Diverse Panama offers more than a canal
An American traveler, adventurer and author named Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal a few years after it opened in 1914. He was charged 36 cents for the trip.
Today, ships that follow in his footsteps — or, rather, his wake — pay $200,000 to $300,000 for the privilege. The average toll for the largest vessels, which use wider locks that began to operate in 2016, is about $500,000.
Yet shipping companies pay the price because they save up to 10 times as much by eliminating the two-week journey around the tip of South America.
In addition to its utility for shipping, the canal is a major reason that tourists visit this South Carolina-sized country in Central America.
The waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is ranked first on the Society of Civil Engineers’ list of major modern engineering feats, and during my recent trip there I soon understood why. Massive ships squeeze through the canal with just inches to spare.
But Panama has many more manmade and natural sites to see. From animal life to archaeological treasures, enticing cities to beautiful beaches, Panama’s compact diversity attracts a million visitors each year.
New and old Panama City
Panama City combines the glitz and glitter of New York and Las Vegas with a colorful overlay of Latin American life.
A frenzied period of development that began in the early 2000s, related to the city’s role as a center of international banking and trade, has transformed the capital city into an architectural showcase. Its skyscrapers create a dreamlike setting of steel and glass in a myriad of shapes and colors.
At the same time, Panama City is home to inviting reminders of its Colonial past. Panama Viejo (Old Panama) is an archaeological site where the first Spanish city on the Pacific coast of the Americas was founded in 1519.
It was from this location that expeditions embarked to conquer the powerful Incan Empire, and through it that most of the gold and silver found in the New World passed on its trip back to Spain.
Reflecting the poor relations between England and Spain, the Welsh buccaneer Captain Henry Morgan sacked the city in 1671, and today only sprawling ruins hint at its former grandeur. Stroll past the stone remnants of a cathedral, prison, customs house, small Jesuit churches and stately homes built by wealthy citizens.
Following the destruction of Panama Viejo, a new city was constructed nearby. Casco Viejo encompasses about 800 buildings in a mixture of architectural styles.
In recent years the site of cobblestone streets has turned into a chic neighborhood where boutique hotels and trendy bars contrast with crumbled remnants of the original setting.
Visiting the canal
Then there’s the canal, which continues to intrigue and impress visitors. One of the best places from which to watch ships pass by is on the decks outside the four-story Visitors Center.
Exhibits in the museum located inside the building depict the planning, construction and operation of the canal. You can even board a tourist boat to traverse part of the world-famous waterway.
Its route generally follows a trail that indigenous people used to cross the narrowest part of the isthmus. An effort by the French to build a canal spanning the 50-mile land bridge in the late 19th century was doomed by an unfortunate combination of bad planning, mudslides and illnesses. The task was ultimately completed by U.S. engineers and workers.
Today, close to 15,000 vessels make the voyage annually, passing through three sets of locks that lift them a total of 85 feet.
Many people are surprised to learn that the direction of the canal is northwest to southeast, rather than due east to west, because of the layout of the isthmus at that location. Some also don’t realize that the waterway includes lakes along its route.
Beaches and islands
Just west of Panama City, sunbathers can find more than a dozen beaches. The black sand of Playa Barqueta is a popular weekend destination among locals. The palm-fringed beach Playa Las Lajos is more than seven miles long, and is known for its good surfing.
A number of the most inviting white-sand beaches rim the 250 San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coastline. The islands also happen to home to the Kuna Indians, one of seven distinct indigenous groups that comprise about 12 percent of Panama’s population of approximately four million. Their unique culture and customs have changed little over time.
Other smaller cities include Colón, home to Panama’s major sea port; La Palma, surrounded by undisturbed nature; and both Santiago and Portobelo, which are treasure troves of graceful colonial architecture.
Given its location as the last link in the land bridge between North and South America, the Panamanian isthmus played an important role in the migration of plant and animal life in both directions.
Its varied ecosystems of tropical rainforests, mountain cloud forests and low-lying mangrove wetlands among nearly 500 rivers have provided a welcome environment for many species.
During a small boat cruise on Gatun Lake in the Gamboa Rainforest Preserve, I saw a crocodile and several iguanas dozing in the sun.
Tamarin and howler monkeys peered at us from the treetops, while more social white-faced capuchins swung down to land on the front of our dinghy to peel and devour bananas that we placed there.
Jaguars, pumas, ocelots and panthers also make Panama their home, although humans are more likely to see their paw prints rather than the elusive animals themselves.
Easier to encounter are sloths, who lead their sedentary lives hanging upside down from the branches of trees where squirrel and spider monkeys also hang out.
Killer and humpback whales, sharks and bottlenose dolphins swim off both coastlines.
Panama is also one of the best birding sites in the world, with more species than are found in Europe and North America combined. Resident populations include parrots, toucans, quetzals, macaws and the harpy eagle, the nation’s national bird.
An example of a tour
Caravan Tours has been offering trips “at an affordable price” since 1952, and it lives up to that claim.
The rate for the eight-day Panama trip we took is $1,634 per person plus airfare ($1,295/dbl). That includes accommodations that range from a modern Marriott Hotel in Panama City to a comfortable rainforest retreat.
The itinerary packed a full variety of experiences into a busy schedule, with one day set aside for R&R at a Pacific Ocean beachfront resort.
It also included two canal cruises, one through dual sets of locks that offers close-up views of the massive steel gates, and the other on Gatun Lake, which forms part of the channel.
Tour participants also spent time at the Museum of Biodiversity (Biomuseo), which turned out to be a surprisingly intriguing diversion during a trip that was chock full of them.
For starters, there’s the ultra-modernistic building that was designed by the world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. The multi-colored structure is intended to depict how the isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, uniting two continents with a land bridge. Its exhibits describe the lasting impact that event has had on the planet’s biodiversity.
Another tour highlight was the opportunity to meet, and briefly mingle with, members of two indigenous groups. We spent part of one day at a Kuna tribal marketplace, where people from that community take turns spending several weeks making and selling their handicrafts before returning to their village in the San Blas Islands.
Most prized are mola embroidered cloth panels, which the women use to decorate their clothing and that also can serve as decorative pieces. The scenes on many of them depict rainforest animals and marine life, with which the Kunas are familiar.
A more immersive introduction to the indigenous cultures involved a visit by boat to a small Embera village, which began with a description, through an interpreter, of the life and traditions of that ethnic group.
It was followed by brief dance and music presentations, the opportunity to purchase handmade baskets, wood carvings and other items, and — best of all — to interact with residents of all ages.
For more information about Caravan Tours, call 1-800-227-2826 or visit caravan.com.
If you go
Temperature isn’t a major factor when planning a trip to Panama. Highs hover around 85° F throughout the year, falling as much as 15 degrees only at elevated altitudes.
Rain is more of a consideration. More rain usually falls on the Caribbean side of the country, but most often only as short afternoon downpours.
The dry season, about mid-December to mid-April, offers the best weather, but also the highest prices for those traveling on their own. Those willing to put up with some wet weather during the rest of the year find that their travel budget is likely to stretch further.
Besides Caravan Tours, several other companies offer specialized tours of Panama; very few include airfare. A two-week nature tour is available for $2,580 at Evaneos.com, a website that connects travelers with local experts.
Adventure Life offers many options, including a seven-day tour for $1,546. See adventure-life.com/panama.
For day excursions, consider Real Panama Tours, which offers river trips and other customized outings, including kosher tours. See therealpanamatours.com for more information.
A nonstop flight from the D.C. area to Panama City takes about five hours. The least expensive nonstop flight from Dulles International Airport to Panama City in September costs about $550 on Copa Airlines.