Panama: “Abundance of Fish, Trees, and Butterflies”
I recently made my first visit to Panama, which was full of pleasant surprises. I have visited nearby countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, and enjoyed them all for various reasons.
The two images which came to mind before my visit, when I thought of Panama, were — of course — the Panama Canal, and stylish Panama hats. What I found when I got there was that the explanation in Panamanian textbooks of the origins of the name “Panama” is an “abundance of fish, trees, and butterflies.”
Now I can see why. In an area some 75% of the size of China’s Jiangsu or Zhejiang Provinces, with only half the population of Hong Kong (3.5 million people, of whom half live in Panama City), and 40% of the land area still tropical forests, Panama is indeed abundant in wildlife, birds, butterflies, and fish. Many indigenous, and beautiful species occur only in Panama, which has the highest bio-diversity of any Central American nation.
It seems the Panama tourism authorities need to do more promotion in Asia. I rarely hear the country mentioned as a destination. When I checked in at Hong Kong’s downtown Airport Express Terminal, two bright and helpful staff from Cathay Pacific were obviously puzzled by the baggage tag “PTY”. I said “Panama City,” to which they asked “Is that in the U.S.?” “No, it’s in Panama,” I responded.
In fairness to them, there is indeed a town called Panama City in the US State of Florida, but the main point is that most Asians don’t think of Panama as a tourism destination, which is too bad considering how much it has to offer.
The history of Panama is inextricably linked to the history of the Panama Canal. Panama seceded from Columbia in 1903, with U.S. assistance, and the US Army Corps of Engineers completed the canal during the ten years 1904-1914. They built upon the 20 years’ effort of their French predecessors.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement stating that by 1999, the US would forego its share of revenues, so that 100% of the revenues from the canal would accrue to Panama. The result has been significant economic growth, with canal revenues accounting for a large share of GDP. No surprise, then, that locals had a cool reaction when I mentioned a Chinese company’s plan to build a new canal through Nicaragua.
Panama’s economy is service-based: banking, trading, tourism, commerce and logistics. Its most precious natural resource is water. It has a tropical climate, and a favorable business and tax environment for investors. Panama City is Central America’s most cosmopolitan city by far, with a large (around 150,000) and well-established Chinese population. The historic old city center, which boasts buildings, churches and museums dating back hundreds of years, is in the midst of a major renovation effort.
The Panama Canal runs about 85 kilometers, linked the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Some 60-70 giant ships traverse the canal each day, averaging 8-10 hours per trip. Tourists, on the other hand, can make the drive along the side of the canal in about an hour, in theory having time for a meal at a seaside restaurant on both coasts during the same day. There is also an ‘antique’ steam railway.
Speaking of abundant fish, my main purpose in visiting Panama was deep-sea fishing. Specifically, my goal was to catch a marlin on a fly rod, using my own fly rod and a fly I had tied myself.
I have caught sailfish, tuna and other big fish on a fly rod, but the marlin is considered an especially challenging quarry because of its power. By definition, fly fishing gear is very lightweight when compared to conventional deep sea fishing gear, so keeping a very big fish on the line without it breaking the line is no mean feat.
Once I knew the time frame I had available for my trip, I began searching the web for a place with good weather, plenty of marlin (and other big fish), good boats and crew, and comfortable accomodations. I soon found The Panama Big Game Fishing Club, and from its website and independent travellers’ reviews it looked like a good choice. I wasn’t mistaken. In fact, it’s one of the best fishing resorts I’ve stayed in anywhere.
I got a slow start to the fly fishing because the airline, COPA, lost my fishing rod case. Inside were my favorite fly rods, carefully chosen for the kind of fishing I planned to do here. The resort kindly lent me the use of some of their fine gear, but I didn’t really feel comfortable until my own stuff arrived.
Anyway, after a slow start and eventual delivery of my lost fishing rods, I realized my dream. Using a fly I had tied at home in Hong Kong, I caught and released a 300 lb. blue marlin on a fly rod. A very beautiful and very powerful fish. I would have released it anyway, but I am glad to report that the law in Panama and many other Central American countries now requires that sailfish and marlin be released, for conservation purposes.
From the hook-up to the release, it took 2 hours and 20 minutes. On light tackle, that’s a fairly exhausting but very exciting experience. The fish was still in very strong shape, and swam away vigorously.
To my surprise, I found that when we returned to the dock late that afternoon, this was the first marlin that anyone had caught on a fly rod in the 15-year history of the club. Me, Captain Tati, and Mate Narcisso were instant heroes. Lots of kudos and high fives. The Club owner, Mr. C., even presented me with an award plaque.
All in all, a wonderful adventure. I will return to Panama. If you are looking for an interesting and colorful destination for your next trip (fishing or not), I encourage you to check it out.