Category Archives: Travel

Exploring Panama City: The Panama City Fish Market

One of the most interesting but easy-to-overlook spots in Panama City is the fish market. If you’re on the sidewalk and feel a desire for a plate of shrimp or fresh fish, wave down a taxi and tell him to take you to Mercado de Mariscos. The market itself is right at the northeastern point of Casco Viejo, a five minute walk away from the city’s oldest neighborhood.

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The market is divided into a few parts. The main building is dominated by the first-floor fish market, which sells seafood of all sorts. Panama City locals come here to get their fish and take home to cook themselves.

You can’t very well fry fish in a hotel room, so I went to the second-floor restaurant and got this grilled lobster plate instead. The restaurant has plenty of other dishes to offer. The best deal is probably a basic grilled fish plate, though. Strangely, they didn’t have crab on the menu, even though they seemed to have plenty of it being sold in the market.

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Above, the market.

There’s one more place to buy seafood at the fish market. If you walk outside the first-floor market, you’ll find a line of ceviche stands. I didn’t get a picture of this, but imagine a row of stands selling soupy seafood cocktails. There are well over a dozen of these stands, all with basically the same menu. You can get a basic cup of ceviche for $1.25 and a kind of shrimp cocktail thing for about two dollars, but bigger bowls are available. This is probably one of the best lunch deals in the city.

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Before leaving, you should walk out to the harbor. Fisherman sail out for their catch every day and bring it back here. The atmosphere at the city’s fish market is very business-like, both among the workers and the customers, but it’s an easy-going place at the same time and the workers are used to tourists.

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Exploring Panama City: Casco Viejo Street Art

I’ve written a little bit about Casco Viejo already. This 17th century district of Panama City, perched on a peninsula jutting into the Pacific, represents the first still-surviving European settlement in Panama and was the whole of Panama City until a wave of expansion in the 20th century shifted the center of the city further inland.

Casco has something to offer aside from its several historical attractions and its cafes and bars, though – something that you’ll be sure to notice when you visit. This old neighborhood is full of street art.

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Some of the art seems to be based in native styles, like the work above. I don’t know what this building houses, but it’s right on a very prominent corner leading into the Casco district. The authorities seem to approve of the city’s street art, otherwise I guess they’d paint over it. Maybe they believe it brings in tourism money.

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I didn’t really get a good shot of this, but someone seems to have painted some tires and nailed them up to a wall. Also notice the weird image above that looks like it was Photoshopped. Casco is full of little open lots and patios like this.

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Some of the art’s been done by children. This wall features crude drawings of ants or beetles with what I guess are the artists’ signatures.

One Casco artist seems to have a fixation on stockings:

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This isn’t the only example. Another one done by the same artist, with the same stylized signature attached in red:

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I’m positive I saw more of these around the district, but these are the only pictures I got.

Casco Viejo certainly has more street art to offer, but this is all I got a decent look at. I spent most of my time in Casco sitting in bars, restaurants and the blessedly air-conditioned Canal Museum. The Panamanian summer is not extremely hot – not to Persian Gulf levels, at least – but it is unbearably humid.

Places not to visit: Clipperton Island

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Located far off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Clipperton Island is truly the destination for someone looking to “get away from it all.” Clipperton was found in various parts of the last millennium by Spanish and French explorers and has been in French colonial overseas possession for about two centuries, minus a period of dispute with Mexico over its claim, and was a center of mining and fishing operations at times.

So what might you expect to find on this island? Not much. Clipperton Island consists of a thin strip of land encircling a lagoon full of brackish water. There are no human inhabitants. There seems to be no workable soil to speak of, and the only point of interest aside from some clumps of palm trees is a 100 foot-tall rock.

A map of Clipperton Island.  (Source: Christian Jost (CC BY-SA 3.0))

A map of Clipperton Island. (Source: Christian Jost (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Why, then, would anyone bother with this place? Aside from the probably very complicated legal issues regarding Mexico and France’s territorial waters and resultant fishing and mining rights in the Pacific surrounding, it doesn’t have anything to offer, does it?

Well, it used to have plenty of something – guano. Guano is “the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, pinnipeds, or (in English usage) birds in general” (source: Wikipedia.) Lots of islands in the Pacific happened to contain a lot of guano, probably as a result of birds living on said islands for thousands of years. As it happened, bird shit was highly sought after as a fertilizer by many countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the United States Congress even passed an act declaring that any US citizen could claim any island containing guano that was uninhabited and not held by any other country for the US. The US did claim a lot of Pacific islands on this basis and still holds some of them to this day, but Clipperton, being a French holding from the 18th century, was not among them. So those lucky French farmers were able to get their hands on the lucrative crap that must have resulted in nice crop yields.

Clipperton was visited on a fairly regular basis by miners looking for guano and by fishing and whaling vessels. Because of its both literal and figurative shittiness, however, the island was never permanently inhabited but once, when a Mexican settlement was established there. Said settlement was supplied by ship until 1915, when shipments were halted in the midst of World War I. The inhabitants were then required to live off fish and rainwater collected in boats. As a result of its isolation, the Clipperton settlement broke out into scurvy and mostly died, and the remaining man on the island reportedly lost his mind and lorded over the several remaining women and children and committed several serious crimes before being killed, either in self-defense or out of retribution, by one of the women. The survivors were soon thereafter rescued, and perhaps understandably, no one has tried to live on Clipperton Island since.

Clipperton Island isn’t an entirely bad place, though, if you’re a marine or avian biologist with an interest in the eastern Pacific. A lot of birds still make their homes on the island. A large amount of coral grows around the island, along with a diverse group of Pacific sea life. A species of bright orange crabs also lives on Clipperton, but put your shellfish fork away: their meat is poisonous.

Not on the menu.  (Source: Cedricguppy (CC-BY-SA-4.0))

Not on the menu. (Source: Cedricguppy (CC-BY-SA-4.0))

Getting to Clipperton Island is difficult, as it has no harbor or even a dock or anything and nobody goes there save a few scientific expeditions and maybe the occasional French patrol ship. But you probably shouldn’t visit anyway. In fact, you should just be happy that you live in a place with constant fresh water supplies and no poisonous crabs.

Terra Nullius: Bir Tawil

Imagine a land unclaimed by any country in the world. I know what you’re thinking: Here’s the place to start the great empire I’ve always dreamed of building.

There’s some bad news. Several people/groups have already claimed this land, and one man has gone so far as to create a flag, travel to the land and stick that flag in the ground in the name of his new state. The worse news, however, is that Bir Tawil, the land in question, has nothing that anyone could possibly want.

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Pictured above, courtesy of Google Earth: the land in question. Bir Tawil (Arabic for “deep well”) is the trapezoid dotted out in the center of the photograph. It looks desolate from space, and indeed, it is; Bir Tawil is a patch of rocky desert about 2,000 square kilometers in area (about the area of a mid-sized US county) on the border between Egypt and Sudan. And it is unclaimed by both countries. In fact, each country claims that the other is Bir Tawil’s rightful administrator. What’s going on here?

To understand just why Bir Tawil is so unwanted, we have to look at early 20th century colonial African history. At the turn of the last century, Egypt and Sudan both were unofficially ruled by Britain. After a briefly successful Sudanese revolt against British rule in 1896, the British colonial administration recaptured Sudan alongside Egyptian forces and established a “condominium”, or joint rule, between Britain and Egypt over the reconquered country. This new arrangement required the drawing of a border between Egypt and Sudan, and the 1899 line cut straight through the 22nd parallel. A later map, however, shifted this line to better reflect the realities of the border between the two colonies, and Sudan gained the 20,000 square kilometer Hala’ib Triangle, a prime piece of Red Sea real estate, while the comparatively useless Bir Tawil south of the 1899 border went to Egypt.

The Hala'ib Triangle and Bir Tawil.  The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

The Hala’ib Triangle and Bir Tawil. The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

After independence, both Egypt and Sudan claimed Hala’ib, with Egypt upholding the 1899 border and Sudan pushing the 1902 border in opposition. As a strange quirk of this argument, neither country had any basis to claim Bir Tawil – so neither claimed it. Bir Tawil, as a result, is officially terra nullius. Nobody wants it. Which means you can go there and do whatever you want, right?

Well, that’s just the problem – there probably isn’t anything to do in Bir Tawil. There are good reasons Egypt and Sudan both prefer Hala’ib, which has actual settlements and a coastline, to Bir Tawil, which has no settlements, no natural resources, and no access to water. It’s a rocky desert withpatches of shrubs and stuff like that. Herders have used the land in the past, but nobody lives there and, again, there are good reasons for that.

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it's probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it’s probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

Naturally, the fact of Bir Tawil’s inaccessibility and hostility has not stopped idiots in other countries from claiming the land for themselves. Most recently, an American traveled to Bir Tawil and planted a flag there, declaring it the Kingdom of North Sudan and his seven year-old daughter the princess of it. It’s admirable that a parent would go so far to make his kid happy, but declaring your kids royalty of new made-up countries borders on spoiling them, doesn’t it?

In any case, neither Egypt nor Sudan have commented on Mr. Heaton’s claim on Bir Tawil, and it’s unlikely that they will ever countenance a third-party claim on the land, considering that a final agreement between the countries will require one of them to end up holding Bir Tawil anyway. And it’s just as well, because there is no reason to go to this patch of rock and sand. If you want to declare your own country, declare it in your own backyard or in your apartment. Nobody will stop you unless you do something dumb like declare war on your neighbors and lob projectiles into their yards. Bir Tawil is interesting as a question of international law, but that’s all it has going for it.

Exploring Panama City: Historic Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo de Panama) sits at the center of old Panama. After the original 16th century settlement of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by the famous English pirate Henry Morgan, this second town was built several miles away. The 17th century Casco Viejo contains many of the city’s historical treasures and most interesting architecture (especially if you’re a fan of the Spanish baroque style, which it’s full of – Casco Viejo itself was built by the Spanish settlers around that period.)

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The baroque district of the city is filled with plazas like you see in the picture above. The monument in the center is dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the revolutions that tore most of the Americas away from Spanish royal rule in the early 19th century.

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Despite all that, a lot of the architecture in Casco Viejo is a result of Spanish influence. This skeleton of a structure used to be the Church of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuit order. It was devastated by a fire and a later earthquake, but its frame still stands. It’s now a home for old Panama’s stray cats.

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This guy didn’t seem to mind having his picture taken. He must be used to tourists.

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One of the most remarkable places in the old city is hidden away in a narrow alley. The Church of San Jose is hard to find (just like everything else in Casco Viejo, in fact.) But it’s well worth finding.

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

The golden altar of the Church of San Jose does involve some real gold – it’s covered in gold leaf. It’s also unique for its history. This altar first stood in the original 16th century city of Panama Viejo. The settlement was plundered and put to the torch in 1671 by the aforementioned Henry Morgan, but he didn’t bother to carry off this priceless piece. To disguise its value, the Jesuit brothers of the church painted the whole thing black. Once the coast was clear, they removed it and sent it along to the new capital of Panama – the district now know as Casco Viejo – and built a church around it.

Casco has a few major plazas lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them have free wireless, but there’s no reason not to stop by one of the neighborhood’s many locales. Panama has a lot of good coffee and cheap beer to offer, and a lot of it’s served in Casco Viejo.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The Plaza de Francia is situated right on the tip of Casco Viejo facing out towards the Pacific Ocean. The French plaza was built in the 19th century to commemorate the original French effort to build the Panama Canal, and it still hosts the French mission to Panama. I really liked this part of the neighborhood. The monument itself (below) was off limits for some kind of construction or maintenance, though.

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Casco Viejo is a grid of narrow alleys broken up by a few plazas. Pictured below is the Plaza de la Independencia, seemingly the central square of the old city. Casco Viejo feels a little bit like a scaled-down version of old Madrid – there’s nothing nearly as grand as the Puerta del Sol or the Plaza Mayor, but it has a similar atmosphere. The biggest difference is that while Madrid’s old city lies right in the center of the modern metropolis, the true center of Panama City has long since shifted away from Casco, so Panama’s old city feels a little bit deserted – especially on a weekday.

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If you ever stop by Panama City, you can’t afford to miss Casco Viejo. It’s just a $3-4 taxi ride from the center of town (cheap compared to taxis in the US, but from what I heard later I might have been overcharged.) The neighborhood has plenty of nice cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs and has an active nightlife.

Be sure to visit the Canal Museum during a daytime trip to Casco Viejo. The Miraflores Locks, situated at the Canal near Panama City, is a must-see, but the museum in Casco has all of the actual documents and mementos associated with the Canal itself. It’s cheap to visit and the building is air-conditioned. I’ve said that before, but it’s worth repeating. You’ll really want to get out of the heat for a while.