El Machetazo



I’m eating a four-dollar plate of rice, refried beans and ropa vieja beef (literally ‘old rags’) in Café Coca Cola. This is apparently the oldest café in Panama. Of course it wasn’t always called the Coca Cola: the most elderly clients still know it as La Apuñalada (The Stabbing). This can be a pretty gritty neighbourhood and nobody seems to think that was an unreasonable name for a café.



Just a block down the road there is the supermarket called El Machetazo (The Machete Attack). The Stabbing has been known to local people for years as about the best value eatery in the whole city and at any time of the day it is almost always packed. But it is also about the best place to soak up the atmosphere of the old town so I go there as much for the people watching as for the ‘old rags.’ I


find a stool at the counter and the old guy next to me immediately introduces himself. John speaks unusually good English. I guess from his name and accent that he probably spent a lot of his working life in the American-controlled Canal Zone. In fact he tells me that he grew up on the Canal itself and that his family originally came here from Jamaica to work as labourers.

Looking around the room I take in the mix of cultures and understand again why Panama has been called the ‘melting pot of the Americas.’ There is one table of silently eating Chinese and another where two Indians are leaning forward in intense conversation. They are Asian Indians but two of the girls behind the counter look like they might originally have come from the indigenous Embera villages of Darién. (The Kuna people of the San Blas Islands are generally rich enough so that when they come to the city they seem to prefer to eat at Burger King or MacDonalds).

The usual foursome of old guys in embroidered shirts are at their customary table. They could be Panamanian but something tells me that they originally come from Argentina or Chile. There are many Cubans in this quarter too – people who, for one reason or another, chose the Panama of Noriega over the Cuba of Castro. And there are even quite a few Basques who abandoned the Spain of Franco for the ‘New World.’ About a quarter of the people in the room are black. There is a good chance that, like the Chinese and the Indians, their forefathers (from Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados) also came to work on the canal.

I am staying at Hotel Colon, just a block back from ‘The Stabbing.’ It was originally built to house these imported labourers and some say that the musty corridors and crumbling rooms still house their share of ghosts. Some estimates say that as many as five hundred labourers died for every mile of the Panama Canal.

Modern-day Panama City grew out of one of the most impressive engineering projects the world has ever seen. It is the sheer unimaginable scale of the Panama Canal that makes it so astounding. The locks are fed with water from Gatun reservoir and about 200 million litres are lost with each transit. This makes the Rio Chagres the only river in the world that flows into two oceans at the same time. A Panamax ship (the biggest that can pass through here) will be up to 294 metres long and will have a foot of clearance either side between the hull and the lock walls. 


These walls were the first major structures to be built with (at that time space-age) cement and since nobody yet knew how durable cement would prove to be they are 55 feet thick. The ships are guided through the locks by a team of 50-tonne electric ‘mules’ that cost USD2.1 million each. There are 100 such mules working on the canal. But it costs as much as USD350,000 in fees for a single ship to make the transit and the canal averages 36 a day. In 1928 Richard Halliburton swam the length of the canal. Based on his water displacement his fee was worked out (some might say by overly pedantic accountants) at 36 cents.

The work of all those thousands of canal labourers has made Panama one of the world’s leading maritime nations: more than 8,000 large vessels are registered under the Panamanian flag. Now work is underway on a separate run of locks. This new project is estimated to cost USD5.6 billion but when it is competed the biggest ships in the world will be able to pass through the Panama Canal.

It is said that if all the earth and rock that was shovelled out of the original canal was loaded onto a single train it would circle the earth four times. This new project might be almost as immense but thankfully Panama has progressed well beyond the point where it was necessary to keep a tally on human lives per mile.

For more information on the Panama Canal check out the Panama Tourism Authority website: www.visitpanama.com