When you land in Panama, a vast coastline greets you with an eager looking flotilla of sailboats vying for your attention. It feels like Southern California with lots of humidity.
A quick passage through immigration is a sign of less bureaucracy and when you find out that the current President of Panama is from the private sector, it begins to make sense.
It indeed is very humid in Panama – so much so that for the first time in my travels I have had to continuously wipe moisture off my camera lens. Panama City looks beautiful at night – well lit with lots of skyscrapers dotting the Pacific Ocean.
Panamanians are very proud of the Panama Canal – it is one of the primary sources of income and an engineering marvel. And when you go on a transit cruise through the Canal, you experience the engineering marvel first hand.
The Canal was built in 1914 to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and as a result, better integrate the West Coast of North and South America with the world economy. The Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. Ships passing through the canal pay a fee of approx. US $ 200,000, depending upon the size of the ship and the cargo – the highest so far being paid by a Disney cruise ship – US $ 330,000.
3 sets of locks – the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and the Gatun, lift and drop ships 85ft (26m) – to the level of Gatun Lake, to transport them between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is primarily this system of locks that makes the Panama Canal an engineering marvel. The size of the locks determines the maximum size of ships that can pass through the canal. A ship which equals the maximum size is called PANAMAX.
The lift and drop of the ships within the locks is an extremely fascinating experience and so is the passage through the Canal. The route of the cruise through the Canal is quite scenic and you pass through the Bridge to the America, the Centennial Bridge, the Gatun Lake and the Continental Divide. It takes ships about 8 to 12 hours to cross the canal, but there’s a partial cruise available for tourists that ends soon after the Pedro Miguel locks, close to the Soberania National Park Rainforest.
The Panama Canal Visitor Center next to the Miraflores Locks offers the visitor a closer look at the operation of the canal, along with a brief passage through the history of the Canal. However, the balcony is the top draw of the visitor center as it offers a bird eye view of ships passing through the adjacent Miraflores Locks.
The Gamboa Rainforest resort is in the vicinity of the Soberania National Park Rainforest – which is home to several colorful species of birds and butterflies. An early morning walk through the rainforest can take you into a colorful world of butterflies, the musical world of birds like the Flycatcher and the woodpecker, including the very shy Toucan and some primates as well. Don’t be surprised if you sight a crocodile relaxing in a swamp as you saunter through the rainforest.
Besides the Canal and the Rainforest, Panama has a lot of culture and scenery to offer. Old Panama City or Casco Viejo is a blend of old architecture, monuments like the Salon Bolivar and Plaza de Francia.
For a leisurely stroll in the evening, the Causeway Amador is just the right stretch to be in. You have a clear view of the Bridge to the Americas and a full view of the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the causeway.