Hitting the Open Road

While this collection extensively covers the Panama Railroad, we also have a number of photographs of cars and buses. What do you remember about this form of transportation in the Canal Zone and Panama? Did you own your own car? Did you ride chivas or other public buses? What do you remember about the Pan-American Highway or other roads in the Canal Zone or Panama?

Below are photographs of automobiles from the collection – do you recognize anyone in these photos?

2003.23.2.1Two boys posing on an automobile outside of Cristobal High School, 1935.

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Men outside a chiva at a farmer’s market, 1939.

2008.18.1.87A car on Gaillard Highway near Miraflores, undated.


  • Andrew W Fraser

    Back in the early 1950’s and as a teenager, I lived in New Cristobal and kept company with a young lady that lived in Margarita. In order to enjoy her company I had three choices for getting from New Cristobal to Margarita. There was my bicycle (no good in the heat and humidity), the Eagle Bus Line buses, or a Chiva. An Eagle bus for Margarita could be boarded at the large parking area located at the corner of 11th street and Bolivar Ave; price for a ride to Margarita, 15 cents. Or, a Chiva which was boarded in front of the Seventh Day Adventist building on Bolivar Ave. between 10th and 11th streets; cost 10 cents. Not wanting to arrive for a date all hot and sweaty from a bike ride and being the frugal individual which my mother wished me to be, you know if I was not on a tight schedule I would take a chiva. If you were on a tight schedule you had to take an Eagle bus, explanation to follow.

    To board a Chiva, he would pull up to the curb south bound. The first thing was to ask him “you going to Margarita?”. The usual response was “yes maan (sic) get on”. If you did not have a whole lot of time to waste, your next move was to see how many empty seats he had because if there was more than one he would circle the block in Colon till all seat were occupied, no exceptions. The Eagle buses left on a schedule every 15 minutes. Another caveat, the buses would go all the way to Gatun and make stops at the military bases. Chivas were usually not permitted on the bases.

    The chivas of my youth were fun to ride because of the comradery and they were a study in art as they were highly decorated and usually had a statement above the driver referring either to Jesus and/or God. Most of the real chivas were home built on a pick-up bed, usually a Ford.

    With my extensive travel experience in getting from New Cristobal to other towns on the Atlantic Side, I learned many interesting things about other residents of Colon. Most of the chiva and bus riders on the Atlantic Side were maids that worked for either Canal Zone or military residences. Many were of West Indian heritage. Riding with them in my travels, I learned that Monday was wash day and with no dryers at the time, sheets and other bedding was bleached using a chlorine/water mix applied by soaking the bedding in a five gallon Crisco can often heated on a charcoal fired “hibatchi” and then spread all over the back yard on hibiscus shrubs prevalent in most Canal Zone back yards. The rest of the laundry was hung on clothes lines installed and maintained by PanCanal.

    I digress, but Tuesday was “hironing (sic) day”. After lunch the maid would go to the refrigerator and get ice water usually in a mayonnaise or other large jar, because once you started ironing you did not go back into the refrigerator and even possibly an icebox as the chill would cause you to get “the feva”. To get back to the chiva thing, in returning on a chiva to Colon, if it was raining you would not get off of the chiva because if you got your hair wet on ironing day you could also catch the “feva”. If you did catch the “feva” you would have to go to bed with a “feva dog”, often a Mexican hairless to break the “feva”. On many of my chiva trips on Tuesdays I would meet many of the riders who were on there second lap around the chiva’s route as they would not get off if it was raining.

    In my opinion, those painted vehicles that now bus people around in Panama are buses and not true Chivas.

    • Ángel

      Dear Mr. Fraser, I’m a history enthusiast from Panama and I’d like to get in touch with you to know more about stories and events of your life when you were in Panamá at the time where the Canal Zone existed. Would you like to contact me or is it preferable for you that I should contact you?

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