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A panoply of sights

Panama offers fascinating cultures, a historic city and natural delights

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When my friend Mary took us to the Miraflores Locks, one of the three locks that comprise the Panama Canal, she chose not to stay with us.

"I've been there too many times," said the Ottawa native who now lives in Panama.

That afternoon in the visitors' centre, standing only metres away from the freighters and cruise ships making their way from ocean to ocean through the canal, I was transfixed. How could anyone tire of watching the procession of five million-tonne vessels squeezing through the locks, some with literally just inches to spare on either side, guided by dinky-toy-like electric trains?

More than one million vessels have passed through the Panama Canal since it opened in 1914. The waterways surrounding Panama City are parking lots of anchored freighters awaiting their turn. The canal operates continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing about 14,000 ships to pass through annually. At an average cost of $48,000 per vessel, the canal is obviously a money-maker.

The French first attempted to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but failed. Along came the Americans, with the know-how, the money and the ability to make it happen. It took 11 years and 75,000 people to build the canal. The Americans controlled it until 1979, when it was officially handed over to the Republic of Panama.

I watched the cruise ship Oceana going through the lock, with its passengers crowded onto every deck to take in the spectacle. Mention the Panama Canal to avid cruisers and their eyes will glow with a things-to-do-before-I-die yearning. Frankly, I had the better view. I could clearly see the below-decks portholes drop closer and closer to the water line as the massive ship passed through the two locks and was lowered 16 metres. The only thing the cruisers could see was me waving at them.

Panama City is a bustling, cosmopolitan, scenic city that is at once historic and ultra-modern. Highrise buildings dominate the skyline and construction of better/higher/more extravagant towers is happening everywhere. Alongside big-city slums, the city oozes ostentatious wealth. The financial district is home to almost 100 public and private banks.

Luxury cars are a dime a dozen, as are designer stores, glamorous women and opulent private yachts. Third World country? It hardly feels like that here.

If the locals are blasé about the canal, they probably consider the Bridge of the Americas as merely a means to a destination rather than a geographic marvel. Panama City is at the crossroads of two continents and if the canal is not evidence enough, the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the canal and joins South America to Central and North America, is another colossal reminder.

The American legacy remains strong. In addition to using the U.S. dollar as its currency, American expatriates and retirees are commonplace. The country actively promotes itself as a retirement destination for North Americans, boasting about its first-class infrastructure, which includes high-speed Internet, highways, state-of-the-art health care, duty-free shopping, a low crime rate and safe drinking water.

Panamanians speak three languages -- English, Spanish and honking. If you drive a car, you honk. Honking is as indispensable to driving as the brake or gas pedal and it is a language all its own. There is a courtesy honk, the hello honk, the move-out-of-the-way honk, the you-cut-me-off honk -- each with its own cadence and inflection. Some drivers have customized horns so their honks truly are unique.

The Amador Causeway is another must-see destination. The 1.6-kilometre-long strip of land that juts out into Panama Bay boasts spectacular views of the city's skyline as well as the ships waiting their turn or moving through the canal. A popular spot for walking, jogging and biking, the causeway is also home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a marina, shops and waterfront restaurants. Currently under construction is the Frank Gehry-designed Panama: Bridge of Life Museum of Biodiversity, which even in its skeleton stages is a distinctive and innovative structure destined to become a landmark.

Curiously, the causeway is also a daily reminder that Panamanian life under American control had its downside. At that time, the causeway was inside the American military territory called the Panama Canal Zone. Panamanians were forbidden to enter the zone, which was surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Today, though the barbed wire is gone, the fences remain as a telltale reminder of the country's past.

The brave will also want to take in the views from the top of Ancon Hill. Hikers climb the 200-metre twisting, narrow and steep one-lane road that hugs the hillside, but we hired a taxi to drive us up this treacherous road. Security guards control entry to the road at both the top and the bottom because passing is not an option and backing up or down is impossible. The harrowing drive is well worth it. You are greeted by breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the canal. The Panamanian flag, which was raised in 1979 when control of the zone was handed back to Panama, flies at the summit.

Ancon Hill is a protected nature preserve. We encountered two young ecologists from the international Audubon Society who were monitoring the migration of hawks. They explained to us that Panama is on the migration route for 14 kinds of raptors. Over a 41-day period in mid-autumn, they counted 1,726,353 migrating raptors flying over the city.

The most charming part of Panama City is the historic Casco Antiguo. Dating back to the 17th century, the old city unfolds from the waterfront, its narrow streets packed with ancient ruins, shops, restaurants, plazas, jazz clubs, churches and residences. Landmarks include the Golden Altar in San Jose Church, the Panama Canal Museum and the heritage building where a scene from the Bond movie Quantum of Solace was filmed.

The French left their mark on the old city. The elegant French embassy sits on the waterfront and overlooks the obelisk in the centre of Plaza de Francia, which commemorates the 22,000 Frenchmen who died attempting to build the canal. The distinctive architecture, with arched windows, upper-level balconies and intricate metal scrollwork, looks just like New Orleans. In 2003, Casco Antiguo was named a UNESCO World Heritage site and money began pouring in. Now the area is bustling with restoration projects.

But you would be cheated if you travelled to Panama and never left the city. Entering the countryside is like stepping into the pages of a nature magazine. In place of the hubbub of the crowded city are stunning beaches, luscious rainforests, waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes and five million acres of national parks. It's cooler here too, especially in the mountains, which is a welcome relief.

An interesting incongruity exists in the countryside. On the one hand, it is cottage country for Panama's elite, who want all the luxuries of home when they escape the heat of the city. Highrise condo beach communities, sprawling homes and McDonald's are common. At the same time, it is an ecotourist destination that is home to Panama's seven indigenous Indian cultures. The tattooed native women, dressed in traditional colourful garb with bands of beads lining their arms and legs, welcome tourists to their villages and will happily pose for photos in their communities, at the market selling their handicrafts or just walking down the street.

Our adventure in the countryside took us to El Valle de Anton, a two-hour drive from Panama City. The town is built inside a three-kilometre-wide extinct volcano crater, one of the largest inhabited volcanoes in the world (second only to Pululahua in Ecuador). The foliage here thrives, thanks to the fertile, black volcanic soil. Wild palm grasses on the side of the road grow three metres high and the local orchid centre cultivates 147 varieties.

We had heard that driving in the countryside was treacherous, but that wasn't our experience. The curvy Pan American highway was well-maintained and the scenery spectacular, especially as we wound our way down into the volcanic crater. Along the way, we stopped at Quesos Chela, a roadside stand, and picked up the fixings for a picnic lunch -- homemade cheeses, fresh bread, pastries, empanadas and fruit. The $1 bag of cashew nuts we bought from a native woman sitting outside was a great snack.

Ceramic and artisan shops dot the highway. On Sundays, locals gather in the market in El Valle to sell produce, flowers, souvenirs and handicrafts. There is an especially impressive selection of molas, the elaborate and colourful hand-embroidered items made by the Kuna Indians.

There is a lot to keep you busy in El Valle. The daring can zip line across the forest and over the 50-metre-high Chorro Macho waterfall, rappel down a rock face, mountain bike, raft on the Anton River, horseback ride or trek through the jungle. Sitting in the volcanic hot springs in the middle of a rainforest is definitely appealing, as is being pampered at a local spa.

The Painted Stone is an enormous boulder engraved with ancient petroglyphs. Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable 10-year-old guide used a bamboo stick to point at the carved images, explaining that although the meaning of the symbols is not known, many believe it's an ancient map of the area.

We choose to bypass the snake museum and instead wandered around the privately owned Nispero Zoo. There are more than 50 species of birds, including toucans, hawks, peacocks and macaws as well as monkeys, tapirs, ocelots, ostriches and alligators. I never would have thought a frog exhibit could capture my imagination until I entered the dimly lit building dedicated to studying the bacteria that's killing the area's amphibians. With names such as poison dart frog, smoky jungle frog and streamside rain frog, these cute/ugly creatures are fascinating. The exhibit contained three endangered and two critically endangered toads, including the star of the show, the critically endangered tiny golden frog.

We covered a lot of ground in our week in Panama, thanks to our expatriate friends, who were excellent guides. Whether we were eating at a sushi restaurant in downtown Panama City, listening to live jazz in a little club in Casco Antiguo, walking for miles along a secluded Pacific coast beach or buying molas tapestries from a Kuna woman in the El Valle market, the Panama we encountered was eclectic, hospitable and captivating.

But there is so much we did not do. We did not hike in the rainforest, stroll on the pristine Caribbean beaches in Bocas del Toro, tour a coffee plantation in the lush Boquete highlands or snorkel at Coiba Island National Marine Park, which has the largest coral reef in the western Pacific.

For sure, on our next trip, we will visit the Kuna Indian villages on the San Blas Islands, where the self-governing people have maintained their centuries-old language, culture and traditional way of life. San Blas, part of an archipelago of more than 300 mostly uninhabited islands, is reputed to have some of the world's most beautiful beaches. Our friend Mary, an amateur photographer, has already visited and her photos of the colourful, tattooed Kuna women line her condo walls.

I wonder if she will drop us off at the airport or go with us this time.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Getting there: American Airlines flies to Panama from Miami. Delta flies via Atlanta. United and Continental fly via Houston or Newark.

When to go: Dry season is from mid-December to May. Green (rainy) season is from May to mid-December. The rainiest month is November. The average temperature year-round is 29 C in the city but ranges from 21 C to 29 C in the mountains.

Getting around: Taxis are inexpensive and readily available in Panama City; $5 got us almost anywhere. All the major car-rental agencies have outlets.

Shopping: Panama City is considered the second-largest free-trade zone in the world. Multicentro Shopping Mall is the largest mall in Central America. MultiPlaza is the newest and most upscale mall. Molas and other traditional crafts are available in Casco Antiguo and at the market in El Valle.

Where to stay:

* Country Inn and Suites: At the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Amador Causeway. Rooms start at US$110 (including Wi-Fi and breakfast). See www.panamacanalcountry.com/amador

* Riu Panama Plaza: A brand-new five-star hotel in the heart of the banking district. Rooms begin at US$199 (including Wi-Fi and breakfast). See www.riu.com

* Golden Frog Inn: A B&B in El Valle de Anton. Rooms begin at US$79 (includes breakfast). See www.goldenfroginn.com

* Coral Lodge, San Blas Islands: An eco-lodge with thatched-roof bungalows sitting in the water. High-season rates begin at $155 per person (food extra). See www.corallodge.com

Must-sees:

* Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal: Admission is $8 for adults. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

* Amador Causeway: Walk or drive, have a picnic lunch or dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Gaze at the ships or the yachts.

* Ancon Hill: However you choose to arrive at the top, the views are spectacular.

* Casco Antiguo: A UNESCO World Heritage site.

* Panama Canal Museum: Located in the French canal headquarters in Casco Antiguo. Admission is $2 for adults. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Although the exhibits are in Spanish only, many of the documents on display are in English -- and you don't need language to follow the photos, dioramas and displays on the fascinating history of the building of the canal.

* El Valle de Anton: Be sure to go on a Sunday when the market is open.

* San Blas Islands: Home of the Kuna Indians, one of Panama's seven indigenous Indian cultures.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 D1

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