After looking on all previous attempts by Panama to secede from Colombia with grand indifference, in 1903 the United States suddenly got interested in supporting Panamanian independence.
I’m sure it was merely a coincidence that France had recently abandoned their attempt to construct a canal through Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in what would be a staggering economic windfall for whoever controlled it. The French had been trying to build the canal across the Isthmus of Panama for a decade but were ultimately defeated by poor preparation, malaria, yellow fever and the endlessly corrupt central government in Bogota. When the French limped away, the U.S. was only too happy to conspire with a small band of entrepreneurial rebels who declared Panama’s independence from Colombia.
The deal shook out like this: With U.S. military backing, the Colombians could do nothing to stop their province from breaking away, and on November 3, 1903, Panama became an independent republic. Within three days of declaring its sovereignty, the new government ceded a substantial chunk of it to the United States in a treaty which gave the U.S. dominion over a 10-mile-wide stretch of land from the Caribbean to the Pacific in perpetuity “as if it were sovereign.” And the U.S. could build its canal.
(The U.S. ran what was called the Canal Zone as if it were the 51st state for nearly a century, but Panama eventually got the land back on Dec. 31, 1999.)
Building the canal was a massive undertaking, involving, among other things, creation of what was at the time the world’s largest dam and the largest man-made lake. In August, 1914, to great fanfare, the Panama Canal welcomed its first ship, opening a passage which even now serves 5 percent of all global trade.
As The Canal approaches its 100th anniversary, I decided it was high time I had a look.
The anticipation was far grander than the experience.
I posted a status update on Facebook saying I was “Touring the Panama Canal” and got a dozen comments from people saying “I’m so jealous!” and “Oh my God I would so love to see that!”
And then you get there, and you wonder why. Yes, the canal is a magnificent engineering achievement. But seeing it up close is a bit of a yawn.
It’s a river. A big, impressive, man-made miracle, but a miracle that looks like a river.
Crowds of eager gawkers gather daily in anticipation of watching a ship transit a lock.
And they wait.
They mill around, shuffling their feet, occasionally taking pictures.
You stand on tip-toes, peering over the heads of the gathered crowd, straining to see if a ship is approaching, pose for a few pictures, take some more pictures of the exact same scene you’ve already photographed, then repeat the kind of pointless routine.
Eventually a ship appears, and everyone gets excited. The cameras really start snapping, and people elbow each other out of the way to pose by the railing.
This goes on for several minutes, then ever so slowly you begin to feel a bit foolish. It occurs to you that you’re crowded onto a viewing deck, jostling with a group of sweaty tourists, fighting for a better view of a container ship floating by. Which is does painfully slowly.
It takes 45 minutes to get one ship through one lock (I was watching from Miraflores) and 8 -10 hours to navigate the entire canal. Not exactly edge of your seat thrilling.
It is, however, a cash cow for Panama. On the day I toured the canal the highest fee paid was $410,000, by a cruise liner on its way to the Caribbean. The lowest fee was $38, by a dude who swam through. It’s a slow river but fast cash.
Exiting Miraflores we grabbed a cab and headed across town for meetings. Taxis in Panama are safe, clean(ish) and relatively inexpensive, but like cabs the world over, eager to take advantage of tourists. They don’t have meters and don’t give receipts, so negotiate a hard price before getting in.
Our cabbie turned out to be a bit of a honker. He honked at everyone, and everything, often gesticulating huffily at the object of his honks. Life annoys this man, and venting at passing motorists is his outlet.
This was immensely better than the next cabbie, however, whose car I exited with a soaking wet arse. It had been raining, and the driver decided it an unimportant detail that his car leaked, right under my seat. He seemed surprised that I was disinclined to pay for the ride, and helpfully volunteered to let me sit up front on the return trip.
I nearly chucked him in the ocean.
The city of Panama is surprising in its glitz and glamour. Locals like to say it’s the Latin American answer to Miami, though locals also, of course, claim Miami as a Latin American city. Panama certainly has an impressive skyline, particularly beautiful at dusk, and no shortage of fancy restaurants, expensive shops and first-class hotels.
I stayed in the Le Meridien, built only five years ago, and was decidedly pleased I did. The hotel was beautiful, the service excellent and the views of the bay sublime. The photos I took of sunset from the 6th floor pool deck were the best of the trip (and even more exciting than the canal.)
Las Tinajas provided us with what was by far our best meal. Las Tinajas offers a great variety of traditional Panamanian food while costumed performers entertain. Try the carimañolas (yuca rolls stuffed with meat) and pumpkin and pixbae cream soup.
Meetings over, we embarked on what would be my favorite part of the trip; exploring the old town, called Casco Viejo.
In 1671 Panama City was the richest city in New Spain, and an irresistible target for pirates. Captain Henry Morgan (yes, the one now featured on America’s favorite rum) attacked with a force of 1,400, and seized the town with little trouble. He was a tad miffed, however, to discover that much of the city’s gold had already been removed. In his rage he tortured most of the residents he captured and burned the city to the ground on his way out.
England captured Captain Morgan shortly thereafter, and punished him for this atrocity by knighting him and making him governor of Jamaica.
Cacso Viejo was built on the ashes Captain Morgan left behind.
Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, and look it. Panama, with a thriving economy and booming tourist industry, is extravagantly restoring the entire region, and exploring its narrow streets, cathedrals and cafes is entirely fascinating. It’s beautiful now, and once all the reconstruction is complete, I suspect will be magnificent.
And even more exciting than the canal.