04/10/2007 - 04/15/2007
When we last reported from Panama, a three-toed sloth with baby in tow was being harassed by small boys in their underwear using the blue-tiled gravesite of one Harriet S. DeDowner as a launching pad for their slingshots. Not sure if she would have been amused or horrified, but I´m happy to report that the sloth was still there and quite intact several hours afterwards.
To be fair, much of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro outside of the main towns seems fairly well protected and is still teeming with wildlife. While there, an indigenous guide in the small community of Salt Creek on Bastimentos Island took us to see impossibly cute Western night monkeys, a very cool black and white owl, nearly crocodile-sized caimans partially submerged in a murky pond and thumb-sized bright red poison dart frogs.
And after a wonderful snorkeling session during which we saw a fish that could only be properly described as a small purple disco ball, a mother and baby bottle-nosed dolphin began playing in the wake of our motorboat, encouraging our driver to maneuver into wide circles so the baby dolphin could draft behind the boat, occasionally trying out its jumping abilities.
Panama City couldn´t be more different, with a Miami-ish feel to all of its palm trees and high rises. The city is booming, with well over a dozen skyscrapers under construction. The most compelling neighborhood, though, is low-rise Casco Antiguo, with beautifully restored colonial buildings standing side by side with crumbling ones, some little more than roofless stone shells. The president of Panama lives here and government workers share park space with traditionally dressed Kuna women selling colorful molas, or colorful textiles. We also found one of the very best restaurants of the whole trip there, a modern place called Ego that has awesome tapas like ceviche and octopus carpaccio (better than you´d think) served up with sangria in a wonderful outdoor square.
The Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal also exceeded our expectations. The justifiably proud Panamanians have built an impressive visitors center with good vantage points. The sheer scale of the locks is best demonstrated by seeing huge cargo ships being raised and lowered dozens of feet by water alone. And the very well-done three-floor exhibition of the canal´s history, watershed, logistics and future was fascinating, as were the science of the undertaking and its impact on ship size and shipping economics.
Still more than a few reminders of the U.S. presence there, with abandoned bunkers on the way up to a superb vantage point on the city´s Ancon Hill, the bombed-out former recreation center for Noriega´s soldiers and massive U.S.-style development that has turned a string of three pretty islands into something approaching a hideous megamall for the rich.
After an inconvenient layover in Miami, we´ve officially begun the South American leg of our journey with a stop in Lima, Peru. The late-morning changing of the guard at the government palace was impressive if somewhat odd: marching soldiers and riot police and huge tanks keeping guard while the military band played the theme from "Star Wars."
And I´m unhappy to report that roasted guinea pig tastes somewhat like chicken, only fattier, chewier and stringier.