Video: "Panama's Brooding History"
Bill Donahue narrates a photo tour of Panama's jungles, wildlife, Cold War ruins, and odd national park-cum-penitentiary.
The birds, I learned later, were toucans. But as I made my way through the Panamanian jungle, their dry, echoing call—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—sounded almost mechanical, which seemed fitting. Before me, on an open plain in the Galeta Island Protected Landscape, was a mesh of 100-foot-high wires used by the United States during the Cold War to monitor Soviet submarines.
“They used to have a phone that connected straight to the White House,” my guide, a Panamanian student, remarked somberly. “And there was an underground tunnel soldiers could use to escape right out into the ocean.”
Of course, neither the tunnel nor the phone ever existed. But they were lovely details, embodying the mystique of Panama today. As the nation vaults toward prosperity, with an 8 percent average annual GDP growth rate, it is still haunted by its past—by the seven-year rule of Manuel Noriega, and by nearly 100 years of American soldiers guarding the canal. Noriega and the GIs left behind mementos that collectively have the dark, exotic ambiance of a Graham Greene novel. They also left behind pristine jungles—the U.S. allowed no logging in the rainforest surrounding the canal, because the trees afforded cover from potential attacks—and a serious ecotourism industry is sprouting up. So I went south for a few days, bringing my flip-flops and snorkeling gear.