Panama: More Than Just a Hat

By David Rich

A dugout canoe in Panama
A dugout canoe in Panama. David Rich photos.

Love those Panama hats, straw that can be rolled up, stuck in a back pocket and still lasts practically forever while being sat upon. I suspected there might more to Panama than a hat, and for a change I was right.

365 Idyllic Islands

My entry into Panama was accidental serendipity because I sailed into the San Blas Islands from Colombia, stumbling onto the best Panama has to offer, at least for those who adore pristine Caribbean Islands, one for every day of the year, and appreciate the energetic indigenous culture of the Kuna Yala.

I was attracted to the islands by the enthusiasm of friends with whom I sailed around the Philippines, who’d themselves sailed most of the way around the world in a mere eight years, waylaid for three of those years by the magnet of the San Blas.

The San Blas number 365 idyllic islands, only forty-some inhabited, strung out over 120 miles (200 km) next to precipitous mountains bordering the formidable barrier between North and South America, the as yet unbridged, or at least un-highwayed, Darien Gap.

The Darien Gap

There’s simply no way to get from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, or even from Panama to Columbia without flying or taking a boat across the Darien Gap, except for those handy with a machete for chopping through nigh impenetrable jungle and fending off bandits who thrive on wild and lawless frontiers.

The most astonishing wrinkle is that the Kuna Yala people of the San Blas Islands exist autonomously, independent of the Panamanian government, because the United States muddled into doing something right back in 1925 when it stationed a warship offshore to prevent Panama from squelching an uprising by the Kuna Yala.

A woman of the Kuna tribe in Panama.
A woman of the Kuna tribe in Panama.

Actually the canny Kuna Yala rather did it themselves because they’d vigorously lobbied the U.S. Congress to pony up a warship before they began their revolution against the repressive Panamanian government, which had been happily engaged in ripping gold rings from the noses of Kuna Yala women.

The World’s Original Ecologists

What’s so special about these particular Caribbean islands that elevate them above the mundanity of Bonaire, St. Maarten, and Cuba?

A King Vulture in Panama
A King Vulture in Panama

Fly over the San Blas from Panama City and marvel at the string of pearl coral atolls marching like emeralds to the horizon, surrounded by crystalline aquamarine water blending to bright blueberry.

The Kuna are the world’s original ecologists, rigorously preserving their environment through matriarchal rule and pure socialism, living proof that the world would be better off ruled by almost testosterone-free women, left to enjoy golden nose rings, thank you very much.

Exquisite Diving and Snorkeling

The islands are studded with coral reefs, fish-teeming wrecks, and dugout canoes with tiny sails, offering exquisite snorkeling and diving, miniature villages of cane thatch, and seafood so fresh it almost quivers on the plate.

Coconut is legal tender, while on the mainland dollars are the de rigueur official currency. Thus if you fly down from wherever, you can ATM dollars anywhere on the mainland.While tourists enjoy these attractions Kuna women sew their famous Molas, fancily embroidered cloth in a myriad of rainbow colors and exotic patterns, while the men fish and tend coconut farms.

In the San Blas it’s coconuts, though the Kuna accept dollars from those who find coconuts a tad bulky.

Then There’s the Canal…

If you’re a non-beach person like me there’s more to Panama than a year’s worth of sun-drenched islands, which includes a canal.

Not only has the U.S. been a friend to the Kuna but also to Panama, where Jimmy Carter is a hero. Canal tolls brought the government over a billion dollars in 2006. No wonder Panama loves Jimmy.

The Miraflores locks, on the Pacific side, a few miles (few more kilometers) north of Panama City, are open to the public. There tourists gawk and busily snap inadequate photos of a giant container ship towering high above them.

A ship leave Miraflores on the Panama Canal.
A ship leave Miraflores on the Panama Canal.

Then the lock closes and billions of gallons of water boost the humongous ship even higher. Resulting photos look like a telephoto shot of a gray barn from ten feet away. See that Maude? It’s a ship transiting the Panama Canal. But it looks like the side of a grizzled barn.

Ships dawdle through the Canal like skyscrapers bobbing down a toy river, across Gatun Lake and through the locks on the Caribbean side for a total of 30 miles (50 kilometers), never pausing near Colon lest they be mugged. Colon is the only iffy part of Panama, unless you count the inaccessible parts of the Darien Gap.

Improving the Revenue Stream

The Panamanians have done themselves proud, keeping the Canal in tiptop shape with meticulous maintenance, turning sprawling American Army bases into immaculately groomed universities, and greatly improving the Canal’s revenue stream.

How could they fail when the Americans in 1928 charged only 36 cents for one transit: Richard Halliburton swimming the Canal during nine days in August? Jimmy did well getting rid of the watery white elephant.

Selling crafted molas in Panama
Selling crafted molas in Panama

Panama is booming with construction everywhere, which means the freeways and toll roads are a disaster.

Panamanians are so used to the terrible traffic around Panama City that even on holidays, when traffic is light, they’re psychologically unable to go more than 25 miles per hour (40 km/hr), deft at snarling traffic even in the dead of night.

Love That Infrastructure

Walkabout tree, Panama
Walkabout tree, Panama

Skyscraper condominiums are rearing their lofty heads for miles around metropolitan areas and ex-pats are flocking because expenses are low, residency is easy, and infrastructure is basically Developed World, which means you can actually drink the tap water and the stores stock every modern convenience, foodstuff, and designer label.

Boquete, on the east side of the volcano, has developed so rapidly that prices have skyrocketed, excluding most locals. Panama has become America south, overtaking Costa Rica as the preferred retirement destination south of the border.

The real boom is around Volcan Baru, the countries highest mountain at 3475 meters (11,500 feet), basically because Panama lies between eight and ten degrees north latitude, making Baru the only place in the country that’s naturally cool.

Buying It Back

Though Jimmy gave back the Canal, regular Americans are buying up the country en masse, which may be understandable: orchids grow wild, volcanic hillsides are planted with some of the world’s best coffee, and the whole country is gorgeously green and verdant.

The Bocas are booming, and most hotels and restaurants are owned by ex-pats, attracting surfers, divers, and those who love hammocks.On the Caribbean side of Mt. Baru sprawls the archipelago of the Bocas del Toro, discovered by Columbus on his fourth voyage in 1502, easily accessed from Costa Rica and a new Panamanian highway across the cordillera.

Somber, Pricey and Boring

Whirl girl, Panama
Whirl girl, Panama

By the late 19th century Boca’s bananas accounted for half of Panama’s earnings and the headquarters of the infamous American company, United Fruit, now morphed into Chiquita and moved to the mainland after crop disease felled the crop.

San Blas babes
San Blas babes

Though the Bocas draw tourists like a magnet I found them drizzly, somber, pricey, and boring. I’d rather have a Panama hat, any day.

Roundtrip flights to Panama City can be had from anywhere in the States from $600 and down for astute internet surfers, via American, Continental/Copa, and a dozen others.Wanna go?

Air Panama and Aeroperlas fly daily from Panama City to a dozen of the San Blas islands, which offer full board accommodation and island hopping from between $35 and $140 per person, ranging from primitive to resort but all offering fresh seafood, exquisite scenery, and unique Mola souvenirs.

Wood duck, Panama
Wood duck, Panama

The Costa Azul Hotel at Calle 44 Bella Vista (225-4703) is the best value in Panama City with singles $20, doubles $25, and triples $30 plus 10% tax.

Handcrafted molas in Panama
Handcrafted molas in Panama

A monthly tourist booklet lists many hotels in all Panamanian cities.

Permanent residency can be obtained by foreigners who prove monthly income of $500 plus $100 for each dependent, where the living is easy and more than just a hat.

Cowboys on Boca Beach, Panama
Cowboys on Boca Beach, Panama
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