I’ve always wanted to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific. You know, see the continent. I finally did it…on Saturday. And, thanks to the careful use of airline miles and hotel points, I was able to accomplish the task for about $80 and without facing the endless monotony of Kansas. How? I went to Panamá for the weekend.
If it weren’t the skinniest part of the American landmass, quite frankly, it would not have earned the attention by the Europeans that it did beginning in the Sixteenth Century. Panamá is a tough place to be. It’s hot, wet, and — this is the real problem — it has a lot of mosquitos. Like seriously, a lot.
Of course, the Spanish conquered it. The Scottish tried, too. Called the Darien Scheme, their ill-fated attempt to recreate the splendor of Scotland in the south failed almost before it began in 1698.
Just like the Scottish, Panamá did a number on me. They say you’re not a true interloper in South America until you’ve been ripped off by a cab driver. And so on this, my sixth or seventh visit to the neighborhood to our south, it finally happened. I had just finished dinner on my first and final day in the country (it was a really quick trip) and was ready to get back to my hotel.
Against my better judgment, I got into a cab without pre-negotiating the rate. I knew exactly what was going to happen as I was doing it. But, that didn’t stop me. I was tired after a full day of crossing the continent and ready to get home.
The cab was holding up traffic. Perhaps the honking drowned out my inner warning voice. I got in quickly and buckled the seatbelt, which for the record appeared either newer than the car or — more likely — unused.
Once I was in and the car zipped away from the curb, the smell overcame me. It reeked alternatively of bad marijuana (or at least what I’ve heard bad marijuana smells like…) and a driver who had failed to avail himself of toilet paper at his most recent opportunity. No two ways about it: It stank. He was an unusually aggressive driver. Like cab drivers in London, he thought he had me pegged:
“Quieres una mujer?”
“You want a woman?”
“No. No es necesario.”
“¿Por qué? Tú tienes una novia en Alemania?”
“Why? You have a girlfriend in Germany?”
“Errrmmm…” I had no idea why he thought I was from Germany.
“Necesitas dos mujeres, amigo. Una en Alemania y una en Panamá.”
“You need two women, friend. One in Germany and one in Panamá.”
That was the extent of our conversation. For the moment.
A short while later, he began shouting about making change. When I asked how much the fare was, he told me $40. It should have been $5. When I let him know that would be a more fair fare, he whipped his tiny yellow cab with the new seatbelt into a dark alley. I determined $40 was fair.
Somehow, after shouting expletives at the guy on my way out of his car, I found the way back to my hotel. Thank goodness for my remarkable sense of direction – I promise I’m humble about most things, but I’m grateful for an excellent sense of direction.
It turns out the driver’s question about wanting a woman was well-informed. My hotel is located across the street from the number one place in Panamá to pick up prostitutes. This probably explained the stream of “ladies” walking into the hotel and toward the elevators on the arms of older “gentlemen.” Regrettably, my walk into the hotel required me to wade through a crowd of women of the night.
But, finally, I was home.
I am not the only person who has paid a hefty fee for a ride through Panama. If you know nothing else about the country, you’re probably familiar with the scratch through the middle: The Canal.
Panama’s narrow shape has, in large part, shaped its history. As early as the 1500’s, the Spanish were using the Isthmus to transport treasure captured from the Incan Empire.
You see, they had to get tons of gold and silver from the Pacific Coast of Peru to the Atlantic Coast of Spain. The best way to make that happen was to ship it north from Lima to Panama and then carry it overland to Portobelo, Panama on the Atlantic Coast. So, this tiny spot — selected for the ease with which it could be protected — served as the launching point of the once-yearly Spanish Treasure Fleet. That’s right, once a year the Spanish would send a huge fleet of ships to collect an entire year’s worth of gold, silver, and other treasure and carry it to Spain.
In 1628, a Dutch privateer (or, if you were Spanish, a pirate) named Admiral Piet Hein, captured the entire fleet. King Phillip of Spain collapsed with a panic attack when he heard the news. I don’t know what the Dutch King did, but I’m guessing he also fell to the floor. Albeit with a better feeling.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to the 1800s and the French saw the opportunity to make this overland route even easier by building a canal. By this point, the route had been upgraded to a relatively reliable railroad, but capacity and speed were severely limited.
Riding high on the success of the comparatively simple-to-build Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, French engineers began a project to cut a slice out of Panama. They finally admitted defeat after about 22,000 people died (mostly from disease-ridden mosquitos).
Along came the United States. And, according to some history books, we accomplished what the French could not due to our Yankee Ingenuity. The truth is that we were successful where the French weren’t for three main reasons:
- Technology had advanced in the intervening years,
- We were willing to build the canal with locks along a different route, and
- We didn’t mind the number of people who died, although, to be fair, our project “only” killed about 5,600 people.
Oh! And there was also the little matter of our willingness to support Panamanian independence from Colombia. A backroom deal sponsored by none other than President Teddy Roosevelt. But pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, folks. So, between 1904 and 1914, the United States completed one of history’s most amazing engineering feats.
So, the Canal was in place and we were sitting on our high horse making lots and lots of money. Then, back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter decided to cede the Canal to the Panamanians as of December 31, 1999.
A boom began on January 1, 2000, and hasn’t really stopped since. Skyscrapers and new neighborhoods grow everywhere. From my hotel room alone, I could see no fewer than six giant construction projects nearly 17 years after getting the canal back.
Panama City is not unlike Shanghai or Dubai in that it has grown practically overnight. Prior to the turn of the last century, the place was a relatively tranquil, small town. Now it’s a major global center and home to more than two million people and lots of shopping malls.
Today, ships crossing the canal can pay upwards of $800,000.00 for the privilege. A good deal when you realize it saves them two or three weeks and a few million dollars over the trip through Drake’s Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. It’s worth noting these fees can be paid by wire transfer or if you prefer, cash! The canal brings in six to seven million dollars per day (I wonder how much they lose to “leakage” of all that cash…)
It takes eight to ten hours to make it through the Canal’s 48.5 miles, which means ships can pay $16,000 per mile! I guess I got off pretty well with a $40 cab ride.
But there’s a lot more to Panama than the canal. Some 990 species of birds and 16,000 different kinds of butterflies, for example. There are also beautiful beaches, which I didn’t see. And lots and lots of expats thanks to the ease with which foreigners can earn Permanent Resident status. Indeed, my guide was born in Vietnam and raised in Canada. The restaurant where we had lunch, “Captain Jack’s” in Portobelo, is owned by a man from the US, and our waitress was from Cameroon. The only Panamanian I met on the whole trip was the damn cab driver.
So, in conclusion, a quick trip to Panama is probably not something I’d have done without the benefit of airline miles and hotel points. Seeing the Canal was interesting and visiting Portobelo has inspired me to add a visit to Seville to my never-ending bucket list. Why Seville? Because that’s where most of those American treasures ended up in Spain (unless they were captured along the way by Dutch, English, or French pirates). I’d like to trace the whole route of all of that silver I saw in Potosí.