In June we got married so where do we take our lovely family on the boat for a honeymoon? Surprisingly we decided this time not to take a sailing trip but to stay on land.
It was even more surprising for our family and friends when we said we were going to Panamá.
Well, why not :) On our sailing trip we will be sailing through the Canal so why not to travel there a bit ahead to find out how it all works and how does the country looks like.
The country of Panamá is all about its unique LOCATION. It determines its history, its economy, and mix of people who live there.
Panamá lies between Costa Rica on the north and Columbia on the south. It has around 4 million inhabitants. It is THE ONLY place where you can cross the Americas from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean while staying on a boat. The route (or its modification) had been used since the Columbus discovered America but of course once the route was dug through it changed the game.
The Canal is now also the key pillar of the Panamanian economy - fees from using the Canal for commercial purposes are really high (one big boat like the one in Captain Phillips movie with Tom Hanks) pays about 600K USD for one way. Thanks to free tax zone for the imported goods (that comes through the Canal) for the whole Latin America it also attracts many companies who set up their headquarters here. That means you also need lots of banks and lawyers too :)
It is well know that the Canal had been built by the United States. But it is less known that the first attempt to dig the isthmus through was coming by French. That was year 1882. Unfortunately the time was not right yet. The conditions were too hard to manage – frequent landslides, rain and mud, mosquitos causing diseases and lack of finance and technique.
So in 1902 United States decided to give it a try and a year later they made a deal with Panamá. They will build it and finance it and as an exchange they will operate the Canal and will have sovereignty over a strip of land 16x80km (The Panama Canal Zone).
It took 10 year to the United States to build it but they made it. In 1999 they handed it over to the Panamanians so now it is 100% owned by Panama government.
Note that when one says Panama Canal it actually means originally 4 locks. In 2016 2 more locks were opened so even bigger then BIG ships can pass. Daily it is about 35 – 40 BIG ships.
Visitors can see the Miraflores locks and I would also recommend to see the Gamboa town and by going there you pass also the San Miguel locks.
Some fascinating facts about the Canal (at least for us ☺)
It is a piece of engineering as the water level differs in both oceans and one has to constantly dredge the Canal to keep the depth.
It is the only place in the world where the captain of the passing boat gives the boat to Panama Canal captain to take it through Canal.
At Miraflores locks there are still the original little trains used to pull the boats through. Lovely.
When the United States were building the Canal they build a small town for the workers called Gamboa on a green land and with everything. Now it is almost empty but the houses are still there and there is an incredible genius locus.
Newly build locks have their own water tanks so they are not constantly taking water from the river that helps the environment and surrounding nature to cope better.
Panama City lies at the Panama Canal from to Pacific Ocean side. When you see the city it is like Hong Kong, skyscrapers everywhere. Locals call it the Cocaine towers as there are stories that it has been build form the money earned from cocaine dealing from Columbia. Unfortunately there is not big urban idea so the high buildings are just thrown into a one space randomly. For European family too far from our concept of cities.
What was however much closer to our taste and it reminded me of Havana, Cuba, is the old town, Casco Viejo. Some money get even here so the old town is being reconstructed. Picturesque colorful houses of colonial style. Some are beautifully renovated. Some are inhabited by local people without any major change for years and some have only the main wall. But it is very nice to walk there day or night, see the restaurants, small shops, roof top bars and local life.
About 20 min by car from the Panama City there is Gamboa, a town build by United States for workers from United states surrounded by a rainforest, very well preserved.
We stated in the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, beautiful resort built by Americans in 70s. The hotel is no more so rich but bit of the glance is still there. It is far from the busy noise of the city and in the nature so you can watch the Capibaras from the pool or your balcony ☺ Which we did.
Also you can do guided trips into the rainforest, as we did. Just make sure you need gallons of anti-mosquito spray. Which we did too ☺
And here are few facts that fascinated us ☺
Snakes in Panama are very poisonous, the bigger the jaws the more poisonous the snake is. Uaaaaa.
Mosquitoes must love chocolate just like us! Because if you eat it, they can tell and eat you.
If you end up in a jungle and get hungry just look for some termites. You can eat them, as they are full of proteins.
However if you would like to catch something, do it like the indigenous people. Look for a palm with stings, dip the sting in a poison form a frog and blow the sting through a bamboo stick. Voila, dinner is here.
And last and in the end not that surprising fact. When it comes to ants, only women are working carrying the leaves to the home while men are used only for reproduction. How human ☺
Final stop of our trip was even further from the business of the city. We decided to follow the surfers and divers and ended up about 5 hours drive southwest from Panama in a town called Santa Catalina.
It is a place where everybody wears a surfboard instead of a handbag ☺ Because the waves are great there and they are there all the time. There are safe spots for beginners and bigger pipes for big boys and girls. We did our job too and surfed the foam. And after few days you realize how the laid back life gets deep under your skin.
You can stay in simple cozy cabanas, that are to be rent in nearly every house or chose a bit more stylish accommodation in Hotel Santa Catalina. None of it you will regret. Then just take a walk on the black beach and jump into the waves.
Yeah, this place is still waiting to be discovered by the tourism ☺
To close our trip diary I need to mention few more things. First it is god damn difficult to move around Panama without Spanish. Any bit of French, Italian, Latin and hands and legs help. Forget about English.
Also Panamanians do not have their currency, they use US Dollars.
And finally the taste buds. Local food is something between Mexican and Spanish tapas. But there is something typical for Panama (and central America as such) and it is ceviche. Raw fish or seafood macerated in a fresh lime sauce with cilantro and onions. Yammy. In the hot days we could not get enough. And when the Brazilian family that lived next to us in Hotel Santa Catalina invited us for a freshly made ceviche from just caught lobsters, it was our culinary heaven ☺ The recipe is easy so try it at home ☺ I will.
Your family on the boat