycle packed in a box. I finally get the chance to put everything on a scale. The bike + luggage is 46 kg, excluding food and water. The costs for the luggage are even more than my ticket so in the end the flight is not that cheap. In Bogota I will probably spend some time in the city before I will head south.