Panama City totally exceeded our expectations. This country was Avery's choice and our main reason for visiting was the Bridge of the Americas and to explore the Panama Canal. I wondered what we were going to do with the remaining two days...
Wow, we clearly weren't prepared for all that Panama City has to offer. Eduardo (cab driver and tourist guide extraordinaire) showed us all kinds of things about his home town - we were totally taken aback. For me, Casco Viejo (Old Town) was the most interesting - it was a completely unexpected taste of Europe.
The architectures, streets and feel of Old Town had a very Spanish and colonial French feel about it. A bit well-worn in some places and downright crumbling in others, it is also going through an interesting gentrification where some very well-heeled residents raised eyebrows at our mere presence. We thoroughly enjoyed our time wandering the streets, past the President's house and offices and moving from public square to public square. Friendly shopkeepers, some fantastic coffee and treats to keep the girls fuelled and we were immersed in historic Panama City. And churches, wow, simply amazing. Even the girls were enthralled. It makes me wonder when the time will come when complete boredom set in from over exposure (ABC - another bloody cathedral/castle...). Not anytime soon at this point.
One of the churches had a fascinating story associated with it. I had heard it previously but hadn't made the connection with Panama. Inglesia de San Jose (the Church of San Jose) and it's Golden Alter represents both a tragic and humourous moment in Panama's history. The alter was originally housed in a church in Old Panama (situated several kms south) which was sacked by Privateer/Pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. At the time, Panama received all of the gold and silver from Spanish exploits in the Americas. It arrived by ship from various ports on the Pacific and stored in Panama to then be transported east overland. At the appropriate time, loads of treasure were carted under heavy guard along the Las Cruces Trail and Camino Real through dense jungle to waiting ships that would then whisk it off to Spain. The Carribbean side was heavily fortified and the Spanish guarded their resources very carefully making attacks by pirates extremely difficult. Panama, protected by jungle and geography was thought to be relatively safe even though its role and treasure stores were widely known.
Henry Morgan, carrying a personal grudge against the governor for some earlier slight, determined to sack Panama. He took his force of almost 1400 men up the Chargres River and through the jungle right to Panama City's doorstep. Not expecting an attack overland, the local defences were unprepared and soon overcome. For the next several days Morgan's men sacked and pillaged the city. Fortunately for the locals, the attack was far from a surprise as hacking your way through the jungle isn't a particularly swift nor silent affair. Many were able to hide their valuables and some of the city's most valuable treasures were made safe. Entering one church, Morgan asked the lone priest where the gold and jewels were stored. The priest, standing by a blackened wood and mud alter, gave Morgan a few pieces of gold, some crucifixes and other small items and said that his parish was so poor that they couldn't even afford a proper alter. He asked Morgan for a small donation to help finish the work under-construction. Irritated but amused, Morgan obliged by giving the priest some silver and famously said, "I don't know why, but this priest is more of a pirate than I am!" and left.
With prior warning, the wily priest was able to dismantle the Golden Alter, hide some large pieces in the bay and cover what remained in place with mud and wood. He was prepared for when Morgan's force arrived. It was a fantastic game of bluff. I wouldn't play poker with that guy! Divinely gifted or BS-artist extraordinaire?
Regardless, nice work Juan! The city was moved two years later as Morgan's destruction couldn't be overcome and they started fresh in 1673. The Golden Alter moved to where it has stood ever since. Pretty, Darn. Cool!
Looking forward to the surprises that South America has for us in the coming weeks as we move on to Ecuador.
We're the Danchuks - follow our explorations and family adventures in a wide world (2018).