- The history of the Panama Canal
- A canal that changed a country
- Horse-riding in the jungle of Santa Fe
- Visiting an organic jungle farm
- Man-hunting snakes
- Whale time
I am in the tiny island of Boca Brava on the Pacific coast right now. We slowly made our way from west to east with a beautiful stop-over in the lush jungle of central Panama. Last time I wrote to you we had just come back from the archipelago of San Blas, which was pure paradise, however, it was quite nice to be back in civilization to take a shower and get rid of the fleas (which we did).
The history of the Panama Canal
When we were kind of planning our trip in Panama we didn’t really think that we would spend any time in Panama City. Both Cecilia and I really like nature and prefer it to crowded, hot cities. I think what really changed our mind was the top hostel we found. It just had such a chilled atmosphere and really made you not want to go outside. Also we shared one bed in the open-air dorm (meaning it is not in a proper room, but in the corridor separated only by a curtain) and cooked nice food in the communal kitchen, which lowered the travelling costs decisively.
Nevertheless, we did step outside of the hostel and obviously we went visiting the Panama Canal. Getting there was quite an adventure, as we decided not to take a cab for 10 dollars one way and to try and make it there with the local buses. It is quite chaotic, as they do have neither a number nor a destination on them. You just stop one in the middle of the road, tell them your destination and hope for the best. And the best thing: one ride for 25p.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they realized the importance of this natural trade route, which is the narrowest land strip connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish used a natural river to ship the gold from their colonies to Spain. 300 years later the French under the lead of Suez Canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps started trying to find a way to build a canal which allow bigger ships to sail from one ocean to the other without having to pass Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas. From 1881-1889 more than 20 000 people died, most of them because of deadly diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Eventually, the French gave up and left behind many dead and an unfinished canal.
Then, as always, the Americans came. They wanted to take over the task, however, Colombia (which back then governed Panama) did not agree. As a result, the US backed Panama´s aspirations to become independent and surprise, surprise, a couple of days after they succeeded in 1903 the Americans acquired the rights not only to build the canal, but also a territorial sovereignty over the entire area of the canal.
The Americans succeeded by finding a way to eradicate yellow fever. They took on major infrastructural measures to improve hygiene and “only” a couple of thousands of workers died in the ten years until the conclusion of works in 1914. However, the Americans also had their military stationed there and heavily interfered in Panamanian politics for nearly a century. Moreover, the nearly all of the revenues went into their pockets. This only changed in the 1960s, when the unrest due to this unfair status quo led to the clashes between Americans and Panamanians. In 1999 the Panama Canal was finally handed over to Panama.
A canal that changed a country
After having been to the canal I finally understand where all this wealth comes from. Every day around 40 ships pass it and every single one needs to pay a fee, depending on size of the ship and containers on board. This fee ranges from 1000 dollars to around 600 000, the average being 150 000. So every day this canal yields around 6 million dollars of profit and lots of employment in the harbor and the canal itself. Moreover, Panama is increasing the size of the docks to enable the bigger ships to pass it. Works are planned to be finished in 2014, for the centenary, and this time without any deaths.
I really enjoyed visiting the Canal, as it is an engineering miracle and it is basically used in exactly the same way as it was 100 years ago. They had a nice little museum and a film on it. Top stuff.
The price for getting to the canal and back is 20 bucks with a cab. We paid 65p return. On the way there we took the awesome school buses and on the way back we got picked up by a nice Peruvian lady who drove us all the way back to town. She is quite an important figure in importing products from South America to Panama and is currently opening a Peruvian restaurant in Panama City. For this purpose, she flew in a 22 year old Peruvian cook, Juan, who is teaching her staff how to prepare what is supposed to be the best cuisine in all of Latin-America. In the car we got to know each other and we spent all of the afternoon and the evening together. So the next trip to Peru is on the list, the food sounds just too good to be true and we have a place to stay in a family of cooks in Lima.
In the second part of the day we strolled around the old part of town, which couldn’t be more different to where we were staying at. All we had seen until then were skyscrapers, skyscrapers and skyscrapers. ´The old part of town is full of colonial buildings, churches and nice trees. It was very nice to walk around there and showed us that there is another side to this city than the modern economic hub created by the canal.
Horse-riding in the jungle of Santa Fe
The next morning, we somehow made our way to the bus station and headed on to our next stop: Santa Fe. This is a little village with around 3000 inhabitants 5 hours from Panama City in the lush jungle mountains of the central cordillera. We chose it because it just sounded like a very chilled out place to spend a couple of days.
Santa Fe does not have a lot to do in town: three restaurants which are always closed, an American run bar and a cooperative where we bought rice, vegetables and chicken to cook our daily Panamanian meal. Around Santa Fe, however, jungle, hills and waterfalls are waiting to be explored by adventurous people like Cecilia and me.
We called Caesar, who is in charge of the horse riding in town, and went for a 6 hours ride through the hills and the jungle. Yes, we have not been able to walk for the past two days and our bottoms are purple, but it was a beautiful trip. My horse, Princessa, was on fire and always wanted to be upfront. As soon as Cecilia´s Carolina tried to even catch up with mine, it would just run off.
Caesar brought us to a very nice waterfall in the middle of the jungle, with some clear water to swim in and jungle nature to marvel at around. We walked up the river to watch several waterfalls, always looking out for the one animal that is the reason why we came to Central America: sloths! They told us that you can see them in this area, however, we were unlucky and are still on the search for our first sloth in the wild.
Visiting an organic jungle farm
After this tiring and amazing horse ride trip we decided to hit the local bar, the Blue Iguana, for some traditional Panamanian dance performed by the local children’s folklore club. It was just so cute: around 12 pairs of 5-15 year old children, all in their fancy traditional dresses, showing off (more or less) their skills.
In this bar we also started talking to Luis from Panama and Janice from the US. They are in their forties, have raised three children in Chicago and now retired here in Santa Fe. We had a really nice chat and when we wanted to head off they asked us whether we wanted to come and visit their farm up in the mountains.
They bought a huge property in the middle of the jungle 30 minutes from Santa Fe. They lived in a truck for a year trying to build their house, which is now finished and just beautiful. They have an organic farm and are trying to be as autonomous as possible, growing their own vegetables (tomatoes, yucca, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, everything really), their own fruit (maracuja, passion fruit, pineapple, bananas, papaya, mango, coconut), their own coffee and their own sugar. Moreover, they have horses, dogs, cats, cows, chicken, a pig and a pond where they cultivate fish (Luis loves fishing). They also have 2 creeks where I went swimming and which they are trying to use to generate hydropower to run their fridge. Most of the electricity is already provided by solar panels and I think they only thing they really need to buy is gas, but that’s it.
It was just so beautiful up there. First, they showed us around their property, explaining everything they are growing and how they build this house in the middle of the jungle. Then we went inside, drank some homegrown coffee, maracuja juice and Janice prepared a 100% organic dinner. They had a really interesting life: they met in Panama, then didn’t see each other again for four years until Janice came back to Panama. They left their respective partners, married and had 3 children, who they homeschooled most of the times, travelling the world for several months each year. Now the children are old enough to take care of themselves, and Luis and Janice can live their dream and live in the paradise they built up in the mountains of Santa Fe.
During dinner they told us a lot of very interesting stories. For example, all the children of the area have to walk to the school on top of one hill every morning. This means up to 3.5 hours of muddy jungle trek just to get to school. They built a bridge over one of the rivers recently, before they had to wade through it or just not cross when the tide was too high in the rainy season. But now the worst: they close the gates of the school as soon as it starts, which means that these children sometimes walk for 3.5 hours and are then not even allowed in. Also, they get assignments to do with a computer involving internet research. These children live in wooden cabanas somewhere in the middle of the jungle, without electricity or running water and the closest internet café is 1 hour from the school down in Santa Fe…Crazy.
Then they told us all the insane snake stories. They have this snake here, the Fer-De-Lance. It is very poisonous and you die if you do not get an antidote within a couple of hours. Now the fun fact: this snake is aggressive and actually hunts humans. Luis was telling us the sad story how he loved his favorite dog to one of these: him and his friends were walking in the jungle, then one of the guys started screaming – the Fer-De-Lance was hunting him. They ran away, Luis´s dog got in between the snake and guys, it bit him, the guys killed it with a machete, but it was too late for the dog… Luis never got bitten, however, it is kind of unavoidable here considering all the stories he told us of neighbors who got bitten up to three times. Our, especially Cecilia´s, snake paranoia did not get better when they told us about the coral snake which lives here too. It is not aggressive, however, if it were to bite you, you are dead, as you have only 15 minutes to get an antidote. Fun fact: the locals here believe that once you have been bitten by a snake, you cannot plant any seeds anymore, as they won´t grow. And they are so convinced of it that they will not even try to see whether this is true.
The last fun fact he told us was about the Kuna. You remember who I wrote to you that I cannot believe that all of their revenues come from tourism. So I asked him about the relation between Panamanians and Kunas and Luis told me about a recent football game on Kuna territory which sparked hostility both from the US and Panama: so this game was held on a small island in San Blas. The Kuna did not have any chalk to draw the lines of the pitch. What they did have though was a lot of cocaine. So they drew these lines entirely with cocaine, kilograms of it. This underlined Panama´s suspicion that all of the Kuna´s speedboats are not only used for tourism purposes.
We had a very good time in Santa Fe. We met some interesting people in the hostel, had this amazing trip to Luis´s and Janice´ organic paradise farm and the horse riding trip through the jungle.
The beauty of Panama is that you can change the natural setting in a few hours. San Blas to Panama City – Panama City to Santa Fe – and now Santa Fe´s jungle to Boca Brava´s tropical island. We came here because of all the travelers who told us how incredible the tours offered here are. It is whale season at the moment and this hostel offers daily tours where you first go snorkeling on a deserted island with a beautiful reef and then you head on to see whales with their babies. Awesome!
I don’t know where my next news will be from, probably from the Caribbean Ocean again. Hope you are all doing great and saludos from Boca Brava.