Panamá Has a Desert

A desert in Panamá. Doesn’t that seem contrary to tropical living? Yet, a desert does exist and the worst thing about it is that is man-made. The desert is now a national park, a contrast to the Ecoparq of an earlier post.

A northeast portion of the Azuero Peninsula has been stripped bare from over grazing and cultivation for thousands of years. What had been there were coastal forests and mangrove trees. This vegetation was chopped down in the 20th Century to allow for farming. Unfortunately, the loss of trees caused the soil to be blown away and farming was at best difficult to sustain. The Azuero Peninsula is the driest region of Panamá, and this desert area has higher temperatures and less rainfall than even adjoining areas. The rock pictured was split due to heat.
cracked by the heat

Fortunately, this area has become the Sariqua National Park in an attempt to revive the land. It consists of 20,000 acres or 18 square miles on the Pacific Coast. It had once been covered by the sea and remains a salt-encrusted land. What mangrove trees remain at the edge of the park serve as breeding grounds for shrimp. These shrimp have contributed to the renewed growth of vegetation, which has slowed the loss of soil due to winds, rains and tides. Sariqua might be more correctly called a salt bed than a desert.

Sarigua is likely to be the oldest, pre-Columbian settlement in Panamá. The area was settled by fisherman 11,000 years ago and was a farming community from 3,000 BCE to 500 AD. There still are remains of ceramics and tools used to farm.

This land was farmed until the 1900’s when the devastation began. Eventually the farmers had to move to greener pastures. The land they left remained devastated for decades until recently. See nature’s attempt to revive the land in this 6 minute video:

People come to this sad-looking park to see the beauty in eroded valleys, the salt deposits, quartz, and volcanic rocks. What they also see is a park on the mend with flocks of pelicans, and 162 migratory birds that have stopped on their way to somewhere else. With the slow growth of new trees, forestation is taking over where it once thrived and now this land is beginning to show a new life.

Fact: There are 16 national parks in Panamá
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Some Panamá Romance

Laura Ann Neuleo. Messages to Jake. Author published, 2021 Romance          Softcover, ISBN 9781736349205; ebook

The villagers in Almagro worry about Emma living by herself. But between teaching English, the arrival of HIV testing, and monitoring a mysterious path by her house, loneliness isn’t on her mind. Nonetheless, she experiences moments that trigger thoughts of home—in particular, text messages she used to receive intended for a stranger named Jake.

When Emma discovers that Almagro has cell phone reception, she tracks down Jake’s friend via unexpected help from a villager. Meanwhile, Jake, a third-generation American with Panamanian roots, confronts his past and learns about Emma. After failing to get in contact with her, he heads to Panama.

Emma and Jake develop feelings for each other, but Maya, a villager who resents Emma, gets in the way. To complicate things, Jake has a history of leaving, and Maya holds a secret that affects all three of them.

Will Jake leave Almagro because of village conflict? Can Emma and Maya overcome their differences?

Messages to Jake is a novel about love and loss, secrets and trust, and the danger of assumptions. It showcases the beauty and struggles of living in a rural village, and the challenges of health care in a developing country.

Laura Ann Neuleo. Messages to the Mule. Author published, 2021 Romance          Softcover, ISBN 9781736349229; ebook   

With her boyfriend gone, Maya is offered a choice: join a South American drug cartel or risk the cartel entering her village of Almagro. Treacherous months hiking through the jungle and lonely nights sleeping on coconut husk mattresses ensue.

Maya knows the cartel’s weapon is to use relationships as a threat. Despite that, she makes a friend, visits Almagro, and develops feelings for a fellow mule-all while banking on the trustworthiness of those she encounters. Meanwhile, scenes from the past reveal information about Maya’s first love.

While she struggles with loving a new man after having lost another, a revelation happens that could upheave her life as a mule.

Will Maya succeed in keeping her relationships a secret from the cartel? When faced with life and death choices, will she be able to resist leaving Almagro’s residents out of the drug lords’ hands?

Messages to the Mule is a story about forbidden love, the power of choice, and discovering self-worth under oppression.

Two other Panamá fiction works can be found here.

Fact: 7 books about Panamá have sold over 10,000 copies each (see:
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How Does the Panamá Canal Work?

What is your conception of the Panamá Canal? Many think it is a slot of land which has been dug out from one ocean to another. It’s true that it goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa, yet it is anything but dug out. The Pacific Ocean is nearly 8 feet higher than the Atlantic Ocean. Ships can’t travel uphill or down, so a series of 12-18 locks (depending on lanes used) were built to raise and lower the ships. Here is an animated video of this process (see the first 1:32 minutes):

or perhaps you would like to take a real ride through the Canal:

The Canal is 85 feet above sea level. Ships take 8-10 hours to travel through the Canal; each lock takes 8 minutes to fill. The Chagres River supplies most of the fresh water needed to keep ships afloat. Each ship displaces about 52-million gallons of fresh water to the oceans. Nearly 1 million ships to date have passed through the Canal.

How does the Panamá Canal compare with other canals in the world? Panamá’s is not known for its length (51 miles) but for its construction. By comparison, the St. Lawrence Seaway is the world’s longest natural waters passage at 2,342 miles. The Grand Canal of China, 1,103.5 miles, is the world’s longest man-made canal. The Suez Canal is 120 miles long.

The Panamá Canal is what makes Panamá famous. Not only ships but also a swimmer have made this Canal known.. It is one of the busiest waterways in the world. About 15,000 ships pass through the Canal each year. An average of 38 ships use the waterway each day. How much money does the Canal produce? Panama’s GDP is approximately $68.5 billion with the Canal taking in about $2 billion a year in revenue, of which approximately $800 million goes into the country’s General Treasury each year. Still, the Canal overrides everything in the Country.

The Canal is important not only to Panamá but to the world. Ships no longer have to cross through the dangerous Cape Horn of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago at the tip of Southern Chile. This saves about 8,000 miles, 12 less days of travel, and a large amount of money not spent. Most countries of the world make use of the Canal. Panamá has reason to be proud of the canal, while at the same time profiting greatly.

Fact: 12,000 lives were lost building the Panamá Canal (mostly from cholera and malaria)
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Afternoon at the Ecoparque

Afternoon at the Ecoparque – Uploaded 5/11/2022

I’ve asked my friend Myra to share her recent blog with us. We in Boquete are blessed to have a wonderful park for all ages to enjoy. Please find her blog at:

Check out Myra’s blog for more on Panamá: Thank you Myra!

Fact: Chiriqui Province has Panamá’s only volcano (dormant) at 11,398’
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Chiquita and Oil

Downtown Shoreline

For all of Panamá’s 1500 miles of coastline, there is only one actual beach town. That honor goes to Puerto Armuelles, situated on the western end of the country near the border with Costa Rico. Other Panamá towns are near the beach, but none are actually on it.

Puerto Armuelles is named for Colonel Tomás Armuelles, a hero in the Coto War, staged in the 1920s. This war was fought between Panamá and Costa Rico over a small piece of land. Panamá won the war but then 10 years later returned the land to Costa Rico.

Carmen’s House

The United Fruit Company arrived in 1927 and really built the town, laying the street grids and building houses by the thousands for its workers. It created a class structure as company towns do. The workers’ houses were built on stilts to escape the dampness and bugs (picture the movie The African Queen). The executive’s homes were large and painted every color available, giving the town a unique flavor.

United Fruit Company was the first company to use refrigeration during open sea transport and then gave their bananas the unique name of Chiquita. They introduced the brand in 1944 and advertised it with a catchy, calypso beat jingle which made it a household brand name.

That brand name was registered three years later and is still known today.

In 1990, United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita Brands International and expanded into ready-made salads, and health foods. The banana was still the queen, however, noticeable by the little stickers on the bananas. These stickers began to appear in 1963 and are still affixed today by hand so as not to bruise the bananas.

About this time, the workers began to strike and carry on activities harmful to the company. In 2003, Chiquita Brands sold out to a cooperative of local banana farmers, but these farmers seemed not to know how to run a company. They faltered and Panamá began negotiations with Del Monte Foods, who eventually took over. By 2018, the company was employing 20,000 workers in 70 countries.

When Chiquita Brands left Puerto Armuelles, the town’s population was cut in half to about 23,000 and, by 2010, it had fallen another 2500. All is not lost, though. The banana industry continues, but now there is oil flowing in and out of the community.

The other industry in Puerto Armuelles oil transporting. As supertankers became larger and larger, they could no longer traverse the Panamá Canal. Supertankers coming from the Mideast and elsewhere found the Blue Ditch, a small island about 6 miles offshore from Puerto Armuelles. Because the depth there is great enough to accommodate these large tankers, storage tanks were erected and the crude oil subsequently off loaded onto smaller tankers which then went through the Canal.

In 1982, the search for a better way to get the oil across the country resulted in building a pipeline. It runs from Puerto Armuelles to Chiriqui Grande in the province of Bocas del Toro. The pipeline has to go over the continental divide, so pumping stations are needed along the way. Not only does the pipeline get oil from the Pacific side of Panamá, it reverses to bring other oil from the Atlantic side of the country. Seemingly never being satisfied, the Canal began construction to accommodate the large supertankers, resulting in two ways for oil to cross the country.

Such is called progress. Panamá has become the leader in Central America through its economic policies, as well as the hub for shopping and international flights. Currently, Panamá ranks ahead of its neighbors in its drive to become a stable and progressive Westernized country.

Fact: Panamá is outside the hurricane path
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Thanks to Barrie Thomson, Jr. for suggesting this topic.

A Note to My Subscribers

Because my blog post was aborted last Saturday, will not send a second notification for that post. The post, “The Day Panamá Changed the World,” is available at my site: Click on blog and it is the first post. I apologize for the trouble. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about this matter. I appreciate you reading my blog weekly. Without you, there would be no point writing it.


The Day Panamá Changed the World

Were you to guess that it was the Panamá Canal with which Panamá changed the world, you would be right. However, you would be a little late in time. Of even more importance is the fact that about 3 million years ago, the isthmus of Panamá rose out of the sea and connected two continents. From this occurrence rose one of the world’s great natural events, the evolution of plants and animals migrating between continents. At the same time, this land bridge also brought about two distinct marine ecosystems, separating the waters into two oceans.

The years 1910-1912 saw the beginnings of study on the tropical biology of the Panamá Canal area. Scientists set about establishing a base for the natural environment which was about to be torn up with the building of the Canal. Specimens were then sent to the U.S. National Museum to preserve a bit of ecological history. From this was born, in 1923, the Institute for Research in Tropical America made up of private industries and universities.

This evolved in 1946 into the Canal Zone Biological Area under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institute. This is still based in Panamá, now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), where researchers are studying biodiversity and human culture throughout the tropics. Now almost a century later, the Smithsonian in Panamá is breaking new ground on the study of tropical forests and marine ecosystems and their astounding biodiversity. Pertinent to my former neighborhood up in the mountains, the Smithsonian, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, is also studying one of Panamá’s treasures – Geisha coffee.

Journalist Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee (2008) is an elaborate study in itself. Much of Central and Northern South America make claim to having the best coffee in the world. The inside cover of Weissman’s dust jacket poses three questions:

Geisha Coffee Beans –  
  •  Can a cup of coffee reveal the face of God?
  • Can it become the holy grail of modern-day knights-errant who brave hardship and peril in a relentless quest for perfection?
  •  Can it save the world?

She answers her own questions by saying, Yes to all three. God can be found in a cup of Panamanian Geisha coffee, as it sells for about $1300.00 a pound or $75.00 a cup! Climbing the Smithsonian’s hills, I saw row after row of Geisha coffee trees. There are also many rows of other coffee trees. Clearly, there is a comparative study going on.

Geisha Coffee Tree –

Today, the STRI has a staff of 40 scientists, while playing host to some 1400 visitors made up of students from undergrad to postdoctoral and tenured professors. There are some 350 research projects taking place in facilities across Panamá, though most are located in the Canal Zone.

Score another important kudo for Panamá. It’s no longer a sleepy little country. It has coffee to keep it awake.

Fact: 10,000 plant species reside in Panamá.
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Two for Panamá

What fun to idle away the hours and still stay connected with Panamá. There’s nothing better than to read a good book during the rainy season – or any other time. I have run across two that fit this bill. If you delve into either of these, let me know. I’d love to hear your reactions and might even, with your permission, pass along your thoughts.

Henríquez, Cristina. The World in Half. Riverhead Books, 2014. Novel.
Softcover. ISBN 9781594484391; also available as an ebook

Miraflores has never met her father. Who is he? She returns home to Chicago to care for her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. All Miraflores has is an old pile of letters written between her parents. She discovers how much love her parents shared and the fact that her father wanted a daughter more than anything. The story these letters tell is full of conflicts from what her mother has tried to tell her. Miraflores becomes obsessed to know her father. There’s only one way to find out: she must travel to Panamá and find her father. Along the way, Miraflores learns not only about Panamá’s culture but, more importantly, learns more about who she is.

Christina Henríquez has garnered a long list of awards and placement in major magazines., among several others, chose her as having written one of the best books of the year. She is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Terrenoire, David. Beneath a Panamanian Moon. Minotaur Books, hardcover 2005; ebook 2014. Thriller. ISBN 9781466872264

A private firm advertises for a piano player who is also an expert with guns and explosives. The most qualified person will receive $1,500 a day along with death benefits to his or her next of kin. The US government tags John Harper for this assignment, but he has retired from the incendiary life in favor of a peaceful life with a baby Steinway. But anyone who can handle a Glock and the white and black keys is a rare find. John reluctantly agrees to take the assignment.

The government sends John to a Panamá resort frequented by Colombian cocaine dealers. John needs to play his way into the cartel despite the Colombians wanting not to be found out. They are planning a revolution for New Year’s Eve. Will this be John’s farewell performance with or without an explosive entry into the new year?

Author David Terrenoire is a bit of a mystery man himself. An exhaustive search finds only that he lives in North Carolina with his wife. He has two dogs who, like their owner, are of indeterminate breeding.

Fact: Boquete has the only lending library in the country
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A Secret Beach

We expats in Panamá tend to think of our seasons as if we were still in North America. The truth is that Panamá has only 2 seasons: wet and dry (some like to add an overlapping third, the windy season). Any time is a good time to go to the beach, and the beach at Las Lajas is one of the best. This south-facing beach offers beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Las Lajas beach has sometimes been called secret as it is off the Pan American Highway and not on the radar of most travelers. The town of Las Lajas is 54.5 miles east  (or 87.7 kilometers) from the bigger town of David (Da-veed). It will take you about 1-1/4th hours to arrive at the beach. The little town has a population of about 1500, but that’s not the real attraction. Drive down the dirt road. Notice the covered parking cabañas on your left. You are then approaching Las Lajas Beach Resort. Their stretch of beach is phenomenal. Sit in a beach chair or under a cabaña and drink the best, and I mean the best, piña colada you’ve ever tasted, with or without the alcohol.

The resort is small, with only 12 overnight accommodations. If you choose not to stay the night, you can secure a day pass for $10.00 and enjoy the facilities. Feast at the restaurant or linger at the bar. Swim in the pool or take a dip in the ocean. Go snorkeling or scuba diving. The Pacific waters here are quite friendly with no strong waves. Still, be aware that there might be an undertow so stay close in.

Other activities include having a massage or taking a yoga class. For even more active enjoyment, go horseback riding and gallop on the beach. There is no excuse to get bored at this resort. The area also holds two other wonderful attractions. The Botanical Garden and the Nancito Petroglyph Archaeological Park are both well worth visiting.

You will not be disappointed with a visit to Las Lajas Beach Resort and the neighboring attractions. It will be your secret.

[The driving time is inaccurate in this video]

Fact: Panamá has no military, as it has no enemies, because no country wants to be denied use of the Panamá Canal
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The Little Engine that Could

The little engine that could was huffing and puffing, but this little train had no major hills to climb. Instead, it had to travel from one ocean to another, just a distance of 47.6 miles, making it the world’s first transcontinental railroad.  And it has been making this trip, back and forth, for 166 years! This could only happen in Panamá, where two oceans are so close to each other that they can be seen from a high vantage point.

The Panamá Railroad began chugging along in 1855, hauling freight across the narrow isthmus, emptying a cargo ship on one side and taking the contents to another ship on the other side. This allowed ships to avoid having to go around Cape Horn, a rocky and dangerous passage at the bottom of South America. It also cut the shipping time by numerous days and 12,500 miles.

The question arose, “Why load and reload these ships if there could be a way to let the ship cross the isthmus?” Thus was born the Panamá Canal in 1904. However, this little engine did not puff its last; it discovered a different usefulness. The train became the means to haul away all the dirt dug up to create the Canal. New rails were laid off to the side in order to create an enlarged waterway. That cost 9 million dollars. Now the train had a new life.

Today, that little train is not so little, but it is still running, still hauling goods with the addition of passengers, making it the world’s longest continuously operating railroad. The only competitor for this honor is the Strasburg Railroad, founded in 1832, still a steam train, operating as a special events only railroad, puffing  through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. There were older trains in the US and England, but they are no longer running.


Many Panamanians don’t know much about their short-distance railroad, as there is no other railroad in the country. Now operating as the Panamá Canal Railway Company, the train takes about an hour going between oceans and costs $25.00 to ride. The only regular riders are the workers going from Panamá City to Colon who work at the International Free Trade Zone. The other riders are tourists who prefer the train ride to the $2.00 bus ride.

This little train, which grew to be a big train, has served the entire world, transporting the goods which line the shelves of every country. Panamá can be proud of the role its train has played for the last century and a half.


Fact: Panamá has the second largest duty-free zone in the world after Hong Kong
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