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.
And what better place to start than the Panama Canal? 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. 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.
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 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 average 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.
Enough facts. Next, a hot and sticky walk round 'Casco Viejo', the heart of colonial Panama City, all Spanish plazas & 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. Though 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.
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 America. 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 areason for non -completion, in addition to difficult terrain.
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.
Today, we’re taking a boat south (it’s very confusing visiting an American country that is orientated north-south instead of east-west) 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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