Having been confined to a 42 ft boat for the past 6 days, with no personal space, it was nice to reach the main land. It took around 2 hours to reach Panama city from the coast, cutting through some of the most dense rainforest with have seen; which at times felt more like a roller costa ride due to the steep terrain. Thankfully I was still feeling the motion of being at sea, and so the constant up and down was a good way of adjusting back to being on dry land!
It is easy to forget where you are when approaching Panama City, since it feels remarkably like NYC; as you cross the bridge along an insane highway into downtown which is a sea of modern skyscrapers. The only road into the city is choka block with traffic, made even more familiar with the endless sea of yellow cabs honking their way through.
To be honest, everything I have seen of Panama so far, doesn’t feel quite right. Everything seems to be a carbon copy of the U.S; from the large shopping malls, petrol guzzling SUVs to the only ‘restaurants’ around being one of the big three; Mac Ds, KFC or BK! Where has the Panamanian identity gone ?
Panama is one of the most ‘westernised’ countries we have been to so far, with Panama City being the wealthiest capital in all of Central America. To be perfectly honest, unlike some of the other countries we have been to, I didn’t really have any pre-conceived ideas of Panama, which may be part of the reason for my general surprise. Not withstanding the fact that I had been on deserted islands for the past 3 days, and so any urban development would come as a little bit of a shock to the system.
This initial shock has sparked the young historian in me; in order to establish how this country has become what it has, one must understand where it has come from. Even as early as the occupation by the Spanish, this country has been an important international centre, in the most part due to its geography.
Shaped like a serpentine, Panama is the slither that connects South with Central America as well as being the narrowest piece of land between the Caribbean and the Pacific. It’s for this reason that it’s has always served as some form of transport hub and the outlet for the pillage of South America over its history.
It should then come as no surprise that for most of its modern history, Panama was really simply another star in the U.S flag. U.S interest have, to my knowledge, never been so blatant. The U.S actually invaded Panama as recently as the late 80’s in order to oust dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega (who at the time of writing is all over the press due to being on his death-bed in jail). The justification was to bring him to trail in the U.S for supposed drug trafficking….those of you who would have read my Bolivian Culture post will know what my views are on the U.S War on Drugs.
U.S interference in this countries affairs first became prevalent during the gold rush on the West Coast in the mid 1800s. The majority of Americans were living on the East Cost in those times and traveling to California via Panama was cheaper, quicker and safer due to hostile native Indians. As a result the Transcontinental railroad was born which was later super seeded by the Interoceanic canal.
Interestingly the French were first given the contract to build the canal; unsurprisingly the French had bitten off more they could handle (something they would later repeat with WW1) resulting in the contract being put up for sale in 1885. At this time Panama didn’t even exist since it formed part of Columbia, who had refused to allow the contract to be sold to the Americans.
The Columbia’s obviously underestimated the mighty force of this puppeteer, since a civil war broke out resulting in Panama gaining its independence in 1903 with the support of the U.S.
The Panama Canal was completed 90 years ago and has been hailed as an engineering marvel, extending over 80km from Colon to Panama City allowing over 12000 ocean-going vessel transit every year. So significant is the canal to international shipping that the ships world over are built to fit within the dimensions of its locks.
Although we were only in Panama for a day we felt obliged to make the trip out to Miraflores Lock. Trust me if you ever go to Panama don’t bother going! It’s a massive tourist trap that is really not that impressive, the locks on regents canal are nicer!
Whilst it’s not so amazing to see up close I did find out some interesting facts about the Canal;
1. Each lock holds the equivalent amount of water to supply a city of 100,000 people for one day.
2. During WWII over 1400 U.S naval vessels passed through it.
3. It’s the only place in the world where military commanders must turn over navigational control to an elite group of 200 pilots.
4. Even though the U.S relinquished control of the canal, it retains the right by treaty to defend the canal in the interest of national security.
There have been various treaties between the U.S and Panama regarding what is NOW an important components of their GDP. Relations between the two countries have been fractious to say the least. Ironically tensions only came to a head when Panama finally got wise to the fact that as a country they were hardly benefiting at all by its construction which although was financed by the U.S had made the U.S considerable amounts of money on their initial investment as well as involvement in Panamanian affairs.
The old town of Panama city is where most tourist seem to stay which explains why this area of town is currently being refurbished, unfortunately to a point where a lot if its old character and charm is being quite literally painted over. What were once local bars and cafes are being replaced with swanky gringo espresso bars and hotels.
For all the German readers, I thought you might be interested in seeing who we bumped into whilst in the old town, foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle who clearly enjoyed feeling like a celeb with a huge entourage and special festivities in his honor!
Given that we had arrived to the city on the first day of Carnival it was near impossible to find an empty bed without a reservation, which of course we didn’t have. Thankfully we were still with our Captain who took a ride down with us and knew of a former 1 hour hotel in a rougher part of town that had rooms.
Finally Frederico really came through for us since we slept in the biggest bed ever, with air-conditioning and free porn…although not to our taste 🙂 if you have read my previous post you will understand why this was such a welcomed change for us!
Given the insane heat during the day we really didn’t spend too long walking around, however we did manage to get to the fish market to sample some of the finest cevish we have had.
I leave Panama City thankful that I have been but also thankful that I only really spent two days there before heading on to our next adventure….Carnival!