Panamá, March 1976
After more than two weeks it felt great to be free of the boat; the constant moving between the gloomy light of the cabin, the restaurant, the bar and the deck was hypnotic. One lost track of the time and days (see Sailing the Pacific). Sydney felt very far away and the tropical smells and sounds of Latin America were completely new to me. It was to be the commencement of my love-affair with Latin culture.
We took a taxi into the old city and told the driver that we wanted an inexpensive clean, hotel near to the international bus terminus. The hotel to which he took us was adjacent to the Tica Bus station, that linked Panamá with all the central American countries, as far north as Mexico City. It was a perfect location to stay in the heart of the old city, and the hotel proved to be both quite inexpensive and clean, with a small, albeit garish swimming pool. We settled in for a few days.
Our first port of call was the bar beside the swimming pool and a cold beer. It was there that we first met Joe, a New York cop, travelling on his own. During his military service, he had been stationed in the Canal Zone, and he was on a trip ‘down memory lane’. He offered to take us to the Canal Zone, so we arranged to go with him the next day.
Following their success in completing the Suez Canal, we learned that France started work on the Panamá canal in 1881, to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but eventually abandoned the project, due to high mortality rates from tropical diseases and the lack of funding. It was the U.S. that completed the 80 km canal in 1914. Between 1903 and 1979, the U.S. controlled the territory on either side of the canal. From 1979 to 1999, the Canal Zone was jointly managed with Panamá, before being handled over and the withdrawal of the U.S.
Unless one has studied a map of Panamá, one could assume that the canal runs from west to east. In fact it runs from south-east to north-west, and the Pacific end at Panamá is east of the Caribbean end at Colón.
As arranged, Joe met us the next day. A busy road separated the old city from the Canal Zone and the contrast between the two could not have been greater. On one side there was the old city, with its ramshackle buildings, busy narrow streets, bars, shops, throngs of people, and the constant beat of music. On the other side there were extensive manicured lawns, interspersed with blocks of apartments, at the centre of which there was a small commercial area. And there was relative silence. In the Canal Zone we could have been anywhere US.
We walked down to the canal and watched the shipping wending their way through the series of locks. To avoid having to make extensive cuts through the central Isthmus, the locks lift ships to, and descend them from, an artificial lake, Gatun. It took about twelve hours for a ship to pass through the canal.
On another day we went out to the ruins of the original city, Panamá Vieja – founded in 1519. It became the starting point for expeditions to Perú, and it was from Panamá that gold and silver were shipped to Spain. It was attacked several times by pirates, and was finally destroyed in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan, with thousands of fatalities. It was rebuild a few kilometers to the west at the present site.
When we originally decided to sail from Australia to Panamá, our ambition was to continue south to Chile, and return from there to Sydney. At the time, I was completely unaware that there was no land connection between Panamá and Colombia, through the Darién Peninsula, and that the only way to reach Colombia was by boat or air. At the same time we learned of all the interesting countries and geographies that lay to the north. With the Tica bus terminal being next door, the change of direction was an easy one. We bought tickets to San José, Costa Rica.
South America could wait for another day.