Panama Canal and Travel Guide

Punte de las Americas

This country that connects North and South America and also the canal linking the Altlantic and Pacific oceans offers a lot to check out, from vacant beaches to heavy jungles. Panama’s historical past is inextricably linked to the planet’s most magnificent short cut, joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Panama Canal. However this thin isthmus, squashed in between Costa Rica and Colombia in the tropics, features a good deal more to offer tourists.

Varied natural panoramas, from cloud-forested highlands to palm-fringed islands and steaming rainforest, together with Central America’s most vibrant and multicultural capital city, offer perfect settings for a number of activities, which includes trekking, white-water rafting, scuba and surfing. You can even encounter distinctive indigenous civilizations, party through the night, or even relax and get away the crowds.

It’s modest area, coupled with an effective, economical transportation system means that it is possible to take advantage of the pleasures of sophisticated city living in the capital, and a few hours later on end up relaxing on the powdery sands of a exotic beach or tramping through jungle down the Camino Real – the conquistadors‘ first booty path. Spanish tradition is just one of numerous ethnical influences in Panama, which also derive from the substantial migrant workforces who constructed the railway as well as canal between the oceans, fused with practices of the eight indigenous peoples which survived the Spanish Conquest.

The well-preserved colonial forts and awe-inspiring customs house in  Portobelo make a rewarding day-trip from Panama City. You will probably find it very difficult to imagine exactly how this now-deprived community was among the wealthiest ports in the “New World” throughout the seventeenth century. Its abundant spoils, destined for the coffers of the Spanish Crown, attracted the eye of buccaneers such as Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake – whose sunken coffin allegedly lies just offshore.

The Panama Canal

Panama Canal

Nothing can prepare you for the visual splendour of the world’s most important canal. The Panama Canal is a massive feat of human endeavour, but sadly it claimed the lives of an estimated 27, 000 workers, mainly from the West Indies. Completed in 1914, it is the benchmark for 20th-century canal engineering, and remains a vital piece of national infrastructure. About 14,000 ships and 300 million tons of freight traverse the Panama Canal per year. The Panama Canal is currently undergoing a $5Bn expansion and the canal works due for completion in 2015.

Coming from the Pacific, this 78km canal winds its way through captivating rainforest before gliding among the many jungle-topped islands of Lago Gatún – a huge man made lake approximately the dimensions of St. Vincent. The canal ultimately turns out in to the Caribbean from the Gatún Locks just beyond the city of Colón. The majority of tourists content themselves with a trip to Miraflores Locks Panama Canal Visitor Centre, a 15-minute cab journey from Panama city centre, where a museum provides a video of the historical past of the canal development.

On the other hand, think about a motorboat excursion on Lago Gatún spotting giant sloths, monkeys cavorting from the treetops and crocodiles skulking in the shallows, or even speed over the isthmus beside the Panama Canal on the historical Panama Railway, the one-way transcontinental trip costs $35 and takes an hour or so. Nonetheless absolutely nothing is better than exploring down the Panama canal in a motorboat, making what’s referred to as a transit. A $160 (approximately) ticket with one of the many companies provides you with a partial transit, a four to five-hour journey, including meals and well guided commentary.

The first phase of the new canal expansion project is the dry excavations of the 218 meter wide trench connecting the Culebra Cut with the Pacific coast, removing 47 million cubic meters of earth and rock.

The Third Set of Canal Locks Project will expand the Panama Canal. The expansion will be greater than at any time since the canal construction. The Panama Canal Authority proposed the project after years of study. Panamanian President Martín Torrijos presented the plan on April 24, 2006 and Panamanian citizens approved it in a national referendum on the canal extension by 76.8% of the vote on October 22, 2006. The project will double the canal capacity and allow much more traffic to transit the canal.

The project will create a new lane of traffic along the Canal by constructing a new set of locks. Details of the project include the following integrated components:

  • Construction of two canal lock complexes—one on the Atlantic side and another on the Pacific side—each with three chambers, which include three water-saving basins to preserve the water in the canal;
  • Excavation of new access channels to the new canal locks and the widening of existing navigational channels in the canal; and,
  • Deepening of the navigation channels in the canal and the elevation of Gatun Lake’s maximum operating level.

Panama City attractions

The City is home to 1.3 million of the country’s 3.3 million people. This sprawling coastal metropolis is Central America’s most cosmopolitan capital, by virtue of its status as Latin America’s premier financial and banking centre, and its location at the Pacific entrance to the canal.

The very first colonial settlement, Panamá La Vieja, is in partially restored ruins – it was sacked by the buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1673. Two years later the Spanish established a new Panama City 8km south-west, on a rocky promontory jutting into the bay. This heavily defended site, known as Casco Viejo, was off limits for years in the latter part of the 20th century, but is now blossoming again and is on the Unesco World Heritage List.

You step out on to cobbled streets and leafy plazas dotted with cafés and ancient churches, and lined with grand buildings. One of them has been converted to the fascinating Museo del Canal Interoceánico, which tells the story of the canal.

Outside Casco Viejo, in the main City, you will find an array of top class accommodation, restaurants and nightlife dotted in and around the glittering skyscrapers. Indigenous crafts available in shops and markets are watertight, coiled baskets made by the Wounaan and Emberá, beaded Ngöbe jewellery and the embroidered molas of the Kuna.

The other big draw in Panama City is the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a precious tract of tropical forest within the city and just a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown. Seek out monkeys, agoutis and toucans, then put aside an hour to check out the fine pre-Columbian gold ornaments, ceramics and stone carvings at the nearby national anthropological museum. An easy 30-minute hike from the city centre, the summit of Cerro Ancón boasts similar wildlife sightings and superlative views of the city and canal.

Rainforest Adventures

Almost half of Panama’s territory is luxuriant rainforest that harbours a staggering level of biodiversity and endemism. The best way to explore is to venture into one of Panama’s 14 national parks. The most accessible from the City (an hour’s drive), and with the best-marked trails, is Soberanía in the Panama canal basin. The more adventurous should consider exploring the cascading waterfalls, forested peaks and wildlife of more remote parks, engaging the services of a local guide or park ranger or signing up with one of Panama City’s excellent tour operators.


Though footprints in the morning mud are the nearest you are likely to come to an encounter with a jaguar or tapir, there are plenty of more visible animals. Several species of monkey hang out in the canopy. In the undergrowth you can spot agoutis, armadillos and peccaries snaffling around, plus myriad tiny fluorescent poison-dart frogs hopping around in the leaf litter.

Panama tops the birdwatching list for Central America, boasting 976 species at the last count. While ferreting in the undergrowth for some unremarkable rare endemic will excite only serious twitchers, even the most casual nature-lover cannot fail to be impressed by the glamour birds – parrots, macaws, toucans, hummingbirds and the endangered harpy eagle. Your best chance of sighting this imperious national bird is by visiting an Emberá village in Darién.

Mountain cool

The Chiriquí Highlands offer cool breezes and spectacular verdant mountain scenery. The small, picturesque town of Boquete is the national capital of outdoor adventure and the best place from which to climb Volcán Barú – Panama’s highest point at 3,474m.

Volcan Baru

The summit’s stellar panorama, taking in both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, is ample reward for an otherwise unremarkable uphill slog, but superb hiking is to be had in the surrounding moss-clad cloud forests, replete with hummingbirds, orchids and – the Holy Grail of Boquete birding – dazzling emerald quetzals. For an adrenaline rush, you can fly Tarzan-like along a 12-line canopy ride or go kayaking or white-water rafting. A more leisurely spot of horse-riding will still get you into some splendid country. Boquete is also home to the world’s best gourmet coffee estates.

On the western flank of the volcano, less touristy settlements offer similar outdoor pursuits, and are within reach of some real wilderness hiking. Cielito Su(from $100 double B&B) and Los Quetzales Lodge, whose accommodation ranges from dorm bunks to chalets deep in the rainforest, make excellent bases.

Beach vacation

With over 1,500 islands and substantial belts of sand along the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, there is no shortage of beaches so that even in high season it’s possible to have stretches of sand, or an entire island, to yourself.

Bocas del Toro

While you can wallow in warm Pacific shallows only an hour’s drive from the capital, most visitors are drawn to the country’s two contrasting Caribbean beach scenes. The bohemian vibe and Afro-Caribbean culture of the Bocas del Toro archipelago close to the Costa Rican border has for some years been a favourite of backpackers, lured by days soaking up deserted beaches, powerful surf and colourful coral, and nights partying under the stars. The sandy streets lined with attractive wooden buildings and bar-restaurants built over the water of Bocas Town on Isla Colón – the erstwhile centre of the country’s banana-boom era of the late 1800s – now attract a greater range of visitors and tours: a meander through wetlands in search of the shy manatee; a visit to a traditional Ngöbe village; or a nocturnal outing to spot nesting marine turtles.

Try the remote open-sided thatched beachside bungalows of or the breezy hilltop ranchos, both on Isla Bastimentos from around $250, per double, including meals and transfers.

For a totally different beach scene head east to the dazzling, white-sand beaches encircling postage-stamp-sized palm-topped islands in western Kuna Yala, a 400-island archipelago that stretches for almost 400km up to the Colombian border, home to Panama’s most culturally distinct and politically independent indigenous people, the Kuna. Coconuts from these islands once provided the Kuna’s main revenue, to be bartered with passing Colombian traders, but their picture-postcard appeal now brings in more money from tourists keen for a Robinson Crusoe experience. Swing in a hammock with a good book, or snorkel in the surrounding turquoise waters before enjoying a simple seafood supper and a night in a cane cabaña, being lulled to sleep by the waves. While there, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the densely populated coral outcrops on which the Kuna themselves live, and engage with their fascinating but sadly vanishing culture. The community-run cabañas on Digir makes a good starting point.

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