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.