Soberanía (sovereignty) is the name of, among other things, a beer and a national park in Panama. An afternoon hike I took through the Parque Nacional Soberanía brought into clear relief the centuries of colonial and imperial control that have made sovereignty such an important issue for Panamanians.

I started my journey at the Albrook National Bus Terminal, named after the US Air Force Base that used to occupy the site. Looking through the back window of the Gamboa-bound bus I was riding, I could see the imposing Canal Administration Building. Twelve years after the United States left the Canal Zone (the US residents of which had almost everything provided for them in what one Panamanian described as the closest the US has come to socialism) and turned over control of the canal to the Panamanian Canal Authority, the building still bears its name in English along the side. The bus continued, passing along the Gaillard/Culebra Cut, which the French began in 1881.

I got off the bus at the start of the Plantation Trail in the Parque Nacional Soberanía. The trail followed the route of the remains of the first asphalt road in Panama, which was constructed to improve access to the sugarcane crops being grown at the eponymous plantation. The trail eventually diverged from this roadbed and, for a while, followed a series of streambeds (I was lucky I did the hike the day before record rainfall started to hit Panama).

After a while, paving stones began appearing in the streambed. Eventually, the trail turned onto an old cobblestone road. I was walking along one of the first Spanish routes across the isthmus, built in the 16th century. The wheels of mule-drawn wagons, carrying gold from South America to the Atlantic coast for shipment to Spain, had passed over the cobblestones on which I was standing. Walking along this linchpin of a bygone empire, one of the continent’s oldest transportation projects related to globalization, I was within two miles from the Panama Canal Expansion, one of the continent’s newest.

Over more than four centuries, transportation infrastructure within this two-mile-wide band across the isthmus has benefited people around the world. It certainly seems appropriate that the Panamanian coat of arms, which features the canal in its center, includes the Latin motto Pro Mundi Beneficio – For the World’s Benefit. Maybe Cum Maiesto – With Sovereignty – would be an appropriately assertive addition.

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Bus Crashes

Overturned Bus on the Cinta Costera

Overturned Bus on the Cinta Costera (Photo from Critica en Linea - Click on the photo to see more)

Racing each other to pick up more passengers, the old school buses in Panama City collide with alarming frequency. One particularly horrific crash, which injured nearly three dozen people, occurred on the Cinta Costera in January, 2010. Here is a translation of excerpts of an article about the event:

Transit: Race Leaves More than Thirty Injured
Panic on the Coastal Beltway

Oh my God! The shout was followed with alarmed screams of the more than sixty passengers aboard a Panama Viejo bus, which rolled over several times as crushed sheet metal crunched over the hard pavement. Out of the completely overturned vehicle climbed men, women, and children, some bleeding, others in pain, and the rest in hysterics. Thirty-five injured was the final count, among them ten seriously injured and two infants.

It was about 10:40 AM yesterday, Sunday, when the vehicular tragedy occurred. The Panama Viejo bus, license plate B-3388, expired since 2003, was racing with another Panama Viejo bus, which fled the scene. During the race the young driver lost control and ended up crashing into a lamp pole. The bus destroyed the signs, literally flew and spun in the air, fell 20 meters away from the impact, and ended up facing in the opposite direction. People escaped from the emergency door and the front on their own, but several passengers were trapped inside the vehicle. A young man’s right arm was trapped between the pavement and the heavy bus; more than fifteen soldiers were able to move the diablo rojo to free him.

Tears, pain and blood – the scene was sad. The injured, trembling in panic, sat among the steps that are used daily by dozens of children for fun, waiting this time for the help of paramedics. Most victims were women.

The driver of the vehicle, Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh, 20, was unhurt in the accident. He is not licensed to drive public transport, only private cars. In addition, his age is not adequate to drive that kind of public transport.

The second bus involved was located hidden in Panama Viejo, where it was impounded.

With such graphic and sensational media reports about diablo rojo crashes, it’s no wonder the government is making the implementation of Metrobus such a priority. At a November event with the first of the newly delivered buses, the Presidential Minister made the ambitious claim that there would be zero diablos rojos in the city by August, 2011. When questioned about the seating capacity of the new Volvo buses, he replied “The important thing is not to go seated, the problem is to go safely, in a comfortable and trustworthy manner.” Crashes like the ones above only heighten the government’s ability to replace the existing system and eliminate the existing drivers. Metrobus drivers will not be competing for fares, so there should be little incentive for them to drive at such high speeds.

Maybe Panama City’s congestion is another cause of speeding; perhaps drivers release their road rage, pent up from hours of sitting in traffic jams, by driving at excessive speeds if any space opens up. If the traffic is so bad that no space for a cathartic momentum binge opens up, then defeated bus drivers sometimes give up, tell everyone to get off, turn around, and go home (as my bus driver did one night when I was coming back from Santa Librada).

Luckily, my experiences riding (and driving) Panama Viejo buses were much safer. Luís, a friend who works as a conductor on a Panama Viejo bus, knew Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh (along with many of the other Panama Viejo drivers) and even showed me some cell-phone pictures of his bus before the crash.

I was, however, involved in one minor collision. One afternoon, riding a Vía España bus from Via Veneto to Plaza Cinco de Mayo, we were caught behind another bus that was loading. After some ineffectual honking, our frustrated driver finally pulled out into the other lane and started to speed down the street. The bus that had been loading, not wanting to fall behind and lose out on passengers further down the street, lurched off and the race (regata in Spanish) was on. As the drivers raced, someone on our bus yelled “parada (stop),” and our driver had to pull over to let her off. He misjudged the speed of the bus to his right, cut it off, and, with a loud bang, clipped its front bumper with his rear one. It was clear that settling the incident would take a while, so we all filed off the bus, not paying any fare to the sheepish driver and heading up the street to find another bus.

La Cinta Costera – The Coastal Beltway

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(English translation below)

Una de las campañas primeras de La Alianza Pro Ciudad fue enfocada en la construcción de la Cinta Costera de la Ciudad de Panamá. La organización pidió al Ministerio de Obras Públicas construya un parque que transforme positivamente la ciudad en lugar de un proyecto masivo de tráfico. La primera fase, que reclamó 25 hectares de la Bahía de Panamá entre Punta Paitilla y Casco Viejo, completieron en el 2009 por $ 189 millones. Para aliviar la congestión del tráfico crónica (ay, demanda inducida), la Avenida Balboa se convirtió en el uso de una via, con tres carriles locales y tres carriles expresos. Cuatro carriles expresos en la dirección opuesta añadieron, en dirección noreste hacia el Corredor Sur. Casi veinte y cinco por ciento de los terrenos ganados del mar se dedicó a las áreas recreativas y jardines, pero los grupos ambientales, incluyendo La Alianza Pro Ciudad clamaban por más:

Miembros de Alianza Pro Ciudad Raisa Banfield y Álvaro Uribe habría dicho que el plan original era tener un parque costero con un vial, no un camino mejorado con pequeños trozos de espacio verde.

Cuando yo andaba en la Cinta Costera, no parecía un parque costero exitoso. La pista de jogging, canchas de baloncesto, ciclovias y quioscos estaban decididamente infrautilizados. Restricciones de la conducta y la alta cantidad de carriles de coches de alta velocidad son dos factores que conducen a esta falta de popularidad. Aunque seis puentes peatonales fueron construidos como parte del proyecto, sólo van super cuatro de los diez carriles, desde la acera frente al mar hacia las estacionimientos en el centro del proyecto. Los peatones tienen que correr a traves de seis carriles de tráfico para llegar al resto de la ciudad desde el fin de los pasos superiores.

A pesar de estas deficiencias, la Cinta Costera ha ofrecido algunos beneficios a la ciudad. Los valores de propiedad en las cercanías se han subido, y la ciudad se siente menos económicamente estratificado con un fuerte vínculo físico entre Punta Paitilla y Casco Viejo. La Cinta Costera ha servido como espacio público necesario para varios desfiles y manifestaciones, incluyendo los más recientes contra los cambios propuestos al código de minería del país (fotos aquí).


One of the formative campaigns of Alianza Pro Ciudad centered on the construction Panama City’s Coastal Beltway, La Cinta Costera. The organization pressured the Public Works Ministry to turn a traffic project into a more broadly urbanist one that transformed Panama City’s waterfront. The first phase, which reclaimed 25 hectares from the Bay of Panama between Punta Paitilla and Casco Viejo, was completed in 2009 at a cost of $189 million. In an attempt to alleviate chronic traffic congestion (oh, induced demand), the existing Avenida Balboa was converted to one-way use, with three local lanes and three express through-lanes. Four express lanes in the opposite direction were added on the landfill, heading northeast to the beginning of the Corredor Sur. Nearly one quarter of the reclaimed land was devoted to recreational and landscaped areas, but environmental groups including Alianza Pro Ciudad clamored for more:

Members of Alianza Pro Ciudad, Raisa Banfield and Alvaro Uribe are quoted as saying that the original plan was to have a coastal park with an improved road, not an improved roadway with little bits of green space.

In the times I walked and rode along the Cinta Costera, it did not seem like a successful coastal park. The jogging path, basketball courts, bike lanes, and gazebos were decidedly underutilized. Behavioral restrictions (e.g. an abundance of signs reading “Keep off the grass”) and multiple lanes of speeding cars are two factors leading to this lack of popularity. Though six pedestrian overpasses were constructed as part of the project, they only run across four of the ten lanes, from the waterfront footpath to the parking lots in the middle of the project; pedestrians still need to weave their way through six lanes of traffic to get from the end of the overpasses to the rest of the city.

Despite these shortcomings, the Cinta Costera has offered some benefits to the city. Property values in the vicinity have jumped, and the city feels less socioeconomically stratified with such a strong physical link between the ritzy Punta Paitilla and the less ritzy Casco Viejo. The Cinta Costera has served as much needed public space for various parades and protests, including the recent ones against proposed changes to the country’s mining code (great pictures here).

The video below includes some renderings of the project (and Enya’s Caribbean Blue – I can offer no explanation for this music decision, especially since the project is along the Pacific, not Caribbean, coast). Translation of the first part of the text: “New Balboa Avenue – Park with Sporting, Cultural, and Recreational Areas – An End to Traffic Jams – The Most Well-known Image of Panama is About to Change…For the Better.” There’s a great clip of an animated school bus going by some of the new park facilities at 1:00, going to show how integral a part of Panama City the diablos rojos are.

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Panama City’s Metro

METRO DE PANAMÁ from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

One of the friends I made through Alianza Pro Ciudad was a fellow transportation engineering student. His perspectives on the country’s history, politics, and development were fascinating especially given his work with a consulting firm on Panama’s planned Metro. The project to alleviate the city’s congestion is a major priority for President Martinelli’s administration. I enjoyed his stories about having to go through security checks to attend project meetings at the Presidential Complex and the unrealistic deadlines the politicians set for the engineers.

Alianza Pro Ciudad

One of my favorite parts of Panama City was sitting in on meetings of Alianza Pro Ciudad. Founded in 2007, the alliance is a nonprofit network of architects, urbanists, and engineers that speaks out for civic participation and a livable city. The group’s bulletin has covered topics ranging from proposed development at the site of the former US Embassy to the state of transportation in Panama City (which is how I found out about them). Every Tuesday afternoon, I would sit in on their weekly meetings at the coffee shop in the Exedra book store. Hearing professionals (including a former director of ATTT, the national ground transit authority) discuss and debate urban issues such as public space (“the government builds houses, not a city – there are no public spaces, no places to meet”), traffic congestion (the average commute time in the city is 70 minutes), and historic preservation (“developers manipulate the term restoration for exploitation”), was an excellent way for me to learn more about the city (and practice my Spanish).

Bus Art Closeups

The buses in Panama City are covered with captivating spray-painted and vinyl adhesive images, cartoons and photos ranging from mystic wizards to Shakira, lions to Tupac, and Darth Vader to Pinky and the Brain. This article from 2008 details the buses and the concerns about losing valuable public art as they are replaced and helped convinced me to make Panama one of my stops. Though it mentions a renowned artist from El Chorillo, the drivers I talked to also spoke highly of a number of bus artists in the Santa Librada neighborhood. To my eye, the Santa Librada buses were the most well-decorated.

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Panama Viejo

One rainy afternoon, I explored the ruins of the first site of Panama City. It was founded by the Spanish in 1519 and inhabited until being sacked by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Not much remains of the colonial city, but some preservation and restoration work is underway.

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Metro Bus – Replacing the Diablos Rojos

Panama’s national government has made alternatives to the diablos rojos (old school buses) in Panama City a top priority. One approach is to formalize bus operations, consolidating operations into the municipally run Metro Bus system. The government offered to buy the buses of existing drivers, but buy-in has still been a problem. The government also produced the following video, which has some great footage of the existing problems.

Documental Metro Bus Panamá. from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

The short documentary opens with the story of Jose, a worker who lives in the Pacora neighborhood and has to wake up at 3:00 every morning to catch the bus. Other Panamanians then voice their concerns. The man in the blue shirt opines “I think that for these buses, which were useful in the schools in the United States, the seats on the left weren’t made for three adults.” In the middle of his soundbite, you can hear my friend Luis (more about him here) calling passengers for his “Calle Cincuenta” bus. After the tale of another commuter who gets stuck in traffic, the lady in the striped shirt complains, “[The diablo rojo drivers] go racing, they throw the buses on top of the others. To them, nothing and nobody matters. I think that the government has to see what it can do right now with transport.” The following man states, “The majority have mechanical problems – almost all of them.” A diablo rojo driver then explains, “I have been stuck 18 or 19 years driving a diablo rojo, racing, because they go, not for the benefit of the passengers, but to be able to be the first one at the stop and make more money.”

At the 2:00 mark, the documentary switches gears, and a smooth voice-over assures viewers, “Now it’s the peoples’ turn to have a transit system that is safe, comfortable, and reliable. The transformation of Panama City’s transportation system is already underway. Panamanians deserve a safe, comfortable, and reliable system – Metro Bus.” The smooth voice-over goes on to promise that by 2010, thousands of people will be benefiting from the service.

Unfortunately, the system has faced major implementation delays, primarily due to the lack of qualified drivers. This article, published in January, goes into greater detail. The editor of Panama Guide summarizes,

For the most part, those people who have experience driving the old “Red Devil” buses are buses are being rejected, probably because they have terrible driving records, many accidents, outstanding tickets, and bad habits, and bad attitudes. Before the individual bus owners had to take practically anyone who would sling their bus around the city to make a dime. Now, this company and the government of Panama have to be more stringent and demanding in their hiring practices. So, it’s not that there’s a shortage of experienced bus drivers – there’s a shortage of good bus drivers who won’t go out and pull the same crap they’ve been doing for years on the old buses. This labor shortage is going to delay the implementation of the system, no doubt.