The Panama Canal is fascinating, but there's a lot more to Panama than its famous waterway.
Like a Latin American Rip Van Winkle, Panama is waking from a long, deep sleep. Travelers to Panama today are lucky. They will witness the country’s uneven, sometimes frustrating movement forward as it opens up and shares its astonishing diversity and beauty beyond the Panama Canal.
For 90 years this odd shaped country, the land bridge between North and South America, lay in the consuming and perhaps suffocating embrace of the United States.
Her sleep so deep; her dependence so total, that only now, it seems, is she moving toward her destiny and promise, a destiny shaped by one of the world’s most unique geographies, and a people so kind, one wonders if they weren’t better off sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
Awake for Adventure
As an Isthmus, Panama’s fate was to host “The Canal” with which it is inexorably identified. And if not the canal, then Manuel Noriega. Or perhaps the deceptively innocent Chiquita banana, giving rise to the image of the country as a “Banana Republic.” And, but for the work of dedicated organizations like the Panama Tourism Bureau (IPAT) and Ancon Expeditions (see box), the story would have ended there.
Today the country beckons the curious traveler with a promise of adventure. Costa Rica, with which Panama is inevitably compared, apparently suffers by comparison: Costa Rica has no authentic, indigenous tribes; much less history, virtually no ruins – and many more visitors. First-timers to Panama, however, should book their trip through one of the handful of local, reputable tour operators like Ancon Expeditions. With its history and commitment to the country’s natural resources and ecology, it’s a good bet.
Living History, Meeting Locals in Casco
Casco Viejo, the old city, is a perfect starting point. You’ll see fewer tourists in this part of town, and that’s a shame.
A far cry from the glittering glass buildings of modern Panama, which jar with the tropical landscape, you’ll be forgiven if Casco reminds of an extended (and more authentic) Old San Juan. As befits a onetime Spanish settlement (1519), and a subsequent French one, Casco Viejo is elegantly restoring its colonial buildings. Bright white national landmarks, old homes with bougainvillea-draped balconies, and, best of all, several little plazas invite languid drinks and intimate conversation among the palm trees and breezes of the Pacific.
The French Plaza, dedicated to the hapless Ferdinand de Lesseps, is one such place. Lesseps, a Frenchman fresh from his success in building the Suez Canal, failed in Panama because his sea-level strategy didn’t work here. Never mind. His efforts are remembered in this graceful, faux-marble plaza overlooking the Pacific.
Have a drink or dinner at the restaurant Les Bovedas. Once a dungeon for the wayward, today Les Bovedas forms a romantic and somewhat brooding backdrop for tables scattered in the shadow of palm trees, within earshot of the Pacific. Add to this the unobtrusive music from local musicians huddled together on a bench, perfecting their guitar riffs and hand-drum rhythms, and you have a perfect Kodak moment.
Casco Viejo has several such gems tucked away in winding, narrow (and clean) streets, where knots of locals sit and drink or talk in hushed voices, the Plaza de Bolivar is perhaps the most popular. The CafÃ© de Assiz and the striking old Colonial Hotel put chairs and tables along the sidewalks, overlooking the impressive statue of Simon de Bolivar and the more impressive, actually grand, Cathedral. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a wedding at night. Panama’s famous and well-heeled will flood the cathedral with bright lights for filming the elegantly dressed and exquisitely beautiful men and women. The church’s gold altar and towering white arches will be dramatically highlighted – and easily seen from the tables scattered around the plaza. Panamanians and visitors come here to sip strong coffee, good local beer, laugh, kiss, and enjoy life and each other.
By the way, Casco can be a bit rough, so I suggest instead of wandering around, that you take a taxi directly to any of the Plazas and ask the driver to pick you up at an appointed time and place. Then stroll, sit, have a drink and enjoy a tropical evening, very far from the madding crowd.
Prelude to a Monument: The Canal
A few winding streets away is Independence Plaza,where Panama announced its independence from Spain and then Colombia. This is where the Canal Museum (Museo De Canal Interoceanico de Panama) is, in what was once the home of a colonial post office, then Ferdinand de Lesseps. The building lost none of its original beauty and sophistication when it underwent the transformation to become preeminent guardian and explainer of the torturous and convoluted history of the canal’s construction.
Though the exhibits are all in Spanish, no one can misunderstand the 1977 photo of Omar Torrijos, the former dictator of Panama, and Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, sealing the deal that ultimately turned the canal over to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. The rest is a history still unfolding.
A story unto itself, the Panama Canal is considered the “eighth wonder” of the modern world. Considering that it links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the first time in 3 million years (before that the land had a natural gap between North and South America), and that it took seventy-five thousand people to build it, with a death toll in the thousands, it is a wonder. Canal Tours are very popular and can easily be arranged. There is a public viewing spot at the Mira Flores lock that’s worth a quick visit.
Here’s some canal trivia for Canal buffs:
- Since 1914, 880,000 vessels have transited the waterway.
- There are approximately 9,000 employees working for the canal.
- On September 25, 2003, the luxury liner Coral Princess broke canal toll records by paying $226,194.25 for passage.
- The lowest toll was paid by Richard Halliburton, who paid 36¢ to swim across! It took him 10 days to complete his transit.
- The canal is 51-miles long, and the average vessel spends about 24 hours in Canal waters, although the actual transit takes about nine hours to complete.
- In September of 2007, a US $5 billion expansion project was begun in efforts to double the waterway’s capacity by 2014 by adding a new “traffic lane” accommodating larger ships.
Living Native Lifestyles
But if Panama is anything, it’s a celebration of an astonishing biodiversity: Allegedly, there are more species of birds here than in all of North America. And with two sea coasts a scant 50 miles apart, 14 national parks, jungle, highlands, mist-shrouded mountain ranges, why wouldn’t it be more than a complex quilt of colors and sounds?
One of the most enduring images in a trip marked by already indelible memories is arriving at the Embera indigenous-tribe camp site.
After a bumpy ride through African-like savannah by motor transport, and a brief trip by dugout canoe along still, dark waterways, one suddenly arrives at a red-clay campsite dotted with palm-covered, open-air huts. There, in a small cluster, Embera men and women – boys and girls – stand on a ridge “dressed” in vivid native colors and beads, playing simple instruments of greeting, and welcoming us warmly to their home.
It looked and felt like a National Geographic cover. Most of the young boys and girls were nude from the waist up, and whatever “clothing” there was, consisted of a loin cloth or thong for the men, and bright colored wraps for the women, worn from the waist down. There wasn’t a hint of self-consciousness among them. Or us.
Little kids anywhere from 4 to 6-years-old broke away from the elders and came down to take our hands or fingers or thumbs in their small, rich, coco-brown hands and quietly walked us up to the communal, straw-covered house. We were welcomed, in Spanish, by the chief or Leader, who speaks his native language to his own people.
They cooked for us, fish from the river and fried plantains, and talked to us of their culture and their history, of their love of the land and struggle to survive. The day unfolded with strikingly handsome young men playing marbles in the dust, and raven-haired, doe-eyed girls and women sitting quietly by the crafts they made and were selling, or laughing among themselves at some private joke or story.
The little ones played with a pet monkey, patting him like a family cat, or squabbled with each other playfully.
After lunch, in a replay of “The African Queen,” two young men took us on a canoe ride that slid silently through jungle waterways, past dense, dark islands. Eventually, too soon for me, we came upon a hidden waterfall spilling into a deep clear pool of water that was so beckoning, off came the clothes, and with child-like glee, in we dove and played with an abandon that made me wonder if this could be the Fountain of Youth.
Organizing Your Eco-Adventure
Is this accessible to the average traveler? Yes, indeed. Good tour operators can arrange these visits, and in fact are the only ones who can.
They also arrange Canal and Jungle Boat Expeditions, one of the only ways to travel through the coves, inlets and rivers of Gatun Lake, the major body of water serving the Canal. Especially equipped boats and expert guides present views of dramatic juxtapositions: enormous trans-oceanic ships, hulking against the horizon, waiting their turn to pass through the Canal – and the lush rainforests surrounding the lake, teeming with wildlife.
Jungle Boat Explorations offers an excursion that requires patience and the guidance of a skilled naturalist. It is possible to wind through tight, mangrove-saturated waterways for an hour or two and grow impatient. Then, suddenly, the guide makes a weird, whistle sound and points to a sloth hanging from a tree, startled into action (such as it is) by the fake Harpy Eagle whistle the guide made, the Harpy being the sloth’s eternal enemy.
Or when the boat brushes up against an island, and we sit there impatiently with nothing happening, and then the branches move. A tree limb shakes-a branch comes to life with the stunning, adorable faces of nimble Spider Monkeys or the white-faced Capuchin Monkeys performing impossible acrobatics as they work up the courage to approach the open-air boat.
What excitement-and what a dilemma: feeding them from your hand is a joyful, interactive experience as both you and they psyche each other out, and begin the cautious dance of trust. It culminates in a wonderful moment, when this wild creature takes the banana you’re offering. But is it the right thing to do?
Discussions follow on a small, 2×4 island, somewhere in the middle of the lake, over boxed lunches. Different views. Thoughtful analyses. Nothing’s simple.
Living High in the Canopy
Staying at Canopy Tower ( 800/930-3397) is a similar experience, except from an aerial point of view. A one-time US radar station with a huge globe sitting on top of a galvanized steel structure, the tower was used to ferret out drug smugglers from the Canal Zone. When the US forces left, one of Panama’s imaginative entrepreneurs blow-torched the inside and created seven rooms for guests. Inadvertently, perhaps, he also created what the Audubon Society calls, “one of the world’s top birding destinations.”
Amazingly, it works.
The rooms are small but well done with a rustic elegance. Meals are served family style, basic but very good. And the bar is a big, ice-filled tub of beer and wine (honor system). Outside the globe is circular platform where coffee is served in the morning.
But, the big deal is the utter silence. Except for the birds. And the distant sounds of Howler Monkeys making a deep throated “Ooo Ooo” far more ferocious-sounding than their size would indicate. And of course there’s the uninterrupted, 360-degree view of the rain forest’s canopy and the mist-covered hills and small mountains. And that stillness.
On this particular day, John Rowlett, the renowned “Birder” from Field Guides, was leading a small group of Birders – not, I was quickly corrected, “Bird Watchers,” since Birders listen, too.
Tempting as it was to study the Birders, a breed unto themselves, I looked as they pointed, and saw through their (pricey) equipment my first ever Green Shrike-Vireo, a Continga Blue, and the clown-beaked Toucan – stained-glass birds all, high above a canopy in the middle of an intact rain forest, green, dark and mercifully free of humans.
Sleep comes at nine or so at night, a deep sleep. There is no TV, no radio, no alarm clock (although there is a relatively quiet PC with internet access). The rich- throated hooting of the Howler Monkeys around 5 in the morning was enough. (A sound to remember.) And at 6, it’s coffee and a chance to see the rain forest come to life.
So Much More
There are many roads to travel in Panama, and choosing the less traveled is easy to do. With time, the traveler could visit the San Blas Islands and spend hours with the Kuna Indians, one the best preserved indigenous cultures of the Americas. Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean delight, is its own adventure as is Darien, 65,000 acres of protected rainforest, deserted beaches, wetlands and all the wildlife native to this virtually untouched frontier.
For the curious and the eager, this is the time to visit Panama. Now, as it takes its first steps into the world of tourism. Now, when it’s yours to discover!
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.