Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
We explored Panama City in reverse chronological order, beginning at the Visitor Center of one of those engineering feats that we take for granted now. When it opened to shipping on August 15, 1914, the travel distance from New York City to San Francisco went from 13,000 miles to just over 5,000; with a corresponding reduction in required time from more than two months to less than one month.
Because the Canal provides passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific; I’d always thought that it went east/west. However, the Isthmus curves and, as this map clearly shows , the canal runs north/south.
The Canal is 50 miles long and navigable–in stark contrast to the tortuous routes the Spaniards used to transport gold and silver from the mines in Peru and Ecuador up the coast to Panama City, then across to Nombre de Dios and, a little later, Portobello.
The inspiration for the Canal came, I think, from the shorter overland route to Las Cruces and then east on the Chagres River, by boat. It’s not an enormous distance, but to make the journey through the jungle on foot, with pack animals, would–to put it mildly–be a little daunting.
During the California Gold Rush, the US gained permission to build a railroad across the isthmus, completed in 1855, which ultimately facilitated construction of the Canal.
Ferdinand de Lessups was not an engineer, but a French career diplomat with a knack for organizing political and financial backing for projects that seized his interest. He famously directed the 10-year project of digging the 102-mile-long, sea-level Suez Canal, completed in 1869. Ten years later, an international congress in Paris chose the route for the Panama Canal and appointed de Lessups leader of the undertaking.
Although the distance was shorter, the terrain was much more challenging; tropical jungle diseases killed hundreds of workers. De Lessups and his son Charles were ultimately found guilty of mismanagement, fined and sentenced to prison. The younger De Lessups spent a year in jail; the father died on 7 December 1894, age 89.
Because the US wanted a Canal to promote trade as well as enable a single US Navy fleet to patrol both east and west coasts, Theodore Roosevelt supported Guerrero Amador’s revolution for Panamanian independence from Columbia. In return, the US was granted rights in perpetuity to a 10-mile-wide canal zone (that did not include Colon or Panama City). The US paid $40,000,000.00 for digging rights, improvements and machinery left over from the French project.
General G. W. Goethals was the third U.S. Chief Engineer appointed to direct the Canal project. He overcame the challenges faced by de Lessups and the first two US engineers: eliminating malaria and yellow fever, leveling several mountains near the center of the Isthmus to minimize the elevation of the canal, damming the powerful Chagres River with Gatun Dam to form Gatun Lake and building huge concrete locks to lift ships up and over the higher section of the isthmus.
In Casco Antiguo, there’s a monument to the failed French effort –which reminded me that our Colon driver told us a French customer had explained why the rooster is the symbol of France: “he marches around in shit and keeps on singing.”
The canal itself, I think, is a monument to the successful US effort. We spent more than an hour watching ships pass into the Pacific, through both sets of locks.
Most government activity is still centered in Casco Antiguo. The tall skyscrapers dominating the city skyline house
condos, shopping centers, and international financial firms .
Casco Antiguo is also home to many churches-the remains of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo are eye-catching. We’d never seen a flat arch before. Originally constructed in the late 1600s, damaged by a couple of fires, the arch was still standing in when the US was deciding whether to sponsor a canal across Nicaragua or across Panama. An earthquake An eruption in May 1902 on the island of Martinique made them more inclined toward Panama. Learning that this brick arch had stood for over 200 years served as confirmation of that opinion. The bricks finally crumbled in 2003–not because of an earthquake, but it’s been rebuilt.
Casco Antiguo is an entertainment center, too–including the Teatro Nacional. I was especially impressed by this version of Shakespeare as dashing caballero.
We took a 25-mile boat-trip out to Archipielago de las Perlas, within the arc of the Isthmus, which was a rich trove of pearls for many years. Isla Compradore, where the counting-housed used to be, is a well-known resort.
Isla Saboga is nearby, a larger island, but much more private. We were the only customers who disembarked there. The other two passengers were the resort/restaurant owner and an employee from his Casco Antiguo restaurant who will be in charge of training staff at the new island restaurant.
Sammy, the 24-year-old owner, drove us out in a 4-wheel-drive, off-road jeep. We had the beach to ourselves–and Sammy’s dogs.
We watched Sammy suit up for spear-fishing while we enjoyed our delicious lunch.
He bagged four, and we nearly missed the boat back to the mainland because he was a little late getting back to pick us up.
The next day we headed to Viejo Panama, the first settlement.Homes, businesses, churches, monasteries, convents: a little bit of Spain existed for 250 years in Old Panama.
On our final full day, we drove over to the Embarcadero and parked near the Yacht Club so that we could walk up and get a good look at the statue of Balboa.
And then we walked over to the Fish Market.