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Exploring Panama On, and Past, the Canal

Ever since my very own go to to Panama, I’ve thought of it one of many “important nations” for vacationers.

And never simply because it harbors a canal important for international commerce. Panama additionally connects two continents (North and South America) and is a key hyperlink in a sequence of nations (together with neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia) that claims among the biggest biodiversity on the planet.

For older child boomers, it’s additionally an attractive location for retirement, providing comparatively low costs and fashionable facilities.

Contributing author Robert Waite not too long ago visited Panama and returned with this informative report:

By Robert Waite

Panama Metropolis – After I consider airways and stopover applications, Icelandair comes instantly to thoughts.

For no additional cost, they allowed you to cease over in Reykjavik when flying from North America to Europe. They typically threw in discounted resort stays and a visit to the new spring-fed Blue Lagoon.

However I not too long ago found an equally tantalizing stopover: Panama.

We had been planning a visit to Ecuador and the perfect airline connections had been on Copa Airways by means of Panama Metropolis.

That’s after I seen the stopover supply.

My companion and I had by no means been to Panama. And we had the posh of some days on our return flight from Quito.

At a minimal, we had an curiosity in seeing the canal. For me, that curiosity stretched again to the Seventies, after I was engaged on Capitol Hill throughout the time of the Panama Canal debates.

The one different factor I knew concerning the nation was that reams of paperwork held by a Panamanian legislation agency concerning off-shore banking accounts, dubbed “The Panama Papers,” had been hacked and broadly distributed in 2016 by the Worldwide Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Trendy-day Panama Metropolis attracts banks, legislation companies, and retirees. Picture by Robert Waite


Arriving in Panama Metropolis, you do get the sensation that any person should have parked some cash there.

The town is festooned with gleaming high-rise buildings, principally occupied by monetary establishments and legislation companies. From a distance it seems to be like a mini-Dubai.

However throughout our four-day keep, we discovered there’s a lot to the nation past banking – and that experiencing the canal is finest executed over a number of days, quite than from the deck of a cruise ship.

We had been met by our information, Richard Cahill, a Panamanian-American whose dad had labored for the Panama Canal Authority within the Canal Zone.

He urged we begin at the start – the ruins of Panama Viejo, the primary metropolis based by Europeans on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Panama Viejo turned well-known as a switch level for Spanish galleons crusing up from Peru ladened with gold and silver. It featured a closely defended repository for these riches – a Ft. Knox-by-the-sea.

The issue was that every one of its cannons had been aimed out to sea and an English pirate by the identify of Henry Morgan – sure, the identical Captain Morgan who now hosts celebration animals in rum commercials – got here by land from the Caribbean aspect in 1671.

The Casco Viejo “newer” outdated metropolis has been restored to its colonial glory. Picture by Robert Waite

Shock Occasion

A lot as Hannibal stunned the Romans by traversing the Alps (and the Japanese would later shock the British at Singapore), Morgan routed the Spaniards and seized the booty.

The retreating Spanish defenders torched the town, leaving the ruins you see at present. Highlights right here embody the Previous Panama Museum and the remnants of a cathedral, the place you may climb to get a panoramic view.

A “newer” outdated metropolis, Casco Viejo, is properly value exploring.

A lot of it has been restored to its colonial glory and it’s full of heritage buildings, together with the Presidential Palace and the Church of San Jose with its beautiful Golden Altar. There are quite a few retailers and eating places within the district.

However the spotlight of any Panama Metropolis stopover is a go to to the Panama Canal and its surrounding nature reserves and points of interest.

One of the best place to start out is the Miraflores Customer Middle, positioned on the Miraflores Locks. There’s a viewing platform the place you may gaze down on the ships making the transit east or west, to the Caribbean or the Pacific.

An enormous container ship passes by means of the not too long ago expanded canal. Picture by Robert Waite

Political Intrigue

The Miraflores complicated additionally a accommodates a multi-floor museum and an IMAX Theater.

Taken collectively, they supply a wonderful narrative of the canal’s storied however typically lethal historical past, together with a failed Eighteen Eighties French try that price 20,000 lives.

Additionally they element the political machinations that subsequently resulted in Panama separating from Colombia to type its personal nation in 1903, in addition to America’s collection of Panama over Nicaragua as the popular route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.

The canal — which accomplished a sizeable growth in 2016 to permit for megaships to make the passage — is an engineering marvel, whereas the previous U.S. Canal Zone is an early instance of a rigorously deliberate neighborhood, meticulously laid out and properly maintained to today.

Panamanians are notably happy with the truth that they’ve run the 50-mile (82 km) lengthy waterway since 1999 with out incident or interruption (vs. the rival Suez Canal, for instance).

The revolutionary and informative Biomuseo was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. Picture by Karen Shigeishi-Waite

Pure Wonders

However the true wonders in and across the Zone are pure ones.

You’ll do properly to go to Panama Metropolis’s Biomuseo (Biodiversity Museum). This architectural gem was designed by Frank Gehry to resemble the layers of the jungle cover (which is particularly evident throughout a tropical bathe).

Inside you study that Panama is comparatively new geologically, but remarkably various as a result of its geographic positioning between Colombia to the south and neighboring Central American nations to the north.

Armed with this information, we subsequent headed out on a small boat onto Gatun, a man-made lake that types about two-fifths of the canal’s size. A lot of the land across the lake is a nature protect, teeming with wildlife, together with a number of species of monkeys, tropical birds, and the occasional snake.

Touring the canal in a small boat. Picture by Karen Shigeishi-Waite

Monkey Enterprise

Solely locals are allowed to navigate the waters of the lake – and, in any occasion, solely they {and professional} guides know the perfect locations to rise up shut and private with white-faced capuchins and different of our curious primate cousins.

You additionally end up fairly near the big ships plying the lake, together with immense container vessels. The ships hold to a prescribed route marked with buoys and function underneath orders to not cease – so it’s finest to not tarry whereas crossing in entrance of them. 

An equally rewarding expertise is a stroll alongside the Canal Zone’s Pipeline Street Path by means of Soberania Nationwide Park. Whereas the pipeline itself was by no means constructed, the walkway is a superb alternative to see further species of birds, together with Toucans, making this comparatively simple trek particularly well-liked with birders.

Dugout canoes transport guests to indigenous village. Picture by Robert Waite

Cultural Preservation

A spotlight of our time in Panama was a go to to the Embera indigenous village on the shores of the Gatun River. After driving 90 minutes out of Panama Metropolis you board a motorized piragua (dugout canoe) and journey upstream by means of lush forest to succeed in a neighborhood comprised of roughly 80 people.

Alongside the way in which you’ll doubtless see Amazon, Ringed, and Inexperienced Kingfishers; the Little Blue and Inexperienced Heron; and the Nice Egret, to call just a few species.   

The Embera have relocated to this website from Panama’s distant Darien province. Located on the Colombian border, it has been overrun by Haitian and Venezuelan refugees. In search of to keep up their tradition and id, the Embera have moved additional up the isthmus – and nearer to curious vacationers, with whom they share their traditions, together with meals and dance.

Embera ladies carry out conventional welcoming dance. Picture by Robert Waite

Only a Style

Our total impression on the finish of the stopover expertise is that we should always have stopped over longer.

I discussed this to a good friend of our information, Woodrow Oldfield, who heads up advertising for Go to Panama.

“That’s actually the intent of the promotion. We offer you a style and also you’ll need to come again, as you study simply how way more our nation has to supply.”

Certainly, he advised me that they’re launching a brand new marketing campaign known as “Dwell For Extra,” geared toward what he calls “discerning vacationers.” And who amongst us thinks we’re something lower than discerning?

In line with Oldfield, the marketing campaign is concerning the abundance of riches that Panama presents. “Panama is on the intersection of nature, cultures, geographies, and passions,” he exudes. “It’s a spot the place totally different worlds converge: conventional and fashionable, cosmopolitan and rural, Caribbean and Pacific, biodiversity and commerce.”

Briefly, Panama is greater than only a path between two seas or a spot to stash your riches – and it’s positively value a go to. We plan to return.

Trendy Panama Metropolis framed by ruins of historic cathedral in Panama Viejo. Picture by Robert Waite

If You Go

The Copa stopover is legitimate for as much as six nights and 7 days. As all the time, test on public well being advisories upfront. We travelled in mid-November, previous to the Omicron variant wave. Most venues had been open, however the IMAX Theater at Miraflores was closed.

We stayed on the Bristol Lodge within the fashionable, enterprise part of the town. A better option could be one of many heritage inns in Casco Viejo, the town’s UNESCO-listed historic quarter. Superior properties  embody Central Lodge Panama and La Concordia Boutique Lodge.

A very good place for a cocktail is Casa Casco Mojitos, which has a rooftop bar. Primitivo Steakhouse & Membership is a superb alternative for dinner.

Our land preparations had been made by means of Enchanting Travels, Greenwood Village, Colorado.  Information Richard Cahill may be reached at 

Helpful data may be discovered at

Prime photograph credit score: Robert Waite

Writer Bio:

Robert Waite has been writing about journey for 50 years. His articles have appeared in publications from the Boston Globe and San Francisco Examiner to the Toronto Star and Washington Submit. Search for his upcoming posts on Ecuador and the Galapagos right here at

Additionally by Robert Waite:

Get Your Thrills from the Sea on Route 133

And by Clark Norton:

Who was the true St. Patrick? Discover out right here.

Reader Feedback:

As all the time, Robert Waite’s posting is splendidly informative. Bravo from a fellow traveler! I’d like so as to add a studying advice. Anybody who shares Robert’s (and Clark’s) curiosity within the historic backdrop of a vacation spot would do properly to safe a replica of “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914, David McCullough’s epic account of an engineering miracle that was solely completed at the price of a humanitarian nightmare. (Robert alludes to that price, an estimate 20,000 lives, in his article.) — Frank Viviano

Clark’s reply:

Thanks, Frank, to your sort phrases about our extremely gifted contributing author, Robert Waite, and your all the time glorious observations and recommendations. Sure, the David McCullough ebook is required studying for anybody going to Panama or who simply needs to know extra about this fascinating but brutal piece of historical past.

Robert Waite’s reply: I need to be a part of Clark in thanking Frank for mentioning “Path Between the Seas” – positively a must-read for anybody going to Panama and/or passing by means of the canal. I did point out the ebook in an article I printed on the politics of the Panama Canal Treaty, which may be discovered right here:

Bob, Your journey sounds nice.  I may relate to your expertise as a result of a number of years in the past I listened to the Path Between the Seas and was amazed by the dedication of first the French after which the US underneath Teddy Roosevelt to take it over to work in direction of completion.  To suppose the canal might need gone by means of Nicaragua as that was an possibility on the time the French had been underneath building. — Bob Lowenthal

Been ready to go to Panama for a very long time we’ve really booked a visit two totally different occasions and needed to cancel. Now I’m afraid to get on cruise ships due to Covid. Can be good if I may simply fly into Panama keep at a resort and have my my itinerary deliberate out for me to all of the neat locations. Actually loved your article look ahead for extra thanks. — CC Leight



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