This country is synonymous with two words – “canal” and “hat”. I went to Panama to get to the root of both.
The Canal is often labelled as the 8th Wonder of the World and is a true feat of engineering – I was most impressed. Completed in 1914 it revolutionised shipping by splitting the American continent in two, enabling boats to sail from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Pacific Ocean with ease.
But onto some more fun facts:
- The lowest toll paid was 36 US cents in 1928 by an American who swam the Panama Canal.
- Each lock raises, or lowers boats, at the rate of 9 meters in 9 minutes. It’s actually quick enough for you to feel the boat moving. Again, I was impressed.
So what about the hat? Well the Panama hat is actually an Ecuadorian creation, but was shipped to Europe from Panama hence the name. Either way the country does a roaring trade with tourists snapping up traditional sombreros. Interestingly in 2012 as a dying trade the Panama hat was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List – a list of traditions and skills that communities pass down through generations as part of their cultural heritage.
Unfortunately mine was a whistle stop tour of Panama so I didn’t get to venture too far afield. Maybe next time?
…… A few days in Panama to visit the engineering feat of the canal. Then Ecuador for the wildlife sensation of the Galapagos Islands. Followed by Colombia, which holds the title of the third ranked country on the Happy Planet Index and has the World’s largest number of endemic species.
* The Happy Planet Index is an index of human well-being and environmental impact.
It’s one of the few remaining communist countries in the World. It’s a mixed bag with limited freedom for it’s population, yet a literacy rate of 99.8% and an extremely low infant mortality rate. I visited Cuba the week that Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, how will things change?
- If you have more baggage than allowed on the flight to Cuba, don’t worry it’s OK. In fact it appears to be commonplace to bribe the check-in staff with gifts, so they turn a blind eye. Not particularly reassuring though to be boarding an overweight geriatric plane!
- Inhale the smell of cigars upon arrival. Yes, really!
Step back in time…
- Being in Cuba feels like stepping back in time, almost as if everything was sepia coloured. Inventions that have been around for decades appear novel. One example is their love of the telephone. No, not the mobile phone, bizarrely that only went on sale to the general public whilst I was there. I mean the good old landline. Long queues by public telephones were a common sight, and in houses where I stayed there was always somebody on the phone. It was amazing, people just talked for hours and hours.
- Cuba boasts two currencies. The Convertible peso for tourists, and Cuban pesos for locals. Thus ensuring tourists pay more for an identical service. This is the only country where I have seen a $3 note.
- At restaurants I discovered that you can have whatever meat you want from the menu, as long as its pork! Cuba won’t be awarded a Michelin star anytime soon.
Heavy influences from relationships with the British and Caribbean nations ensure that Belize is a unique country in Central America. The food is spicy, people speak Creole and the Queen stares out from their currency.
- Search for the elusive manatee off the world’s second largest barrier reef. This endangered animal is one of nature’s slowest most docile creatures. Sadly it is hunted for its back muscle which is sold in Asia as an apparent aphrodisiac.
Interestingly El Salvador wasn’t on my list of places to visit. But in the true spirit of travel I thought when in the area why not? And I’m glad to say it was worth the detour.
- Stop press! Huge amount of excitement, I saw an armadillo. Unsure if it’s just me, but was thrilled to see one of these timid creatures scampering about in the wild.
Sadly I didn’t take this photo. Was too busy saying “look everyone it’s an armadillo!”
- Visit Suchitoto for their famous rock formation. Partially hidden behind the Los Tercios Waterfall are horizontal octagonal lengths of rock. They make a honeycomb pattern, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Island; but with a 90 degree twist.
Most travellers miss out Honduras on their trip through Central America. I decided to check it out……
- Discover that bad experiences often lead to unreal encounters. On finding some money stolen from my dormitory locker I reported it to the local police. Unable to investigate the theft due to it being an “insignificant” amount, the police wanted to show me and my friend that Honduran’s are good people. As such they volunteered to take us to the circus!!
I love the lighting on this pic!
- Be disappointed that the oldest clock in the Americas simple doesn’t look it. Some 800 years old this ancient timepiece resembled a much more recent model.
Nicaragua was somewhere that I felt sad to leave. The city of Granada was captivating, and I stayed far longer than ever anticipated.
- Enrol in Spanish lessons. So cheap to study here with native speakers.
- Cycle around sampling daily life on Isla de Ometepe. A beautiful rural volcanic island on Central America’s largest lake.
- Thoroughly check your bed for scorpions before getting in. A girl in my dormitory failed to do so, and her screams woke everyone up. Four inch black scorpions are commonplace here, whilst they are not deadly they look pure evil and their sting packs a punch.
- Experience the bizarre concept of most towns having a minimum of two main bus stations – cue confusion.