My First Trip to Panama

My first trip to Panama was an accident. I had originally planned a holiday in the Brazilian Amazon. I like tropical jungles – big, green, humid things with massive, towering trees, snakes, and animals whose names I do not know and cannot pronounce. The strangeness of jungles appeals to me – strange at least for someone like myself from the wintry reaches of Canada.

It was my habit to take a winter vacation around March, just when I could no longer stand the grey, slush-covered streets of Toronto. This trip was going to be to the Amazon in Brazil. Manaus is a legendary city deep in the jungle, a metropolis of over a million people. It grew to great wealth and splendor, exemplified by its famous opera house, during the brief rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 
Many would-be rubber barons became rich during the boom years. Many more lost everything. Even Henry Ford tried his hand at building rubber plantations in the Amazon. In 1928, long after most Brazilian rubber production moved to the Far East, where climate and soil conditions were more favorable, Ford obtained a concession of 2.5 million acres in the Amazon from the Brazilian government.  He spent millions building two settlements, Fordlandia and Belterra, where thousands of workers and their families lived in the middle of the jungle. 
Things did not work out as Ford planned. The rubber trees suffered from disease and died in vast numbers. Nor did the Brazilian workers appreciate Ford’s paternalistic treatment. He fed them an American-style diet and organized square dances and poetry readings. Labor troubles and riots ensued. The worst riot occurred when the workers, accustomed to table service at restaurants, were made to line up for cafeteria-style meals. They rampaged with machetes and destroyed the cafeteria, while the American supervisors waited in boats off-shore for the riot to end.  Eventually, Ford gave up his dream of a Brazilian rubber empire, writing off his investment.
I planned to fly to Manaus and then travel on a river-boat for a couple of weeks. The whole trip was going to take three weeks. As the time to leave approached, however, it became clear that I was too busy to take three weeks off. I didn’t want to go all the way to Brazil for a seven or ten day trip, which was all the time I had. So I looked around for other locations—with jungles – that I could explore closer to home.

Panama was (and is) billed as having one of the last pristine, tropical jungles left in the world – the Darien Gap. That is where I decided to go, on the spur of the moment, with little advance planning, not knowing that the ‘pristine’ part of the story was a bit dated, to say the least. In reality, the Darien Gap, as I later discovered, has been raped and pillaged by loggers just like every other tropical jungle in the world, except in the southernmost region, near the border with Columbia, where FARC terrorists and drug traffickers make it too dangerous even for rapacious loggers.

I usually plan foreign trips fairly carefully in advance, but this time I didn’t. I just bought a ticket and got on a plane, intending to find my way to the Darien and hike around the jungle. Sometimes spontaneity works out well, sometime not. This was one of the ‘not’ cases.

Landing in Panama City, I spent a couple of days getting oriented and trying to arrange transportation to the Darien. I soon discovered that, to get where I wanted to go, I would have to charter a private plane and then a boat. Without anyone to share the cost, it was too expensive, so I settled on a different idea: renting a car and driving around Panama for a week, exploring the different regions to see what they had to offer.

My first two days in Panama City were a pleasant surprise. Notwithstanding the pot-holed streets and occasional slums, it looked modern, busy, vibrant and exciting. I liked it.  At the hotel where I was staying, I met a fellow, John, who was a grade-school teacher at a private school in Colon. He was well-spoken and intelligent with an interesting appearance, very dark-skinned, as though from Sub-Saharan Africa, but with completely European features—sharp, angular, precise.

John had a few days of holiday left, so he agreed to show me Colon and the surrounding Atlantic coast. I rented a car and we drove the next day to Colon. Apart from a few slums in Panama City, Colon is the one of the poorest and most dangerous places in Panama. I was the only white person in the downtown area. We walked around the town, a decaying, crumbling collection of two and three story buildings, reminiscent of what Port au Prince must have looked liked in Graham Green’s day. Lazing on cement steps, and leaning against wooden posts in front of the decrepit buildings, were small groups of young  men, their eyes following us like crocodiles watching a meal walk by.

I was glad John was so dark-skinned and seemed to know what was safe to do—and not to do—in Colon. He went back to his apartment for the night and I stayed at a hotel downtown. Around seven in the evening, I decided to have dinner at a restaurant I had seen two blocks away. As I walked out the hotel door, a guard carrying a shotgun asked where I was going. When I told him, he said it would not be safe even to walk the two blocks to the restaurant. I thanked him for his advice and took a cab.

The next day, John and I drove to a spectacular, 16th century Spanish stone fort, San Lorenzo, located where the Chargres river meets the Atlantic. In 1670, San Lorenzo had been the scene of a small but brutal battle between the Spanish and Henry Morgan, the Welsh pirate and privateer. The Spanish lost, with nearly 300 dead. It was just the beginning of bad patch for Imperial Spain, destined to last through another two and a half centuries of fitful decline.
Another assault on San Lorenzo happened more recently, though not by a Welsh pirate. This time, local thieves stole two ancient cannons from the fort. When the cannons were found a few days later, they had been loaded onto a boat headed for  South Korea, destined to be melted down for scrap metal. The puzzle was that there is a police checkpoint on the only road to the park. The thieves would have needed a hydraulic crane to load the cannons onto a truck, and then they would have had to drive the truck, laden with two very conspicuous ancient iron cannons, each weighing thousands of pounds, through a police checkpoint. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that underpaid but enterprising policemen were involved.
After leaving San Lorenzo, we went for a long hike in the ten-mile wide corridor of land surrounding the Panama Canal. While under US control, much of the canal zone was protected as untouched jungle, with towering, vine-covered hardwood trees. As we walked along a dirt path, the ground was carpeted with enormous ferns, the air full of the sound of birds we could not see. An occasional capybara, looking like an overgrown, pre-historic groundhog, darted across the trail.  

John and I explored the Atlantic coast between Colon and Nombre de Dios the following day. Nombre de Dios was aptly named, for the Name of God among Spanish conquistadors meant only one thing –  precious metals, gold and silver. During the 16th century those shiny substances flowed in vast quantities, by mule train, from the mines in Peru to Nombre de Dios. After reaching Nombre de Dios, they were shipped to Spain on the Tierre Firma treasure fleet, where they enriched the Spanish Crown and paid for many of the architectural wonders tourists gawk at today. 

In 1572, another British privateer, Francis Drake, also made a visit to Nombre de Dios, killing some Spanish soldiers and taking away a few bars of silver as souvenirs. His next raid, in 1573, was more successful. This time, Drake teamed up with a French pirate, Guillaume Le Testu, capturing a large mule train with 20 or 30 tons of gold and silver. Now a very wealthy man, Drake returned to England  and settled into the life of a country gentleman. He was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in gratitude for her cut of his lucrative ventures in piracy.

Things did not work out so well for Le Testu. During the mule-train raid, he was wounded and captured by the Spanish, who proceeded to chop off his head. Ultimately, Drake’s sojourns in Panama also came to a bad end.  He died of dysentery at Portobello in 1596, dressed in full battle armor, a few miles up the road from Nombre de Dios. Drake’s biographers do not explain why a man dying of dysentery would chose to spend his last hours dressed in battle armor, surely not a wise decision, at least not very hygienic.

Drake was not the last to suffer from bad water in Panama, although I am happy to report that it is much improved today.

Leaving Nombre de Dios, I returned to Panama City, stopping only briefly, before heading to the Pacific Coast beaches, where I stayed over-night at Las Sirenas, a pleasant, inexpensive resort on Santa Clara beach. The next morning, I drove to Chiriqui province, passing quickly through the middle of the country. This being the end of the dry season, the land was parched, barren, and not very appealing.

Chiriqui was different, still lush and green, even at the end of the dry season. I drove around Chiriqui for a few days and loved it, discovering little hamlets and fishing villages along the Pacific coast, as well as rolling green farmland and mountains in the highlands.

 Driving my rental car along a beach road one day, I got stuck in the sand. Not knowing what else to do, I walked to the nearest house, and in my primitive, pigeon-Spanish, asked the owner for help. He quickly rounded up a crew of men and managed, with considerable pushing, to get my car unstuck. Much relieved, I thanked him and offered money, which he politely declined. When I insisted on giving him $10, he accepted.

The people, I was discovering, were polite, friendly and relaxed. No one was in a hurry. The food was primitive – rice and beans mostly – and the service was desultory, but those defects were offset by the welcoming people and beautiful landscapes.

I was discovering something else about Panama: the people were happier than we were in the north. Everyone I knew in Canada was in a perpetual state of high anxiety, worried about jobs, mortgage payments, how their children were doing in school—worried about everything. Not so in Panama. The people had very little, but they enjoyed what they had, and paid no heed to the morrow. That seemed to be the key, not worrying about the future. Things were looking up. This trip would
be okay. Panama was starting to appeal to me, even though I did not get to the Darien.

Next The Foods and Cuisine of Panama, Part 1

Best Places In The World To Retire