A July 2005 trip
to Colon by Dennis Ko
Quote: Panama is a wonderful place to visit whether you're interested in ecotourism, history, Native American crafts, or just lounging by the pool. Our week-long vacation was a brief, but thouroughly enjoyable introduction to a country that is much more than the canal and one of Central America's best-kept secrets.
Although its neighbor to the west, Costa Rica, is a well-known ecotourism destination, Panama’s ecotourism industry is still in its infancy. Panama has 11 national parks, and its biodiversity is perhaps the greatest in all of Central America. Add to this the interesting history of the indigenous peoples, Spanish conquest, and canal building, and we were convinced that this was a destination worth going to.
We flew into Tocumen International Airport, near Panama City, and drove across the isthmus to our hotel in the province of Colon (about 50km). The Melia is not within the city of Colon (which, according to most guidebooks, isn’t the safest of places) but is nearby on a peninsula that juts into Lake Gatun. Lake Gatun, a manmade lake created as part of the Panama Canal, was at one time the largest lake in the world. From this idyllic tropical resort, we spent the next week doing various activities and making day trips to nearby locations.
1) The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal
2) The nearby town of Portobello, with its old Spanish forts
3) Hiking in Soberania National Park, a rain forest with lots of unique birds, mammals, and bugs
4) Daytripping to Panama City for its history and shopping
5) Barro Colorado Island, an amazing ecological research site run by the Smithsonian
6) Activities organized by the Melia Panama Canal Resort
A week wasn’t nearly long enough to explore this country, and we hope to return to explore the more mountainous regions to the west, the beaches of Boca del Toro, and more of the country’s national parks.
--Though many of the tourist-related sites say most people speak English, we found that almost everyone we talked to outside the resort spoke only Spanish. This posed some difficulties since my Spanish skills are derived solely from listening to spanish language tapes over the few weeks preceeding the trip.
--If you plan on taking pictures in the rain forest, it’s helpful to bring something with high zoom and image stabilization. Even though it felt like the howler monkeys were right in front of us, they look pretty tiny in our digital photos with 5x zoom. Also, unless you want your rain forest pictures to look like they were all taken at night, turn off the flash.
--Guidebooks: Panama by Regis St. Louis from Lonely Planet, and Adventure Guide to Panama by Patricia Katzman from Hunter Travel Guides. Both are very good. We found the Katzman book to be a better read, but the Lonely Planet guide has more information.
So getting a rental car was a little harder than it should have been, but driving around Panama was truly harder than expected. Overall, the main roads in Panama are quite good and well-maintained, especially the Corridor Norte toll road. The drivers in Panama also aren’t any crazier than elsewhere—bigger always has right-of-way. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are few street signs, and they are often poorly placed for visibility. The best maps we got were hand-drawn from the hotel's tourdesk. We got lost almost every day. I’m still glad we rented a car for the freedom it afforded us. Everyone we asked for directions was very courteous (helps if you know your Spanish well).
Alternatively, cabs are plentiful, as are buses.
Rooms are clean, fairly large, and air-conditioned. The people at the front desk were very helpful and gave us a second, adjoining one-bedroom at no extra charge to accommodate the four of us.
The resort has a team of activities personnel that are very friendly. They lead activities such as water aerobics, kayaking on the lake, dance lessons, and karaoke. The pool is quite large, with a cascading waterfall, and is surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs.
There is a tour desk in the lobby that offers several reasonably priced tours including a crocodile safari ($15), fishing ($20), a daylong panama city tour ($50), and a partial transit of the Panama Canal ($100). The woman working at the tour desk was also great at drawing us maps.
The restaurant (Miraflores) is pricy and the food is pretty forgettable. They have a buffet option for every meal, which is $12-20. RCI members are given a 15% discount, but they add it right back by increasing the service charge. The options are plentiful but the quality is uneven. Room service is actually a cheaper and sometimes faster option—the same food is priced slightly less.
There is also a workout room which we pretty much had to ourselves whenever we used it. There is a small gift shop, a cigar shop with a whopping three boxes of cigars for sale, and a "business center" with two computers hooked up to the internet. There is no spa and although the resort says it has a casino, it was closed during our visit.
A grocery store (99 Super) with an ATM machine is located just a few minutes away.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 23, 2005
Melia Panama Canal
Antigua Escuela de Las Americas - Lago Gatun
Located right on the coast, this restaurant gives a great view of the Caribbean Sea, stretching endlessly to the horizon as you enjoy your meal. The restaurant has two open-air levels, as well as an outdoor-dining option that puts you just a few feet away from the water. Bring bug repellent if you go around dusk! The restaurant gets its name from the old Spanish cannons in Portobelo, one of which you'll walk by if you choose the outdoor dining option.
Overall, I was somewhat disappointed by the food in Panama, but the food here was quite excellent. Most entrées are $8, and this includes your choice of coconut rice, fried yucca, fried plantains, or french fries. They have a wide variety of fresh seafood, including red snapper, sea bass, shrimp, octopus, squid, clams, and conch. I highly recommend the octopus over coconut rice with ice-cold lemonade. And if you're with a picky eater who doesn't like seafood, there's always the fried chicken.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 25, 2005
Restaurante Los Canones
Road from Colon to Portobelo
We decided to give it a try, expecting some down-home Panamanian cooking. What we found instead was your typical Chinese-Panamanian truck stop.
First the good: The food there is dirt-cheap, and there’s plenty of it. We ordered the wonton soup, BBQ chicken with fries, pork over rice, chow mein, and shrimp over Chinese broccoli, along with drinks, all for $12. This ended up being way too much food for the four of us. You can probably feed a family of four there with two entrees and drinks for $4 (about the same cost as a single alcoholic beverage at the Melia). Also, the menu offers a lot of variety.
Now, the not-so-good: The food was plentiful, but not so tasty. The chicken and pork were both covered in very salty sauces. There was a single wonton in the soup, although there was plenty of other stuff in it to make you not miss them so much. The shrimp entrée was probably the best of the bunch, with the broccoli crisp and delicious.
So if you’re staying at the Melia Panama Canal and looking for a nearby alternative to the robbery dining prices there, give Restaurante Jenny a try. The price is definitely right, and the food was mediocre, but perhaps more exploration of the menu would change that assessment.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on July 26, 2005
Cl F Sur y Av 4 Oeste
The Melia Resort provided a free tour to the Gatun Locks, which are only about 10 minutes away from the resort. Transit through the 50 mile isthmus is made possible by locks that serve to raise and lower ships to the level of a large man-made lake in the middle of the isthmus, Lake Gatun. The Gatun Locks are the locks on the Atlantic side and probably are the best for viewing ships transiting through the canal.
After going through a brief security check to enter the facility, there’s an old electrical locomotive that you’ll pass by—this used to be one of the cars that guided ships through the locks. One of the marvels of the Canal is the fact that ever since its opening in 1914, it has been run completely off of water-generated electrical power. Remarkable considering that the first American factory run off of electricity had only opened the previous year, and that the contractor for the work was a budding new company called General Electric.
A series of stairs brings you up to the observation deck. From here you can see a close up view of ships entering locks and the water being raised and lowered depending on which direction the ship is transiting. The lowest toll ever paid to transit the canal was $0.36 by adventurer and Princeton-dropout Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 10 days. This didn’t include the cost of men in boats to shoot any crocodiles that he happened to swim upon. Nowadays, tolls routinely run over $200,000 paid by cash or wire transfer.
One thing that struck me was that the locks weren’t as large as I expected. Though they may have been large enough to accommodate the Titanic with room to spare, a big ship when the Canal was completed (1914) just isn’t that big today. Plans are ready to add a third line to the Panama Canal to accommodate supertankers and other large ships, but this would increase the size of Lake Gatun by 3 times (submerging or forcing the migration of everything in those areas) and still needs voter approval.
20-25 min. by taxi from Colon
Attraction | "Strolling through Portobelo"
Now a sleepy fishing village, Portobelo used to be one of the wealthiest places on earth—at least until Spanish ships (or pirates) arrived to transport the gold and silver taken from indigenous peoples back to Europe. We parked at the church at the far end of town. Though not spectacular by any means, the church houses the famous Black Christ statue. According to legend, fishermen from the village found the statue at sea and placed it in the church during the middle of a spreading cholera epidemic. Other towns were ravaged by the disease, but Portobelo was completely spared. Well, at least that’s how one of the legends explains it. A festival in honor of the Black Christ occurs every year on October 21. After visiting the church, we took a relaxing stroll through the town, passing by lots of playing children and dogs.
The ruins of numerous forts are found throughout the town and are well worth a visit. When we parked near one of these ruins, we were greeted by children looking to make a buck or obtain a handout. We made an agreement with one particularly persistent child to watch our cars for $0.50.
The forts are a neat place to explore. Cannons still point out to sea, although the munitions depots are now empty and the only permanent inhabitants of the fort are countless crabs. The forts were erected between 1601 and around 1739. Their construction occurred over such a long period because a pirate attack would expose a defensive weakness, which the next fort would try to overcome. Near the first fort you’ll see when approaching the town (Fuerte Santiago) is a lookout point that gives a good view of the town and forts. You can park near the fort and cross the road to get to the steps with guide rope that leads up to the lookout. It’s a good place to either begin or end your day in Portobelo.
Attraction | "Panama City Tour by Aventuras 2000"
The tour took us from the Bridge of the Americas, through old Panama (Casco Viejo, founded 1674), and ended at the original Panama (Panama Viejo, founded 1519). Just as Portobelo’s history was greatly affected by pirates, so was Panama City’s. Casco Viejo was actually the second site for Panama City, moved after Pirate Henry Morgan sacked Panama Viejo in 1671. All that remains of Panama Viejo now are ruins.
One of the highlights of the tour was the Golden Altar at the Church of San Jose. This towering altar, made in the baroque style of the 17th century, is an impressive work of art. According to legend, when Morgan sacked the original Panama City, the priests at the church painted the altar black, fooled Morgan into believing it was made of wood, and actually convinced the pirate to donate money for its completion.
The tour also included admission to a couple of museums—the Panama Canal museum, which does a good job of telling the story of the Panama Canal, and a second museum near Panama Viejo, which has a scale model of the original Panama City, at which our tour guide explained the strategy used during the attack of Henry Morgan.
The tour concluded at the Panama Viejo, which has a nice artisan’s market next door. We didn’t get enough time to look around, so we made it a point to go shopping a few days later.
Overall, most people seemed pretty satisfied with the tour, though there were a couple common complaints:
1) Not enough walking and too much bus time
2) Very little shopping time
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 26, 2005
Aventuras 2000 Tours
Avenida Balboa Edif. Bahia Balboa Mezzanine Level
The three villages that make up Mi Pueblitos each represent one of the main cultural influences of Panama. There is a Spanish village with whitewashed buildings surrounding a courtyard, an Afro-Caribbean village with more colorful Caribbean architecture, and an indigenous village of straw huts. The Spanish village has a church, schoolroom, telegraph office, and various other buildings to give you some flavor of what life was like during Spanish colonial times. The other two villages are more largely shopping areas, but it’s nice to stroll through all three villages.
In the Spanish area, we obtained some inexpensive T-shirts and a vibrantly colored table setting ($35). We spent the most time in the indigenous village, buying brightly colored molas (finely stitched square cloths, $10-$40, the nicest one we purchased depicted a cat jumping on a fish) and detailed tagua carvings ($10-$100, animal carvings made from the tagua nut). Part of the fun is just talking to the people—I almost bought one tagua carving of a frog, before the artisan told me that the one I was examining was made by his little brother and that his frog carving was much better. You'll also get to see these works of art as they're being made and in various states of completion. It's amazing to see a plain tagua nut transforming into brightly colored fish swimming around coral.
We actually didn’t buy much in the Caribbean area, but this area had it’s own live music. A man in a large straw hat was sitting on one of the benches strumming his banjo. I gave him a dollar to play a song for my fiancé, and we listened to the Banana Boat song and then danced to a Caribbean interpretation of Rock Around the Clock.
Some may find the artificial setup of three shopping villages a little too theme-park-esque, but we had a great time there. It was much easier than trying to find the real Indian villages—I know we would have gotten really lost doing that.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 26, 2005
Attraction | "Exploring in Soberania National Park"
So we decided to do some hiking in the national park we had just driven through. Soberania National Park is situated along the eastern edge of the Panama Canal, halfway between Colon and Panama City. This moist tropical forest is an amazing place to explore the richness of Panama’s biodiversity. With over 1300 plant, 105 mammal, 525 bird, 79 reptile, 55 amphibian, and 36 fish species, you’re likely to see something new every direction you turn.
Immediately upon stepping out of the car, my sister was attacked by some biting ants. She was wearing sandals without socks, but we changed that after we managed to get the ants off her. It’s a good idea to not only wear socks but to tuck your pant legs into them. Yes, it does look really goofy, but it’s effective.
We took the Camino de Plantacion trail. The trail is well maintained with periodically placed stone benches and a stream just to the left. Much of the enjoyment in doing a hike like this comes from the sense of being an explorer without the dangers involved in attempting this without a trail. The only common dangers probably come from bugs as evidenced by the ants.
We had a great time trying to spot wildlife, everything from well-camouflaged toads to brilliant orchids to cute, furry agoutis. At one point, we were passing a fallen tree and noticed a mammal we had never seen before. It looked somewhat like a raccoon but was more slender, had a long white snout, and a long ringed tail. He seemed curious and walked towards us down the log before turning and scampering away. We later learned that this was a white-nosed coati, but to see what was for us a "newly discovered species" provided a real sense of wonder.
Another memorable moment had more to do with what we didn’t see. At one point along the trail we heard a tremendous roar, and I seriously wondered if there was a jaguar further down this trail. We took a few more steps and heard it again, but this time it sounded like more than one animal. We kept walking and heard it again every several seconds. We realized it now sounded more like howling and concluded that we were probably hearing howler monkeys. Though we kept scanning the trees, we never did see the howler monkeys that day. However, we certainly saw and heard plenty of other things, and it’s easy to recommend a hike in Soberania for anyone visiting Panama.
Soberania National Park
Between Panama City and Colon
Attraction | "Tour of Barro Colorado Island"
Barro Colorado Island is a product of millions of years of evolution combined with the construction of the Panama Canal. Building the canal required damming the Chagres River to create the 166 square-mile Lake Gatun. This resulted in submerging all but the tallest peaks in this region of central Panama. The tallest of these is Barro Colorado Island.
We left the Melia Resort even earlier this time (4:45am) and got to the dock in Gamboa by 6, so we had over an hour to enjoy the tropical sunrise. A dog kept us company while we had our breakfast. He really likes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Our tour group consisted of 6 people and our guide, Ian. A boat took us from the dock to the island in about 40 minutes. Just as we were pulling into the dock at Barro Colorado, we noted the familiar howling we had heard two days ago and one of our fellow travelers pointed out howler monkeys in the grove of trees next to us. We watched them swinging from branch-to-branch, using their tails almost like a fifth paw. We even saw a baby howler riding on its mother’s back.
We then went on a leisurely 5-hour hike along a mildly steep trail. Ian stopped at many spots to point out various plants, animals, fungi, and even geological subjects of interest. Highlights included another group of howlers (who were right above us and told us emphatically that they did not like us there), a group of white-faced monkeys, an anteater, and colorful poison dart frogs. We also noted several different bird species including toucans and parrots. Seeing the largest tree on the island, "the big tree" was another highlight of the hike, but being from California, I can say that it’s not nearly as impressive as a Giant Sequoia.
We finished our hike and had lunch in the cafeteria at around 1 and this was followed by a slide show explaining the goals of STRI and the island. Next to the cafeteria, a bulletin board has photos of everyone who works on the island as well as the title of the investigator’s research, which included things as diverse as bioenergetics of butterfly migration and behavior of howler monkeys. We had another hour to walk around the island before our boat departed for Gamboa and another 12 before we had to leave for the airport as our time in Panama drew to a close.
Barro Colorado Island
Panama Canal, Lake Gatun
Durham, North Carolina