transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
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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