The world's greatest shortcut (Panama Canal, Central Panama)

Published: October 11th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

(Day 920 on the road) Leaving the peaceful island of Boca Brava behind, we once again found ourselves on the Pan-American highway, going east. Our next stop was Isla Cana, off the southern coast of the Azuero peninsular. We had hoped to get here in one day, but a massive and colourful party in the tiny town of Guarare, which we stumbled right into by pure chance along the way, meant we had to spend the night along the way. The party however, the Feria de la Mejorana, was amazing, with folklore groups from all over Panama and other Central American countries descending like a swarm on the otherwise near-dead town. We stopped for a few hours and mingled with the locals, only slightly hindered by our backpacks in the dense crowds, listening to the bands and enjoying the food, and generally just drinking in the atmosphere.

The next afternoon, we arrived on Isla Cana. Our only reason for coming here was to see nesting green turtles, which we had attempted to spot a few weeks ago in Costa Rica already, but to no avail then. This time around we got more lucky, and saw one of these impressive creatures bury about 100 eggs into the sand far up the beach. We had walked the beach in the dark for over an hour until we had finally stumbled across her, and seeing this turtle behave so clumsily on land (they are very agile in the water) was astonishing. They lay about 100 eggs in one night (and a few times during the season), but only two survive in the end (the rest of the baby turtles don't make it into the water or get eaten by birds earlier on). That is, if poachers don't get the eggs first and sell it to gourmets restaurants in Panama City.

Back on the mainland, we stayed a day in Pedasi for a day for Tino to do a couple of dives. I relaxed whilst I waited for him, and chuckled more than once about why the owner of the place had given us the discount that she had: She had initially wanted 45 US$ for the basic but pretty room, completely overpriced, even by rather expensive Panama standards. We suggested 15 dollars, and after a while we warmed to each other. We were close to agreeing on $25, when, totally out of the blue, she asked if we were from Israel. We explained that we were from Germany. She then told us that she was very happy and relieved, and - gave us the room for $20, much to our amusement. Priceless! We guessed she has had bad experiences with Israelis in the past. It was also the biggest discount we ever negotiated for a room in Central America, from 45$ down to 20$, not bad. More common is just a few dollars discount.

Speaking of costs: Contrary to what we expected, Panama is not that much cheaper than touristy Costa Rica, maybe even on par. Whilst we have certainly left the gringo trail behind after Boquete, prices have remained high across the board, and certainly for accommodation, even for ramshackle places. Having said that, Panama is more developed than we had imagined, but this is largely due to the earnings from the Panama Canal (see below), not from a strong economic base.

At the same time, we have been very disappointed by the prevalent foreigner pricing everywhere, ranging from museums, zoos, buses and all the way to parks and any sight in general. We were charged so much more than locals on so many occasions that it has left a very bad impression with us, with the Panamanians coming across as discriminatory and unfair. It is also a big change to all the other countries in the region (with the exception of Belize), which have treated us much more like human beings, not like walking cash machines. Are we in South-East Asia here or what?

One thing that I will enjoy immensely upon my return home in November will be the ease of daily life. Almost every time you buy something here in Panama, you have to ask for and agree the price beforehand. How infinitely more relaxed and more enjoyable is life when you can just get on a bus knowing that you will be treated fairly and charged the standard price without discrimination. I remember how wonderful an experience it was to be arriving in Australia after spending almost a year and a half in Asia, where people had been taking advantage of me at every turn. I am similarly looking forward to arriving in Florida in ten days' time.

But of course we are not in Asia here, just one look at the waste line of the people here, especially women beyond the age of 25, confirms this. Whilst they are a little less obese here than further up north (El Salvador was probably the worst), the vast majority of them are hopelessly overweight, some a little, many considerably. I am not exactly sure why, but the abundance of fast food and a complete lack of exercise certainly play a big role.

Speaking of lack of exercise: I am going out on a limp here, but I must say that a lot of the people here in Central America seem incredibly lazy, and I am not talking about sports. I am in two minds here: One day I am feeling hopelessly sorry for the people, observing the poverty, thinking about the foreign meddling they had to endure in the past, and the lack of opportunities their societies offer them. The next day, I despair about their passivity and their total lack of long-term thinking. They do absolutely nothing to improve their situation. They sit around all day, every day. No books are read, no education is sought, no effort is made. Instead, they watch the most stupid sitcoms on TV all day, or simply sit in front of their homes.

Many countries in this world are poor, and often it is not their own fault, but I have witnessed how inventive and motivated people can approach their situation, rather than just accept it as a fact of life. China is maybe an extreme example, but even countries like Vietnam or Indonesia are brimming with hopeful entrepreneurs, even if all they have are a few coconuts which they offer for sale to passer-bys. Here, the whole atmosphere is decidedly more hopeless and depressing; the people seem to wait for a miracle that never comes to improve things.

One also notices this attitude very much amongst the people that do have a job: The attitude to working couldn't be worse: In our whole three weeks in Panama so far the times that we were greeted with a smile in a shop or restaurant is close to zero. Typically, we felt like an intruder - how dare us interrupting the waitress' sms-chatting with her friend? It is certainly the worst service I have experienced - complete listlessness, no smiles, no interest in the customer, no motivation to work or move faster than at snail's pace.

I understand that they don't profit from how much their place of work earns since they are on a fixed salary, but surly they understand that a waitress is quite easily replaced, or that even the whole place could shut down if the customers stay away because of the tremendously bad service. Even international chains like McDonald's are no exception, where tables remain un-cleared and un-cleaned for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, with two members of staff just standing around the whole time doing nothing, not doing a darn thing. Lucky for this branch that no McDonald's quality inspectors were around, else the franchise agreement would come to a pretty abrupt end I would imagine.

Hopeless in a very different sense was also the situation for the poor animals in the zoo we visited a few days later in the mountain town of El Valle de Anton. The cages were incredibly tiny and in various stages of decay. We felt especially sorry for the proud eagles and hawks that were kept in cages smaller than your average food storage closet. The only good thing about it was that we were able to take some amazing pictures of the animals even without a tele-zoom. Even better were the rare golden frogs they had on display in a separate and well-kept glass area. The frog we liked was a very willing subject, and posed so close to the glass of his cage that we were able to get some great shots of these tiny but super-cute golden frogs.

And then: Panama City, finally. We had been looking forward to this for a while now, not so much because of the city, but because of the Panama Canal. So pretty much the first thing we did was to visit the locks at Miraflores, one of the three sets of locks along the 77km canal that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. Tino, who has a much better grasp for engineering things like that than me, enjoyed it thoroughly, but I wasn't much less impressed, and we send a good afternoon watching huge ships going through the locks.

The Panama Canal is one of greatest engineering feasts completed in modern times. Initially attempted to be built by the French, the project was abandoned in 1893, after an estimated 22.000 people had died in the hostile conditions at the time here in Panama. Sneaky US diplomacy saw that the US was taking over the construction in 1904, and the canal was finished ten years later in 1914, after overcoming obstacles that seemed impossible at the time.

For the next 86 years, the canal and a large zone around it was governed by the US, the right having been granted by Panama during the negotiations prior to the US taking over the construction in 1914. The US were never popular in Panama because if this, and control of the canal was finally handed over to Panama on December 31, 1999. So far, Panama has apparently done a pretty decent job of operating the canal efficiently, even working to expand it to make way for the larger post-Panamax class of ships by the year 2014.

The charge for crossing the canal varies from ship to ship and is based mainly on the ship's capacity. One Panamax container ship that we witnessed crossing the locks at Miraflores paid 450.000 US$ for the eight hour crossing. The cheapest crossing by the way was charged to adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the entire canal in 1928, paying 36 cents (based on how much water he dispersed). Whilst the fee for ships might seem exorbitant, it is still considerably cheaper than sailing around Cape Horn, a voyage of about two weeks, not even considering lost earnings during the time. The Panama Canal Authority claims that ships would pay five million dollars more by doing that sailing, though I find this figure very hard to believe.

Apart from the canal, Panama city was rather uneventful and lacking major attractions. All in all, we had a week in the city and visited pretty much every sight worth going to (Soberiana Park, Panama Viejo, Isla Flamenco, Parque Metropolitana). The prettiest part for us however was Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of the city, these days a curious mix of derelict houses and beautifully restored ones, where Kuna women in their traditional dresses often hang out. Five years from now we would surly not recognise this up and coming place, which was a major sore for the city and its major red light district in the past.

The dangers of the past are still visible today though: Pretty much every day we were warned by well-meaning passer-bys and the police not to enter a certain part of Casco Viejo. There was an invisible border that ran just to the left of our wonderful colonial hotel that we were not allowed to cross. Turning right was OK, turning left was not. Police was everywhere, all of them in full gear and heavily armed, all in bullet proof vests, some even in full riot gear. We couldn't decide if this made us feel safer or not.

On the afternoon of our last day in Panama City, Tino's and mine joint travels ended, when Tino left me to catch his scheduled flight back to Germany. Five months of travelling together have come to an end, much quicker than expected and somewhat abrupt, although the date had always been fixed. Even now, just a few hours after he has departed, it already feels strange to be travelling on my own again. We have had the most wonderful time together, and nothing quite shapes a friendship more than spending virtually every minute with someone over five months. Neither of us had ever spent this much time with somebody else; even in a relationship you typically only see your partner in the mornings and evenings, but not 24/ 7 every day like we did. It was a great experience, and one that neither of us would have wanted to miss. Thank you Tino, and see you and Kristina soon at your wedding in four weeks' time!

Finally, a few people have emailed me enquiring about what ever happened to the ridiculous 120 US$ jaywalking ticket I received in Hawaii in April for crossing a street when there was no traffic light around: I made a written appeal to the court in Hawaii, taking a humorous approach, thinking that this would be my best bet, considering that the cop caught me red-handed (regardless of how outrageous a fine of $120 is for crossing a street). To my big surprise, the appeal was successfully, and the charge was dropped for good. Have a look at this forum discussion for a copy of my appeal letter if you want to have a good laugh (towards the end of the page).

Next stop: Darien Gap (Eastern Panama). Also have a look at my pictures at


11th October 2010

nur kurz...
Hey Ben, lustiger Brief und hübsche Fotos! :) Take care Tobias
12th October 2010

Your coming Home
To make your return a little bit easier: We have Indian summer (Goldener Oktober) with a lot of sun and it is not really cold. I hope it will last untill you come back! Enjoy your last weeks! Walter
15th May 2012

Love your racist and typically German imperialistic comments!
As a Panamanian living in Europe I find your comments insulting and abhorrent; frankly you sound quite ignorant about almost everything...from an economic, social and cultural point of view you really don't know what you're talking about!

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