Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Panamanian Country

Panama is divided into seven provinces—namely, Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui, Code, Colon, Los Santos, Panama, and Veragua.

In the north-western province of Bocas del Toro, the United Fruit Company are cultivating bananas on a large scale. The Company's steamers, sailing from New York and New Orleans, are thoroughly well equipped for passenger traffic. There are several services weekly to Cristobal and a bi-weekly service between Colon and the port of Bocas, whence millions of bunches of bananas from the neighbouring plantations are exported annually.

To or near many of the richest and most beautiful parts of the Isthmus go the steamers of the National Navigation Company, a local enterprise which was established for trading purposes, but which is now catering for tourist traffic. Every sightseer should remember, when making inquiries about the facilities afforded by these boats, that any person's criticism of the native ideal of passenger accommodation is bound to be influenced by the individual critic's standard of comfort and convenience, and that there are some people who feel they are paying too dearly for travelling in the wilds if they have not all the luxuries of a first-class hotel at their disposal, whilst others can appreciate and make the best of any opportunity for getting off the beaten track.

At the offices of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in Panama city, arrangements can be made for an excursion to the island of Taboga. The superintendent of the P.S.N. Co., which is a British enterprise intimately related to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, can be relied on to organize the trip to Taboga on the lines of a luxurious picnic.

Many isolated centres of industry, together with the undeveloped regions of the Republic, can only be reached through the agency of Shank's pony, a mule, a native canoe, a guide, camping kit, and carriers.

The pearl fisheries, around the Pearl Islands, are among the Republic's principal sources of income; but the grounds have been worked for centuries, and now yield a poor harvest of gems compared with the treasures that were wrested from them by the Spaniards. But although hundreds of oysters may only furnish one pearl of value, the shells have their price. Many tons of them are bought annually by the United States and Europe, to be used in the manufacture of buttons, buckles, and various kinds of ornaments. Most of the divers are negroes.

Panamanian village


Further, the principal products of the Republic include cattle which are raised in large numbers in the provinces of Chiriqui and Veragua, corn, beans, rice, cocoa, coffee, coconuts, and ivory-nuts. Large quantities of ivory-nuts are used in Italy for the manufacture of buttons.

The Isthmian forests are richly stocked with many varieties of timber, several of the woods having such excellent qualities as durability and beauty. Tropical forests, more commonly known as "The Bush," are a magnificent tangle of luxurious vegetation; trees rise from an impassably dense undergrowth, swarms of parasitic plants grow on their trunks and boughs, and the overhead branches of neighbouring giants intertwine, or are linked together by creepers. Numerous varieties of orchids are a feature of the Panamanian Bush.

Gold mines are worked in the rich Darien district, the region which the British tried to colonize towards the close of the seventeenth century, and which is intimately associated with that great financial disaster known as the South Sea Bubble. However, it is a British company, the Darien Gold Mining Company of London, that has obtained much of the wealth that has been redeemed from the Darien region during recent years.

The Indians play no insignificant part in the trade of the Isthmus. One of their principal trading stations is at the port of San Carlos, in the south-west of the province of Panama. The most interesting of the Isthmian aborigines are the San Blas Indians, who inhabit a district in the north-east of the province of Colon. For centuries they have kept their race pure. Until recently they would not allow any stranger to set foot on their shores; even now, anyone who visits their country is closely watched, and is not permitted to stay the night. San Blas Indians frequently go to Colon city for trading purposes. They make the trip there and back, eighty odd miles each way, in cayukas, which carry a cargo of bananas, coconuts, and ivory-nuts. Cayukas or dug-outs are little one-piece boats, made from the trunk of a tree by cutting and burning operations; they are all fitted with a sail, and some are very beautifully modeled.

The San Blas Indians are wonderful sailors and swimmers. A story I heard bears witness to their aquatic prowess, for if it is not founded on fact, it is certainly born of fame.

A cayuka, manned by one Indian and loaded with a hundred coconuts, ran into a gale when on the high sea between the San Blas country and Colon, and was capsized. The Indian reached Colon in that cayuka, with ninety-nine coconuts for the market.