The small but immensely important country of Panama is known as the crossroads of the Americas. Geographically, Panama is an isthmus connecting North America to South America and economically the Panama Canal connects the east and west coast shipping routes.
The Bridge of the Americas connects North America to South America
The history of human occupation in the volcanic tropical mountainous country reaches more than 10,000 years into the past. Pre-Columbian civilizations traded as far north as Mexico and far south into the Andes mountains. Living today among their ancient customs and the modern world, the indigenous natives have more autonomy than any other Latin American nation. Much of the eastern provinces, where the indigenous reside and fiercely protect from outside progress, are a system of lakes, rivers, estuaries, and mangrove swamps surrounded by impenetrable jungle lending to their exceptional independence. The word "Panama" is derived from a native word meaning 'abundance of fish.'
Above: A Kuna Yala woman walking in the Casco Viejo
Below: Kuna Woman selling handmade items in an open air market
Much of Panama lives between the modern world and local custom. The Canal provides an international gateway for businesses transporting goods from all over the world. The early Spanish explorers used the isthmus as an overland route to haul riches of gold and jewels from the Inca Empire in the south to the Atlantic ships heading back to Europe. As colonialism grew, the idea to secure a water route through Panama was conceived first by the Spanish, next the French and finally the United States negotiated, engineered and finished construction of the locks in 1914. The U.S. managed the Canal for 85 years until December 31, 1999. The waterway is now managed by the Panama Canal Authority. A series of locks lifts the ships 27 feet above sea level to the interior level of Lake Gatun. Every year more than 14,000 vessels make the 8 hour passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. Each vessel must pay the toll 72 hours in advance and a Panamanian Captain pilots the boat throughout the entire waterway. The minimum toll begins at $1000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for large cargo ships. The passage around South American is approximately 21 days in good conditions.
From the first sighting of the ship to the emptying or filling of the locks takes about one hour. The vessel uses its own power the entire way. At the end of the farthest terminal the Panamanian crew disembark and the original captain takes control and continues the voyage out into the mighty Pacific. A new construction of larger locks to accommodate super size ships is underway. In the third photograph, top left, trucks can be seen. Much more earth must be moved to make way for the new larger locks. Maybe 2016, some are not so optimistic. However, growth in the city is expanding rapidly as evident by the various skyscrapers filling downtown.
Any building over 20 stories has been built in the last 8 years
Several cranes in the distance building new offices and condos
Panama City is a boom town of commerce with the Canal and the expansion, as well as, a Latin American banking center. So much excitement for progress. The people are delightful and proud of their country. We were often greeted with, "Welcome to my beautiful country." There is so much diversity in both the city's inhabitants from all over the world and the surrounding landscape. The sun rises from the ocean and sets in the mountains. Only a short ride from the city and the jungle looms verdantly. Colonial buildings line the smaller neighborhoods as tales of pirates and battles for independence fill the air. Panama has so much charm but is moving fast into a modern industrial nation. Now is definitely the time to visit and enjoy the rich diversity and old world culture.
If you do go, we had an excellent tour guide named Erik Martinez, who spoke perfect English and knew the history of every plaza, building, battle, and tree. His van was nice, he knew all the back roads to avoid traffic, he stopped anywhere we wanted and always had a lovely tale for every spot.
Ask for Erik R. Martinez, English speaker by email:firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone in Panama City (507) 6640-9448. Tell him The Botanical Journey sent you.