A Fantastic Journey: Part 1

by Luis R. Celerier


A Dream Fulfilled

Since my retirement several years back, I had been wanting to return to Panama, the place where I was born and spent the wonderful years of my youth. I wanted to return to the places which had been a part of those growing years and I wanted to see other locations I had never visited before.

Each time I tried to put together a trip, I was frustrated in my attempts by one reason or another. All this time, my relatives in Panama thought I was crazy for wanting to make the kind of trip in my dreams … to head into the interior away from the city. In 2002 I found the Panamanian Institute of Tourism (IPAT) on the Internet and they immediately responded with a large packet of information. Encouraged by this data, I began to formulate an aggressive itinerary covering all I wanted to do and see. Searching the IPAT website, I located several local tour companies and one met all my needs and goals. This was Ecocircuitos. Next, a fellow retired co-worker, Gene,  stated he would like to go along and the plans were immediately put in the works. The pieces fell into place and on March 2, 2005, we began our Fantastic Journey which would last until March 21. Allowing for two days of travel, we would be in Panama a total of 18 full days.

Wednesday, March 2

Our trip began at Shreveport, Louisiana, an hour by car from Longview, where we boarded a Continental flight to Houston. In Houston we changed planes and went on directly to Panama taking 4 hours in the process. Arriving at Tocumen at 6:45 PM, we were greeted by the EcoCircuitos representative who drove us to the Marbella Hotel on D Street, El Cangrejo, about two blocks from the old, but still somewhat majestic, El Panama Hotel.

The Marbella fit our desires for a hotel exceptionally well. The rooms were ample and clean with telephone, TV and AC, dresser, table, closet, etc., it had its own restaurant with excellent Panamanian food and the personnel were friendly and helpful. We would stay there 7 nights and would return for two more nights at different occasions. By the time we left for the last time, we were being treated as family.

Thursday, March 3

On this day, my cousin Luis Carlos picked us up at the hotel taking us to the offices of Ecocircuitos so we could meet the company’s owner, Annie Young, and pay the balance of our fee. From there we went on to meet with some relatives and to a wonderful Panamanian lunch at Luis Carlo’s home. During this time, we introduced Gene to Marañones (cashews), from which the cashew nuts are harvested, even drinking a glass of chicha de marañon, made from the fruit itself. As some of you may know, the fruit is edible, being sweet and tart but very good. The juice from it is excellent and appears to have blood pressure reducing qualities. I need to check this out further.

That evening we went out again with cousins and their spouses for dinner at a fine restaurant in the new filled area next to Flamenco Island. This area is full of restaurants and shops. From here, the sight of the city of Panama at night time is just as outstanding as it is by daylight.

The causeway leading from land to the islands has been widened, a two-lane concrete road has been built, as well as a nice sidewalk with landscaping, which is now widely used by people walking, jogging and riding bicycles.

I had a good day visiting with some of the relatives and seeing the tremendous changes that have taken place.

Friday, March 4
The Ecocircuitos van picked us up at the hotel at 9:00 after we had consumed a big breakfast. Our first stop was the locks at Miraflores, where an observation building with an observation platform has been constructed. This allows a perfect view of the operations of the locks as ships are taken through. After watching several ships go by, we toured the excellent exhibits in the building beginning with many photos and models of the equipment and processes used during the construction days. Included in the exhibit area was a simulator that allows the visitors to observe the transit of a container ship through the locks from the view point of the helmsman, including movement and noises. Unfortunately, the view from the windows of this ship’s bridge does not show in the photos I took. Only blank windows appear, but this is misleading as, in reality, one can see the locks and the cut as if on was standing on the bridge of a real ship.
From Miraflores, we went to Quarry Heights driving through the Officers’ Quarters area. The houses are being sold to private individuals and remodeled to suit individual tastes. Also, Edgar McArthur, nephew of the late Charles McArthur, has gone into partnership with another fellow and they are buying some of these quarters turning them into a hotel. I met Edgar at Santa Clara several days after we had visited Quarry Heights.
Then we went up to the top of Ancon Hill. The road up is a single lane hardtop requiring a guard at the bottom to contact a guard at the top for clearance before letting us go up to prevent meeting another car coming down. I had never been to the top of this hill and the view was magnificent. The crest of the hill, where the flag flies, is fenced and a policeman is on duty at the locked gate to prevent anyone from going there. I don’t know why this is so. But it felt good to be there and see the area as I had never seen it before. I could remember stories of my uncles about the hill as my grandfather used to take them there occasionally on a Sunday when they were small children and lived nearby.
The next area of exploration was the Casco Antiguo around Cathedral Plaza, The Plaza de Francia, Las Bovedas, the Presidential Palace and several other streets. This area is very quiet with little traffic and not many people in the streets. It is also very clean, as is most of Panama City, with the exception of the slum areas which are filthy. Some of the old homes are being renovated and there are efforts to revitalize the area as a tourist attraction. The results are outstanding and very beautiful. Many homes and buildings have already been renovated and it makes a good place to live because of the quiet and peacefulness away from the hussle and bussle of the rest of the city.
My old elementary school building at Plaza Bolivar, where the La Salle Christian Brothers school was located, is still standing and seemed very well kept. I do not know what is located in that building now. I went there for two years before transferring to another Christian Brothers school closer to home at the old Miramar Club, by the sea, at the end of Federico Boyd Avenue by the Urraca Park.
Being behind schedule by now, we made a dash to Old Panama to visit the ruins of the city burned by the infamous Henry Morgan. Years of neglect have taken their toll and now desperate attempts are being made to save what is left. Unfortunately, someone decided to use brick made in the fashion of
these times to replace missing pieces of walls around windows, etc. As you may remember, the original buildings were made of stone and the decision to use brick for repairs makes for an awful contrast. While in Panama, the Star and Herald ran an article criticizing this decision.
That night we went to Las Tinajas Restaurant for dinner and the folkloric show which has been promoted so much up here by other tour outfits. Briseida “Bris” Fuentes Lopez (51) and Susi Hammerschlag Marmorstein (51) met us there. We, the Panamanians, found the food adequate and the entertainment not truly Panamanian. The foreigners, who have never seen Panamanian folklore dancing, though the show was great. All we could hear was loud drums and no music and the dancing had little resemblance to “tamborito” and other local dances. It was so loud we could converse very little. I guess that as long as no one else provides real Panamanian folklore dancing and show (as in the Lucho Azcarraga days) this will have to pass as the real thing. We were disappointed, but since all others were having such great fun, we shared in their happiness and enjoyed ourselves. We really did enjoy the “polleras” when they came out dancing because they are always so beautiful, as you can see in the photos. By the way, Briseida’s husband was very much involved in the Flamenco island developments and the Paitilla area developments, but sadly passed away about 6 months ago. At Las Tinajas, we also met Ann and Bill Willoughby and Gay and Henry Pridgen.
As a whole, this first day of site-seeing in the City was very enjoyable and exciting. More exciting days were to follow.

Each Monday, we will be sharing another piece of Luis R. Celerier’s account of his journey to rediscover his country. Subscribe for blog updates, or follow our Facebook page to make sure you don’t miss anything.



Madden Dam and Lake Alajuela

By:  Luis R. Celerier
January 2012

The United States took over the task of construction of the Panama Canal on may 4, 1904, after quite a debate as to where would be the best site for this project, even after the French had already started construction in Panama. The U.S. considered five routes before deciding to continue the work the French had already begun. As you can see below, these routes included (1)through the narrowest point in Mexico, (2) through Nicaragua, (3) the French route through Panama, (4) a second route through Panama going roughly from the Gulf of San Blas to Chepo and (5), through Colombia using the Atrato River.

The French had considered several alternatives canal designs including their initial effort for a sea level canal and, later, on their second attempt, a locks canal. With greater engineering information, the U.S. abandoned the French design and proceeded with a locks design based on a large lake 85 feet above sea level. The French sea-level design suffered greatly from the large volume of excavation required and from flooding that would have occurred along the Chagres River. By constructing a dam (Gatun Dam) near the mouth of the Chagres, the combined effect of reducing excavation and mitigating flood impacts was achieved at the cost of constructing the locks.

The Panama Canal watershed is 1289 square miles drained by six major rivers of which the Chagres is the largest. Five major stream gages keep track of the flow from these rivers into Gatun Lake. These stream gage locations, shown in the map below, are: the Gatun River at CIENTO; the Boqueron River at PELUCA; the Pequeni River at CANDELARIA; the Chagres River at CHICO; the Trinidad River at EL CHORRO; and the Ciri Grande River at LOS CANONES.

Map: US Army Corps of Engineers

When the canal operations began in 1914, it became evident that, for water management purposes, another dam was needed. And it had to be above Gatun Lake. Thus, on October 13, 1931, construction on another dam was begun up the Chagres near the location of a little town called Alajuela. The dam was named Madden, after U.S. Congressman Martin B. Madden, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who played an important role in support of the project. The dam would not only help control the tremendous floods of the Chagres, but also hold water in reserve for periods when traffic through the canal was at its highest point. And additional benefit was the hydroelectric power it generated for use in the operation of the canal.

Madden Dam is located 250 feet above sea level and retains 29 million cubic feet of water. It was constructed by the engineering companies of W.E. Callahan and Peterson, Shirley & Gunther of Omaha for $4,047,407 (Note 1) which was a lot less than had been estimated by the Isthmian Canal Commission. The design and construction work was under the direction of E.S. Randolph, who stayed at the job site through out its construction. The contract was signed by General Burgess, who was the Governor of the Canal Zone at the time.

Madden Dam and what is now called Alajuela Lake. Photo by Panama Canal Co.

The resulting lake was called Madden Lake for many years but, eventually, this was changed to Alajuela Lake. This lake has a perimeter of 189 miles. The dam is 930 feet long and rises 220 feet from its foundation. Up to 893 persons, divided almost evenly between the contractor and the Canal Zone government, were employed during its peak construction period. Completion of the dam was accomplished on February 5, 1935, five months ahead of schedule and was hailed as another triumph of U.S. engineering in the history of the Canal. The Canal Zone government proceeded to build a concrete paved road 12-1/2 miles long connecting the new dam to the town of Summit.

Madden Dam shortly after completion. LIFE magazine.

Madden Dam is maintained and operated by the Panama Canal Authority. This large reserve of water has lived to its expectations providing water to (1) help maintain water levels necessary to operate the canal during the dry season, (2) control flooding of the Chagres and (3) providing hydroelectric power for the area.

Sources: Dr. Alonso Roy, M.D., Escritos Historicos de Panama; Timothy Davis, Sioux Falls Travel Examiner, 5-18-10;
Some History and Hydrology of the Panama Canal, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, June 2000; http://www.industcards.com/hydro-panama.htm

NOTE 1: Dr. Roy states that the contract for the dam was $4,047,407. However, industcards gives a figure of $$10.6 million.

New Hotel in Casco Viejo

Recently  in Casco Antiguo, a stylish new hotel open it doors:. Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel located on Avenida B in the Colonial District in Panama City.

Casa del Horno (The Oven House) is a majestic colonial property built by the French colony in the 1850s that served as a bakery. The building has been renovated with modern elements and keeping the original colonial architecture.

Casa del Horno is a sweet haven for those who love art, wine and simple pleasures.  Built with Calicanto stonewalls and finished with delicate wooden details, each of the 8 suite is equipped with state of the art bathrooms, imported Italian kitchens, top of the line wine fridges, LCD TVs with Satellite, Sony IPod docks and L’Occitane bathroom amenities, differencing each other only by size and specific amenities.

This fantastic new hotel is a jewel in Casco Viejo and .

Central America Travel Mart 2011

This year, the Central American Travel Market (CATM) will take place in Panama fom October 19 – 21.

The Central American Travel Market (CATM) is a vocational meeting, which features tourist offers from the Central American countries. It offers the opportunity to establish relationships between providers of Central American tourism services and wholesalers from major international markets: Europe (priority market), Asia and Latin America among others.

General Objectives

  • Promote the region as a highly competitive and multi-destination tourism venue in the international markets.
  • Increase the Central America market-share of international tourists, in turn creating more jobs in the tourism sector, higher incomes and promoting local development in Central America.

Annie Young Director and Founder of EcoCircuitos Panama will be attending CATM this year.  To request an appointment with us, please email at annie@ecocircuitos.com  For Panama, the CATM is a great opportunity for agents from all over the world to experience Panama and familiarize  with this new and amazing Central America destination!!

We are hosting a special event on October 21 from 5.00PM to 7.00 and involves hiking and a sunset cocktail in a privilege part of the city.  If you are interested in meeting our staff and learn more about our sustainable products for Panama, please contact us at info@ecocircuitos.com as we have limited space.   We are providing free transportation to the rainforest and back to the city on the day.

We look forward to meeting you in Panama!!!

Discover Coiba National Park

This national park and UNESCO World Heritage site is located in the southern part of the Veraguas province in the Pacific Ocean, made up of a group of islands. Coiba is the biggest island. The area of the land on the islands combined with the marine territory comes to the amazing total of 270,125 hectares (650,000 acres), making it one of the most extensive marine parks in the world. This park protects three different kinds of ecosystems: the island, reef and marine life. Due to its geographical location a penal colony was established here in 1910, the remains can still be seen today because of this situation the forest on the Coiba Island remained untouched.

For more information and itineraries to Coiba, please contact us at info@ecocircuitos.com

25 years after extreme drought on BCI

from STRI

A new article by Kenneth Feeley from Florida International University, with STRI’s Stuart J. Davies, Rolando Perez and Stephen P. Hubbell and former staff scientist Robin B. Foster (now at the Field Museum, Chicago), was recently published as the cover article of the journal Ecology (April).

The article, entitled “Directional changes in the species composition of a tropical forest”, examines changes in the composition of tree species growing on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, R,P.
Feeley and colleagues show that over the past 25 years there has been a remarkably consistent and directional pattern of increasing abundances of drought-tolerant species at the expense of more drought-insensitive tree species. The cause(s) of this change remains uncertain, but the most likely culprits are either long-term changes in climate leading to reduced water availability (i.e., increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall), or alternatively the compositional changes may be the ongoing legacy of an extreme El Nino drought that occurred in the early 1980’s.

By investigating compositional changes, scientists increase not only their understanding of the ecology of tropical forests and their responses to large-scale disturbances, but also their ability to predict how future global change will impact some of the critical services provided by ecosystems as important as those of the Panama Canal watershed.
You may obtain the article from calderom@si.edu

Special rates on tours and adventures for UN climate delegates

EcoCircuitos Panama will be offering special tours and adventure packages for all participants on the preparatory meeting on Climate Change  (UNFCCC) next October in Panama City.soberania national park

As a tour operator committed with sustainable development, we hope to raise awareness through the use of tourism as a conservation and development tool.  Our vision as a sustainable tour operator is to combine fun outdoor activities, cultural exchange, educational tours and nature preservation to make a memorable vacation to our clients.  The tour companies, lodges and guides working with EcoCircuitos share this vision and strive to make your adventure in Panama unforgettable.

To learn more about our Responsible Travel Policy, please click here.

For more information about our tours, extension packages and adventures, please click here.