We published an album of frames from San Blas, the magnificent archipelago of islands occupied by the Kuna Indians whose autonomous territory is called Comarca de Kuna Yala. We spent three days here in a tiny tent on an island smaller than a Manhattan block with no running water and electricity but full of life and self-sustainability. The friendly Kuna were taking us on boats to spend time on various island, Isla Masargandup, Isla Perro and Bundep, Cayo Holandese and Cardi, all surrounded by the Caribbean crystal clear green waters covering dangerous reefs that sent into oblivion many catamarans ran by the Colombian “narcos” trying to sneak during the night their lucrative cargo into Panama.
Category Archives: Panama
We published an album of frames from the shoot in the western part of Panama. From the tranquil atmosphere of Santa Catalina , to the pristine blue waters filled by corals and zillion of tropical fish of the Coiba National Park we took the route going north to Boquete to immerse in the coffee culture of Panama. The jungle surrounding the town, once the exclusive territory of the Ngobe indigenous population, is abounding with wildlife counting in it the majestic quetzal.
We publish an album with frames from the shoot from various location of the carnival in Panama, the best of Central America. In spite of the large deployment of floats in Panama City the most important carnival site of Panama is in Las Tablas where the competition between the lower and the upper streets create a drama mediated in prime time national TV that broadcasts live each entire night from the central square.
We published an album of frames from the shoot in the Embera Village several hours away from Panama City. The villages are deep in the jungle accessible by boats of the tributaries of Chagres River. The experience of being in that village is unique. You are surrounded by the locals who are extremely welcoming and pleasant and immersed in the pristine jungle that they cherish and use for they own survival.
We published an album of frames from the shoot in and around Panama City. The peaceful world of Casco Antiguo is a first place where you may encounter the contrasts of Latin America; expensive cars and high price tab restaurants stand side-by-side with old tenements buildings ready to be converted in high end residencies. Panama Canal is the new and rich economy reflected in the stretch of high rises built along the Ocean on Costa Cintera that goes all the way to the ruined old settlement of Panama Viejo.
Last day in Panama. A paced walk in Casco Antiguo in the morning with less traffic, looking for things to buy, haggling with Kuna women, a cappuccino in one of the great American looking bars, last shopping and photos of the trees in full purple blossom in Plaza de la Catedral and packing and getting in a taxi to Toucumen International Airport that is getting expanded for a prosperous future of the country.
But Panama had one more surprise of its “tranquilo” style of Central America. I checked in my luggage, went through security, arrived at the gate and went again through the “American” security at the gate. The plane’s departure somehow was moved half an hour earlier without any notice and I decided to go out and buy a bottle of rum. The entire expedition failed because in about 15 minutes, or a little less the store could not process the purchase, the computer crashing several times with so many forms to be filed that I thought that it was easier to pass through the immigration than buy a rum. When I got back at the gate, missing maybe 15 minutes, they closed the gate without making any announcement and I could not board the plane that soon inched out of my sight. When I pointed out that my luggage is in the plane they smartly showed me a guy carrying a suitcase. But surprisingly the suitcase was not mine and after much discussion between the AA representative and the gate people switching English into Spanish, the plane was brought in half an hour back to the gate to look for my backpack and put the one wrongly replaced back on the flight. Panamanian accent is hard to understand, a thing confirmed by several South Americans I met in this trip, and even I overheard part of the conversation it is not clear what happened and how come they did not see that a passenger is missing but in the end they re-boarded both my flights for a late arrival in JFK around midnight.
I don’t know how Adam and Eve were feeling when they were castigated from Paradise but I saw the melancholy in Valentino and Marzia’s eyes when they were looking in the morning over the green and blue waters after 6 days in San Blas and about one month and a half in Panama. This time is was not God in charge of the decision but Roberto who blew his “concha” to call all of us at the boat. The sea was “mas tranquilo” as the previous night and he handed us in the port to Jesus, who looked, act, behaved and spoke absolutely identical with Tito without being twins I guess and unfortunately driving as bad as him, using the hands more to manipulate the phone, the texts and the music than the steering wheel who was left on the extremely winding and hilly roads in the hands of Ibeorkun. With a big smile he left me in Casco Antiguo at Hotel White Lion recommended by Chris and Vanessa, very basic but conveniently located. After reconnecting to the world by email and phone the only thing each of us dreamed off was a shower with “aqua dulce” after we stayed salted as sardines for so many days.
Casco Antiguo was in a festive mood, as usual. It was the birthday of Martinelli, the president of Panama who was throwing a big party on tax payers money in the Palace and the fireworks went several times in the night. I was pacing the beautiful streets of the old town looking for things to buy when Valentino saw me and we decided to meet for dinner and have another chat. This was such a pleasure to have another nice night of discussions and we did it around a dinner of Panamanian food in a restaurant where on the top floor dancers were practicing on traditional music. It is very interesting how it’s so easy and pleasant to connect with Italians. Everything is so fluid and does not need anything particular to happen. It’s in the air. Grazie, Marzia and Valentino for these great evenings!
In San Blas the time is a relative thing. I never looked at a watch because I don’t have one and the iPhone is of no use here and was left somewhere in the bag. The sunrise is the first event of the day, followed by the the boat leaving to bring the first people to mainland. Breakfast happens sometime after that and if you linger longer the boat comes back and eventually you may board it for a day trip. You don’t know at what hour you leave and when you come back except that the return is meant to be for lunch. If it happens to go again in the afternoon somewhere, you go with the people who are picked up latter in the day by car to be brought to Panama City and return by boat almost by night for dinner. All these events have no time stamps, they happen “organically” and they are taken like this by everybody in the camp, more difficult for the Germans who cannot take easily this “fluid” schedule.
In the morning the Robert and Tania left and after having breakfast with them we hanged out till the boat was back and we left on a very choppy sea to Isla Perro, a palm tree covered charming island with corals off shore and a long and picturesque strip of sand.
We hanged out there snorkeling till we were shuffled to another island, Isla Bundep were an open bar of free cerveza was offered to everybody. All these islands look the same, but they are beautiful in their similitude. It is so relaxing to visit them and lay on their sunny beaches or dip in the warm green crystal waters surrounding them.
The lunch of “mariscos” and “pescado” was waiting for us in Coco Blancos where we hooked up with many other who arrived. Always also looking for the desert seen above….
As Spanish is a second language in the island, Ligia speaks very clear comparable with the average Panamanians. At one point she mentioned that I can go in the village from where they come but I did not understand exactly how and when will be done. In the morning I was told that it cannot be done then but when the tourists will be brought late afternoon to the port they would take me to the harbor. Apparently nobody else was interested so after lunch we packed about 10 people with luggage in a boat and left on a very choppy sea to the harbor. The ride was scary, the boat swerving through the high surf just about 20 cm off water. Somehow we made it and after disembarking everybody we stopped in one of the Carti villages. Each of these villages, similar in look and very close together is located on a separate island very close to the mainland. They carry the name Carti and another name, the one we visited being Carti Sugpub. To walk the narrow streets guarded by straw houses is a very interesting experience. The church, the school, the medical center, the fiesta house and the Congress represent the main points of the community. The Kunas live a life in balance with nature that they try to respect each day. The balance is kept among their creators gods, the cosmos and the nature that surrounds them. Their legends talk about the Ibeorkun who came from the sky to teach them how to organize and lead their society. In their understanding this gave them the knowledge to obtain their current autonomous status. The community is organized around the Congress, named in Kuna language Ibeorkun and is ruled by three Chiefs elected from the locals. The Ibeorkun hall is sacred and is the only place that cannot be photographed. It consists of a large room with benches all oriented toward the middle where every evening heated discussion are held in regards to the day events, Like many Indigenous tribes the Kuna have their original religion and traditions but all are Christians of various denominations.
Older women still dress in traditional clothes surrounding the middle part of their body with a molla, a decorative cloth made from cut outs of various colors and their legs are wrapped in bands of beads. However young women, teenagers and men are dressed in modern clothing. Till late 90s the common currency of Kunas was the coconut, a fruit that grows in abundance and was exported in the entire region. However today the colorful molls became an appreciated object of commerce.
I spent about one hour in the village and boarded the boat very late getting in Coco Blanco almost at night on very high waves that Roberto was able to navigate deftly. Valentino was waiting a little worried for my late arrival and we continued the chat in the night, with him and some others who came during the day.
The wind that started gently in the evening blew all night through the palm leaves. It is noisy but soothing and together with the gentle surf noise add to the magic of the island. The Kuna is a matriarchal society. The men marries in the wife’s family who manages the household. And no better example of this than Ligia, the head of the household with the accommodations in Isla Coco Blanco where we stay. She is dressed and looks like a simple Indian woman but when she speaks is clear who is the boss. Always on the phone, somehow she gets some reception when she is almost in the water but neither of us did, and with a copybook in her hands she runs the business like an executive manager calling to arrange transportation, accommodations, permits for access on islands and everything else. She also takes the food order between fish, cooked in various ways, mariscos and now chicken. If you want to solve anything, getting your battery charged, changing your cabin, taking a latter boat and car to Panama or doing a special trip, Ligia is the point person and no matter that she may say first that it cannot be done, she tries and gets it done in the end.
Cayos Holandese are a group of islands quite far of Cayos Lemones where we stay. They are one of the most beautiful islands being remote but also because they have some kind of coral reef around where colorful fish can be seen. Beside the daily trips that are organized by the Kunas if you stay longer they would take you to Cayos Holandese. We started last night to persuade Ligia to bring us there, me together with the Italians and the Germans. At the beginning she refused saying that she cannot get permits because is too risky the waves being too high but after we tried again with all sorts of arguments she gave up and told us that the trip will be in the afternoon when the waves may subside. We spend the morning chatting and taking pictures for the Robert and Tania who married a week and a half ago in Costa Rica but they did not have a chance to take any pictures. So they dressed as for their wedding, she in a short white wedding dress and consulting also with Valentino I did an entire photo session of wedding photography, something that I never did in my life but as I told them I did indigenous tribes so it may be similar…..After an early lunch of farfale with mariscos for everybody sanctioned by Valentino as good we left to the Cayos Holandese. The waves were quite high and pretty jumpy in the open sea. At one point our boat was being signaled by another boat far away and when we reached them there were only three chicks on the boat with no Kuna and they were pointing in the water a little bit far. The Kuna was bobbing in the water with a life vest, got him on our boat and further to his but he did not want to tell us what happened and we assumed that he wanted to be a show off to the girls and fell into the water.
The Cayos were beautiful strips of sands covered with palm trees, very close to the dangerous reef and surrounded by the perfect Caribbean green water. Close to it lots of boats wrecks ended their sailing life abandoned to fish and other sea creatures. Several of these boats were used by “narcos” from Colombia to bring the load over night. Manta rays and sea rays were swimming around and the coral reef almost dead was still full with colorful fish. If I were not in Coiba I would have said that is very nice but after that fish tank experience everything else would pale. As like in the other islands we had to pay $2 access fee to some guys who were there on location and they did not have anything t do anyhow than to collect a fee. After a swim and some snorkeling with the rays we were chased a little by time and the very high waves and left to our headquarters where the sunset refused again to put the expected show. Caribbean is always covered in clouds at the horizon, this being probably the typical landscape in March waiting for the rain.
The receptionist was sleeping at 4:00 AM when I rang the bell. I did not take a room but stayed in the lobby dealing with file transfers and battery charging till at 5AM when Tito, the Kuna driver, came right on time and after made a tour through other hotels to pick some others on the way started to drive like a total maniac and made it at 8:00 AM at the Kuna Yala boat launch. Kunas are the only Indians that are doing fine in Panama being completely autonomous. They defended their territory and were able to obtain a special status around 1925 and remained staunch defenders of their customs. Combined with a strong mercantile spirit that is quite surprising in various instances, the Kunas rule over a large swath of land at the Caribbean shore together with a collection of about 400 extremely beautiful islands, palm tree covered sand atolls. To get in Comarca de Kuna Yala you cross a “frontera” manned by Panamanian “militares” who checked your passport. In the chaotic port Tito passed us to Roberto, the guy who would take us on his boat to the islands. The boat, with questionable life vests, sped over crystal clear blue or green water and through palm tree covered pockets of sand to Isla Coco Blanco, a 100 meters by 30 meters sand and palms island where I will stay in a tent for the next three days and nights. With no Internet, no cellphone reception, no running water, salt water shower, if any, and just a power generator that works occasionally in the evening to light two bulbs and a fridge and for me the much needed battery charge. The Kunas would cook during the day three meals of fish or mariscos and the first breakfast of eggs and pancakes and coffee was really good.
Every morning there are two departures from the island based on the schedule arranged with the agency, at 7:30 AM and around 4:00 PM. The morning boat brings the tourist to the shore where is loaded with fresh new survivors and arrives around 9:00 AM. Everybody on the island leaves to the daily trip in various islands around for sun bathing, snorkeling or just chill on the boat, the return being around 2:30 PM for lunch
The island we were left to survive first day was Isla Masargandup, or a similar name, another palm covered island with pristine beaches on one side and trash on the other. After about two hours on the island the boat dropped everybody for a walk in the middle of the green and shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea for star fish spotting and a little bit of snorkeling and returned for the much awaited lunch served by the Kunas around 2:30 PM.
Afternoon was total leisure in a tiny atoll that has several shacks surrounded by warm green waters. Travelers begin to know each other, when each one came, where is she from and what they do and continue to chat watching the sun, the water and everything else. The dinner is at 7:30 PM waited by everybody as one of the major event of the day, a dinner of fish or mariscos freshly caught by the Kunas who we can watch how they prepare it on the boat. At dinner and in the evening there are long chats around the dinner table: Mark and Monica are from Seattle, Joe from SF, Robert and Tania, just married in Costa Rica are from Germany, they have a child and Tania is pregnant, Marzia and Valentino who is a mechanical engineer from Milan converted in restaurant owner in Spain, Michelle does events for LA Times. just a few with whom the long conversation lasted till about 10 pm.
12 millions years ago North America was ending in a peninsula in Costa Rica looking like today’s Florida. No canal was needed and the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea were flowing into the Pacific. But massive volcanic eruptions filled up the gap between today’s Costa Rica and Colombia creating the only land mass oriented East West in the America, closing the gap. This forced the warm currents of the Caribbean to start moving North, in time creating the Gulf Stream and warming up Europe’s Coast making it livable. The valley is filled by rocks that still carry marine fossils and traces and proofs of the massive land push up. The reminder of this volcanic explosion is Volcan Baru whose views in the morning were crystal clear. It looked covered with rain coming from the Pacific in the evening to discourage the ones who wanted to climb it. This is story told by Chris, the panamapathfinder.com agency owner, an environmental teacher who left USA for Peru and now lives in Boquete.
We started the valley tour after a very good breakfast at Sugar and Spice held by another American, Richard, who moved here from New Mexico. A quick stop at an Ngobe Indian shack showed us the cruel face of poverty in Panama. Indians lived here till about 1940 in almost enslavement conditions being paid by the coffee plantation owners in colored coupons that can be used to buy from their stores only. The coupons had a color that is still emblematic for the respective plantation today that indicated where the Indians work. The direct result of such a late emancipation is the fact that out of 13% of the population the Indians represent, 90% of the poor in the country are Indian. This family of at least 10 is living in abysmal conditions and Chris was trying to help them with some food.
The golden rule of Latin America applies here as well: “if you have the gold you make the rule”. Coffee was and still is the gold of the land, the perfect climate and altitude making for extremely good productions. The plantation have also, like the tea ones, an immediate processing of the picked up crop performed daily by Indians who are paid $1per 10kg. The coffee further goes through a humidifying and drying process till the case falls by itself being followed by the roasting process on several levels based on the crop value and ripe conditions and the flavor request by the buyer. One of the main plantation is Finca Leirda, established by a Norwegian engineer who was hired by US to work at the canal and settled here after the project finished. The entire tour is interesting but way too short maybe because it takes only 3 hours and Chris trying to show many things on the way. In town the traditional dressed Ngobe women were hanging out in the town square attending to their numerous children
Another tour is done by Chris’ guide Patricio, with extremely good English skills and very knowledgeable about nature trails. The Lost Waterfall tour takes you throughout the jungle, among huge plants and trees full of wild life but the main goal was to spot some quetzals. Patrizio did the best and kept diligently calling the quetzals, males and female till some of them obliged and showed up with their entire beautiful tails, about 8 of them in total. The last day bus to David was at 7:00 pm (1 hour) and it connected, one bus per hour at 30′. to a regular bus to Panama (7 hours with a 1 hour stop-$18) where the driver intended to freeze all passengers to death and throw them in a meat locker, otherwise was no real reason for the AC setup.
The mornings are glorious in Santa Catalina. Why do you have to leave this place? Unfortunately I had to leave early to make something of this travel day. After the cappuccino in Panaderia I hopped the local bus to Sona (1.5 hours) full of kids going to school but also so full of people latter on that it ran express for the second part of the way.
Changed buses in Sona to Santiago (1 hour) and in Santiago to David (3 hours) and hopped in the last bus from David to Boquete (1 hour) where I chart with an Aussie who was traveling for a undefined amount of time in Central and South America, his parents being serious backpackers and travelers also for their entire life.
Boquete is a very nice town way different that what I saw till now in Panama. It is full of adventure type that come here to climb the volcano or to trek in the close forest. Also is full of American retirees that move her for the nice stable weather and cooler temperatures than in the plains. Heavy advertising for buying property here obscure the local hotels that are mostly booked and took me a while to find a room in “Sugar and Spice” a place held by a guy from New Mexico. Very neat and with a great Panaderia at the first floor.
There are tour operators and guides all over town, but the offer is limited to a menu and all the custom tours were sold out. After much walking around just to notice that many travel agencies close at 4:30PM (!!!!), I don’t know how they can book tours this way, I settled for Chris’ tours. Chris is American from North Dakota who has an agency on the main road. In front of his agency I bumped into Chris and Vanessa from Montreal whom I met in Santa Catalina and we went for dinner of ceviche and fish soup in a very nice Peruvian restaurant, “Casa de Cuzco”.
Santa Catalina is a one street village. The recently paved road ends in the Ocean passing improvised shacks that rents boards and snorkels. But the relaxed atmosphere where everybody salutes each other and the proximity of Coiba National Park converted it in a surfing and diving community that makes its entire living by catering to foreigners. The place looks like dropped from the map, being so hard to get to and once here even the Internet is a hit and miss affair. After I had a good cappuccino at the best place in town for this, Panaderia Vieja held by a probably French married with a Spaniard, I joined the group to Coiba National Park in a snorkeling trip with some exploration in the jungle. For $50/person to get to Coiba the boats get full fast. We were about 12 Europeans, Canadians and US, this being roughly the number of tourists that the boat can take. The boat is a solid fiber glass and the ride is not as bad as described in the guide book, mainly because the ocean was not as rough today. We got to Coiba in about 90 minutes and we started with a snorkeling through corals and colorful fish, the park having the best coral area in the entire Pacific coast. It was beautiful and so close in crystal waters, very attentive not to touch and get a deep cut. Besides the jelly fish were not happy of guests in their waters so they stung seriously if you touch them.
Coiba National Park had a very limited contact with humans. It was started as a Penal Colony in 1912 and used also during the Cold War by the CIA to train Panamanian Forces in jungle combat and survival techniques. The prison part was always a high security one. If an inmate wanted to escape he had to choose to deal on land with the crocodiles rot to get in the Ocean and deal with the sharks. Not a nice choice for sure. More recently most of the enemies of Noriega were kept here. After his fall the prison was closed and the place was converted into a National Park some parts, like Isla Rancherita being private property of the Smithsonian Museum for doing research.
The park charges a $20 entry fee that is on top of the boat charge and is paid at ANAM, the park administration where we stopped next and followed with a jungle tour, looking for monkeys and birds. Leaving from there we stopped in front of Playa Coibita for an amazing snorkeling in deep blue waters where fish of different colors were filling the ocean behind us. It was mesmerizing to be carried by the current and watch this fascinating show behind you. It was like being on top of a giant fish tank absolutely full. The drawback was that the current was strong and it was hard to return to the boat that came around to pick us up, everybody returning completely exhausted. At least for me I was completely wasted by the effort and stood put on a rock till the boat came to pick me up.
Playa Coibita is the classical palm tree beach you may see in the post cards. From there we took a walk in the jungle and came to see the Smithsonian area and the airstrip. Unfortunately this tour did not have a visit to the old prison facilities that was in a different part of the island.
At 3pm we departed to Santa Catalina where I ended up chatting with Chris and Vanessa, two Canadians from Montreal I met on the boat, till about 10pm. We stayed on the deck of Il Pinguino, the restaurant palapa right on the city beach, admiring the sunset shrouded in clouds that brought a downpour over us making the roof to charmingly leak.
In spite of the loud thumping outside I was able to sleep and latter, maybe around 4-5 when the music subsided two other people came to sleep. In the morning the breakfast communal table was surrounded by people speaking Spanish. I thought that were Panamanians but surprisingly I understood most of the conversation. It turned out that they from all over the world, Venezuela, Columbia, Chile, Brazil Dominican Republic, Brooklyn, a republic in itself, Russia, Poland. The atmosphere was the typical energetic hangout place where people exchange ideas talking about their life and their travels. When the Panamenians joined I could understand a word of what they said, their accent is so different. The Venezulans were complaining about Chavez-Maduro that transformed the country in a kind of Cuba, describing the situation as “terrible” and their hope is US to intervene somehow. They were not rich but people who were making a living by day-by-day stuff. The Brazilian told about the Carnival in Baranquilla, Columbia, considered the best in the world only after, obviously, Rio. The Russian girl spoke with such a New York accent, with enough “like” and “you know” that I thought that is pulling my leg and is from Brooklyn. But the thing that kept her apart was that being highly educated the ideas overwhelmed the “likes” comparing with her group age in the US. The Russian girl and the two Polish girls were teaching English in Panama City. She disliked Putin who, based on what she says, has no support in cities and educated groups. No surprise! Obviously Ukraine was on her mind. I pondered if to go or not to Coiba where all the operators contacted canceled their tours during the Carnival. One of the Polish girl advised me to go in Santa Catalina and look for local tours saying that I would not have any problem, And she was right on the money.
Outside the water hosing started already, the cisterns surrounding the park and two of them were working hard on the crowd that started joyfully to ask for the daily bath. I decided not to go in Las Tablas because of the water and foam danger on my equipment but I found in Los Santos the same. I went and paid to Lupe for the stay. I decided not to wait for the coming Los Santos queen of the Carnival and hopped a 10 minutes bus to Chintre, another one hour ride to Santiago, another one hour to Sona and finally I made the last 4:00 PM to Santa Catalina and in 90 minutes I arrived in heaven.
The road was full of places that organized any tour you needed and the standard price for going for the day to Coiba is a flat $50, compared with the hundreds that were promoted on the Internet. You have to pay $20 the park fee and if you want to stay a night you pay another $20 for the accommodation and the next day boat will bring you back if you are not eaten by crocs. A chat with Maltese owner of the Santa Catalina Inn where I stay, an after sunset sea dip and some dinner and a walk to the beach..
There are few countries in Central America that still preserve a strong indigenous tradition. Luckily Panama is one of them with several tribes living in various natural parks or deep in the jungle. Embera is such a tribe that together with Wounaan share the valley of Chagres river and its tributaries. I settled to travel with Embera Village Tours (www.emberavillagetours.com), an agency specialized just for this and the experience was astounding. Ann, the agency founder, who is American is married to a member of the tribe, being herself part of the Embera Puru tribe. Our guide David Blank, a traveler who lived in many countries around the world, was probably the best for this tour. (email@example.com).
To get there is a sort of a trip, almost two hours by car followed by a canoe trip on San Juan River, a tributary of Chagres River. Two Embera were manning the canoe through shallow waters that was dug out of a tree and could hold up to 25 people. We boarded the long boat, 7 of us, me, two Canadians and 4 woman from Manhattan but three of us all, lived in Great Neck, Long Island….
The 35 minute boat ride brought us on a beach in front of the village that was waiting for the arrival with music and songs. The village has about 25 people living in a number of huts raised from the ground to be protected for flooding of the river and animals. They live in full harmony with the nature, fishing, hunting and planting a number of crops on lands that are located a little bit further on San Juan River valley. The village we visited, Embera Puru, is just one of several Embera villages located 2-3 km away from each other. In the village we got a presentation about their daily life and traditions, we had a delicious lunch of fish and fruit and the Embera did several dances.
We went also in the jungle with Edwin, who was the village “botanico”, the man knowing everything about the jungle plants and how can be used to treat illnesses. He is not the shaman, who mainly deals with spiritual issues, but together with the shaman and the two annual visits of doctors they keep the village healthy. Edwin learned his trade from his father who was also a “botanico” and died at 92. The village income is not kept in common. Each family manages for itself but they help each other for all needed village efforts. The Embera do not marry and arranged partnership is a thing of the past. They choose a partner that is for life and introduce her to the parents who would bless the relationship. The women work all sort of impressive artifacts that they sell in the village. But more than any information that were given to us, the Embera are extremely nice and friendly, a real pleasure to be surrounded by them, an unmatched experience. After a dip in the river we got back in the canoe and out of the natural jungle to the construction jungle of Panama City where the Carnival was in full swing with new floats and frenzied crowds.
More than the famous Panama hat, the Panama Canal is a symbol of the nation. And for good reason because most of the world naval traffic traverses Panama through this 48 miles ditch. But what a ditch and what a technological feat was employed in creating it in 1914. The canal crosses the continental divide where the famous Cullebra Cut was trenched. It has three sets of locks: at the Pacific are the 2 level Miraflores locks that bring the ship to the level of a Miraflores Lake, 26 meters higher than the ocean. Another one level lock, Pedro Miguel, brings it to the level of Gatun Lake. Further the ships traverse the Cullebra Cut and Gatun Lake and they are lowered after that in the three level Gatun Locks at the Atlantic, The water used by the locks is coming through pipes to the locks from the artificial Gatun Lake that was made by damming Chagres River. The river was used by Captain Morgan and other pirates to navigate inland and attack the cities established by the Spaniards. Nowadays the dimensions of the canal locks represent the standard of ship building around the world: 300 meter length and 33 meters wide. If you are bigger than that you are sent for a 8000 miles detour around the tip do South America. Daily around 40-80 ships cross the Panama Canal bringing a revenue of close to 1 billion US$ annually. To get to the locks I got a City Tour with a double-Decker bus. There are two lines but the attractions on the way are way less dense than in many other cities. I found quite funny that several stops are either at Convention Center or at a number of malls that sport all American brands but probably represent a major attraction for many who come on these tours. However the tours are giving a perspective of the city and you are able to get a glimpse of the entire city.
I cruised on top of the bus through the new part of the city, Bella Vista with the skyscrapers that are mostly dark in the night. The architecture is impressive with very sleek modern lines built on tiny space lots. Like everywhere in Panama the land is not cheap and any lot that was bought, for example in Casco Antiguo, for almost nothing after the UNESCO declared it monument it appreciated to millions. However the reason the buildings are almost dark in the night is because very few people live there. Most of the money is suspected to be laundered, coming from abroad on a very permissive country policy, drug money from Colombia or escape money from Venezuela that are attached also with full residency if you open a business. The government is corrupt like in any country in Latin America but more stable and business oriented and the skyscrapers stand in stark contrast with a city where sidewalks are in desperate need of repair and all canals are uncovered, the metal grid vanished in time, a warning not to walk looking at the tips of the buildings. As long as the Panama presidency has only one term with no recourse, in the current elections the front runner chose as Vice President the wife of the current president. Friends help each other…
In 1519 the not-so-gentle Pedro Arias de Avila founded Panama Viejo, as the first and for many more years the only, colony on the coast of the Pacific. Its role was to be a stop on the plundering of the gold of the Inca, that was first transported here, initially by road and latter by ships, before was mulled over the Camino Las Cruces across the Continental Divide and stored in Colon to be shipped first to Cuba and later with all the other plundered gold, finally, to Spain. The enterprise was very lucrative and kept employed many soldiers that served as deterrent against the pirates and buccaneers that were plundering the seas. Everything went well and the city prospered and developed. Many churches, hospitals and a very strong community but all went to complete ruin in 1671 when one corsair who was bolder than others, Captain Morgan, the rum guy, sacked the city, killed all the troops and looted absolutely everything of any value. The destruction was so catastrophic that the Spaniards decided to move the capital to the current location of the city, 7 km away. Nowadays the only reason to visit is to see the remains of the oldest only Spanish colony on the Pacific but otherwise is not much to see. The only remaining standing structure is the tower of the cathedral that was renovated and can be climbed to the top for interesting views across the area and mainly towards the new religiousness towers of the city.
After a quick detour to the bus terminal in a failed attempt to buy advance bus tickets, they don’t sell, I finally got to the carnival. It started to happen the previous night when I walked to Casco Antiguo, with a mob playing drums in salsa rhythm, explosive and energetic attracting all people around to move in the vibe. Saturday, before the Ash Wednesday, is the official starting date and after passing a very “patty” control organized by police and “militares” I entered the enclosed area that was packed with people, moved chaotically around, with kids playing, old ladies watching, men drinking beer and everybody dancing. Carnival floats were cruising rotating for several times to the enjoyment of the audience. On each float beautiful girls were waving to the crowds being hired only if they were able to keep the smile up the entire night. The balmy night was so pleasant and held me for way longer than I planned and finally was able to drag myself out of the frenzied crowds for a tranquil dinner in Casco Antiguo.
“The Panama hat is not even from Panama. It’s from Ecuador. At the opening of the Canal, Woodrow Wilson was hastily given the closest hat on hand, since it was deemed ungentlemanly to be without one. People around the world marveled at this new, stylish and dandy sun protection device and the name took off. While in Panama, it will be offered to you many times, in every size and color, to the point where you’d think Ecuador is only making them for the tourists in Panama.” I copied this text from my friend Stefan’s blog who is doing a rally across all Latin America. He left from New York and hopes to reach Ushuaia sometimes in the spring I guess. I planned that I should meet him in Panama but I was too slow leaving, kept at bay by projects and many others and him, too swift to cross the “gap”. He is now in Columbia so we missed each other by one country.
Panama has the fastest growing economy in Central America and where else can you see this better than in Panama City. The stretch of sleek skyscrapers on the waterfront are in sheer contrast with the poverty that is still surrounding it. The view of this futurist line of buildings is impressive seen from across the bay in the Casco Antiguo, the old center town. But in spite of the dirt and poverty there are obvious things that are way different here than in any other country in the region. Panama City is one of the very few capital cities Central America that is full of tourists deemed to safe to visit. Besides is the only country in the region where you can safely drink its water a matter of national pride that was iterated by several people I encountered. There’s road and building repair and renovation everywhere you go. The country created a very attractive climate for business with a 0% tax and just a couple of hours process of incorporation for a new business that comes also with a guaranteed residency with proof of your established business. You can figure out right away that something is different by talking with the tour operators that most of them are Americans with US numbers on their websites and a very efficient way to operate.
Casco Antiguo, the old part of the town sits on a peninsula that was originally protected by fortifications. Parts of them still exists and they, and the entire area, were protected mainly from neglect by its relatively recent designation of UNESCO protected monument. When I walked its streets it reminded me of Montevideo’s old area, an impressive collection of buildings and beautiful villas, all abandoned and falling under neglect where policemen were running to redirect occasional visitors like me to the good, and most important safe, part of the town. The effort of resurrecting the beautiful old buildings in Casco Antiguo is impressive but it is everywhere. You have a feeling that the chance of renovating happen recently and everybody delved into it like it was offered for free. Among the already beautifully renovated buildings that accommodate fancy restaurants and bars or high end hotels are carcasses sustained only by metal or wood structures through which you can see the sky or colonial roofless churches peppering the ambience. But the noise of construction comes from every other house where cement bags are stashed in front for renovation. In the middle of the Casco in a beautiful palace are the offices of the President of the Republic. It is relatively surrounded by check points and soldiers but tourist access is relatively relaxed and allowed. Being a major project for making the city attractive, the Casco is heavily guarded by police on bikes that patrol continuously, this presence making it the best place to be at night. The best of the Casco comes at night when the terraces open and tourists and locals share the plazas for dinner and drinks. The heat and humidity of the day gave away to a very pleasant atmosphere and the vibe is felt in the air, all people congregating a pleasant night stroll.
I spent most of my day in the Casco with a hiatus in the afternoon when I changed my hotel and I had to spend some time to do my planning work for the next days with the recent information acquired on the ground. There are lots of tours offered by many agencies, most of them around $100/person, and I had to see what and when is available. I also tried to find an accommodation close to Las Tablas for the carnival, a daunting task because they were all sold out months in advance. But a real miracle happened and a hotel that I tried before opened up a room and I grabbed it swiftly, a sheer luck that I cannot thank for enough. After I called lots of travel agents and checked their websites knowing all by name I was able to settle for a number of things from the ones that were available planning to leave the city for Las Tablas on Monday morning.
After 7 years I landed again in Central America. I pondered upon the destination and after eliminating Honduras and El Salvador for their major security issues and Costa Rica, a land too touristy for my taste, I arrived late in the night in the international airport where joyfully I was fingerprinted and photographed by a cheerful immigration agent who was somehow impressed that I was born in Romania. This should had give me a hint by the Americanization of Panama, a thing about I read a lot recently preparing for the trip. Obviously the recent history is shrouded around the fate of the canal, an immense source of revenue that fosters the local economy and its current economic boom. When the French wanted to build the canal at the end of the 19th century Panama did not exist. Its independence, gained from the Spanish in 1821 was sunk in the failed Bolivarian republic, a remarkable dream that succumbed soon after its inception. But In spite that all the other members of the project gained back their independence Panama became a province of Columbia. The French failure of building the canal was perceived as an opportunity by the Americans who not only built the canal in 10 years but made a deal and offered protection to Panama to obtain his independence by blocking the menacing Colombian fleet that came to invade and protect their rights. For many years this good deed was paid with an actual occupation of the canal zone and a lot of influence in the political process of the country. Noriega was a rough guy that made news, but just one in a series of dictators that ruled the country. This sort of influence can be perceived also in the fact that the local currency “balboa” is pegged to the US$, also an official currency, to the point that nobody gave any change in balboa. It;’s just the greenback changing hands here.
Coming out of the airport after the harshest winter New York had in many years I had to start taking out the layers in the sultry heat of the night. I took a taxi from the airport for a flat $25 to central city that brought me on a perpetually unfinished modern highway that make the traffic to be bumper to bumper even at 11:00 pm. I was mesmerized by the extensive number of McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFC, Office Depot and many other American businesses that feel at home here. One after another but congregating in a landscape way more imperfect that their home kins. The taxi driver wanted to get me in a conversation about the politics of Panama, corruption and baseball and the only thing that I knew for sure of all subjects, to his great pride, was that Mariano Rivera is a baseball player and is from Panama and is very religious. However after several minutes and 7 years of not speaking the language, my Spanish for heavy subjects collapsed and I switched the conversation to soccer, a dialogue that you know will work with any taxi driver in the world even in my not-as-brushed-off Spanish. I found out way more that I wanted about why Panama did not make the World Cup and I had to explain why Romania did not make it, him knowing way more than me about the US performance.
The hotel was in the center looking gloomy in the night, livened up by a couple from Cuba having a beer on the terrace who wanted to have a conversation. I would have loved to have a chat with them but I still needed 2-3 days to get back my Spanish for this so gave up and went to the hotel to check in.