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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Panama. It's tropical heaven without the crowds


Early morning and the ceaseless activity on the canal continues as it's done every hour of every day for the last 50 years. A huge ship inches its way along the lock, no more than a few inches to spare on either side. Just like a giant version of the river locks we've all tried at one time or another. Time is money here and there's no shortage of customers going one way or the other, with over 14,000 ships passing through last year, each one paying a sizeable sum into Panama's now very deep pockets. It's a highly profitable business and once the canal expansion is completed, it will be even busier.
Inching through the Panama Canal (c) Andy Mossack

For such a small country, an isthmus wedged between the Atlantic/Caribbean  on one side and the Pacific on the other, Panama has a lot to say for itself. After all, without the use of its extraordinary canal, we'd have to pay a lot more and wait a lot longer for our goods. But Panama has been a strategically vital port ever since the 1500s when the Spanish conquistadors used it to transport most of their plunder back home.

Any trip you take to Panama must include a visit to the canal, and the Miraflores Lock in particular, which has a large visitor centre and a spectacular viewing gallery. It's come a long way since construction began in the late 1800's when over 22,000 workers perished, mostly from mosquito borne malaria. These days, the man made islands and waterways created from all that digging are a haven for birding and wildlife and you'll get a great day out watching ships and taking walks in the surrounding rainforest.




The beauty of Portobelo (c) Andy Mossack


But it's not just about the canal. Panama may be on the thin side but it's packed with diversity wherever you go. Think about it; it was once part of Costa Rica (cue instant images of swaying palms and beaches) and where else can you go and visit two huge oceans just 50 miles apart. The Pacific coast, is lined with mangrove  forest and impressive beaches (many belonging to  the 1,000 islands that sit off the coast), and it's the commercial centre of the country with the high rises of Panama City, the national capital, over here too  However, there's more rainfall on the Caribbean side, better looking beaches and higher temperatures, but far less infrastructure, so don't expect fast roads and busy towns.

The country is dripping with history? Portobelo on the Caribbean side may look like a sleepy coastal town these days, but after Columbus discovered the bay in 1502  it grew to become one of the most important ports in the world, literally teeming with Spanish galleons laden with gold. Amazingly, the Spanish 17th and 18th century fortifications are still there, albeit in a state of neglect in many sections, not surprising when you consider you're free to walk all over them and there is very little money available for much needed restoration. Portobelo comes alive once a year when thousands make a pilgrimage every October 21 to the 17th century  Iglesia de San Félipe church for the Festival de Cristo Negro (Festival of the Black Christ).

Joining Portobelo under UNESCO protection is Fuerte San Lorenzo, a stunning 16th century ruined fort  high up on a cliff overlooking the mouth of Chagres River as it flows into the Caribbean. None other than messers Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake trod these very stones as the fort was Panama's main defence from pirate attacks.

 
And what about the wonderful cobbled streets and crumbling edifices of Casco Viejo, the fine old town close to Panama City  which took on the mantle of the capital city when Henry Morgan destroyed the original in 1671. It's gradually getting restored now and taking a stroll around the ancient streets, you can begin to see how magnificent some of those old building really were.  





Panama is much more than a canal. It will surprise you, I guarantee it.
Panama Tourism www.visitpanama.com