Portrait of Panama: a close look at its human and geographic diversity, prosperity, and the canal, of course!
Stretched out on the white-sand beach of Contadora, a resort island of Panama, the warm waters of the Pacific caressing my feet, I couldn’t think of a nicer place to escape the harsh winter weather of my hometown. Given the opportunity, I would have gladly spent the rest of the winter in this tropical paradise, but I had only six days to explore and record the many visually exciting destinations in Panama.
With Nicaragua and El Salvador crowding the headlines, Panama has almost become a forgotten country of Central America. Since the signing of the Canal Treaty in 1977 (worked out on Contadora), Panama has fallen into relative obscurity by its prosperity and stability.
Big business involving international banking, petroleum, tourism, coffee, bananas, and the Panama Canal has transformed Panama City from a sleepy tropical port into an urban center of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and duty-free shopping centers.
Unlike some of its neighbors, Panama is free from terrorism and political upheaval; the poverty and strife so often associated with Central America is noticeably absent.
Traveling photographers will find Panama’s diversity challenging and bursting with colorful images at every turn. The country’s population concentration is in Panama City, where each day the Avenida Central teems with shoppers whose faces reflect the mixed blood of blacks, Indians, and the early Spanish settlers. Occasionally one sees the startling blue eyes of a mesquite, one mark of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. Generally, the Panamanians are friendly, outgoing, and quite willing to pose for pictures.
The architecture in Panama City ranges from Spanish Colonial to contemporary glass-and-concrete office buildings. You can get an effective picture of its modern skyline from the curve of Balboa Avenue across Panama Bay. Another dramatic vantage point is from the garden terrace of the El Panama Hilton hotel that overlooks the skyscrapers and international banks along the Via España.
No photographer visiting Panama should miss seeing the canal’s Miraflores Locks, through which ships pass from one ocean to another. Its observation deck is an ideal location for getting dramatic pictures of the passing vessels, which range from small sailboats to huge freighters and ocean liners. Getting good pictures of a ship in transit is a matter of being there at the right time, but if you miss one, another will be along shortly. I recommend that you use a zoom lens for effective composition of the ships’ approaches.
Substantial tolls are derived from the canal. The highest ever charged was $123,000, paid by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1985. The lowest was 36 cents paid by Richard Halliburton when he swam the entire length of the canal in 1928. The average toll for a commercial oceangoing vessel is $25,500; a sailboat passes for the small sum of about $25.
If you want to see the canal from the vantage point of a cruise ship, you might be interested in Exploration Cruise Lines’ economical and unique canal passages in their moderately sized ships. The shallow draft of these cruise ships permits them to stop at the offshore islands of Contadora, Tobago, and the San Bias chain, often discharging passengers from a bow ramp directly to the beach. This is an attractive feature to the photography enthusiast, who often feels the constraints of being on board ship when the exciting pictures are on shore, just beyond his reach.
Fly-and-cruise packages in cooperation with Eastern Airlines are available from many American cities. A color brochure can be obtained by calling 800-4260600, or by writing to Exploration Cruise Lines, 1500 Metropolitan Park Building, Seattle, Wa. 98101.
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I was looking forward to visiting the San Bias Islands and photographing the Kuna Indians and their colorful molas, a unique form of appliquéd-fabric folk art. The flight from Panama City was both inexpensive and convenient, but 1 was a bit taken aback when the Kuna guide informed the members of our small group that there was a charge of 25 cents for each Kuna man, woman, or child included in a picture. In fact, there wasa25-cent charge for every click. I didn't need a calculator to realize that I could go broke faster with my camera and a motor drive than I could at the roulette table at a casino in Panama City.
The commercialization of Kuna photography is not surprising. The Indians are colorful, exotic, and enterprising; and since they set the rules on their own islands, it is only fair and appropriate that they receive a modeling fee for their services. My advice is to compose carefully and shoot sparingly. I had shot a test roll on my camera before leaving for Panama and now found no need to bracket under normal lighting conditions. I paid about $10 in quarters and considered it money well spent.
The brightly colored molas are prominently displayed and, of course, are for sale. (You can photograph molas at no charge.) I made cost comparisons and found that they were less expensive in Panama City.
One ofthebest bargains on the San Bias Islands is an outboard cruise. There are 365 little sand islands, set like pearls in the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The cruise takes you to several of the major islands, which are ringed by arching palm trees and dotted with thatched huts.
Keep your cameras high and dry in the open boat. My suggestion is to place them inside your zippered camera bag or in clear plastic kitchen bags. Don’t make the mistake of placing your camera bag (or anything else) in the bottom of the narrow boat, where salt water inevitably accumulates.
Panama’s geography is diverse; it has beautiful white beaches, steaming rain forests, and volcanic mountain ranges. It is one of the few places in the world where you can find such oddities as golden frogs and square trees. One part of the isthmus resembles Switzerland: the visitor can fish for trout or ride horses along mistshrouded mountain trails.
Take your camera and seek out the beauty of Panama. You may find it in the delicate stamen of an hibiscus or in the face of a child. O