“Panama’s a really wonderful country. There’s obviously the Panama Canal, which brings a lot of tourism, and a huge American influence; it’s just a mix of so many great things: African, Caribbean, Latin American Spanish, all kinds of influences there.”
~J August Richards
I will admit, when I booked my trip to Panama, I didn’t know much about the country. The booking was caused by a change of plans, and the location was chosen on a bit of a whim. I knew, quite obviously, that a huge draw was the Panama Canal, that Panama City had supposedly become very metropolitan, and I knew I enjoyed neighboring Costa Rica. That was all I had when I booked.
So I decided a couple of weeks before leaving that I should perhaps look into this country I had just committed myself to visiting. A friend from a travel group I am in had a contact who lived there and put me in touch with him. And when I did some basic research, I realized that this country had some amazing cultural aspects that I wanted to explore. Another traveler from the travel group said she was going the same time I was, so we decided to explore together the country together.
So I reached out to Javier Wallace, the friend of a friend. While he works at a school and coaches football (soccer) during the week, on weekends he occasionally takes visitors to explore the country through his tour company AfroLatino Travel. As it turns out, Panama has a rich culture that interweaves Latin heritage with African and American influences. Javier, now an almost 5-year expat and history buff, came down to explore one summer from Texas and decided to stay for good.
So early that Saturday morning, we started our tour. Panama is a country jam-packed with so many different experiences and environments. From metropolitan Panama City to Isla Grande which is only reachable by a little propeller-run dingy, I learned so much about the country… But I still feel like there is more to explore.
The obvious tourist attraction in Panama is the Canal. When flying in, I got an amazing aerial view of the Canal, but I was curious to learn how it worked. As it turns out, a series of “locks” raise the boat above sea level to traverse the land mass, since the Canal is man-made and cut through land, which is higher than the oceans to either side. It is a complex system, and it takes anywhere from 6-8 hours for a boat to traverse the Canal (which explains why every morning I woke up to the same boats in the ocean… they were waiting their turn). Below is an animation that they play at the Canal Museum of how the Canal works.
But what I didn’t realize is the rich history of blacks from the West Indies that built the Canal. When the U.S. came in to build the Canal, they brought in labor from the West Indies, mostly from countries like Barbados, but also Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Martinique. After building the Canal, some workers went back to their native countries, and some stayed, contributing to the rich diversity that encompasses Panama today.
But even as we drove up to the Canal, by the “Canal Zone,” we were promptly reminded of American policies of separatism. Driving up the street, one can see that the architecture and homes in the Canal Zone, which is fenced in, and according to Javier, one had to have special permissions to enter, is in stark contrast to those of other parts of the city. And even within the Canal Zone, Americans were paid with gold and other workers from different countries were paid in silver and lived in “silver housing” which was separate from “gold housing.” Yep, Jim Crow at its finest.
The Canal was finally turned over to control of Panama on December 31, 1999, but the disparity in housing in the old “Canal Zone” and Panama City can still be seen today. But in the Canal Museum, the contributions of the workers from the West Indies are honored, and readily apparent.
Next, we ventured just under 2 hours outside of Panama City to Portobelo. This old fort was created by the Spanish with two purposes. First, it allowed the Spanish to have a great view of the sea and any incoming vessels in order to protect itself. And second, it housed the gold. Portobelo was founded in 1597, to house the gold that the Spanish plundered from Peru.
The ruins are spectacular. The canons were massive and there were parts of the fort you could climb. The views of the sea were absolutely stunning.
But, in addition to the fort, our main reason for visiting Portobelo was El Nazareno, aka El Cristo Negro, or the Black Jesus. Rumor is that a boat from Spain was carrying the statute to Colombia when the ship hit a huge storm. In an effort to save themselves, the crew starting throwing items overboard, one of which being El Nazareno. When fishermen found him, they brought him to the church where he is housed today. There have been a few attempts to move him, but every time someone tries to remove the statute from the church, some natural disaster (like earthquakes, which are not common in Panama) occurs. Now, the only time he is moved is during the Black Christ Festival every October, when some pilgrims walk the 53 miles from Panama City.
The statute is absolutely exquisite. It is adorned with a purple robe and the altar in front of it houses candles. I was in awe in at the statute and the church itself is gorgeous with open doors, and is a staple of tourism in the small sea village. Perhaps a visit during the festival may be in order.
Outside the church, beautiful, old indigenous Kuna women sell molas. These beautifully ornate tapestries are made by the indigenous women and are one of items for which Panama is known.
After seeing El Nazareno in Portobelo, we trekked to see the Black Jesus in the water off Isla Grande. Getting there was… interesting. After a 10-minute ride in a small propeller boat (you know I just loved that!) we arrived on the island. We walked along the scenic coast through communities and by ocean front diners till we reached the statute.
Here’s the thing: the statute was much further out in the water than I anticipated. My water shoes were annoying and the lining was slipping, so I had the genius idea and decided to walk out to Jesus barefoot.
Big mistake. The rocks were sharp and painful and dug into our feet. Jenae had made the same barefoot decision and she, too, immediately regretted the situation. The seaweed covered my feet and part of my legs. You KNOW I was freaking out about that! Javier was the only one smart enough to be wearing shoes, and the look on his face helping us go out to “see Jesus” was classic!
We didn’t quite make it all the way to the statute, since the water started getting deep. Then Jenae got bit by a sea urchin. Pilgrimage over. LOL.
This Black Jesus statute’s history is different. This statute looks like the original inhabitants of the Island, who are descendants primarily of Africans and who call themselves Congo. They believe their ancestors are from the African region of Congo, and they have their own language, traditional dress and historical reenactments. The island was quiet and the beach on the other side of the island was shallow and home to amazing sunsets. Panama is the only country where you can see the sun rise on the Atlanta and drive to see the sun set on the Pacific in the same day. Breathtaking.
I had no idea Panama was so rich in African culture. I learned so much but feel like there is still so much more the country to explore and dive into. But I definitely felt like I lived like a local (check out my blog post coming in a few days), even if just for a couple of days. I highly recommend putting Panama at the top of your list. This was one of the best trips I have had.