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by Dan and Jan Ahart
The Republic of Panama has a unique history. In 1821, under the leadership of Simon Bolivar, the huge land area known as Gran Columbia, comprising what are now the countries of Panama, Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela, gained independence from Spain. After independence was won the separate countries of Venezuela, Ecuador and Columbia (including Panama) were formed. In the 1840s, with gold discovered in California, the U.S. financed construction of the Panama Railroad across the isthmus. During the gold rush over 375,000 people used the railroad. Then, in 1880, a French company obtained rights from the Columbian government to construct a canal. In 1889 the project was abandoned by the French after spending $285 million and suffering a loss of over 22,000 workers due to Yellow Fever and Malaria. In 1902 the French company sold the project rights to the American government. However, the Columbian government wanted additional compensation for the rights to construct a canal. President Theodore Roosevelt felt the Columbian government was being unreasonable and knowing the desire for independence by the residents of the area, declared and recognized the Republic of Panama in 1903. Columbia wanted no fight with the U.S., but refused to recognize the new country until 1921, when the U.S. paid it $25 million. Immediately after declaring independence, the Republic of Panama granted the U.S. exclusive rights to the Panama Canal Zone in perpetuity. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set to work on construction of the canal and finished it 10 years later after nearly $400 million in expenditures and the labor of over 75,000 men and women. The first ship made the transit in 1914. Control and ownership of the canal was turned over to the Panamanian government on 31 December 1999.
There are three major cities in Panama. Colon is on the Caribbean side of the canal and Panama City and David are on the Pacific side. Panama City, the capital is much larger than Colon or David and much more cosmopolitan, with high rise office buildings and apartments and new construction everywhere. In Panama City, the roads are good; there is a beautiful new bus terminal adjacent to a huge modern shopping mall and a bustling international airport, all of which are evidence of an economy that is thriving. On the other hand, Colon is very old and run down, even though it is a busy seaport with a very large harbor and huge facilities for handling cargo containers. It also boasts of the world's second largest free trade zone where over $10 billion of merchandise changes hands annually. However, very little money filters down to the average resident. As a consequence, unemployment is high, crime is high and the city has a depressing third world air about it. The city is built on a peninsula that juts into the harbor. It is composed of about 400 city blocks or 20 streets north and south and about 20 avenues east and west. There is not a single traffic light in the city and the few stop signs are considered as a suggestion only by most drivers. The free trade zone is a walled off area on the southeast side of the city and is comprised of about 100 city blocks. It is very large with hundreds of outlets. Panamanians are not allowed to shop there, but anyone with a foreign passport can gain entry. The vast majority of outlets sell in large quantities only, but many sell individual items including clothing, electronics and of course beverages from around the world.
We spent a week at the Panama Yacht Club in Colon, which is nice, but it too has a dejected and depressing air about it. It is surrounded by container handling yards and we got the impression that the owners were waiting for the right price before selling the property to one of the yards. Even so, the people were nice and there were about 40 boats in the club's slips, plus another ten or so anchored out in a designated area of the harbor called, "the flats." Most cruisers at the club were preparing to go through the canal or had just come through and were preparing to go elsewhere, so there weren't enough long staying cruisers to create a feeling of a community with organized domino and card games or regular evening get togethers as we have seen at other clubs. During our stay, we took a bus trip across the isthmus to Panama City for a look around. The bus was the express version and was non-stop, with ample air conditioning and an enroute movie. The fare each way for the 42 mile trip was $2 each. Certainly affordable.
We also toured the Gatun locks which are just a few miles from Colon. The Gatun locks use three steps to raise ships from sea level in the Caribbean to the level of Lake Gatun, which is 85 feet above sea level. Lake Gatun was created by damming the Rio Chagres. Ships traverse the 15 mile wide lake and then snake through the Galliard cut, which is approximately eight miles long and cuts through hills nearly 400 feet high. After the cut, ships are stepped down to the Pacific Ocean via the Pedro Miguel lock, which is a one step, 30 foot lock to Lake Miraflores. Next are the Miraflores locks, which lower ships some 65 feet in two steps to the Pacific Ocean. The last locks are very high because of the 15 foot tides on the Pacific coast.
We left Colon, on the morning of 29 December 03 and sailed westward toward Bocas del Toro, which is very close to the Costa Rican border. We had hoped to make the trip in one 24 hour period, but half way, we encountered an opposing current, which our Pilot Charts had not indicated, plus a wind shift, which put 10 knots of wind right on our nose. By the afternoon of the 30th, we knew we would not make the Bocas by dark, so we anchored in Largo Bluefield, named for a famous Dutch pirate of the 17th century. The next morning, we motored the last 20 miles into the Bocas and tied up at Marina Carenero. The word carenero is Spanish for careen, meaning an area where boats can be careened or leaned over in shallow water at low tide to clean the barnacles and weeds off the bottom and then refloated at high tide. Bocas del Toro looks nice. We think we will stay a while and see some more of Panama. Stay tuned.