Return to Blog

Visit to the Panama Canal

Written by
Francisco Gonzalez
October 13, 2021
A Chinese breakfast, a visit to one of the modern marvels of the world, and paying our respects to the men and women who served here to build and protect this strategic place.

“What kind of breakfast do you guys want to have today?” asked my friend Chris. “Do you want a traditional Panamanian cuisine or do you want to have what’s popular with the locals, a Chinese breakfast?”

Say what?

There’s been a lot of chatter about the influence China is trying to have in Panama since the United States ceded its control of the Panama Canal and surrounding territory here on December 31, 1999. But that’s not why a Chinese breakfast is popular in Panama. Back in the late 1800s, when railroads were being built in Panama, there were a lot of laborers who came from China to help build them. From that time forward, the “Chinese breakfast” grew in popularity here in Panama.

“When in Rome,” we said. So we went with the Chinese breakfast. It was an experience. Chris took us to the Evergreen building (an office building that is literally painted evergreen -- you can’t miss it!). It was less than a 10-minute drive from his place. We went up the elevator to about the fourth floor, I believe, where the restaurant, the Golden Unicorn, is located.

Chinese breakfast at the Golden Unicorn

The Golden Unicorn, like many other Chinese breakfast locations here, is like a big banquet hall, with large round tables that seat about 8 or so around. There were only three of us so we were pretty spaced out. You don’t order off a menu. Instead, every so often they roll carts of food around to your table and you order off the cart. We let Chris do the ordering, answering questions about the kinds of things we generally like or don’t like. This felt more like lunch or dinner with the kind of food we were eating. But here we were … for breakfast… in Panama.

Chris explained how these places are especially popular with the locals on Sunday morning, with families going out to eat. I looked around at the clientele. No Chinese or Asian people in sight. I looked at the staff. I think I saw one guy who might have had Chinese ethnicity. Ok, I was starting to feel like the diversity department at most universities these days. “One Asian, check.” There were also no tourists as far as I could tell. We were getting a real local experience -- Chinese cuisine in Panama! Who knew?

Once we were done with the Chinese breakfast -- we were in and out fairly quick -- Chris then took us a few blocks over for some real Panamanian coffee at Cafe Unido. There are a few locations in Panama City. If you’re looking for something quick here, don’t bother. I feel like I waited about 15 or 20 minutes for my latte. They went to town roasting it to perfection, which is really the best way coffee should be enjoyed. I’ve become very biased to Guatemalan coffee, but this stuff was legit.  Cafe Unido wasn’t extremely busy but it was fairly steady so roasting coffee in that fashion for a number of customers will indeed have you waiting. But once you taste it, you understand the wait was worth it.

Brewing coffee with care at Cafe Unido

One more thing I should say about Sunday morning in Panama City -- that we didn’t take advantage of. There are some really great walking, running, and bike trails alongside Avenida Balboa that stretch for many miles and go all the way into Casco Viejo and to other parts. And on Sunday mornings, they close some of the lanes of traffic on Avenida Balboa for serious cyclists, like our friend Chris who trains and competes in triathlons. If I was back here again on a Sunday, I would totally rent a bike and take advantage of this opportunity. From Chris’ balcony, which overlooks Avenida Balboa, we saw streams of people cycling on the road. Looked like a great time!

But cycling wasn’t in the cards today, not even for Chris. After we picked up our coffee from Cafe Unido, it was time for Chris to take the two Americans to go see the Panama Canal. Chris drove us in that direction and pointed out to us various landmarks that were part of the American canal zone, including Albrook airfield (which still operates private planes today), and the U.S. military base.

We were lucky to get a tour of the Panama Canal. There were a few things here (like the IMAX movie) that were closed for Covid, but the museum was open and we got a guided tour through the history and logistics of the Panama Canal. Two days earlier, and a night before I came here, I had watched The American Experience full documentary on the Panama Canal (via YouTube) so I felt fairly well educated on much of what was in the museum. But of course it was nice to see some recreated ship models and other interesting artifacts from a century ago.

As you move your way through the museum, you continue to climb stairs (or take an elevator) until you get to various observation decks on different levels. We came on a day that the ships were moving through here. Chris works in the shipping industry here so he had knowledge that helped us avoid having to research it ourselves.  

The canal never stops and neither do the ships, so we timed it right on this day to see ships passing from the interior of the canal, through the locks that then take it out to the Pacific Ocean. It was really incredible to see this in person. The cargo ship we saw seemed massive, with tons of cargo, passing right before us. To think: without this canal, this ship and all of its cargo would have had to circumnavigate the entire continent of South America just to deliver those goods, wherever they were going.

We got to hear the alarms from the locks go off, signaling they were about to open. We saw the yellow handrails on top of those locks go down automatically (they are there in case men need to walk across, but no one is walking across while the locks open). We watched the ship go from stationary to moving into the locks in minutes, and then the locks close as the water fills. We weren’t going to have the time to sit here and watch the locks fill with 26,000 gallons of water, but it was neat to see it in process. And then there were ships all lined up through the canal, awaiting their turn.

When these ships first enter the canal on the Atlantic side, a local pilot here in Panama boards the ship and guides it through the entire 8-to-10-hour journey through the canal. They also rotate days for ships to go the other way. When the ships are in most of the canal, especially through the locks, it’s so narrow only one ship could pass through. It’s a one-way zone through the locks!

Of note and news to me when I got here: About five years ago, in 2016, a second set of locks -- a few miles in sight away from us and a little higher elevation - were opened - they were built by the Panamanians and it’s my understanding they also allow some larger ships to pass through than the original canal locks allowed. Because those new locks are also more modern, they also created a way for the water to recycle rather than pour out to the ocean as the original locks do.

But hey, both of these sets of locks are just an awe-inspiring creation of man. I was quietly reflecting on all the men -- 24,000 at one time -- that were here working to make this happen. And the 5,000 that died here trying. Americans, Panamanians, West Indians -- and let’s not forget about the thousands of French and other West Indians who died trying to create the canal on the first attempt in the 1880s. And here these ships are just cruising through, about 40 per day, constantly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“The canal never stops,” as they say.

Once we finished here, Chris drove us a mile or so down the road so we could get a look from the other angle before the ships enter the last set of locks. From there, he drove through complexes built by the Americans, mostly simply for the Americans. These are the nice homes, recreational fields, and social halls that were built to incentivize the American workers and their families to stay here longer and live a more comfortable life while building the canal. I was amazed at how large these complexes were. I imagined a few buildings here and there, but there were hundreds -- and not to mention the hundreds (if not thousands?) of homes that were built.

Today, much of these facilities are inhabited mostly by NGOs and other institutions, including a few buildings from where Florida State University conducts its “Panama campus,” where Chris went to school, and met that girl that eventually brought him to Tallahassee, where he and I met about 8 years earlier. I lived in Tallahassee for nine years, a Miami Hurricane fan constantly surrounded by Seminoles. And here I was in Panama, with the FSU flag flying high. Unreal.

After the canal was completed in 1914, the United States still had this territory. It was economically, politically, and militarily strategic. And during both World War I and World War II, thousands of U.S. military men were stationed here, including the grandfather of my friend Marshall, who was with us here on the trip.

As I mentioned in the previous post about this trip, Marshall had sent Chris and I some of the photographs of this area that his grandfather took between 1944 and 1946. Sure there were some places that looked a bit different here, but we ended up finding I think all of the structures, including the site of Albrook airfield, from the same specific angle -- with an iconic small mountain in the background -- from which Marshall’s grandfather took his photo in the 1940s. We ended up taking an almost identical photograph and recorded a short video as well that will soon be available on the Fearless Journeys YouTube channel.

Photos by Roger Swanson circa 1945 and Marshall Swanson 2021

I reminded Marshall, as if he wasn’t aware, “your grandfather was likely standing in this same exact spot, almost exactly 75 years prior to us being here today.” I had the privilege of meeting his grandfather on a number of occasions over the past few years before he passed in May 2020. So, it was super cool knowing someone who was here when this was a place of real strategic importance for the United States during a pivotal era for Western Civilization.

“Of course, the Albrook Mall [located right behind the airfield now] and the skyscrapers in the distant Panama City skyline weren’t here for your grandfather to see back then,” I added. We laughed. But in all seriousness, that is for the most part the only thing that looked different from the photograph we were looking at from this spot. I think some trees in front of us had grown larger, blocking a little part of the same exact view.

I think it’s super neat that Marshall had the exact photographs his grandfather took here in the 1940s and came back to retrace his steps. It gave me a small connection, as well, to the U.S. servicemen who fought for our freedoms, even in places you wouldn’t totally expect.

Chris then drove us over to the administration building for the Panama Canal, which is where the U.S. government had its operations from the time the canal was constructed in the early twentieth century until the U.S. ceded the canal and territory back to Panama, officially on December 31, 1999. Since President Jimmy Carter was the one who signed the original treaty in 1977 that outlined a process of cessation of the territory back to Panama, during his administration, the United States sent Carter back here on that last historic ceremonial day in 1999. Today, the flag of Panama now flies in front of the canal administration building where the U.S. flag once flew. The transition was completely peaceful and today the United States and Panama enjoy a very good relationship with one another.

Canal Administration Building

During our trip, we heard lots of opinions about this from local Panamanians, but as Chris explained to us, back in the 1960s there were a lot of anti-American demonstrations here in Panama. One of the biggest issues was that the U.S. territory cut the country of Panama in half and there were no ways for Panamanians to cross from the east or west side of the canal zone to the other without a whole process of showing papers and giving reasons why you needed to cross that territory. It became very frustrating to Panamanians, and it was all also during the context of a growing sense of U.S. imperialism and Cold War operations. It seems logical today that perhaps the U.S. should have created a better scenario to make the crossing less like crossing a border and more like simply going through regular morning or afternoon traffic in one’s own country.

Before our time in the former American zone was over, Chris took us to a U.S. cemetery, where the graves of thousands of U.S. veterans lay. I’m not sure of the logistics here, but it’s clearly a cemetery preserved for Americans who lived and fought here and perhaps even died while stationed here. Marshall and I paid our respects and even observed that some of the graves were as recent as the previous two months, with temporary markers awaiting the more permanent grave stones. I thought of a phrase that I believe Ronald Reagan said, perhaps during his speech at Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He said something to the effect that when the U.S. goes abroad to fight, we don’t attempt to conquer other peoples or take territory; we simply ask for enough land to bury our dead. And here was that land in Panama.

U.S. cemetery in the Canal Zone

It’s hard to see another major superpower like the United States giving up territory voluntarily as we did in Panama in the late 20th century -- especially after thousands of our men died to build a canal. Chris told us that while there was certainly a contentious relationship with the United States in the latter part of the 20th century -- including when our CIA came in to oust and arrest Noriega in the 1980s and 1990s -- that today the people of Panama seem very grateful for the U.S. effort to build a canal. It’s the number one part of Panama’s economy today -- and the very industry of which Chris is employed. He also grew up in what was the former American canal zone, so he was as familiar with the area as anyone his age (of 30 years old) could be.

Two days later, a local Panamanian (who was born in Cuba) told us: with the building of the Panama Canal, the U.S. put Panama on the map. I responded in jest: “well, we technically took part of Panama off the map!

Avenida Amador

We finished our day of sightseeing in the canal zone and then Chris took us on one last sightseeing drive for the day -- onto a causeway on Avenida Amador. The area has some nice walkways and paths for runners and bikers, as well as restaurants and the Biomuseum. We didn’t stop for any of these, he merely wanted to show us by car. And the other thing he wanted to explain to us is that this entire causeway was man-made. It was created by the dirt dug from the canal. They had to put it somewhere! And this was where. We were driving on that part of Panama we took “off the map”!

From here, we went back into the center of the city where we made a stop for a very late lunch at Botanica Pizza, which has a really nice garden in the back of the place to eat. Their personal pizzas were large and a perfect match for our appetites, with lots of different topping choices.

We then stopped into the very large Multiplaza mall so that Chris could run some errands. The mall is in a very commercialized area, where I noticed lots of international hotel chains. The mall also includes a supermarket, where we were able to pick up a few small items we needed. In the main part of the mall, Marshall and I picked up some cigars at a cigar store in the mall (all Cubans once again -- a little too expensive for my regular taste, but you go with the flow on vacation). We were able to smoke those on Chris’ apartment balcony as we feasted our eyes on a wonderful scene of the Panama City skyline at night.

But before we did that, we stopped at the Gut Panama ice cream place (which has a speakeasy connected to it FYI) on the way home to pick up a couple of pints to enjoy at Chris’ place. I am glad he likes ice cream as much as I do!

Smoking to top off a glorious day in Panama

It was Sunday night and we still had two more full days in Panama before we would depart on Wednesday. We’ll visit those last adventures in the next post.

Journey Fearlessly, Together.

Enrich your life with a community of ambitious minds and purposeful hearts by subscribing to the Fearless Journeys Newsletter below.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.