13. Travel Story

Travel report 13, or perhaps I can better say: "City-report".

This travel story will be a little different than you're used from me, because the last 2 weeks I stayed, for different reasons, only in 2 cities, instead of almost a hole country like you're used from me ;-)
Panama City and Bogota, Central- and South America, sea level and mountains, at first two totally different cities, but they're by history connected and still have some things in common.
 
Panama City, at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal.
The arrival at the big national Bus-terminal gave me at the same time a good impression about Panama City. It's a big modern and almost luxury bus-terminal, but inside it contains, next to the new touring cars, also the old and already famous, colourful school busses for short distances. After almost a week in Panama City, this city gave me the same impression. It's big and at first sight it looks modern and Western, but the city also
contains some beautiful old churches and buildings and sometimes you will even see some Indians walking in their old and colourful costumes, through
the modern streets. Beside that example there were two other contrasts that catched my eyes:
 It's special to look through the ruins of the old Panama City, Panama Vieja and to see the sky-scrapers of the modern banking centre in the centre of the new city. But also the old part of the new city, Casco Antiguo, shows a strange contrast. If you look at the, mostly beautiful restored, old churches and buildings in the tourist area, you will likely also see the old and terrible maintain buildings were the local people live. And if you walk only 2 blocks further you will even enter the neighbourhood of the city. Not very save for tourists, but the municipality has a solution for that problem: Just move the poor people to an other part of the city. I think the only move the problem......
 
A short description of the city will be that's situated South of the Panama Canal, in the corner between the canal and the Pacific Ocean. The old (and poor) part of the city is closest to the Canal, the modern banking area is in the middle and if you go further to the other side of the city, you will enter Panama Viejo. There're a lot of small and big city-busses, but it's not always easy to find your way, because a lot of the streets are not nice and straight from one point to another.
 
I was lucky to stay in the most expensive part of the city, the banking area, in the cheapest hostel of the city, Hostel Voyager. Try to ask your direction on the streets, in an Spanish speaking country, to find a hostel with a name like that...
 
Canal de Panama, the official Panamanian name of the most famous canal in the world. I wonder when they gave it that name, because if I translate it, it will be: "Canal from Panama" and this is only true since 31 Dec. 1999. On this date the American government officially handed the Canal over to Panama. But before that date, the 80km long canal and a buffer zone around it, belonged officially to USA territory. They build the canal from 1903 until 14 Aug. of 1914 and because it's importance as a short waterway between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, they wanted to keep it under their control.
Of course, if you visit Panama and Canal de Panama, you should also visit the closest locks, the Miraflores Locks. The chambers of those locks are 305m long, 33.5m wide and capable to lift or lower a ship that's only just a little smaller, in 3 times from sea-level up to  26m above and down again. They were made well and have changed almost nothing between 1914 and now. There's a lot more to tell about The Canal and its history, like the fact that in the past they'd even considered to dig the canal between Lago the Nigaragua and the Pacific coast. Not a very strange thought if you look at a map...
 
PN. Metropolitano, a piece of tropical dry forest in a City. At first I was a little sceptical about the way it looked from the entrance and the presence of only small trails, but after one and a half hour I was more optimistic and it felt like a nice escape from the heat and noise of the city. Some of the animals I saw were the red head woodpeckers, small squirrel monkeys and even a small garden snake and 2 sloths. I also liked the view from the top of the hill in the park, you could see a big part of the city and even the Miraflores Locks.
 
Isla Taboga, they also call it sometimes: Island of flowers, which I can agree. It's situated 20km from the coast, almost in front of the canal-entrance and it can give you a good view of the ships that enter or exit The Canal.
We went to this island to use the beaches, to get a little more colour on our skin and to find the colourful frogs who live here. We found a lot of small light green frogs with black design, but were more surprised to see about 7 living and a couple of death tarantulas. Only the beaches are not very special and for the best one, we could found, you have to pay 7US$ to enter!? O, be also sure to ask about the different boat schedules to go from the island...
 
Time for a daytrip to the other side of The Canal, the city of Colon. The city is specially known for its second biggest tax Free Zone in the world (zona Liberty). I want to tell you about my experiences that day: I'd planned to go there early with an American woman I'd met earlier. But because we went out the night before, Friday Night, until the small hours,
we left a little later as planned an decided to take the faster, little more expensive, express bus. But this turned out to be the opposite. Halfway we were almost involved in an accident that happens in front of us. Luckily we had a good driver who could prevent us from bump into, but now he was a first eye witness. It took more than an hour before the police paperwork was done, so we arrived even more late in Colon. Then we heard that the
Free Zone was only open during the weekdays!
Later that day, when we were walking through the main street, after exploring the city a little, an ugly city we think, suddenly someone jumped on my neck and another one tried to steel my wallet. I think it was to much visible in the shorts I was wearing. We struggled a little and to bad for them, but lucky for me, they'd no weapon and were not strong enough. After a minute or something, one of the many persons who were looking at us came to us and said something and the thieves runned away with nothing.
All right, what can we do this evening to turn this bad day into a good day? On request of my American company we went about 11pm to a casino. We started to play with 40US$ and why not, this afternoon they almost stole my wallet, with a lot more...
After 3 and a half hour we went out with 55US$ and during that time we had a lot of fun and also a lot of free rum-cola's ;-)
After that we had a very good time in a nice small discotheque, which we entered for free with some local help. Yep, I think we ended this day very well :-)
 
My total impression about Panama City is that it can be a little chaotic, but I also found it a tourist friendly city. There're a lot of things to do in and around the city, there nice places to go out and it felt save, if you stay in the right neighbourhoods. One more thing I can recommend if you want to go out; buy your alcohol in the supermarket (some of them are even open for 24h's), because those supermarkets are the cheapest places in Central
America to buy alcohol, but the clubs are more expensive.
 
With Copa Airlines I fly the next evening smoothly into Bogota, Colombia.
After when a taxi drove me very fast (one time he even drove 115km/h where the limit was 30km/h) to the apartment of a friend I'd met before with travelling in Mexico. I was going to stay there for one week, because she invited me to join her 80's party on next Saturday.
 
Bogota, situated on the Andean Peaks in the middle of Colombia. There live 7 times more people than in Panama City, but it's still easier to orient yourself. Other than you would expect from a very big city in Latin America, most of Bogota seems to be very well organized. From easy to follow streets, a lot of city busses, till cycling-tracks and clean public toilets. The Municipality even tries to do something about the crazy drivers, by painting a yellow star on the street, every time someone gets killed there... It also seems that the city successfully incorporated the new buildings into the old city, without losing its charm. To me it really looks like ONE city with many faces, from historical churches to modern sky-scrapers.
 
There're a lot of museums in Bogota, but because I'm not the kind of person who really likes to go to museums, I only went to Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum. This museum shows not only a beautiful and rich collection of gold, but also gives a lot of information about it's origin and history. I liked the "El Dorado" story.
 
Other things I did when I was in Bogota were:
Just walking around on the boulevards, through the old and new streets, looking at the buildings and people who were working, performing, selling, shopping, begging, laying on the streets, or also just walking around. To immediate answer a question most people asked me: "Is it not dangerus in Bogota?"
I don't know how it is at night, because people from the city dissuaded me, with my white American looks, to go out at night, unless I'm with a group of people. But during the day I felt as save as in every other big city I've been (except for Colon than). Part of the reason can be that there's a lot of Police and army on the streets. Although I heard the story that they will look the other way if they get paid enough...
 
If you want to have a view over the city, you've 2 options: One, you can take kind of a ski-elevator to the church and its religious garden, on the summit of Cerro de Monserrate, the highest mountain east of the city. But if you only want to enjoy the view, I would recommend to pay only 1/3 and go to the top of sky-scraper Torre Colpatria (only during the weekends!). It's less higher, but because of the light smog that always seems to hang above the city, you will see not much more from Monserrate than from Colpatria.
 
To explore the city on the ground you have, beside walking, also other options; You can try to jump on one of the speedy city-busses, which are even not that fast, because the have to stop a lot of times for traffic-lights or to pickup people. You can also take it easier to rent a bicycle and do a cycling tour through the city on the cycling-tracks.
 
One thing you also have to see in the city is the colourful changing of guards and flag of the Palace. This ceremony takes place every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 5pm and is nice to see.
 
An other suggestion I can give is to visit the Cathedral de Sal. An old salt-mine, in the village Zipaquira, in which artists made a Cathedral of salt. It's impressive to see and they're even still working on it. There're 2 ways to get to the Cathedral; You can take the bus, or make it a daytrip and take "Tren Turistico", an old steam train. This last option is
more fun, but can also be a little to crowded and touristic. O, if you take the train and wonder why it stops sometimes, or even goes backwards? That's to put out some starting fires, caused by some lost hot coals.
 
Sunday 1 Feb. It's 10:30 and I still in the apartment of my friend. I try to wake up a little from the 80's party of last night and also wonder how I could write this much about 2 weeks in only 2 cities??
 

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