Soberanía (sovereignty) is the name of, among other things, a beer and a national park in Panama. An afternoon hike I took through the Parque Nacional Soberanía brought into clear relief the centuries of colonial and imperial control that have made sovereignty such an important issue for Panamanians.

I started my journey at the Albrook National Bus Terminal, named after the US Air Force Base that used to occupy the site. Looking through the back window of the Gamboa-bound bus I was riding, I could see the imposing Canal Administration Building. Twelve years after the United States left the Canal Zone (the US residents of which had almost everything provided for them in what one Panamanian described as the closest the US has come to socialism) and turned over control of the canal to the Panamanian Canal Authority, the building still bears its name in English along the side. The bus continued, passing along the Gaillard/Culebra Cut, which the French began in 1881.

I got off the bus at the start of the Plantation Trail in the Parque Nacional Soberanía. The trail followed the route of the remains of the first asphalt road in Panama, which was constructed to improve access to the sugarcane crops being grown at the eponymous plantation. The trail eventually diverged from this roadbed and, for a while, followed a series of streambeds (I was lucky I did the hike the day before record rainfall started to hit Panama).

After a while, paving stones began appearing in the streambed. Eventually, the trail turned onto an old cobblestone road. I was walking along one of the first Spanish routes across the isthmus, built in the 16th century. The wheels of mule-drawn wagons, carrying gold from South America to the Atlantic coast for shipment to Spain, had passed over the cobblestones on which I was standing. Walking along this linchpin of a bygone empire, one of the continent’s oldest transportation projects related to globalization, I was within two miles from the Panama Canal Expansion, one of the continent’s newest.

Over more than four centuries, transportation infrastructure within this two-mile-wide band across the isthmus has benefited people around the world. It certainly seems appropriate that the Panamanian coat of arms, which features the canal in its center, includes the Latin motto Pro Mundi Beneficio – For the World’s Benefit. Maybe Cum Maiesto – With Sovereignty – would be an appropriately assertive addition.

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Cerro Ancón

Cerro Ancón is an iconic part of Panama City. A large Panamanian at the top flies over the city. It was once the center of the US Canal Zone, and its slopes housed the Anglican Cathedral, hospital, Canal Administration Building, and Balboa High School. It is now, of course, firmly back under Panamanian control. The spectacular views in all directions made it one of my favorite destinations in the city.

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The Panama Canal

One of my first destinations in Panama was the Visitors Center at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. The three levels of exhibits at the center were informative and engaging, and I especially enjoyed watching a tanker transit the locks and head off into the Pacific. The Canal, and struggles over its control, has a significant place in Panamanian history and identity. Its presence was in the background during the month I stayed in Panama, whether I was looking down on it from Cerro Ancón, watching a giant container ship pass by the small towns on the road to Gamboa, listening to news of it being shut down for weather-related reasons for the first time ever during the historic flooding, or following the roro (roll-on, roll-off) K-Line Indiana Highway (with a capacity of 6,040 cars) out to sea on the Amador Causeway. It was also cool to see the grading work underway for the canal expansion, a project one of my fellow Swarthmore Engineering graduates is working on. The construction of a third set of locks, larger than the original two, is already changing the dynamics of global shipping.

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