Pacific Shores From Panama – Panama

“Then, go away if you have to go To again return you will always yearn While the lamp is burning still!

“You’ve drank the Chagres water, And the mango eaten free, And, strange though it seems, ’twill haunt your dreams, This Land of the Cocoanut Tree!”

How true this verse from “Panama Patchwork,” penned by poor James Gilbert, who lost his life by dwelling too long under the spell of the Isthmus—which is scarcely to be wondered at, for his “Land of the Cocoanut Tree” certainly exerts a strange and potent fascination.

The achievements of its intrepid discoverers and conquistadores; the romantic episodes of its treasure-trains laden with the wealth of Peru; the bloody raids of the buccaneers; the onward rush to the gold-fields of California—all these and, finally, the digging of the great canal compose a historic background such as few countries can boast.

Every great personage of early American history has imprinted his footsteps upon its red clay soil. In his futile search for the Straits—the mythical Stretto Cubitoso that never could be found—Columbus beat along its coast, and Colon and Cristobal, the Atlantic entrance to the canal, perpetuate his memory. From a hill in Darien, Balboa first beheld the Pacific, and the Pacific gateway to the canal will hand down his name to posterity. Pizarro and Cortez waged their first battles along its sandy shores and slew the Indians in its treacherous jungles. Hernando de Soto made it the theatre of his first explorations and there prepared himself for the discovery of the Mississippi. Sir Francis Drake sailed his first boat, the Swan, in the troubled waters that wash its shores, and Henry Morgan harassed its coast-towns in his bloodiest forays. De Lesseps, hero of Suez, went down to defeat before its fevers and the crooked administration of his company. Finally, American enterprise, triumphing over all obstacles, has here given its best account of the value of collective endeavour and carried through the dream of centuries, the greatest achievement of mankind. . . .

The town of Colon, though attractive enough when viewed from the harbour, is disappointing upon closer acquaintance. Its straight streets, flanked by two-storied houses, shaded above and below by broad verandas, remind one, to be sure, of some old town of Spanish California, but little tempts to linger. So, without regret, in a tumble-down cab we followed our luggage (given in charge to a turbaned East Indian) from the dock to the railroad station.

The ride to Panama proved full of interest. When we crossed upon this occasion the new line of the Panama Railway through the Black Swamp had just been opened, so that, beyond Gatun from the car-windows, we enjoyed rare glimpses of the virgin jungle, a tropical hortus of blooming trees, with orchids and flowering vines draped in their branches, hung amid screens of convolvuli and creepers as intricate as the pendent cords of Japanese curtains. Cane huts, primitive as those pictured by the old chroniclers in the woodcuts of their first editions, basked in the shade of cocoa-nut palms.

It was a Sunday, and at each station little parties of holiday-makers–engineers, army officers in immaculate white with their fresh young wives—came aboard or dropped off to see friends at the different camps.

Each station had a physiognomy of its own. Frijoles was a collection of negro cabins clustered about a primitive church; Matachin a railroad junction; Camp Elliott an army post, smart, spick, and span; Las Cascadas a steaming centre of locomotives and car shops; Culebra a thriving-looking place where, through the open church windows, we could see the congregation at prayer.

At many of the turns we had views of the canal work. Gatun Locks and the Spillway lay near the road, and the broad artificial lake formed by the dammed-up Chagres River spread its placid waters to shores adorned with bouquets of cocoa-nut trees and graceful palms. But after Culebra little verdure was to be seen. Later the great locks of Pedro Miguel and Miraflores appeared to the right, and finally Ancon Hill rose behind the Tivoli lying close to the track in the foreground.

Thus in a little less than two hours we had accomplished the journey across the continent from ocean to ocean, the only place upon the hemisphere where it is now possible to behold both oceans in a single day.

And how different the journey nowadays from what it used to be! When Balboa set out to find the South Sea he forced his way for twenty-six days through the trackless jungle before he reached the hill from which he first beheld the Pacific. Morgan and his buccaneers almost lost their lives while on their way to sack Old Panama, poling up the Chagres River to Venta Cruz, wading waist high through the swamps; cutting their way painfully with machetes through the pulpy undergrowth, attacked by mosquitoes and jiggers and Indians with poisoned arrows; hearing the strange quick cry of the “chicaly” bird or the “corrosou tolling his bell-like notes”; watching the monkeys play “a thousand antick Tricks” in the branches above their heads. What strange dreams must have haunted their superstitious minds ! What fears must have racked their bodies, wasted by hunger and disease! In desperation they were forced to eat the leather of their clothing and accoutrements, stripped and pounded upon stones, and when, on the sixth day, they fell upon a barn full of maize, they devoured it dry and raw.

Such was crossing the Isthmus in the old days. Now even the dread of fever—the last nightmare to haunt its morasses—has been conjured away, thanks to sanitary measures that will serve as models to all the world. Under army supervision the death rate in the Canal Zone has been reduced to a lower percentage than in any of the large cities of the United States.

Panama City of today dates from the latter half of the seventeenth century. Old Panama, the city of the conquistadores, lay a few miles distant, and we shall visit its ruins presently. The newer city possesses all the picturesque features, all the charm of an old Spanish town. Its streets are not straight and regular, as in most Latin-American cities, but wriggle and turn and twist out from and back to the long Avenida Central, the main street that traverses the city from end to end, containing the principal shops and crossing all the plazas.

The houses are substantially built and washed with those pastel tones—rose, pale blue, water green, buff, and grey—of which the Spanish peoples are so fond.

Verandas, as in Colon, overhang all the thorough-fares, and the indolent Panamans spend much of their time upon them or lounging about the numerous cafes and hostelries.

There are several plazas. The old church of Santa Ana overlooks one; another is named for Bolivar, liberator of Spanish America and founder of its republics; and, appropriately enough, the government buildings, a little tawdry perhaps, and the post-office’ lie near it. The third, and this is the largest and most important, is named for the cathedral that fronts upon it—a charming square planted with handsome palms and tropical gardens. The cathedral facade, while not bearing critical analysis, has all the allure of the big Spanish churches, and the other religious edifices of the city are picturesque and some-times rarely charming in colour.

No matter what else you miss in Panama, do not neglect a walk upon the Bovedas, or city walls that skirt the gulf. These great fortifications, the most formidable, except those at Cartagena, that the Spanish erected in their American possessions, are forty feet in height and no less than sixty feet in thickness. Their tops afford the favourite promenade for the Panamans, who, toward sunset, when the heat of the day has spent itself, saunter up and down its broad esplanade enjoying the cool breeze and watching the sun slowly sink behind the hills.

No matter how long you remain in Panama, you never grow quite accustomed to the points of the compass, for the sun rises out of the Pacific and sets behind the wooded mountains of the Isthmus, which, of course, is due to the fact that Panama lies east, or rather southeast, of Colon instead of west, as one would naturally suppose.

From this sea-wall the view is beautiful. Off to the right lies Balboa, at the entrance to the canal, with the three fortified islands whose guns will command the fairway. Farther from shore Taboga and Taboguilla, lovely and wooded, rise from the blue waters, the former a healthy spot supplied with the purest of water and used by the government as a sanitarium. Other islets lie dotted about, and to the south the gulf stretches off to the Pearl Islands, coveted treasure-lands, whose gems at one time rivalled those of Ceylon and supplied the Spanish crown with some of its rarest jewels. Shoreward lies the city, encircling its harbour, dominated by the cathedral towers, whose spires are incrusted with pearl shells that, after the frequent rains, sparkle and glitter in the sunlight, serving as beacons to many a fisherman tossed in the troubled waters of the gulf.

But to my mind the sea-wall promenade is at its best at night when the wondrous stars—the stars of the southern seas—twinkle and sparkle in the firmament. Then no one disturbs your reverie but the sentry rattling his musket as he moves in his stone look-out at an angle of the walls, or the sereno as he whistles to and is answered by the other night watch-men. The acacias nod their delicate leaves in the night breeze that plays soft and cool upon your cheek, and out over the flat salt marshes (for the waters of the sea only lick the walls at high tide) the moon rises, touching pool after pool with silver.

To complete the evening, return to the plaza and watch the crowd that enjoys the music as the band plays: the women in black and the men in white; the natives (if it be Sunday) wearing the pollera, or national costume, filling an interminable string of hired carriages that slowly meander up and down the Avenida. The stately palms framing Santa Ana’s belfry cut their silhouettes against the sky of indigo; the tread of human feet echoes on the glazed-tiled pavement; but all is toned and put in tune by the glamour of the southern night.

It is with a sense of rude awakening that you enter the brilliantly lighted hall of the Hotel Tivoli —so typically American in every detail, so strangely discordant, yet so comfortable and clean, in all this tropic atmosphere.

An excursion to the ruins of Old Panama can easily be managed in one afternoon, and for it we preferred a carriage to a motor, so that we could enjoy it at our leisure. Our driver was an old Jamaican negro who spoke English with a cockney accent. He knew every plant of the tropics and pointed out as we went along the guava-trees and the poincianas, gorgeous with crimson flowers; the bread-fruits nodding their great, pointed leaves; and the trumpet-trees, whose vivid foliage, lined with silver, sparkled as the wind turned it over. He called our attention also to the whistling. of the coral snake, saying that “if it stings you, it’s a dirty business,” and to an iguana, brilliant, green, that stood motionless by the roadside, strange relic of the Jurassic age—an esteemed delicacy of the natives, with meat as white and tender as that of squab chicken. Mango and rose apple, cocoa-nut palm and royal palm, engaged our attention turn by turn until we reached Las Sabanas.

I do not mean to imply that the country is thickly wooded or jungle-like in character. On the contrary, the hills are rather bare and grass-grown like pasture lands, for all the tangle of tropic growth has been cut back in the interest of health.

After the villas of Las Sabanas, where the well-to-do Panamans make their homes in summer, a few native huts appear, thatched and faced with dried palm leaves or plaited like baskets with straw and cane.

We now left the main road, turning aside at a prison where a huge alligator-skin, some eight feet long, was drying in the sun—product of a recent hunt. Soon we met the prisoners themselves making a new road to the beach. And here we came upon the ruins of Panama Viejo.

They have been cleared lately of their tangle of underbrush, and so are seen to better advantage than they formerly were when smothered in vines and creepers. First you cross a ruined bridge, then substantial stone walls appear and foundations covering a considerable area, and finally the tall tower of the church of Saint Anastasius, rising close by the beach, overlooking the little harbour. Here lay the town that has caused such discussion among historians. The old Spanish chroniclers, with their customary enthusiasm, describe it as a great city of several thousand houses, with palaces and churches of sufficient splendour to make it resemble Venice! Benzoni, an Italian who visited it at this same early epoch, resented this comparison, and says that, on the contrary, it was nothing but a collection of rude mud huts.

The truth lay somewhere between these two extremes. The ruins that remain would certainly attest a well-built town of considerable importance, and it is probable that all about this substantial nucleus of stone clustered hundreds of flimsy constructions ex-tending into the surrounding savannahs.

When a treasure-ship was despatched from Peru, an express was sent ahead to advise the people of Panama of its coming, and their governor, in his turn, notified the colonies along the Spanish Main. Upon its arrival the treasure was carried across the Isthmus by recuas, or donkey-trains; convoyed by strong forces of soldiers. But the English and French buccaneers, the Cimaroons, and the San Blas Indians with poisoned arrows gave them many a bitter fight upon the way. Its destination was Nombre de Dios, that, owing to its unhealthy situation, had but few permanent inhabitants. Upon the arrival of these treasure-trains, however, it filled with a multitude of merchants from Panama and the colonies along the Caribbean, who bargained and bartered for weeks. The King’s galleons, that had been waiting in the safe havens of Cartagena and Santa Marta, came over to load their precious cargoes and transport the King’s Fifth to Spain.

Thus upon this pebbly beach of Panama Viejo—a cove large enough for galleons but scarcely capable of accommodating half a dozen modern ships—all the wealth of the Incas, Atahualpa’s ransom, the golden plates from the Temple of the Sun, the vast products of the silver mines of Potosi were landed to be transported across the Isthmus.

The shore of the little bay still bears traces of its sea-wall and, I think, of a fortress such as one sees in towns of similar importance along the Mediterranean.

As you turn your back upon the sea you look up toward the mountains, the hills from which Morgan looked down upon his prey after the misery he had suffered in crossing the Isthmus. And it was from their heights that, with flags flying, trumpets blowing, and drums beating a bravery, he descended to attack the doomed city. He left it some days later burned to the ground, its inhabitants tortured, robbed, or killed—so effectually wiped out that it has never been rebuilt. Two hundred beasts of burden laden with spoils and six hundred prisoners held for ransom went with him as he set out again to rejoin his boats hidden on the Chagres River near Cruces.

We returned to Panama in the spell of the late afternoon. A marked change had taken place in the aspect of the road, especially after we passed Las Sabanas, for, instead of its mid-day loneliness, it was now dotted with buggies, carriages and motors of all descriptions being, toward evening, the favourite, in fact the only, drive from Panama.

I shall not attempt any account of the wonderful canal work which, however, at the time of our visit was at its most interesting stage, the excavations at their deepest, the great cranes and derricks, steam shovels and puffing dirt-trains in full operation, and the giant locks alive with ant-like human beings crawling down below, hanging suspended on the dizzy walls, or braving death upon the red, rust-proof gates as tall as sky-scrapers.

Thanks to the courtesy of Mr. Bishop, secretary of the canal commission, who accompanied us in person, we made a rarely pleasant visit to its varied features, going about in a motorcar that runs on the tracks and therefore can follow anywhere that the dirt-trains go—that is, everywhere.

When we felt that we had seen it all we drove one day over to Balboa, and at its long dock embarked for Peru.