It’s fitting to begin this tale with the history of the Panama Canal. It is, after all, the reason this country exists in the first place.
The French started the canal in 1880, and in typical French fashion they surrendered to disease (note the paltry figure of 22,000 dead workers), the jungle, mud slides and the enormity of the project (they make good coffee presses though), and the US took over in 1904. Why 1904? Good question. Let’s look at the birth of a nation.
Panama got their independence from Spain in 1821. That's a little deceiving because they weren't really a country until 1903. That’s the year they succeeded from Columbia when Teddy Roosevelt propped them up with a human puppet because he wanted that canal to happen. That’s who his quote, “He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard” refers to.
The canal took the US 10 years to complete, so in 1914 the first ship passed through. The locks raise the vessels 86 feet above sea level, and then lower them 86 feet back to sea level once on the other side.
* More bird species live in Panama then in all of North America *
They call their currency the "Balboa" but it's the US greenback dollar. Not a facsimile - the exact bill. They've been using it since 1904. They have, for some confusing reason, created their own coins though. They are exactly the same size, weight and value as ours but with a picture of Balboa on them. However, our coins are used too, so both are in circulation. It’s a little silly.
Now, who is this Balboa guy and why is he on a coin?
Vasco Nunez de Balboa – In 1501 he “discovered” the Pacific Ocean (I’m not even going to comment on that). I do think building statues to him and putting his image on coins is tantamount to the American Indians praising Columbus though. He sailed for Spain, and he slaughtered lots of locals. Pizarro, who came after Balboa and actually beheaded him, killed all the locals, I mean ALL the locals. Then he slapped himself on the forehead and sheepishly said, “That was stupid. Now I have to get slaves from Africa. Damnit!” Before we were the global bad guys, it was the Spanish and they stole tons of gold and silver from Peru and it all passed through here. It’s cool though, cuz I’m pretty sure those Peruvians had WMD.
Moving right along – we now have gold, silver, a thin isthmus and lots of mariners ready to take a chance. Yep, that means PIRATES (and no, that’s not the Japanese pronunciation of Pilates).
Pirate History – In July of 1668 the English Pirate Henry Morgan (technically he was a Buccaneer but who’s counting) took all of Portobello which was the Spanish stronghold on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. He held it ransom and threatened to burn it to the ground unless the Spanish in Panama paid up. They paid up. Then in 1671 he marched with his Pirate army across the jungle from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side (Is this geography lesson starting to make sense? You can always look at map) and defeated a Spanish army of 1600 soldiers. Then, through torture and every other means conceivable he extracted enough silver and gold to load 175 mules as well as capturing 600 prisoners. He marched it all back to the Caribbean side and sailed home to Jamaica & a hero’s welcome.
As for Panama; he super sacked it. Biggy fries, and all the rest. Torched it to the ground. Gone. In fact - Panama Vieja is where the city used to be (Cool archeological site). When they rebuilt it, they did so miles to the west where I’m anchored today.
Side bar – Actually, in 1573, after a couple huge failures, Sir Francis Drake (he wasn’t a “sir” yet) hit Nombre De Dios, which was near Portobello, and took a booty of over 15 tons of silver and gold.
* Like the US, they have a president but unlike the US they have 2 vice presidents * - (Heart attack insurance)
Casco Viejo is one of the most interesting neighborhoods here (where they rebuilt Panama City a couple years after Morgan paid his visit). It thrusts it’s bull neck out into the Pacific with the ancient Presidio walls. It’s dangerous and half deserted, but the reward for walking it’s streets are glimpses into the far and recent past. It’s some of the oldest that the new world has to offer (You should see this before it’s all turned into condos and coffee shops).
* Nearly a 3rd of the country is protected habitat *
Let’s talk about Noriega – that pockmarked faced narco non rocker. The US came in here (Misnomer cuz we were already here. It was 1989. We controlled the Canal remember, but they love to call it an invasion so who am I to spoil their history) under the catchy slogan “Operation Just Cause”, with guns blazing and smart bombs exploding. We cornered him in the Vatican embassy and then played Van Halen and Metallica for 40 days and 40 nights and it broke his will to traffic cocaine and commit murder. In fact, he surrendered after 10 days and is likely to be paroled next year.
*Panama is the 2nd largest banking center in the world *
Party like it’s 1999! – In that year the US handed the Canal over to the Panamanians. Carter signed off on it back in ’77. With the US exit went lots of dollars and jobs and the economy is still reeling from it. “Yankee go home” is fun to say, but costly.
* Hookers cost $10 *
List of famous Panamanians: Roberto Duran (manos de piedra) - the boxer who ate a steak after weighing in, and lost the championship to a tummy ache is Panamanian. So is Reuben Blades. He’s the minister of tourism, an actor and a Grammy award winning musician.
I’m a guy at anchor who has his evenings free, and I live in Panama. Did you learn anything?