By Debi Lander
Mention Panama and thoughts of the famous canal come to mind. A glance at the world map underscores the country’s strategic location between north and south. One can easily see why the isthmus of Panama was chosen for construction of a 50-mile waterway. The marine shortcut saves transportation time, distance and costs, plus provides a safer route.
The plan to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans faced one of the greatest environmental challenges: excavating through ponderous mountains and dense jungles. The French, who had successfully built the Suez Canal, began work in 1880, but financial problems and tropical diseases halted the project. When Panama gained independence in 1903, the United States stepped in to continue the endeavor. The engineering feat was not only costly, but thousands lost their lives (22,000 French alone). From its opening in 1914 until December 1999, the United States administered the Canal and then turned operations over to Panama. Work to double the capacity and space for larger vessels commenced 2007 to 2016.
Many curious travelers take a cruise that includes passage through the locks of the Panama Canal; however, I suggest you instead consider a land-based exploration of the country. Nonstop flights from Orlando and Miami make it easy to get there. While the destination seems exotic, there’s no need to change American money or time zones. Panama rests within the Eastern time zone and accepts US dollars.
Arrive in Panama City, not to be confused with Panama City, Florida, and tour the historic area much like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, complete with a fort resembling St. Augustine’s Castillo. Colorful shops, historical monuments, squares and restaurants dot the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town.
Recent building in the downtown city center displays an ultramodern skyline that looks like Miami or a smaller version of Dubai. Panama’s economy depends on the highly successful management of the canal, and new wealth appears evident. Glass and steel high-rise office buildings and apartments border the coastline, parks intermingle with business quadrants and traffic is problematic.
Lodging options run from boutique hotels in the old town to name brand hotel chains downtown. Considered an urban oasis, the Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Club recently opened at the far end of the city. Yes, a luxury hotel and golf course right in the city!
Of course, a tour of the Panama Canal Visitor Center is mandatory. You’ll get a close-up view of ships entering and exiting the locks. A video highlights footage from the complex construction and a small museum displays fascinating artifacts. Afterward, take a boat excursion on Lake Gatun. On my two-hour outing, I passed massive container ships transiting the waterway and rainforest wildlife including three different species of monkeys, a wide variety of tropical birds and lush jungle scenery.
Another day my group left the city to explore the mountainous Anton Valley area where the highlight was a close encounter with a tree sloth in the wild. The eco-lodge offers meals and overnight accommodations. Guided hikes within the rainforest range from a short 30-minute outing to half and full days.
If you’d like to experience Panamanian paradise, hire a driver to take you to Buenaventura Golf and Beach Resort area, about two and a half hours out of the city. The colonial architecture blends with authentic local arts and decor. Relax around the sparkling pools, a meandering lagoon or the black sand beaches. The more energetic will find plenty of sports such as golf, tennis and boating.
I wasn’t expecting to give Panama such high praise, but I now feel it offers real value and a chance to explore beyond the ordinary.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Hiking in the rainforest.