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Panama!? What the...!?

PANAMA | Saturday, 26 July 2008 | Views [539] | Comments [1]

How Random.  By now we were supposed to have left Colombia, visited the Galapagos and be strapping on our ski boots in Chile.  Instead, we find ourselves on the Carribean coast of Panama after having been invited to sail from Cartagena to Colon by Derek who we randomly me a couple of weeks ago on a street in Cartagena!  We arrived in the pouring rain to Colon which is aptly named as it must be very close to the asshole of the world.  Colon is the Carribean entrance to the Panama canal which goes through lake Gatun and then exits at Panama City on the Pacific side.  We moored at a marina some 20 miles from central Colon on land which used to belong to a big US military base until 1999 when they officially handed the canal back to Panama. 

Panama itself has a really interesting modern history.  It is central America's wealthiest country and, being a trade-hub, it is quite a multicultural place with notable amounts of people with Arabic, Jewish and Chinese descent.  Panama was formed as recently as 1903 when it broke off from Colombia and was supported by the U.S largely because of its strategic and financial importance given the building of the canal.  It had the usual central American history of several military dictators and coups; Manuel Noriega being the last and most infamous.  He was originally closely supported by the US and was on the C.I.A payroll for opposing the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua as well as being involved with the D.E.A in regards to drug enforcement issues.  Unfortunately, he was also working directly with a number of drug cartels...  On top of this, he refused to recognise his loss in a democratic election in 1989 and retained power by force.  In response, the U.S took it upon themselves to invade Panama under Operation Just Cause and apprehended Noriega and instated the democratically elected leader, Guillermo Endara.  Somewhere between 500 and 5000 lives were lost.  From 1989 onwards the country has lived in relative peace and democracy and is very much booming financially at present.

We expected Panama to have a similar national psyche to Colombia (ie welcoming and super friendly) but nothing could be further from the truth.  In complete contrast to the Colombians, in general we found the Panamanians to be quite gruff, very unhelpful and completely disinterested in you as a visitor to their country.  It is a shame but when you get met with such an attitude, it is hard not to respond in a similar way.  We spoke about it to a Jewish business man who we met on night and his take on it was that Panama is a country with very little cultural identity given that it was essentially created to facilitate trade and that its people have been manipulated and used by visiting traders notably the U.S (As well as directly meddling in their politics).  His view was that this has created a group of people who are quite discontented, have little pride in their past and have a disregard for people who visit their country.  Makes sense.

It is a real shame because the country has an amazing natural beauty.  The San Blas Islands which we visited on the journey from Colombia must be the prettiest Islands I have ever seen.  Nature is just on the footsteps of the major cities: just outside the marina near Colon, you could see monkeys in the trees and watch sloths trudge past. 

We thought that we might as well explore a bit of Panama before heading back to Colombia so we said our farewells to Derek, Caroline and Joe (and to my tube of Flitz; I never knew polishing could be so fulfilling) and headed off.  We essentially bypassed Colon apart from its bus station as it has a bad reputation of being a dangerous place; you pretty much can´t walk anywhere apart from the two main streets as a whitey.  On the way through the marina we stopped and viewed the canal.  It is an awesome site with each lock measuring 301ftx1001ft and the ships being specially constructed for the dimensions of 300x1000 just squeezing in.  The ships tower over the surrounding jungle and are pulled into the lock by several trains, the lock is closed and filled, water is pumped in and the ship rises to the level of the next lock and the gates are opened.  It took 34 years to build the canal and took the lives of almost 28,000 people (who mainly died of malaria and yellow fever).  Today, it is the lifeline of the booming economy in Panama after being handed back by the U.S 9 years ago.  5% of world trade goes through this small stretch of water and major expansions have started.

After having left the Carribean coast side, we arrived on the other side of the country in Panama City on the Pacific Coast and checked into another cheap, dodgy hotel.  It took us no more that a few hours to walk around the old town (which is pretty cool), see the commercial centre and realise that the city has little to offer.  Having said that, it was Saturday night and it would be rude not to party!  We emailed the guys from the Dragonera who promptly hired a car and then joined us for a night on the town.  Unfortunately, Panamanians imfamous unhospitality extended to the club scene; few smiles and plenty of machismo... Again, it seemed that, just like in Cartagena, every pretty girl Joe spoke to was a Colombian hooker.  Poor Joe.

We had a week or so left in Panama and decided to explore the northern island region of Bocas De Toro.  After a bit of disagreement we settled on flying rather than going for the cheap option of bus for 10hrs so that we wouldaeeive for my brithday on the 22nd (wut my Jewish heritage I was of course the one who wanted to go on the bus!).  Well, that flight was probably the scariest flight that either of us has ever been on...  The plan was built 40yrs+ ago, twin prop and looked like it was going to snap off a wing at any time.  Add to that an electrical storm and the fact that the plane couldn´t rise above it and you get the picture...  We kissed the ground when we landed!  A short boat ride away and we arrived at the place which Dee had organised for my 30th.  Eclypse Del Mar had four beautiful bungalows built right over the water; paradise!  You could dive straight off your balcony into the water and watch the fish swim by through the viewing window in the floor.  We took a boat trip to visit a few other islands (nice but nothing compared to San Blas) but mainly just chilled out together.  After a couple of perfect days we headed back to the main island of Isla Colon and back to Backpacker reality...  Bocas Town on Isla Colon is a funky little place where the people remind you more of Jamaicans than Panamanians (they speak with a West Indian creole accent for some reason) and there are plenty of restaurants and shops painted in bright pastel colours built over the water.  More relaxing, eating and generally lazing about was had here. 

We caught the bus back to our favourite Panama city in preparation for our flight back to Colombia.  Little did we know that we were about to get an even worse taste for the place...



loving reading your wonderfully descriptive posts Seb and Dee- we're pretty envious back here of the great times you both are having - what an adventure to remember this one will be huh. THe places you have been sound soooo interesting. Keep having fun ...Lots of love
Roxie, Mark, Conor and Oli

  Roxie Aug 7, 2008 7:51 PM

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