A Tour of Central America

Nearly a month, in the company of a group of strangers travelling northwards through Central America to Guatemala. This may - or may not - be interesting. Amongst our group, assembling in Panama, are some single females, one lovely idiosyncratic Polish lady, several teachers, (it’s the school holidays), one honeymoon couple, one artist from Brighton with her henpecked partner and a chemist from South Africa, who is partial to beer and describes himself as a cantankerous old bastard. Our guide is a young Nicaraguan called Leon, tending to roly-poly.

A Brief History of Panama

  • Panama was of course, a Spanish colony and then, firstly, part of the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada (Colombia), Ecuador, and Venezuela.
  • After Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Nueva Granada (including the region now known as Panama), became the Republic of Colombia.
  • With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903.
  • Government from then on was turbulent, with corruption and military dictatorship. Most notable was the Noriega Regime, This military dictatorship, (initially supported by America and operating on behalf of the CIA in the region) was not only responsible for human rights abuses, murder and torture, but it was running a parallel criminal economy, providing revenues from drugs and money laundering. It later added the smuggling of Chinese immigrants to the USA. The latter apparently made about 200 million dollars.
  • Citing 'Operation Just Cause' the Americans (under George Bush) returned to Panama in in December 1989, remaining until the end of January 1990. Noriega was ousted, between 500-4000 civilians were killed, (reports differ) and, in principle, democracy was restored.

The Panama Canal

And what better place to start than the Panama Canal? Though to be honest, the Miraflores Locks outside Panama City are a little disappointing. There’s not much happening and it’s just a larger version of the Shoreham Harbour Locks I used to navigate, as a child, on my way to the beach. It’s cloudy, steamy and threatening to rain (it is the rainy season after all). Eventually, a large freighter arrives and takes an age to manoeuvre through.

The history and statistics around this ‘engineering miracle’ are much more interesting. This forty-eight mile canal was first seriously attempted by Ferdinand de Lesseps, (who built the much longer Suez Canal), on behalf of the French, in 1889. It cost in excess of 20,000 lives and 800,000 French investors were wiped out. The USA took over, by which time they had encouraged Panama's independence from Colombia and adopted the country as a protectorate.

An option to build a canal through Nicaragua was actually considered by many to be cheaper and less challenging, but the USA pushed ahead. It took 10 years to carve out the rainforest and hillside, dam lakes and build locks. Another 5,600 workers died and it was finished in 1914. The canal territory was only transferred to Panamanian ownership in 1977 and the canal itself, not till 1999.

The canal is of huge economic and political importance, of course; the alternative route round Cape Horn is 8,000 miles. It’s also a massive source of revenue. The average toll is around US$54,000, and the mean number of ships passing through each day is 40. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on April 14, 2010 to the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl. They paid US$375,600.

Panama City

Capital and largest city Panama City is home to nearly half the country's four million or so inhabitants. A hot and sticky walk round 'Casco Viejo', the heart of colonial Panama City, all Spanish plazas and colonial buildings. Some are picturesquely semi-ruined, the gaps in the walls framing the sky. There are scatterings of little shops selling (of course) Panama hats, which have at least, to be tried on. They were introduced to protect the canal workers and they're actually made in Ecuador.

Across the bay, is the total contrast of the skyscrapers of the modern business area. There are ramparts built, to fend off marauders, encircling the promontory.

Facts and Factoids

  • Panama is an isthmus, bridging two continents, with its southern tip nestling in South America.
  • At its narrowest point, Panama is only 30 miles wide. This is the only country in the world where you can watch the sun rise and set from the same highest point, the top of Volcán Barú.
  • Panama is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the world, having over 1,500 species of birds, 500 species of mammals, 400 species of reptiles, and 800 species of amphibians. The Panamanian golden frog is the national animal of Panama. It's considered good luck , even though it produce a nerve toxin which has serious implications for any predators.

Bridge of the Americas

I'm finding Panama a little disorientating. When you have a good look at a map you can see it's actually an east-west ribbon of land, in the centre of the continent. It's really odd to be in America, with oceans to the south and north.

The views of another landmark, the 'Bridge of the Americas', reinforce this disorientation. Balboa, on the edge of the city, has a municipal park where you look across to this road bridge, completed in 1962 at a cost of US$20 million. It spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, carrying Route 1 on to the infamous Darien Gap and connecting the north and south American land masses. Panama is in a prime trading position on the north (ish ) end of the isthmus, receiving any goods that make it through the rainforest. There's a 66 mile gap in the Pan American Highway here. Environmental concerns are cited as a reason for non -completion, in addition to difficult terrain.

Boquete

A bus (Artist and her husband have grabbed the front seat) through beautiful lush countryside, via the city of David (that sounds like a lift from the Bible), to Panama's southwest Chiriqui Province. This is a high volcanic region, replete with coffee, bananas and sugarcane. Onto a little hotel, near the town of Boquete, which turns out to be a naturalist’s heaven. There are gushing streams, bright birds, assorted butterflies, tiny red frogs and exotic flowers at every turn. It seems that this is also a realtor’s heaven. The area is rapidly becoming the Retirement Capital of the World. The climate is good, it’s cheap and beautiful and there are billboards slapped all over the surrounding hills telling us so.

Bocas Del Toro

Today, we’re taking a boat south to a sprinkle of typically Caribbean islands.  The small town of Bocas de Toro, on Isla Colon, is a pocket paradise of boardwalks and houses on stilts. The weather still isn’t being especially kind, but we take a boat trip in the spectacular Parque Nacional Marino at Isla Bastimentos. The dolphins reward us with a dazzling display.  

The beaches, swathed with palm trees, would be equally dazzling too, if it wasn’t raining. The sea visibility hasn’t been affected, however, and the snorkelling reveals some multi coloured coral, though we’re all shivering by the time we’ve finished.  There's wild life too, to cheer us up: sloths lolling in the beach-side trees and more teeny frogs, but this time freckled with black spots. Who knew that Panama was a land of such diversity?

Next, the bus to Costa Rica.

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