Which important Spanish city in the Americas was destroyed by pirates? What is the Big Ditch? Where can you see more than 300 different bird species in a single day? Can you sleep inside a radar tower? Who discovered that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes? How many people does it take to lift a cruise ship? What is Panamax?
For children with questions, Panama has plenty of answers. At least twice during my stay in this remarkable Central American country, I heard fellow visitors say, “It’s like stepping into the Discovery Channel.”
But that wasn’t my initial impression. I had arrived on a Friday evening. As I drove toward Panama City along the Corredor Sur, a toll road that bridges the swampy width of Panama Bay, the downtown skyscrapers glittered ahead of me. More than 80 banks are based here, sheltering money beyond the reach of the tax authorities in the United States and Europe. For many people, Panama is synonymous with the murky business of offshore finance.
I checked into an international hotel and slept in a room that could have been anywhere in the world. It was only in the morning when I opened the curtains that some of Panama’s underlying character was revealed amid the bland familiarity of the Central Business District. Buses brightly decorated with murals and slogans trundled past. Gaudy birds flitted among lush stands of tropical vegetation. Shrouds of mist draped the thickly forested hills of the hinterland.
My guide was waiting in the lobby. “Today, we will begin at the beginning,” she said. We drove east out of the city. On the outskirts we reached Panama Viejo, the site of the original city of Panama, established on the shore of the Pacific in 1519 by Spanish settlers. It flourished for 150 years, becoming the major repository for gold and silver transported from Peru.
It was this wealth that attracted the unwelcome attention of the notorious Welsh pirate Henry Morgan. In 1671, with 1,200 men, he crossed overland from the Caribbean coast and stormed the city. Only the ruins remain. A crumbling, four-story bell tower beside the main plaza provides vivid proof of the ruthlessness of the real pirates of the Caribbean.
Following the sacking of the original city, Panama was rebuilt on a new site within formidable fortifications that embrace what is now known as Casco Viejo. With its 300-year-old houses and churches and its shaded labyrinth of narrow streets, it is the most atmospheric part of Panama City. It has been restored and revitalized since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.
Right in the heart of Casco Viejo is a beautiful colonial building that was once Panama’s Grand Hotel, which also served as the headquarters of the ill-fated French attempt to build a canal between the Pacific and the Atlantic in 1880. Today the building is home to the Panama Canal Museum, which provides an ideal introduction for visitors of all ages to the country’s most famous construction.
The Big Ditch, as the canal is popularly known, transformed world shipping routes when it opened in 1914. Maps in the museum illustrate why engineers chose the route from Panama City to Colón, on the Caribbean shore: At this point, the Central American isthmus is just 48 miles across. By slicing through hillsides and flooding valleys, a vast workforce was able to link the coasts.
The narrow width between the oceans has another benefit. For wildlife, Panama is effectively a land bridge between North and South America. The country boasts mind-boggling biodiversity, and on the Pipeline Road, which runs roughly parallel to the canal through the dense cover of Soberanía National Park, birdwatchers once spotted 385 bird species in a single day — a world record.
The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, at the start of the Pipeline Road, offers simple interpretive displays designed for the many visiting school groups and provides access to the 100-foot Observation Tower, from where you can gain a bird’s-eye view of the tree tops.
Besides the abundance of birds (within the park you’ll see everything from hummingbirds to toucans to eagles), you’re also likely to glimpse howler monkeys and capuchins careening from branch to branch. For any child with an interest in nature, the Panamanian forest is spellbinding.
For total immersion, try staying at the Canopy Tower, a 1960s U.S. Air Force radar facility that has been converted into an extraordinary eco-lodge. Children over the age of 13 are welcome, though it should be noted that the canopy is a magnet for serious birdwatchers who have little tolerance for noisy or hyperactive kids.
From the top of the Canopy Tower, I looked over the chaotic greenery of the rainforest down to the constant procession of ships navigating the canal. I began to appreciate the mountains — both literal and metaphorical — that had to be overcome in order to establish this route between the oceans.
More than 20,000 workers died during the aborted French attempt to construct the canal, most from malaria and yellow fever. When the United States took on the task at the start of the 20th century, a U.S. Army physician, Dr. Walter Reed, established that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. A mosquito control program eliminated the disease and vastly improved the health of the workers.
They still faced monumental challenges as they carved a manmade canyon through the continental divide and constructed huge locks at each end of the canal to lift the ships up and then back down to sea level.
At the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks (www.pancanal.com), I joined spectators in the viewing gallery to watch the massive ships move cautiously into the lock chambers, guided by steel cables attached to three locomotives on each side. Once a ship was installed, often with only a few inches of clearance, the six-story gates closed and 50 million gallons of water (enough to supply a city for a day) gushed into the lock chamber.
One man is all it takes to lift a 50,000-ton ship. Time and again throughout the day, the lockmaster gazed down from the control room, waited for the chamber to be securely sealed and then flicked the switch to unleash the flood.
These locks are so critical to global shipping that their width and length determine the current maximum dimensions — Panamax — for most cruise liners and cargo ships. A $5.3 billion canal expansion project, including a much bigger set of locks, should be completed by 2014. Larger vessels are already being constructed in anticipation of that change.
In Panama Viejo, I had seen the havoc left by marauding pirates. On the Pipeline Road, I aimed my binoculars at a dazzling array of colorful birds. And during a hardhat tour of Miraflores Locks, I stood within touching distance of a cruise ship that was being raised 54 feet before it could thread its way through the canal to the Caribbean.
Throughout my stay in Panama, experiences such as these ignited my imagination. This is a country that inevitably fills visitors — whether they are jaded adults or impressionable children — with wonder and awe.
Info To Go
International flights arrive at Tocumen International Airport (PTY), 15 miles east of Panama City. Taxis to downtown cost approximately $25 for one to two passengers, $10 for each additional passenger. Visit www.panamainfo.com.
Canopy Tower Ecolodge
View wildlife from the rooms at this converted radar tower in the jungle, where silence and calm are required of all guests. Apartado 0832-2701 WTC, Panama City, tel 507 264 5720 $$$$
Country Inn & Suites Hotel
Views of the Panama Canal entrance are spectacular, and the two-room apartments are ideal for families; children under 12 stay free. Fort Amador, Panama City, tel 507 211 4500 $$
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Oddly reminiscent of Jurassic Park, this family resort 30 minutes from Panama City is the most luxurious way to experience the rainforest. Soberanía National Park, tel 507 206 8888 $$$$
Los Lagartos Restaurant
This excellent family-friendly restaurant has verandas overlooking the Chagres River where it flows into the canal. Watch wildlife and ships while you eat. Gamboa Rainforest Resort, tel 507 314 5000 $$
At the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center’s excellent restaurant, you’ll be captivated by the panoramic view of the comings and goings through the locks. Clayton, Panama City, tel 507 232 3120 $$$
El Tambor de la Alegría
The nightly highlight of this popular restaurant is a folkloric dance show. Take your dancing shoes; customer participation is inevitable. Brisas del Amador Shopping Mall, Panama City, tel 507 314 3360 $$
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