Postcard from Panama

Everyone’s favourite Panama souvenir? A Panama hat, of course!

Well, if you thought Panama hats came from Panama, it’s time to do some research. In reality, Panama hats have been made in Ecuador since the mid-1600s. In the 19th century, they began to be shipped from Ecuador to the rest of the world, via Panama, thus creating the myth that they were made in Panama. Well, now you know!

The label on the inside of my Panama Hat - still made in Ecuador!

The label on the inside of my Panama hat – still made in Ecuador!

Made from the leaf fibers of the Paja Toquilla (a palm-like plant), a Panama hat at its finest, is said to be able to pass through a wedding ring! And yes, you can buy them in Panama.

Panama City, the capital of Panama, was originally founded in 1519 by the Spanish. After it was attacked and looted by a British buccaneer by the name of Captain Henry Morgan in 1671, a new city was established 2 years later not too far from the original location. This historic town is known today as Casco Viejo (which means ‘old quarter’ in Spanish) and was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (old quarter)

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter)

On a separate note, if you thought the name Captain Henry Morgan sounded familiar, that’s because the world famous Captain Morgan Rum is named after him 🙂

No trip to Panama is complete without a visit to the pride of Panama, the Panama Canal. It is after all, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

After much political manoeuvring surrounding the creation and control of the canal (that’s a post for another day!), the Panama Canal opened on 15th Aug 1914. It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nearly 10 years to build (1904-1914) and more than 75,000 workers were involved.

This feat of engineering connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, saving ships sailing from New York to San Francisco (and vice versa) nearly 13,000km (8,000 miles) as compared to going all around Cape Horn in Chile, South America. Panama assumed full control of the canal in 1999.

30-40 ships cross the canal every day and a ship takes roughly 8-10 hours to cross the 80km canal. Interestingly, the ship captain isn’t allowed to navigate the canal on his own. A specially trained pilot steers the ship through the canal. The system of ‘locks’ used by the canal is an impressive phenomenon to watch and an engineer’s delight!

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks to enable it to transit the Panama Canal

2010 was a landmark year in the history of the canal as the millionth vessel transited through the waterway.  Ships that use the canal pay a toll based on their size and cargo volume, with large ships paying as much as half a million dollars. Richard Halliburton, the American adventurer holds the record for the smallest toll ever paid when he swam the canal in 1928 – 36cents. There are many jokes about where he could have possibly kept his change 😉

The canal generates nearly $2 billion in annual toll and along with allied industries, is a significant contributor to the Panamanian economy. You can either watch the ships navigate the canal (http://visitcanaldepanama.com/en/) or book an actual boat trip along the canal.

All the buzz around the canal completely overshadows the fact that Panama is home to dense rainforests (the forest cover is almost 50%), which in turn house nearly 1,000 species of birds, more bird species than the US and Canada combined. With 2,500kms of coastline and nearly 1,500 islands, Panama also has a rich and thriving marine life. That calls for another trip to this fascinating country – the only country in the world where the sun rises in the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic.

I leave you with some fun snapshots of Panama….

A food platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

A sampling platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal

The Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal

 

Hasta la vista amigos! 🙂

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