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Panamá, Panamá, Panamá. So good they named it thrice. In what might be useful pub-quiz knowledge if Latin America had such a thing as pub quizzes, the country, its largest province and its capital city all share the same name. Granted, this useless trivia isn’t the most interesting thing about what the anglophone world knows as Panama City. But it’s certainly in the conversation.

 


 

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The country of Panama was a province of neighbouring Colombia until 1903, when it declared independence in order to sell the rights to build and operate the Panama Canal to the USA. (The picture above shows various key members of the construction team. The circled gentleman on the left is the only Panamanian.) The first ship passed through the canal in 1914. More or less ever since, Panama and the US have endured a complicated relationship.

A nadir was reached in 1964, when anti-US sentiment culminated in major protests at which more than 20 Panamanians died; the events are commemorated each year on January 9, the provocatively named Día de los Mártires (Martyrs’ Day). An amicable high point arrived in 1977, when the countries’ pragmatist leaders signed an agreement to transfer ownership of the canal to Panama at the century’s end. ‘Amicable’, though, is hardly the word for Operation Just Cause, an unusually efficient American military offensive that overthrew military dictator and former CIA informant Manuel Noriega at the end of 1989 and drew widespread international condemnation in the process.

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Since Noriega’s removal, the two countries have generally been on cordial terms, relations no doubt helped by Panama’s desire to ape the US in a variety of ways. Just as Panamanians have apparently moved to the US in increasing numbers, so Panama’s aggressively capitalist economy and business-friendly regulation (or lack of it) have attracted Americans to move south. Indeed, even before you take into account Panama’s currency, the US dollar, and its national flag, which resembles a lazy anagram of the Stars and Stripes, the vastly increased US influence has lent Panama City the air of an American colony.

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For the visitor, it’s not a pretty sight. The shoreline, presumably once a handsome asset (as in, for example, Montevideo), has been crowded out with a forest of undistinguished residential towers, sheltering some of the town’s wealthiest inhabitants. (The poor have been given little part to play in modern-day Panama, home to the second worst income inequality in Latin America.) The air is muggy and the traffic is horrendous. The countless malls mimic Middle America in concept and content, right down to the food-court royalty of Burger Kings and Dairy Queens. There are interesting pockets; downtown, Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter) is currently a fascinating, transitional and often beautiful mix of modern gentrification, historic preservation and slum-level poverty. But the overall impression is of a fifth-rate Floridian city – Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa; take your pick – that was dumped on to Central America when no one was paying attention. It is quite the most mediocre capital we’ve ever visited.

 


 

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When Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos’s 1977 treaty finally came into effect in 2000, Panama took over the canal, and the government immediately set about contemplating ways to make it more profitable. The canal now dominates the local economy. In 2014, it directly accounts for only about four per cent of Panama’s GDP, but is believed to be indirectly responsible for nearly one-third of it.

Some of this indirect income arrives through Panama’s open-registry policy. Open registries allow ships’ owners to register their vessels in a country other than their own, offering an assortment of dubious benefits – chiefly, generous tax breaks and lax regulation of both boats and working conditions – that benefit no one but the owner. Panama’s regulations are so slack that the country has long been the most popular flag of convenience; at nearly 10,000 ships, Panama ‘possesses’ the largest shipping fleet in the world. Such iffy business is in perfect harmony with the country’s recent heritage, which even by Latino standards is rich in high-level corruption and shady behaviour. (For more on Panama and its open registry, see Deep Sea and Foreign Going, an enthralling book on the global shipping trade that we’d recommend even if its author, Rose George, wasn’t a friend of ours.)

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The government’s desire to increase the canal’s profitability has extended to selling it as a tourist attraction, probably the most impressive in the city (akin, admittedly, to being the tallest midget in the circus). You don’t get much for your US$15 admission fee – a lousy 3D film, a nice four-storey museum, a prime eyrie from which to watch ships passing through the Miraflores Locks – but a big promotional push to mark August’s centenary seems to have worked, and visitor numbers have swollen.

The attention paid to the canal by the government has also extended to a massive expansion project. Some modern ships are now so large that the waterway can’t hold them, and behemoth boats have been forced to take alternative routes. However, that ought to change in 2016, when the opening of the new locks should double the canal’s capacity. Among the main beneficiaries will be US ports such as Miami; that relationship again. Among those who’d rather Panama hadn’t bothered is near-neighbour Nicaragua – which, in an ambitious, baffling and deeply secretive scheme, is currently planning to build its own Atlantic-Pacific waterway.

 


 

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Away from the capital, Panama isn’t a terribly enticing country. (It’s also quite the rudest place we’ve been so far, the only country in which Ruth has been repeatedly and aggressively wolf-whistled.) Outside a few gringo havens, the American influence is less pronounced, but light-skinned strangers are often welcomed warily – and with good reason. The locals have been all but priced out of towns such as Boquete by an influx of American expatriates, many of them monolingual retirees happy to pay Californian prices for gated-community properties built on Panamanian land. A certain level of resentment remains.

In Panama’s favour, though, it’s small. We spent 14 nights in the country, four on a boat and three in the capital. Seven days and 650km later, and it would have been sooner but for a couple of scenic diversions, we crossed into Costa Rica. The North American influence remains strong and the rainy-season downpours are just as fierce. But it’s good to be here.

 


 

Route notes: Riding west, you’ll only have two main choices to make between Panama City and Costa Rica. The first is whether to leave the Panamericana and take the quieter, prettier, fully paved parallel back road between Santiago de Veraguas and Guabalá. It’s slightly longer than the equivalent stretch of the Panamericana, 122km as opposed to 100km, but in our opinion it’s well worth it. (From Soná, the only town on this route with a hotel, a dirt road runs south to the surfer-friendly village of Santa Catalina.)

Then, at Chiriquí, you’ll need to decide whether to turn right, climb over the continental divide, drop down to the Caribbean Sea and pass into Costa Rica at the Guabito-Sixaola frontera; or whether to plough on through David to the Pacific-side Paso Canoas border. We chose the latter, chiefly so we could visit Corcovado National Park, but with a diversion – keen to ride the hill north from Chiriquí, Will made the tough climb up to 1,200m, turned left at Valle de la Mina on a twisting rollercoaster of a road through Caldera, and then dropped back down into David on the Boquete highway. (You can see the route on our maps page.) It’s a beautiful loop, worth doing even if you plan to stay on the Pacific side of Panama.

 


 

from Quepos, Puntarenas, Costa Rica