Lifestyle

Panama boasts more than just a big canal

When people think of Panama, it is most often in the context of a cruise through the Panama Canal.

Without question, that is the most popular tourist activity in Panama. It is a fascinating journey that is a tribute to man’s ability to overcome incredible obstacles to achieve a goal deemed worthy of the effort. Today, the Panama Canal remains a sterling example of yesterday’s technology still serving us well today with the transit of thousands of ships a year. Covering a land-bridge that links North and South America, the Republic of Panama is best known for the 40-mile-long shipping canal, which is cut along a gap between mountains, linking the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the canal, Panama is largely unexplored by tourists. Only a few hardy adventurers, researchers and spirited travelers have experienced Panama’s amazing diversity of flora and fauna, secluded beaches, tropical beauty and historic treasures.

The name, Panama, means “abundance of fish and butterflies” in an indigenous language, which gives a good indication of the wild wonders to be found here beyond its daunting but fascinating capital, Panama City. I spent 14 weeks in Panama as an International Police Advisor in 1989 immediately following Operation Just Cause, and came to know the country pretty well.

Panama has a significant history stretching back thousands of years, from its eight indigenous peoples (including the colorful Kunas of the San Blas Islands) to its turbulent colonial occupation. Spanish forts stand along the coastline, overlooking the blue waters once patrolled by famous pirates like Henry Morgan, and where Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea.

It is the natural beauty of the isthmus that offers so much for visitors, however. Around 30 percent of Panama is made up of 15 national parks and forest reserves, and 10 wildlife sanctuaries, like the incredible Parque Nacional Darién, which is the most magnificent wilderness area in Central America. Archipelagos of about 1,500 offshore islands, their white soft beaches lapped by crystal clear waters, sport virgin rainforest and are an untouched paradise for divers, snorkelers, deep-sea fishing, water sports and sunbathers.

Those “in the know” can probably be forgiven for keeping the delights of Panama a secret from the flood of modern tourism. It has preserved the integrity of this overlooked part of the world where the sun always shines and it is possible to swim in two oceans in a single morning.

Panama has a tropical climate, with temperatures staying constant all year round, ranging from 90 degrees during the daytime to 70 degrees in the evening. Humidity is generally high, especially during the rainy season, which is between October and November. The best time to travel to Panama is between December and March.

In 1534, the enterprising King of Spain, Charles V, mooted the idea of building a shipping canal across the central American isthmus to connect the Caribbean and Pacific oceans, but it was not until 1880 that the French took up the challenge, under the auspices of Ferdinand de Lesseps, fresh from his triumph with the Suez Canal. The French attempt proved disastrous, daunted by disease and the inhospitable conditions, which ended up claiming an estimated 22,000 lives before construction was abandoned in 1889. In 1904, the United States government decided to complete the canal. They first set about to improve conditions for laborers to avoid the problems the French experienced. On Aug. 15, 1914, the cargo ship “Ancon” became the first of hundreds of thousands of vessels to traverse the canal, which has been hailed as one of the greatest engineering wonders of the world.

Today, control of the canal has been handed over to Panama. In addition to cargo ships that undertake the eight-hour trip through the canal, eliminating the long and treacherous route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, there is significant non commercial vessel traffic as well. Among the 14,000 ships a year that pass through the canal are hundreds of cruise ships, carrying excited tourists, and pleasure boats from small motor boats to ocean-going yachts. On the shore, the canal provides a spectacle for thousands more tourists who flock to watch the ships pass by, making it one of the most popular attractions for those who visit cosmopolitan Panama City, from where the waterway stretches to the city of Colon at the Caribbean end.

The canal essentially consists of a series of locks and lakes, including the massive Lake Gatun, which was created by flooding acres of forest during construction. Another of the most spectacular parts of the canal is the Gaillard Cut, where laborers hacked their way through nine miles of solid rock. Cruising through the canal is a spectacular experience, more like sailing along a wide, natural tropical river, overhung with lush jungle foliage, than traveling along a man-made waterway. Whether by land or sea, Panama is a fascinating place to visit.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way: jvaughn@worldvoyagervacations.com.

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