GOOD MORNING, PANAMA!!
Like a Latin American Rip Van Winkle, Panama is waking from a long, deep sleep.
For ninety years this odd shaped country, the land bridge between North and South America, lay in the consuming and perhaps suffocating embrace of the United Sates.
Her sleep so deep; her dependence so total, that only now, it seems, is she moving toward her destiny and promise, a destiny shaped by one of the world’s most unique geographies, and a people so kind, one wonders if they weren’t better off sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
Travelers to Panama today are lucky.
They will witness the country’s uneven, sometimes frustrating movement forward as it opens up and shares its astonishing diversity and beauty.
Today the country beckons the curious traveler with a promise of adventure. Costa Rica, with which Panama is inevitably compared, apparently suffers by comparison: Costa Rica has no authentic, indigenous tribes; much less history, virtually no ruins…and many more visitors. First-timers to Panama, however, should book their trip through one of the handful of local, reputable tour operators like Ancon Expeditions. With its history and commitment to the country’s natural resources and ecology, it’s a good bet.
Casco Viejo, the old city, is a perfect starting point. You’ll see few tourists in this part of town, and that’s shame.
A far cry from the glittering glass buildings of modern Panama, which jar with the tropical landscape, you’ll be forgiven if Casco reminds of an extended (and more authentic) Old San Juan. As befits a onetime Spanish settlement (1519), and a subsequent French one, Casco Viejo is elegantly restoring its colonial buildings. Bright white national landmarks, old homes with bougainvillea-draped balconies, and, best of all, several little plazas invite languid drinks and intimate conversation among the palm trees and breezes of the pacific
The Plaza de Bolivar is perhaps the most popular. The Café Assis and the striking old Colonial Hotel put chairs and tables along the sidewalks, overlooking the impressive statue of Simon de Bolivar and the more impressive, actually grand, Cathedral. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a wedding at night. Panama’s famous and well-heeled will flood the church with bright lights for filming the elegantly dressed and exquisitely beautiful men and women. The church’s gold altar and towering white arches will be dramatically highlighted…and easily seen from the tables scattered around the plaza. Panamanians and visitors come here to sip strong coffee, good local beer, laugh, kiss, and enjoy life and each other.
A few winding streets away is Independence Plaza, where Panama announced its independence from Spain and then Colombia. This is where the Canal Museum (Museo De Canal Interoceanico de Panama www.sinfo.net/pr/museum) is. Variously the home of a colonial post office, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, the building has lost none of its original beauty, and sophistication when it underwent the transformation to become preeminent guardian and explainer of the torturous and convoluted history of the canal’s construction.
But if Panama is anything, it’s a celebration of an astonishing biodiversity, its wildlife.
Allegedly there are more species of birds here than in all of North America. And with two sea coasts a scant fifty miles apart, fourteen national parks, jungle, highlands, mist-shrouded mountain ranges, why wouldn’t it be anything other than a complex quilt of colors and sounds.
One of the most enduring images in a trip marked by already indelible memories is arriving at the Embera indigenous-tribe camp site.
After a bumpy ride through African-like savanna by motor transport, and a brief trip by a dugout canoe along still, dark waterways, one suddenly arrives at a red-clay campsite dotted with palm-covered, open-air huts. There, in a small cluster, Embera men and women – boys and girls – stand on a ridge “dressed” in vivid native colors and beads, playing simple instruments of greeting, and welcoming us warmly to their home,
It looked and felt like a National Geographic cover. Most of the young boys and girls were nude from the waist up, and whatever “clothing” there was, consisted of a loin cloth or thong for the men, and bright colored wraps for the women, worn from the waist down.
There wasn’t a hint of self-consciousness among them. Or us.
Little kids anywhere from 4 to 6 years old broke away from the elders and came down to take our hands or fingers or thumbs in their small, rich, coco- brown hands and quietly walked us up to the communal, straw-covered house where we were welcomed, in Spanish, by the chief or Leader. He speaks his native language to his people.
They cooked for us…fish from the river and fried plantains, and talked to us of their culture and their history. Of their love of the land and struggle to survive.
The day unfolded normally with strikingly handsome young men playing marbles in the dust, and raven-haired, doe-eyed girls and women sitting quietly by the crafts they made and were selling, or laughing among themselves at some private joke or story.
The little ones played variously with a pet monkey, patting him like a family cat, or squabbled playfully.
After lunch, in a replay of the African Queen, two young men took us on a canoe ride that slid silently through jungle waterways, past dense, dark islands. Eventually, too soon for me, we came upon a hidden waterfall spilling into a deep clear pool of water that was so beckoning, off came the clothes, and with child-like glee, in we dove and played with an abandon that made me wonder if this could be the Fountain of Youth.
Is this accessible to the average traveler? Yes, indeed. Good tour operators can arrange these visits, and in fact are the only ones who can.
There are many roads to travel in Panama, and choosing the less traveled is easy to do.
With time, the traveler could visit the San Blas Islands and spend hours with the Kuna Indians, one the best preserved indigenous cultures of the Americas. Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean delight, is its own adventure as is Darien, 65 thousand acres of protected rainforest, deserted beaches, wetlands and all the wildlife native to this virtually untouched frontier.
For the curious and the eager, this is the time to visit Panama. Now, as it takes its first steps into the world of tourism. Now, when it’s yours to discover!
When You Go
• Yes, you can drink the water from the tap! The Americans created a perfect filtration system.
• And they also established the greenback as the national currency. The Balboa is the official monetary unit of Panama, but US dollars are dispensed in ATM’s (lots of them) and are the basis of all transactions. Finding a Balboa is difficult!
• Do go to www.panamainfo.com (1 800 231/0568) for reliable country overviews and FAQ’s.
• Do sign up with a reputable Tour Operator and talk through the kinds of expeditions that appeal. Ancon Expeditions seems to be among the most experienced, and offers reliable customer service, as I found out when an internal flight went snafu. Their guides are trained naturalists and know their stuff. www.anconexpeditions.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• IPAT (Panama Tourism Office) is improving its services rapidly and has a major commitment from the government to develop the country’s service and promote its attractions www.panamatours.com
• Some basic Spanish is helpful if you’re out and about by yourself, but many people speak English, a residual benefit of the long US presence.
• Food? Fish. And fresh fruit. There are an impressive number of international restaurants, mostly in the modern city, near the hotels. Food prices are very reasonable.
• Delta from Boston to Atlanta to Panama makes sense. Interestingly, the airline came in number 2 in a recent report by Consumer Reports for “best overall service” for the last three months of 2001. Continental goes from Boston to Newark to Panama City. Check your air line
• The Gamboa Rainforest Resort (www.gamboaresort.com) Toll Free: 1 877 800/1690 is the only resort in the rainforest. It’s classy and, yes, pricey. Surrounded by spectacular views, the architects cleverly built the resort ‘s main building with virtually all glass, bringing the outdoors in. The vaulted ceiling is most impressive as are the use of fabric, wooden walkways and placement of local vegetation and artifacts. I think the thirty-five dollar tariff for the forest tram ride is steep, but Gamboa is worth a visit and a night’s stay or two. Visitors will appreciate the beauty of its terraced pool and personal hammock. The rooms are quite elegant and offer sweeping views of the landscape. Don’t hesitate to negotiate a price. .
• Best local eateries:
Restaurant Boulevard Balboa, on the causeway, is nothing more than a diner where the locals, business folk, politicians and the like hang out. Best banana splits in the country…maybe anywhere. Good energy
• Continue down the Boulevard, past the Smithsonian Exhibits (worth a ten minute visit), along the Pacific Ocean, you’ll come to a cluster of restaurants. Try Mi Ranchito. Sweeping views of the new city, the ocean and very good fish.
A story unto itself, the Panama Canal is considered the “eight wonder” of the modern world. Considering that it links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the first time in 3 million years (before that the land had a natural gap between North and South America), and that it took seventy-five thousand people to build it, with a death toll in the thousands, it is a wonder.
Canal Tours are very popular and can easily be arranged. There is a public viewing spot the Mira Flores lock that’s worth a quick visit
Canal Trivia for the Canal buffs
• In 2000, 13,653 ships transited the waterway
• The average commercial vessel toll amounts to $46,656.73
• On April 12, 2001, the luxury liner Radiance of the Sea broke canal toll records by paying $202,176.76 for passage.
• The lowest toll was paid by Richard Halliburton, who paid 36 cents to swim across! It took him ten days to complete
• The canal is fifty miles long, and the average vessel spends about twenty-four hours in Canal waters, although the actual transit takes about nine hours to complete