Panama: More than just a canal

We hop into a canoe to find out exactly what makes this country tick.


With its skyscrapers and coastal setting, Panama City, the capital of the Republic of Panama, looks a little like Miami.

But, look a little closer and you discover that Panama is still a Third World country in the throes of reinventing itself as a hot spot for tourists and a financial hub. And this is why this country, a melting pot of cultures, is an especially exciting country to explore.

Lodged between the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, this small country's population is estimated to be 3.3million with about one million people living in the capital, which was founded in 1519 by the Spaniard Pedro Arias Dávila.

As the Isthmus of Panama was found to be the link between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, Panama City became an important commercial centre. From here gold and silver from the Spanish conquests of South America were sent back to Spain.

In 1671, the city was attacked and pilfered by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan, and eventually destroyed by a fire.

Getting there

Flights London to Panama City: via Madrid from £743 return.
Hotel Bristol Panama: from US$215 (£134) per night B&B.
Flights Panama City to Bocas del Toro: from US$200 (£125) return.
Playa Tortuga Hotel & Beach Resort, Bocas del Toro doubles from US$135 (£84) per night.

Learning about the history at the ruins of Panamá La Vieja (Old Panama), I started to understand what makes this city tick.

At Casco Antiguo, the old quarter where the city was rebuilt, the architecture is mainly 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial in style. A slum until a few years ago, the area is being developed and its narrow streets and squares are bustling with cafés, restaurants, boutiques and traders selling everything from hats to food.

The main tourist attraction is the Panama Canal that was built by the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Canal Zone, a former US territory, was handed over to Panama only in late 1999. As Panama started reaping the rewards from the canal, the country began to develop. A quick tour of the Miraflores Visitors Centre, at the Miraflores Locks, gives a good orientation of the Panama Canal's history and future developments.

From the observation terraces it is fascinating to watch ships, some of which barely fit the lock chambers, being lifted up to pass through the canal.

But nothing beats being there, even if you have passed through on a cruise ship. Doing a transit on a smaller boat is a different experience, as it gives you a chance to get up close and personal with the canal and its workings.

For years the country lurking behind the lush greenery, which you pass as you sail through the canal, had always intrigued me. So, here I was. What I discovered surpassed anything I could have imagined.

At the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, on the banks of the Chagres River and Panama Canal, just 30 minutes outside the city, the aerial tram whisked me through rainforest peppered with exotic plants and animals including snakes. The highlight was a trip to Monkey Island. After tearing along the Panama Canal in a small boat, I reached the shores of Lake Gatún and was greeted by white-faced capuchin monkeys.

A rather special day out was a visit to the Emberá Indian Village in the Chagres National Park. After getting into a dug-out canoe, a group of us sailed across Lake Alajuela and along the Chagres River to the village where the chief and his people were on hand to give us a rapturous welcome. It was like being catapulted back in time. The way of life can't have changed much since the 1500s, when Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) arrived.

Panama is a challenging country and, to quote an American I met, it will teach you patience. The country is making every effort to be a tourist destination but don't expect an international level of service, even at the top hotels.

The food is delicious. With all the mouth-watering tropical fruits and vegetables I could easily have turned vegetarian, if it had not been for the corvina, a fish similar to sea bass which seems to be on every menu.

Panama City has some good restaurants such as Oliva y Sal, which seemed to be frequented by Americans living there, and several kosher restaurants .

The Jewish community, which is united under the auspices of Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panamá, is divided into three parts. The largest is the Sephardic community (Shevet Ahim Synagogue). In the first half of the 20th century many Jews fleeing countries such as Syria settled in Panama. There is also an Ashkenazi community (Beth El Synagogue) founded in the 1940s by a group of families who left Europe before the Second World War, and a reform synagogue, the Kol Shearith Israel, which is conservative with a small "c".

Jews have played a significant role in developing the country. According to the World Jewish Congress website, Panama is the only country outside Israel to have had two Jewish presidents in the 20th century.

After spending so much time in the city, I decided it was time to laze on Panama's beautiful beaches. The Bristol Buenaventura resort, on the Pacific Coast, about an hour and half's drive from the city is an idyllic spot.

But for sheer beauty it is hard to beat Bocas del Toro, about an hour's flight from Panama City, on the Caribbean coast. Even though the archipelago, with nine major islands, is the locals' most popular beach destination, it is a well-kept secret internationally. The way of life is laid-back and the islands are unspoilt. Even the capital Bocas del Toro, on the Isla Colón, which has a few shops and small hotels, is not crowded. For me it is the nearest thing to paradise and the coral reefs are spectacular.

I took a boat trip round the islands and keys and saw stunning beaches fringed with mangrove, and the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, a combination of forest and beach. Lunch was at Restaurante Alfonso, a lovely spot in the middle of the ocean.

Don't leave Bocas without seeing Lin Gillingham's botanical garden. These 20 acres were jungle when she and her husband bought it about 12 years ago, and have since created a tropical garden where you can bump into monkeys, birds and snakes. It is easy to understand why people fall under the charms of Bocas and never leave.

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