Panama — it's more than just the canal
Mention “Panama” and most people think “Canal”
The Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is ranked first on the Society of Civil Engineers’ list of major modern engineering feats, and I soon learned why.
The channel itself is reason enough to visit the South Carolina-size country in Central America. But there are more – many more! — both manufactured and magnificent works of Mother Nature and my trip with Caravan Tours provided opportunities to explore and experience a number of them.
Beaches lie on both the Pacific and Caribbean.
For starters, Panama offers the sun-and-sand attractions enjoyed in countries that front the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Sunbathers find stretches of seashore, which are conducive to working on their tan. More than a dozen beaches are located west of Panama City. The black sand of Playa Barqueta is a popular weekend destination among locals. Palm-fringed Playa Las Lajos Is more than seven miles long.
A number of the most inviting beaches rim the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coastline, where more than 350 islands offer sugar-white sand fronting clear turquoise water.
Visit the San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians
Another reason to spend time on the San Blas Islands is the Kuna Indians, one of seven distinct indigenous groups that comprise about 12 percent of Panama’s population of approximately four million. A visit with one of those people provides an immersion in their unique culture and customs that have changed little over time.
The peaceful setting on the San Blas Islands contrasts sharply with the scene in Panama City. A frenzied period of development that began in the early 2000s, based upon the city’s role as a center of international banking and trade, has transformed it into an architectural showcase. The towering skyscrapers transform the area into a dreamlike setting of steel and glass in various shapes and colors.
Towering skyscrapers shape the Panama City skyline.
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. From this location, expeditions embarked on conquering the powerful Inca Empire, and through it that most of the gold and silver found in the New World passed on its trip back to Spain.
The Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked the city in 1671, and only sprawling ruins hint at its former grandeur. They include remnants of a soaring cathedral, churches, and stately homes built by the wealthiest 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.
Visitors who venture outside the country’s capital find smaller cities, each with its own attractions. Colon is Panama’s major port city; La Palma is surrounded by undisturbed nature, and both Santiago and Portobelo are treasure troves of graceful colonial architecture.
The Panama Canal still anchors the country's history
Then there’s the Canal. Its history, the story of its construction, and the efficiency with which it operates today continue to intrigue and impress those who visit the world-famous waterway.
The 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 bad planning, mudslides, illnesses, and other challenges.
U.S. engineers and workers completed the task, and the first ship traversed the channel in 1914. Today, close to 15,000 vessels make the voyage annually, passing through three sets of locks that lift them a total of 85 feet. New, wider locks that began operating in 2016 can handle most of the largest freight and container ships afloat, some of which squeeze through with inches to spare on each side.
The toll for the canal is between $200,000 and $500,000
A man who swam through the canal as a stunt in 1926 was charged 36 cents for his trip. Today, the toll for traversing the older locks ranges from $200,000 to $300,000, and the average for vessels passing through the new locks is about $500,000. Shipping companies can save up to 10 times that much by eliminating the long inter-ocean journey around the tip of South America.
Many visitors to the canal jam decks outside the four-story Visitor Center to watch ships pass by and wander through the outstanding museum inside. It depicts the planning, construction, and operation of the canal. Those seeking first-hand experience may board a tourist boat that traverses part of the route.
The environment is essential with different climate zones
Given its location as the last link in the land bridge between North and South America, it has served to enable migration in both directions, and its varied terrain of tropical rainforests, mountain cloud forests, woodlands, low-lying mangrove wetlands, and nearly 500 rivers has provided a welcome environment which prompted many species to stay.
They include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and panthers, among big cats that make Panama their home, although humans are more likely to see their prints rather than the elusive animals themselves. Easier to encounter are aptly named sloths, who lead their sedentary lives hanging upside down from the branches of trees where squirrel and spider monkeys also hang out, if not upside down. Crocodiles may be spotted sunning themselves on river banks while killer and humpback whales, sharks, and bottlenose dolphins find the reefs off both coastlines to their liking.
During a small boat cruise on Gatun Lake in the Gamboa Rainforest Preserve, I saw a croc 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.
Panama is also one of the best birding sites in the world
This small country has more species than in Europe and North America combined. Resident populations include parrots, toucans, quetzals, macaws, and the harpy eagle, the nation’s national bird.
From animal life to archaeological treasures, enticing cities to beautiful beaches, Panama has diverse enough in a compact area to attract visitors with various interests. Add the world-famous Canal, and it’s no wonder that more than one million people each year include the country in their travel plans.
If you go
For more information, call (800) CARAVAN (227-2826) or log onto caravan.com.
When to go
Temperature isn’t a major factor when planning a trip to Panama. Highs hover around 85 degrees F throughout the year at most of that tropical paradise, falling as much as 15 degrees only at high altitudes.
Rain is more of a consideration. More rain usually falls on the Caribbean side of the country, most often as short afternoon downpours. The dry season offers the best weather and the highest prices from mid-December to mid-April. Those willing to put up with some rain during the rest of the year find that their travel budget is likely to stretch further.
All photos © Victor Block except Canal shots which are from Wikipedia.
After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries worldwide and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won many writing awards.