"In 1513, the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and sighted the Paciﬁc Ocean. From that point forward, the Spanish and then the Dutch, French, British, and Americans would seek to create a path between the seas that would shorten the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific without traveling around Cape Horn. It would take nearly four centuries to accomplish the goal." encyclopedia.com
"Into Panama..The words have taken on a sinister resonance. Once a fortunate country, Panama had become a place of darkness. First it fell among thieves. Then it came into the clutch of an interesting monster." R. M. Koster, writing in 1990 about the rise to power of Panamanian dictator and CIA asset, Manuel Noriega: In The Time of Tyrants by R.M. Koster & Guillermo Sanchez
This past December marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 US invasion of Panama, and this past year, 2014, also marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the canal's opening. To many, it may seem odd to link these two swimmingly disparate events in the same sentence, but in reality, they are the bookends of an imperialistic history. Panama, a country carved out from Colombia in 1903 for the express purpose of securing what would eventually become the US Canal Zone: Panama is the canal, and the canal is Panama. In 1999, the United States formally handed over full possession to the people of Panama. If construction continues on schedule, the new canal expansion project, via a massive international investment program, will open for shipping traffic in 2016, allowing today's gigantic post-Panamax container ships and tankers unfettered access to the Atlantic coast for the first time.
The labyrinth of US military bases and security checkpoints that once defined the US Canal Zone, now stand abandoned and slowly deteriorating. Even the marina in which we are now moored was once a US military base, but our time here has given me a sharper, more layered perspective beyond that of yet another poor Central American country trampled on by the US. Panamanians have always been proud of the canal, but these days they are proud of the fact that it finally belongs to them. Traveling the country today one encounters a people cautiously optimistic on the outside while quietly holding inside themselves a sense that the future of their small country is a positive one.
So here we are, poised and waiting, the gates to the Pacific lay before us, beckoning us to pass. We have reached the Canal Zone, and it's a strange place; wholly unnatural yet beautiful. A standing testament to human ingenuity, one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history, yet there is a caveat, as much as the Panama Canal is seen universally as a gateway to the Pacific, and inversely, the short cut to the Atlantic, it is also, oddly enough, a barrier. For not all who arrive here make it to the other side. The treacheries that await the hardy sailors seeking passage to the south around Cape Horn are open and obvious with entire books written in minute detail describing every pitfall, whereas here, at the entrance to the Panama Canal, a more insidious set of difficulties awaits adventurers who seek to make this brief passage with their humble craft.
There's the cost, yes the Canal transit is not cheap. Denominate it however you like it's expensive to take even a small private yacht across the Central American Isthmus, but there's more. This section of the Caribbean Sea is the cruelest of the region, with the waters off the coast of Colombia being down right nasty. Winds often build rapidly, we encountered 39 knots during our passage here. Big rolling swell is mixed in with a sea state that is routinely ragged, and harsh; cross seas are the norm. Weather patterns in this area are spitefully unforgiving to the unprepared.
The San Blas Islands, just off the coast of Panama, are a strikingly beautiful Venus Flytrap in full bloom. These lovely Palm covered islands, populated by the peaceful, ever-friendly Kuna, can easily distract the unwary sailor from the dangerous shifting shoals and reefs waiting to capture them. Only a fool would sail the San Blas at night. I've never seen as many wrecks in one place as in the Islands of the San Blas. Nearly every island, and there are over a hundred, has two or more wrecks perched forlorn near its shore. The sparkling tropical sun, the pure white sand, the crystal clear water, all hide a distinct warning: sailors beware, this is a place where dreams die.
The Canal Zone can be just as foreboding. We arrived here in Shelter Bay Marina to find the place littered with abandoned yachts. The stories behind them cover a myriad of stumbling blocks: ran out of money, ran out of stamina, damaged on a reef, damaged in foul weather, family obligations back home, the list is no doubt endless but the bottom line is easier to understand: a circumnavigation is a big thing, it's a serious undertaking, the romance of the idea calls to many a sailor, but the harsh reality is that many who make the attempt fail.
The Canal controls everything here in Panama, from the economy down to the traffic. Pretty much anywhere you need to go, you'll have to factor in the wait time at any of several canal crossing points. Traffic lines up quickly, waiting for ships to pass and the road to open again, with the locals routinely shutting down their engines until the line starts to move. Vendors take advantage of the waiting cars, selling everything from ice cream to children's toys. The canal affect makes provisioning a tedious chore. Heading to the Chandlers for supplies is tedious, anytime you need to go anywhere here, it will be tedious, and it will be hot.
Despite the traffic, getting off the boat is important, as spending too much time sitting around a desolate marina is a recipe for mental atrophy. Many who come here will find themselves waiting weeks for their turn to transit. Hiring a professional handler shortens the wait time considerably but it's an expensive option, so most small boats simply join the queue. Many may not realize that aside from the "big ditch", Panama is also home to one of the best preserved and most bio-diverse rain forests in the whole of Central America. Comprising an area the size of South Carolina, Panama is home to 978 known species of birds, more than the sum total of North America. Even the crumbling road to the marina is lined with dense jungle.
We decided to take a few days off and visit Panama's massive Soberania National Park. It's a fabulous place full of natural wonder. As an avid birder, I very much enjoyed the experience but I had to wait until we were traveling by taxi back to the marina to enjoy the most rewarding wildlife encounter of the trip. A safari into the jungles of Panama sounds delightful but traveling inside the cocoon of organized wildlife tours often has a straitjacket-like effect on me. In order to sanitize the wilderness to make it safe for tourism, infantile controls are often imposed that can bleed dry one's sense of wonder and the joy that comes with it.
Aside from monkeys and birds, one of the animals I was hoping to see is the bizarre Three-Toed Sloth, an arboreal mammal related to the Ant Eater. We did indeed see Sloths during our stay at Gamboa, however they tend to appear as dreary lumps of immobile fur hidden amongst the branches of very tall trees, which of course one would expect given their reputation! In fact it was often difficult to tell weather we were actually looking at a Sloth or simply a termite nest as the two move at about the same speed.
So imagine my surprise when, on a taxi ride back to the marina we encountered a Sloth pitifully trying to cross the road- poor thing! My goodness this particular individual had to have been desperate to leave the safety of his tree, descend to the forest floor, climb up a steep embankment and then attempt to cross a busy rural road, given the glacial speed at which a Sloth can travel, the journey must have taken weeks. It's fantastic to observe such an unusual wild animal up close, but of course, I couldn't leave him like that, this poor guy was destined to become road kill if somebody didn't step in and help. Carmen jumped in to assist, strategically holding a stick to give those long claws something to cling to while I gently scooped him up and carried him (or her!) quickly to the other side of the road where a dense forest stood waiting.
As soon as we released the Sloth, he happily took off into the woods at what must have been top speed, which was in reality slightly faster than your average snail. In observing this odd critter, I was amazed to find that his entire body is in fact it's own tiny ecosystem of insects, algae and even moss all inhabiting it's fur. He made no sound when we approached or when I lifted him off the ground; a completely harmless animal, one of the most purely innocent creatures I've ever encountered.
Tonight we will be anchoring inside Panama's freshwater Gatun Lake, a strange experience indeed for an ocean going vessel, it will be the first time FG's hull has passed through fresh water. More adventure to come- we are feeling good!
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