Andy Mossack is a full time travelwriter and broadcaster and his stories can be read in national press, regional press, magazines and websites.
He is the founder of the travel site www.tripreporter.co.uk and he is the Travel Guru on BBC Radio's Late Show where he presents 'Where in the World is Andy.'
His professional website is www.andymossack.co.uk
Or you can visit his work at www.tripreporter.co.uk
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 tothe 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 tooHowever, 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 forthigh 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
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