ROXANNE ROWLEY: Wonderfully diverse Panama

Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

By ROXANNE ROWLEY
Special to the News Advocate

Our vacation to Panama was full of amazing experiences. It is a wonderfully diverse country, not only population-wise, but also featuring varied flora and fauna. Every day was a new adventure.

Panama connects North and South America. It is about the size of South Carolina and has a population of about 4.5 million people. Panama City, the capital, is home to about 1.5 million. We were surprised to find out there are over 100 skyscrapers in Panama City and more than 80 banks.

Panama has been home to native tribes since 2,500 B.C., based on pieces of pottery that have been carbon dated. The Spanish, English, Dutch, French and eventually the US all had an interest in Panama for varied reasons. In the late 1800s the French decided to build a canal at the narrowest part of Panama in an effort to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for trade purposes. However, their efforts failed. In the early 1900s the US took up that cause again.

Panama was a newly independent country in 1903. The US was given control over a 10 mile swath in the Canal Zone for $10 million and a couple of years later work on the Panama Canal began. The building of the Panama Canal was a huge engineering feat.

The Gatun Locks were the first locks finished in 1913 and on Aug. 15, 1914, the Panama Canal officially opened. This marvel of engineering did not come without a cost. Over 27,000 workers lost their lives to malaria, yellow fever, typhus and accidents. The Canal Zone was transferred to the Panamanian government on Dec. 31, 1999.

The Rowleys took a boat ride in Panama and encountered several monkeys on their boat (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

About 15,000 ships a year go through the Panama Canal. Ships must make a reservation and it takes 8 to 10 hours to traverse the canal from one ocean to the other. The Locks are open 24 hours a day, every day. One day my husband counted over 30 ships in the queue waiting to traverse the locks. Without the canal ships had to navigate around the continent of South America. Once the canal opened, it saved ships about 20 days of travel.

We had a chance to go through the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks at the Panama Canal. It was pretty exciting. The sides and bottom of the locks are lined with cement 60 feet thick. Our small boat shared the locks with a huge ship, which felt a little intimidating. Tug boats help get the huge ships properly placed as they enter the locks. We watched the six foot steel gates close behind us and the locks filled with water as we went to the next level lock and repeated the process.

We visited an Embera tribal village in the rain forest. The only way in was by boat. The Emberas shared information about their culture through a translator. Then they did a couple of their native dances. It was very fascinating. The Emberas are known for their fine beadwork, fiber baskets from palm fibers and lovely carvings from tagua nuts. I even got a henna tattoo of a butterfly (mariposa in Spanish) on our visit there.

We had a chance to go to a sloth sanctuary for orphaned sloths. They are quite endearing and gentle little creatures. They do move quite slowly because of their slow metabolic rate. A sloth sleeps about 15 hours a day. We saw one little guy who fell asleep with a piece of hibiscus still in its mouth.

Panama has over 900 species of birds. I am not a birder but I did enjoying seeing many of the colorful birds in the rain forest, where we stayed a few nights. There are also many kinds of butterflies. A boat ride introduced us to several kinds of monkeys in the rain forest, as well as iguanas, more birds, lizards and crocodiles.

The temperature in Panama was 90+ degrees and the humidity was about the same. Needless to say, it was quite a change from the northern temperatures we are used to. We drank lots of water and wore our brimmed hats. On one of our walks in Panama City came upon a church called Iglesia Santa Ana. It was originally built in 1794 but a fire in 1854 destroyed the church. It was

Ballet Folkloric dancers (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

completely renovated in the twentieth century.

There was a shady park with benches in front of the church, a welcome respite from the heat. There were no empty benches but I saw a gentleman who patted the bench he was sitting on, a signal to join him. Gratefully my husband and I sat down. I told the man, “Gracias.” It turned out that his English was on par with my Spanish. He asked where we were from and I told him. Then he asked me if we were too warm. “Si.” I told him it was much cooler where we live. Then he asked how many months of cold weather we have. I told him “cinco” and held up five fingers to reiterate. His incredulous look said it all. As we got up to leave, I told him my name. He said his name was Ricardo. My hubby grinned and said his name was Ricardo, too. Smiles and handshakes resulted. It was a pleasant rest stop.

On our last night in Panama City a group of very talented dancers from the Ballet Folkloric performed traditional dances for us. The costumes were just beautiful. The women wore dresses that were hand embroidered and trimmed with hand tatted lace. The dances were so lovely with lots of fancy turns and rhythmic footwork. It was very entertaining.

Panama was an unforgettable trip. The people were especially friendly and proud to show off their country. It is nice to feel that we have much more in common with people from other countries than not. I really like the quote by Mark Twain,” Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. . .”

Embera Village located in the rain forest. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

 

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