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Panama Offers More Than The Canal

Panama

The Emberá, also known in the historical literature as the Chocó or Katío Indians, are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia.

By Victor Block

Mention Panama and most people think Canal — and with good reason. The waterway 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 reasons — many more — both man-made and magnificent works of Mother Nature, and my trip with Caravan Tours provided opportunities to explore and experience a number of them.

For starters, Panama offers the sun-and-sand attractions enjoyed in most countries that front the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. Sunbathers find stretches of seashore which are conducive to working on their tans. More than a dozen beaches are located west of Panama City, the country’s capital. The black sand of Playa Barqueta, for example, 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. More than 350 islands offer sugar white sand fronting clear turquoise water.

Native Populations

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 any of these native 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, where 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 make the area into a dreamlike setting of steel and glass in myriad shapes and colors.

Panama Viejo is the remaining part of the old Panama City and former capital of the country.

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 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. These include remnants of a soaring cathedral, churches and stately homes built by the wealthiest citizens.

Following the destruction of PanamaViejo, 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 of 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.

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.

Crossing The Isthmus

The route generally follows a trail that indigenous people used to cross the narrowest part of the isthmus. And although a common perception is the canal lies east-west, because of the shape of the land at this point, the general direction of the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific is from northwest to southeast.

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. The task was completed by U.S. engineers and workers, and the first ship traversed the channel in 1914.

The United States continued to control the canal through 1999 when full jurisdiction was passed to the Panama Canal Authority under the terms of a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Before the handover, Panama awarded a 25-year contract for operation of the shipping ports at the canal’s Atlantic and Pacific outlets to a Hong Kong-based company.

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.

Panama

Ship going through the canal

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. The canal is one of Panama’s chief revenue sources.

Many visitors to the canal jam decks outside the four-story Visitor Center to watch ships pass by, and then 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 which traverses part of the route.

Flora And Fauna In Panama

Given its location as the last link in the land bridge between North and South America, the Panamanian isthmus is filled with animal and plant life from both continents. It has served as a link that enabled 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 welcoming environment which prompted many species to stay.

Jaguars, pumas, ocelots and jaguarondi are among the species that make Panama their home, although humans are more likely to see these big cats’ paw prints rather than the elusive animals themselves. Easier to encounter are aptly named sloths, who spend much of their time 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.

Capuchin monkey

During a small boat cruise on Gatun Lake, a large artificial lake in the Gamboa Rainforest Preserve created between 1907 and 1913 by the building of the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, 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 also is one of the best birding sites in the world, with more species — well over 900 of them — than are found in Europe and North America combined. Resident populations include parrots, toucans, quetzals, macaws and the harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird. Thetropical climate also encourages a plethora of brightly colored insects, amphibian, fish and reptiles.

From animal life to archaeological treasures, enticing cities to beautiful beaches, Panama has diversity enough in a compact area to attract visitors with a variety of 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, although it can be 15 degrees coolers 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, about mid-December to mid-April, offers the best weather — and highest prices. Those willing to put up with some rain during the rest of the year find that their travel budget is likely to stretch further.

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