Archive for January, 2008

Sweat and Pain in Western Panama

Monday, January 28th, 2008

After some minor mechanical problems near Panama City, I headed west towards Costa Rica. As usual, I did not do Panama justice. I did not see the canal or many of the sites in Panama City, I did not see Bocas del Toro, etc. But as I described in my previous post, the San Blas islands were a real treat.  That’s the downside of cycling– you don’t travel very fast so unless you have a LOT of time, you have to miss a few things. And I was itching to ride after several days doing nothing.

 So I hit the road hard and pushed nonstop for five days to the town of David, about 500 km from Panama City. I will cross into Costa Rica tomorrow. It has been brutal. Very hot and humid every day. I´m talking 110 deg F, or 43 deg C. Lots of short steep hills too. Nothing like the Andes, where you go uphill for 40 km, but rolling hills all day, so your total elevation gain for the day is quite high. I was just sopping wet the whole time. Luckily I found places to shower at the end of the day, even a  small stream once when I camped out.

I did not stop too much for photos, but here´s  a few for the record.

This family was interested in my trip. I stopped at their bar for a drink and all the kids came out to chat with me. Note the beer for 50 cents.

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A typical Panamanian road.

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Here I am near the end of a hot, sweaty day.

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I would look out for these bits of shade. What a relief!

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Here’s how the locals keep cool: bathing in the river.

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A Bit About the USA and Panama

As I read up on Panama I was surprised at the extent of involvement the USA has had in their history. When Panama gained independence from Spanish rule in 1821, it was still a province of Colombia, and in 1846, Colombia signed a treaty with the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus, including the right to protect the railway with military force.

At the height of the California gold rush in 1849, tens of thousands of people traveled from the east coast of the USA to the west coast via Panama in order to avoid hostile Native Americans (I hate that term, but it seems to be common now. I prefer to call them the First Americans. Anyway, it’s better than Indians) living in the central states.

The idea of a canal was discussed as early as 1524, when King Charles V of Spain ordered a survey to be undertaken to ascertain the feasibility. Later, Emperor Napoleon III of France also considered the idea, Finally, in 1878, Colombia contracted with a French firm to build the canal. But malaria and yellow fever decimated the workers. Over 22,000 died, mostly blacks brought from other Caribbean countries. The project was abandoned in 1889 due to insurmountable construction problems.

Enter the USA. The US government pressured France to sell them their rights to the canal, although the Colombian government refused to agree to the deal. So the USA covertly agreed to support a sovereign Panamanian government if they could separate from Colombia, and on November 3, 1903, A revolutionary junta declared Panama independent from Colombia. The USA immediately recognized the new republic and sent troops and battleships to defend it against the Colombia army. In  fact, Colombia did not recognize Panama’s sovereignty until 1921, after the USA paid Colombia $25 million in “compensation”

Before the fledgling Panamanian government could act, the deal with the USA to build the canal was ratified, further tying the USA and Panama together.

Although control of the canal passed wholly to Panama in 1999, there is still quite a strong American presence here. They have a bilingual newspaper for example, and they use the US dollar for currency.