Panama was the port to which I was looking forward the most. Traci and I struggled to choose a shore excursion for this port. Traci really wanted to see the Panama Canal. I did too but the Carnival excursion offered to do this seemed to spend all your time in a boat going through the canal. That would have been nice but I also wanted to experience a little Panamanian culture in one of the country's cities. We ended up choosing the 5.5-hour Panama City Tour whose description indicated it might be possible to get a glimpse of the canal en route to Panama City but could not guarantee we would see a ship traversing the canal.
Our shipped docked in Colon (Colón), Panama early in the morning. All passengers who were doing Carnival shore excursions were to meet in the Victoriana Lounge by 8 AM to wait for their excursion group to be called to exit the ship. Traci and I found the 20-person shuttle for our Panama City Tour and settled in for a day of sightseeing.
Our shuttle left the port and entered the crowded, chaotic streets of Colon. This section of the city was gritty and a bit run-down. There were so many cars and people on these small streets. Our driver had to be aggressive to have any chance of making it through this section of the city. The sidewalks were lined with small shops and eateries. There were clothes hanging from balconies. There were vendors walking the streets and sidewalks. The multi-colored public buses were quite a sight to behold. These school bus-like vehicles were covered in hand-painted artwork. We were told the fare is incredibly cheap but these are not air-conditioned vehicles.
We eventually made it through the few blocks of chaos and onto wider roads where we saw familiar commercial establishments such as Costco, KFC, etc... I was most surprised to see a Blockbuster video store. In these days of online movies and online TV, I thought brick and mortar video rental stores had become extinct. Our guide pointed out large warehouse buildings and told us this is one of the largest duty-free shopping centers in the world, second only to the one in Dubai. We did not stop there but continued on our 1.5-hour journey to Panama City. There was not much to see on this tree-lined highway. Our guide continued to narrate but the late-night concerts and eating were starting to catch up with us. Both Traci and I must have looked like two bobblehead dolls as we dosed. I woke up briefly as our guide pointed out a body of water and a cool-looking bridge and said something about the Panama Canal.
Colon, Panama seen from our cabin balcony
We finally reached our first destination which was Old Town (Casco Viejo a.k.a. Casco Antiguo), the old historic quarter of Panama City. It turns out that this district is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Therefore, I was able to add our visit to my list of UNESCO Site Visits. Before beginning the walking tour portion of the excursion, we were given a restroom break at a small souvenir shop in the district. While waiting for everyone to use the facilities and browse the souvenirs, I wandered across the street and came across an indoor flea market. I was in search of a nice refrigerator magnet to add to our collection. Little did I know, this would not be an uneventful visit. There were no other patrons in the market at the time. In fact, two men sitting outside the building alerted the vendors that I was approaching. A lady greeted me in Spanish and continued to talk to me as she led me to her booth of souvenirs. My knowledge of the Spanish language is basically zero. I could not even remember how to tell her I do not speak her language. (Ugh! I knew I should have made a better effort to attend Kirk Whalum's Spanish 101 Workshop on the ship a few days prior to this port.) Anyway, the lack of knowledge was mutual because neither she nor any of the other vendors could speak English. I was not expecting them to. After all, I was in their country. The fact that the lady led me to her booth seemed to irritate the other vendors. A large argument between her and some of the other vendors ensued. There was shouting, gesturing, and finger pointing. I quietly slipped out of the building and back across the street to wait with the rest of my tour group.
I ended up going back to the flea market but with Traci this time who wanted to look around. On this second visit we were greeted in English by a man who offered to translate for us if we needed to ask questions of any of the vendors. There were the usual set of tourist souvenirs (i.e., magnets, shot glasses, t-shirts, etc.). One of the more prevalent items was the Panama hat. Traci and I saw some nice magnets but decided not to make a purchase yet.
We went back across the street to rejoin our tour group. Our guide came along and began the walking tour of the historic streets of Casco Viejo which was settled by the Spanish in 1673. Since it was still morning, the streets were pretty much deserted with the exception of an armed guard on almost every corner. We were told that the reason for the guards was because the Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas) is nearby. Street vendors were setting up on the sidewalks beneath the ornate balconies of the old buildings of this district. Many of the buildings seemed to be undergoing renovation. We were led into a church that had recently been re-opened after one such renovation. We marveled at the statues and the choir loft with its wooden circular staircase.
Moving on, we made a stop in the central square. The Spanish of the colonial period almost always built their cities around a central square such as this one. Another typical aspect of a Spanish square is that it contains a church. The church we saw in this section of Panama was Catedral Metropolitana which was completed in 1796. Its exterior is an interesting mix of architecture with its gleaming white towers book-ending its weathered main sanctuary. We were given a few minutes of free time in the square. Traci and I entered the large Catedral Metropolitana. I was surprised at how little was inside. Aside from the grand altar and several rows of pews, there was an abundance of empty space. Maybe it was the massive size of the cathedral that made it seem so empty? Like the rest of the buildings in the area, the cathedral was also in the process of being renovated. On the way out, we came across was a cool hologram display of the Shroud of Turin (believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus).
Back on the bus, we were each given a bottle of water and a bag lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich and a muffin. As we were driven across a long bridge, we were able to see how varied the tide is. It was low tide and there were a lot of mud flats surrounding the city. Of course, this all changes at high tide.
From the bridge we could also see all the ships waiting for their turn to go through the nearby Panama Canal. Some ships pay as much as $300,000 to traverse the canal. This saves them from having to travel all the way around South America to go between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By the way, whereas our cruise ship was docked on the Atlantic coast of Panama, Panama City sits on the Pacific coast of the country. Therefore, this excursion allowed us to see two oceans in one day.
When our driver reached the end of the bridge, he whipped the bus around and got back on it again. This time, we were headed toward the modern section of Panama City. This gave us the opportunity to marvel at the shiny buildings of the skyscraper-filled skyline that seemed to be growing right out the sea. Once we actually got into the city, it was not much different than other modern cities we have visited. The only difference was that everything was in Spanish. We were not given the opportunity to get off the bus. We turned around near some ruins of an old Spanish church and bridge from the 1500's. These ruins were quite a contrast to the modern metropolis that surrounds them.
We were given some time at a flea market to shop and use the restrooms. I continued to be fascinated by the restrooms in this part of the world. The toilet paper dispensers are outside the stalls. In one case, the dispenser was outside the restroom itself. I guess you need to estimate beforehand how much you'll need to get the job done. Okay, enough bathroom talk.
Traci and I finally bought our Panama refrigerator magnet. The flea market accepts U.S. dollars. You can haggle over the prices but it felt strange to haggle over a $3 magnet. Okay, we got it for $2.50.
We made the 1.5-hour trip back to Colon where our tour ended at the cruise ship pier. We still had a few hours before we needed to be back on the ship so we had a look around the shopping village across the street. The village seemed to cater to tourists and locals alike. In addition to the souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotel, there was a grocery store and electronics store. We wandered in and out of the establishments. We were getting ready to head to the crowded chaotic streets outside the premises of the shopping village until we heard a loud explosion that seemed to come from the direction we were headed. It startled everyone in the area. We took it as a sign that we should turn around and go back to the shopping village - or better yet, the ship.
On our way back to the ship, Traci and I finally saw some indigenous Panamanians. Our tour guide told us earlier that day that we might encounter them at some point selling their craftworks. I don't remember which native group, but our guide described them as being a short race of people. He was not lying. I don't think any of them were over 5 feet tall. Dressed in their native costume, they were selling crafts and playing hand-made instruments.
Our ship did not leave on-time because we had to wait for passengers who did the Panama Canal shore excursion to return. The excursion actually takes passengers on a boat through the canal but the wait time for this is unpredictable due to ship traffic and priority crossings. Carnival will wait for passengers who are delayed because of shore excursions the cruise line sells. However, if you return late from one of the non-Carnival tours sold at the pier, there is a good chance the ship will not be there when you return.
Panama was the turnaround point of our cruise. We would be traveling north with one more port of call scheduled before returning to Florida. I sat on our balcony as our ship drifted away from Colon. It is amazing how high up from the pier our balcony was yet when we were out to sea, it seemed like we were only a few feet from the water. As we floated along, I got a great view of all the ships gathered in the sea waiting to cross the Panama Canal. There must have been at least 50 cargo ships in the immediate area.
ships waiting to cross the Panama Canal
For our evening concerts, we attended the performance of R&B singer Avery Sunshine. She was excellent. She was full of personality and talent. She mentioned she was from Chester, Pennsylvania which did not surprise me. I spent many years playing in a cover band called Special Blendz that was based in Chester. During that time, I was always amazed at how many talented musicians were concentrated in that city.
Kirk Whalum and Lalah Hathaway
The main stage concert was Kirk Whalum followed by Jonathan Butler. It was a nice mix of smooth jazz, R&B, and gospel. Both performers are spiritual so they shared their testimonies with the audience. They had several guest artists perform with them – including Lalah Hathaway. Other than the Capital Jazz house band, Lalah must have been the busiest entertainer on the ship. She was everywhere. Continue...