Sunday, 6 April 2014

Through Panama by Motor Car

CHAPTER X
THROUGH THE INTERIOR BY MOTOR CAR
From Panama of Today by A. Hyatt Verrill.
1928. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2014.

By motor into Coclé. Villages and towns. The German colony. Roads and bridges. Hills and llanos. The cattle country. Progressive towns. Schools. The volcano. Natá the oldest city in America. The old church. A fortress and church combined. A marvelous contrast. The city of salt. Onward into Veraguas. Side trips. Silicified forests. Bird life. The capital of Veraguas.

Having visited the ruins of that once "Goode and Staytlye City,'' and having seen all there is to be seen around and about Panama, the visitor will do well to take a trip into the interior.
A few years ago this was a difficult thing to do and even a short journey into the country was filled with discomforts and hardships. But today, one may travel for over two hundred miles into the interior by motor car over roads that, with a few exceptions, are by no means bad, and many miles of which would be a credit to our own country.
But the visitor planning this trip should be provided with camping outfit, food and all other necessities and luxuries, if the journey is to be taken in comfort. There are, it is true, little fondas or so-called hotels in every town of any size in the interior. But these are, with few exceptions, impossible for those travelers who are not inured to roughing it. They are dirty, often vermin infested, lacking in nearly every necessity and convenience, and the sleeping accommodations consist of hard native cots. As a rule, too, anywhere from two to ten persons are crowded into one room and there is no privacy. The meals are of the coarsest native food, badly cooked and worse served, and the charges, considering the accommodations, are ridiculous. It is a far better plan to camp out and cook one's own meals. But in selecting a camp site be sure and do not make the mistake that so many Americans make, of camping on low ground near a stream, on lands where there are cattle or in the jungle. If you do you will be eaten alive by mosquitos, devoured by ticks or made miserable by other insect pests. And be sure not to drink river water unless thoroughly boiled. At nearly every village and town there are driven wells from which pure water may be obtained, and the larger towns are provided with a water supply which is safe, although in the height of the dry season it cannot be relied upon. The best places to camp are the sides of the road, and if near a village so much the better, for some fruits, vegetables and other food may usually be purchased, and eggs, pigeons, chickens and turkeys are always obtainable. If fond of hunting by all means carry a shot gun, for quail and wild pigeon are abundant and will greatly help out the menu. But fight shy of the native beef and pork. Cattle are seldom killed in the interior until they are far too old for breeding purposes, or for shipment to Panama City, and the beasts are slaughtered and the meat sold and eaten the same day.
If the trip is taken during the height of the dry season,—from December until April, practically no shelter will be required. There will be no danger of rain; but as a strong wind blows constantly a protection from this and the accompanying dust is necessary. And be sure to provide blankets and mosquito nets. The nights are cold in the interior and while, during the dry season, mosquitos are not numerous, it is well to provide against any chance of contracting malaria by being bitten by the pests. In the tropics an ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure. For this reason no traveler should venture into the interior of Panama without a supply of quinine and other simple medicines and a first aid kit. As there are gasoline filling stations where fuel and oil may be had, at every town, the traveler need not worry on that score. Leaving Panama or Ancon, the route is to Pedro Miguel where a ferry carries the automobiles and passengers across the Canal. Then, over a road that is a disgrace to our government, the way leads through Empire and Camp Gaillard, where the Porto Rican Regiment is stationed, and hence over a roughly-cobbled road through charming hilly country to Panamanian territory. The first portion of the new Panama highroad is far from perfect and, in many places is so narrow, so tortuous and has such sharp, blind curves that it is positively dangerous. The first good sized settlement is Chorrera, an old Spanish town sprawling over the rolling country with its glaring red earth. But it is of little interest, as is Capira, the next village of any size. From here on, the road is wider, straighter and, in some places, is fairly good. Here the highway climbs a number of small mountains or high hills, covered with jungle and affording wonderful vistas of the Pacific and the islands in the offing. Here, too, one passes a little village of the typical wattled, mud-walled, thatch-roofed native huts, but which appear quite different from the others we have seen. They are neat and tidy; about them are flower gardens, and, most incongruously, the windows are furnished with muslin curtains and flower boxes. And the inhabitants seem just as incongruous. They are white skinned, blue eyed and tow headed, for they are Germans, brought out by the Panama government with the mistaken idea that they could make the wilderness blossom like the proverbial rose, and would,—by some miraculous means,—induce progress and prosperity in the district. Unfortunately, the poor colonists, who were entirely ignorant of the tropics and tropical agriculture, have proved a dismal failure. The few crops they have raised, in a spot wholly un-suited to gardening, have been either destroyed by the natives or have proved unsalable, while such products as were harvested and were salable could not be sold except at a loss owing to the high cost of transportation.
As a result, the Germans became poverty stricken and were actually suffering from want until their plight was brought to the attention of charitable persons on the Zone and in Panama City. Thus partially provided for, and by earning a few dollars serving coffee and light refreshments to passing travelers, the colonists who have remained have managed to eke out an existence; but by far the greater number have migrated to more promising fields and are working as laborers. Had the Panama government selected peasants from southern Europe instead of Germans, they might have succeeded, though it is hard to see how any one could succeed as an agriculturist in the district and under present economic conditions.
Beyond here the road swings westward towards the coast to Chame, and hence to Bejuco, both small but rather neat little settlements where orange trees laden with fruit are on every side, and where the traveler may fill his car with the sweetest of juicy oranges at a cost of a few cents.
Beyond Chame a branch road runs to San Carlos while the main thoroughfare continues on to Antón. This district is the beginning of the plains or llanos that sweep inland to the distant mountains. Here, too, the road is excellent, and bridge after bridge is crossed. The land, however, though well watered by the numerous streams, is sterile and thin and is incapable of supporting anything more than a sparse growth of wiry grass and thorny shrubs. It is almost wholly volcanic ash and tufa, and often, near the road, one sees areas of the glaring white ash cut by the rains into weird formations like innumerable spires.
Antón, the largest shipping town in the district, is a fairly good sized village but with few attractions, and from here the smooth surfaced road runs across the almost level llanos to Penonomé. Penonomé the capital of Coclé province, is the most up-to-date, most progressive and the cleanest and best kept town in the interior of the republic.
It was the first to have a municipal water supply and the first to have an electric light system. Its schools are so numerous that they seem out of all proportion to the size of the town, and everyone appears well-to-do, contented and happy. In fact the better class of inhabitants are apparently of a far superior race to those of other interior villages, and their pride in their town is most admirable.
The streets are smoothly paved and well kept, every house is repainted each year, there are numerous well stocked stores, two or three gasolene filling stations and a good market. But the most attractive feature of Penonomé, the ancient church on the plaza, has been completely ruined by rebuilding and modernizing. Penonomé is the outlet for a large area of country, and quantities of rubber, coffee and other mountain products are brought into the settlement by the Indians who dwell about La Pintada and in the mountainous country of the interior of the province. But the Coclé tribe is thoroughly civilized and the Indians have even forgotten their own tongue. However, they still keep up some of their ancient tribal customs, and they weave excellent hammocks, baskets and bags which may be purchased at very reasonable prices in the Penonomé shops.
Immediately after leaving Penonomé a rugged isolated mountain is seen, rising abruptly from the plain to the north, or right hand side, of the road. This is the Guacamayo volcano which is still slightly active. On its southern side, plainly visible as we pass within a few miles of the volcano, is the great red broken down crater. Here are immense deposits of sulphur with hot springs and a few fumeroles. From the summit of Guacamayo a magnificent panorama of country and sea is spread at one's feet; but the climb to the summit is a terrific undertaking and is not to be recommended.
From Penonomé the road continues on across flat llanos and over numerous big iron bridges, and passes through the little villages of Coclé, Rio Grande and Rio Caño to Natá. This town is mainly of interest as being the oldest occupied town on the American continent, having been founded by the Spaniards in 1520. The church, however, is the only remaining building of the original town, the present houses being mainly miserable native shacks, while the town itself is filthy, badly kept and wholly unattractive. Here, as in so many instances, the priests, with more zeal than common sense, have attempted to rejuvenate the splendid old church. But here, fortunately, they only got as far as one tower and left the rest of the building in its original condition. Built of brick and rubble, the old church covers an immense area and was originally surrounded by a stout loop-holed wall which also enclosed the fort. Much of the wall has been destroyed and the fort has vanished, but the church itself is in a fair state of preservation. It contains some priceless Old Masters and some remarkable silver but, like everything else in the place, it seems run down at the heels and woefully in need of cleaning and care.
Near Natá a road branches off to the north across the llanos. This road, which is passable for automobiles during the dry season, leads to within a short distance of the Limon waterfall, one of Panama's greatest natural wonders. Here the Rio Caño, flowing across a high plateau, plunges over the verge of a precipice, and, in a series of gigantic cataracts, falls for over one thousand feet to the level of the plains. During the dry season the volume of water is not great, but during the rainy season and the first part of the dry season, the falls are visible for twenty miles and their roar is audible for nearly five miles.
Beyond Natá the plains are more fertile and in places are covered with large trees while here and there are fields of sugar cane. Here, too, one first sees the giant nests of termites, hard conical or culumnar objects dotting the plains, and looking from a distance like the kahki-colored tents of an encampment.
Soon the sugar cane patches grow more numerous, we pass the centrál of Don Rudolpho Chiari, president of Panama, and presently reach Agua Dulce.
This town, which is an important port, is the center of the salt industry. Indeed, its entire existence depends upon the salt which is crystallized in immense "pans" on the low mud flats about the town and is shipped far and wide. The visitor is often at a loss to understand how a town several miles inland can be a port, but like many other Latin American cities, the town was built at a distance from the sea to decrease the danger of piratical raids in the old days, while the port itself, or the "playa" as it is called, is at the water side. The town and port of Agua Dulce are connected by a splendid road, but as the port consists merely of a dock and a shed there is nothing of interest to be seen. Agua Dulce is by no means comparable to Penonomé or even to Antón, for cleanliness, neatness or attractions.
It is dirty and badly kept, it has few good buildings, the church has been thoroughly modernized, and the inhabitants have a greater admixture of negro blood than in the other towns. There are, however, a number of fairly good shops and several garages and filling stations in the town. Also, from Agua Dulce several side trips may be taken to Pocrí, Chitré, etc.
But the main road runs on to Santiago, the ancient picturesque capital of Veraguas province.1 Beyond Agua Dulce the same flat llanos extend, almost deserted except for herds of rather scrawny, undersized cattle and an occasional native hut. Altogether it is such a scene as one might expect in South Africa. There are the same conical ants' nests, often ten to fifteen feet high, the kopjes, the distant hazy mountains, the thorny mimosa scrub, and one half expects to see a Kaffir kraal or a herd of ostriches or giraffes. But the nearest approach to giraffes are the woefully thin cattle and horses, while there is nothing more resembling an ostrich than the repulsive vultures and carrion hawks.
Now and then another car is met, usually a delapidated Ford; at times a bus or "chiva" tears by, bound for Panama and intermediate stops, and often we pass the big, lumbering, native bull carts creaking ponderously as they are drawn at a snail's pace by two or four great, long-horned bulls lashed by the horns to the cart's pole on which perches the swarthy, brigandish-looking driver.

1 The name Veraguas is of Indian origin and not Spanish as is generally thought. The ending "agua" is merely a coincidence and has nothing to do with the Spanish word "agua" meaning water. The same ending is found in many other Indian words and names such as Managua, Nicaragua, Comagua, etc.
Bird life, too, is abundant. Little flocks of ground doves flutter from the roadway. Graceful quaker-gray swallow-tailed flycatchers dart back and forth as they capture tiny insects. Bold-eyed hawks look disdainfully down from the telegraph poles, and sweet-voiced meadow larks sing from fence posts and shrubbery.
At Estrella, a tiny village about ten miles from Agua Dulce, the road forks, the right hand branch proceeding to San Francisco. But it is almost impassable, even for a Ford, and the main highway stretches straight ahead.
Scenically, however, the old road through the hills is more attractive, and the visitor who is fond of nature and horseback riding, might do worse than take this trip. It leads past the Santa Rosa sugar estate and hence through rugged and picturesque country among the foothills of the cordilleras,—crossing tumbling rivers where one must swim one's horse; meandering through dense thorny jungles; following the verges of deep ravines; passing through narrow defiles with scarcely space for a horse to pass. Here and there are bare areas of brilliant red, purple, yellow and green earth dotted with lumps and boulders of agate, while often one rides for long distances through areas covered with silicified trees. Some of these stumps are standing as if freshly cut; others lie about in short smooth-ended sections as if sawed for cordwood, and still more are scattered about like newly broken sticks and branches. Indeed, one cannot believe that they are flinty hard agate until closely examined and tested.

On the main road also, there are spots where these fossil trees may be seen, but these and the agates are far less numerous than farther back near the mountains. Beyond Estrella the first village worthy of the name is Davisa, about halfway between Agua Dulce and Santiago. Beyond here the plains grow more restricted, there are more hills, and presently one is constantly ascending and descending sharp grades. Then at last the road comes forth from the broken country and ahead sweep broad plains stretching to the far off mountains, and with the little town nestling, white and red, upon the level land.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.