Often overshadowed by its Central American neighbour, Costa Rica, Panama has plenty of beauty, culture, history, ecoadventures and romance of its own – without the tourist crowds. Irene Middleman Thomas shows us the way to go
What tiny nation (just 29,762 square miles) is the site of the Free Zone (the second largest import and redistribution center in the world,) boasts an international banking center with over 100 banks, the highest per capita income of its region, has a literacy rate of over 90 percent and an inflation rate of only 1.2 percent? It has some of the world’s most bio-diverse rain forests and more bird species (1000) than Canada and the United States combined, and its national parks cover five million acres. Hint: it’s also home to a canal through which some 15,000 million-plus tonnes ships transit each year. If you guessed Panama, you’re right.
The U.S military phased out its many bases and operations in Panama some 10 years ago, and this now democratic nation is moving quickly away from its previous third-world image. Traditionally a tourism underachiever, although a business travellers’ Mecca, Panama is now steadily attracting worldwide attention.
Known worldwide for the 98-year-old Panama Canal, an engineering marvel unequalled anywhere, Panama is in fact vital to world economics for much more than the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the Canal each year. Boasting a myriad of rain forests, relatively untouched indigenous peoples, pre-Columbian artifacts and ruins, hundreds of islands, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific beaches, peaks towering to 11,000 feet and lush hill country and valleys formed by extinct volcanoes, Panama is an eco-tourism paradise.
This link between two continents, never more than 120 miles wide, is home to countless animal species of both North and South America. Panama, unlike many other countries with equatorial rain forests, depends upon rainfall to maintain the water level of its economic lifeblood, the Canal. Over 10 percent of the land is part of a protective network of national parks, harbouring more than 10,000 species of trees, 950 species of orchids, over 100 types of palms and 800 bird species.
Panama City, the capital, even hosts Metropolitan Park, a rain forest within its city limit. Visitors are welcome in the Smithsonian Institution’s Tropical Research Center (Barro Colorado Island,) open to the public for a nominal admission charge. The city is actually ‘three’ cities: the modern capitol with its skyscrapers, sprawling highways and sleek waterfront luxury apartments; the 17th century Casco Viejo, which is the chic colonial section currently being lovingly restored; and Panama Viejo, the ruins of the 16th century city where the Spanish settlers established themselves.
Ecotourism agencies are abundant and eager to take visitors to see toucans, macaws and endangered Harpie eagles, to name just a few. From Panama City, it’s less than an hour to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre, where you can spy from a close distance on exotic tropical birds and animals from a 100-foot nature observatory tower. (www.pipelineroad.org.) Animals such as jaguars, rare golden frogs, monkeys, sloths, bushdogs, anteaters and capybaras are visible in the various rain forests just short drives away from Panama City. There are over 500 species of fish in Panama, with superb diving and snorkeling in the coral reefs and excellent deep sea fishing off both coasts.
It would be a crime to visit only the city, with all of the wild diversity of nature, culture and terrain within such short distances. A perfect time of year to explore Panama’s variety is during Carnival, those few days of wild celebrating before the religious Lenten season begins. While the carnivals in the countryside, (provincia) are especially renowned and adored, even Panama City puts on quite a spectacle, attracting thousands of people annually.
Travellers could travel from one locale to another and take in the special touches each site makes their own. Las Tablas and Los Santos are particularly famed, along with the carnivals of Ocu and Chitré, Dolega, Penonomé and Aguadulce. Much more family-oriented (no topless here) than Rio or New Orleans, expect to see lavish floats, bedecked local beauties, town drum circles, clowns and a whole lot of music and dancing. Friday is when the festivities begin, with the coronation of the queen. The celebrating continues for the next three days, with different themes, including the custom of the culecos, a folkloric tradition in which spectators are hosed down (actually drenched) from a large water truck while everyone frolics and dances to booming salsa from outdoor speakers. Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday.) the whole shebang ends with the very Panamanian custom of the ‘burial of the sardine.’
Perhaps the most awesome of all sights in Panama City, is the Canal. Between 1880 and 1914, at least 75,000 people, many who perished in their struggles, triumphed in building it, joining the world’s two largest oceans and creating a vital link in the earth’s transportation chain. The Canal was finally handed over to the Panamanians in 2000, after an arduous and long process of transition that began in 1977 with the ratification of the Torrijos-Carter treaty. Now 97 years old, still being run with the original technology and machinery intact, the Canal handles more than 15,000 shops each year from about 70 nations. In Panama City, more than 1,000 tourists a day visit the Miraflores locks, the Canal’s opening to the Pacific. Watching vessels being lowered 85 feet to sea level through a system of three sets of locks, using 26 million gallons of fresh water each time, is an awe-inspiring experience, even to the most non-technological sightseer. There are free presentations daily at the locks, and tour companies can also provide full and partial canal transits.
For a thrilling side trip, visit the San Blas Islands, a palm-bedecked 300-plus island archipelago stretching across approximately 200 miles of the country’s Caribbean coastline. This area is particularly noted for its world-class snorkeling as well as its distinctive Kuna Indians, who still live in simple, traditional ways and dress daily in their exquisitetly appliquéd Mola blouses, headdresses and elaborate ornamentation. Day trips are easily arranged in Panama City, and overnight accommodations (ranging from rustic to cushy) are available as well. Roundtrip flights to the San Blas Islands from Panama City, are priced very reasonably.
Panamanians like to call themselves a sancocho (Panama’s national dish, a spicy, colorful chicken and vegetable stew.) A fascinating mix of descendants of Spanish settlers, African-Caribbeans, coastal and mountain Indians, European and North Americans, Chinese, East Indians and a healthy dose of blended Mestizos, Panamanian culture is unique in Latin America. Perhaps it is because of the strong United States influence, due to the Canal Zone and the thousands of its workers and military troops and their families who lived in Panama for most of the last century. U.S. stores and restaurants are ubiquitous, many people speak passable English, and even the style of dress seems somehow more gringo than tropical.
Yet as Panamanians climb into their fabulously decorated folkloric city buses, or as their hips sway gently to the infectious rhythms of merengue and salsa emanating from a doorway, or as a luscious-looking, chilled papaya cup beckons from a sidewalk cafe, Panama’s own pulse plays to you. You’ll fall for its very unique charms, garantizado.