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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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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Buses of Panama City – Los Diablos Rojos

Los diablos rojos, the red devils, as the buses of Panama City are widely known, were some of the most well-decorated I have seen on my trip.

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Cerro Ancón

Cerro Ancón is an iconic part of Panama City. A large Panamanian at the top flies over the city. It was once the center of the US Canal Zone, and its slopes housed the Anglican Cathedral, hospital, Canal Administration Building, and Balboa High School. It is now, of course, firmly back under Panamanian control. The spectacular views in all directions made it one of my favorite destinations in the city.

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The Panama Canal

One of my first destinations in Panama was the Visitors Center at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. The three levels of exhibits at the center were informative and engaging, and I especially enjoyed watching a tanker transit the locks and head off into the Pacific. The Canal, and struggles over its control, has a significant place in Panamanian history and identity. Its presence was in the background during the month I stayed in Panama, whether I was looking down on it from Cerro Ancón, watching a giant container ship pass by the small towns on the road to Gamboa, listening to news of it being shut down for weather-related reasons for the first time ever during the historic flooding, or following the roro (roll-on, roll-off) K-Line Indiana Highway (with a capacity of 6,040 cars) out to sea on the Amador Causeway. It was also cool to see the grading work underway for the canal expansion, a project one of my fellow Swarthmore Engineering graduates is working on. The construction of a third set of locks, larger than the original two, is already changing the dynamics of global shipping.

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Tica Bus

For the trip from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Panama City, I rode on Tica (Transportes Internacionales Centroamericanos) Bus.  While I had taken Tica Bus before, traveling from Guatemala City to San Salvador, this time I traveled on one of its Executive Class buses.  That meant almost airline-level service: nice blankets and pillows, meals, and movies.  We pulled into the Paso Canoas border crossing at 5:00 AM and had to wait an hour before the offices even opened.  After they did, getting through the various immigration formalities took another hour and a half.  Panamanian customs officers brought all of the bus’ passengers into a room, called attendance, and searched all of our bags.  I made the mistake of not declaring my laptop appropriate form (apparently it counted as a household appliance), but everything went smoothly enough, and I arrived safely in Panama City fourteen hours after departing San Jose.

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