Much like a vulture, the contrived country of Panama looks like a bird of prey with a shiny head and two vibrant green wings in full span. Split in half. The canal feeds the vulture and its appetite is insatiable.
Panama is the nexus between two continents and two oceans. Once a province of Greater Colombia, Panama is now one of the seven counties (excluding the two Mexican States that are often counted in the region) that comprise Central America; whatever that is.
Vacillating between important colonial interests, Panama’s strategic location has tempted Europeans since the earliest days of colonization. The Americans can claim the honour of building Panama’s mighty canal as well as manufacturing the country’s independence.
Of the many historic attempts to control this strategic region, the tragic and short-lived Scottish Colony is perhaps the most interesting. This failed colony virtually bankrupted Scotland, leading directly to the act of union with England and the subsequent failed independence referendum in 2014.
Having been through several tourism branding processes, it is generally understood that being a ‘gateway’ is much weaker than a destination, but in Panama’s case the country really is the gateway to everything in the hemisphere. Across two oceans and connecting two continents – the isthmus nation is the centre of transportation.
And Panama is hot. I mean really, really hot. Granted I live in about the coldest place on Earth, but Panama’s tropical, humid heat is particularly oppressive. Early attempts to build a canal resulted in thousands of (mostly French) deaths with the old foes malaria and yellow fever claiming many lives.
Of course the jungle environment is now part of Panama’s appeal. Bird and lizard life is spectacular and the excellent infrastructure in and around Panama City – where really most of Panama lives – is clean and well managed.
Happily out on the San Blas Islands along Panama’s Caribbean coast, the Kuna people have managed to maintain their identity. This is part of Panama’s almost schizophrenic reality of a single ultra-modern city surrounded by wild and forbidding jungle.
After the Noriega dictatorship was brought to an abrupt end during the 1989 US invasion, Panama managed to develop stable democratic institutions. In 1999 the USA honoured a commitment to transfer complete control of the canal to the national Panamanian government.
Despite many predictions – grounded undoubtedly in stereotypes about the region – that local management would fail, Panama has thrived and the canal is undergoing an expansion. Even Trump built a tower – but I didn’t stay there.
I find Panama hard to love – partly because the sense that it is a country of vice and money-laundering yet the capital and soul of the country is interesting and clearly extremely important in a global context.
The rest of the country is green and the biggest compliment I have for Panama in general is the sense of security and opportunity. Panama City is one of the few large cities in Latin America where one feels comfortable to walk most places and locals do not need to continuously warn visitors of the dangers of being out alone.
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