Although Panama lies in the same time zone as Wisconsin, it's a whole world away from snow, American time as we know it, and burgers and fries. One thing easy enough is that they use the same American currency and things are pretty inexpensive over there!
We stayed at the Melia Panama Canal in Colon. It is a beautiful resort with well-kept grounds, well-maintained facilities, natural surroundings, and a very friendly staff. Everyone we met smiled and greeted us with "Hola, como esta?" To which we enthusiastically replied, "Muy bien, gracias!" The food was fabulous, from the daily buffet spreads at the resort, to the city restaurants’ local cuisine. The resort provided free tours to the Gatun Locks, the beach, and the Free Zone shopping area. We arrived there Saturday, toured the Canal Sunday, went to the beach Monday, and went shopping at the Free Zone Wednesday. In-between days, the men went kayaking, and we swam in the resort's huge pool in the evenings, after a hot day's activities. On the second day, we spotted a toucan atop a tree behind the resort -- this was a very good sign of things to come! Our nephew got a tan, so he can "show it off" to his friends back in Madison!
Seeing the whole operations of the Canal was a historical experience. We saw five ships crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and vice versa. My brother-in-law works with Maersk, and seeing the Maersk cargo ship crossing the Canal made it even more exciting!
On Tuesday, we arranged a tour with our taxi driver to the historic town of Portobello. The town was once Spain's mighty Caribbean fortress where gold was stored. It was enough to tempt the Pirate of the Caribbean, Henry Morgan, to attack and pillage. Now, its ruins give it an eerie beauty. The town's famous Black Christ statue abounds with miraculous legends. We visited the church and the local museum. Our taxi driver did an excellent job translating Spanish into English for us. I also took a picture of a Kuna Indian woman selling "molas" at the museum grounds.
Instead of kayaking, I opted to go on a boat eco-tour of the Canal's islands. It was just me and a guide, and he did a marvelous job in pointing out the wildlife - we saw howler monkeys, a turtle, and numerous birds. I even spotted an Indian village.
Thursday was an exciting day - busloads of tourists arrived from the cruise ship and we joined them on a tour of an Embera Indian village. The tribe originally came from the lush jungles of the Darien, bordering Colombia. The chief led the welcome with drums and flutes, then he explained their culture to us. They showed us their beautiful hand-made crafts. We bought a basket, a tray, and some jewelry. We took lots of pictures, and even joined the women in their dances! We had a chance to converse with the chief, one-on-one, and he told us he had been to Europe promoting Panamanian crafts. This was amazing! I told him about the Indian tribes in California. When our boat finally arrived, we said our farewells, and wished each other well. He called to us, "Vaya con Dios!" That was indeed a very special day!
We decided to spend Friday in Panama City. My husband saw an ad in the local paper about a golf tournament there. He called the golf course, they faxed an application form, he filled in the information and faxed it back, and the next day, he and our nephew played! So, while the men golfed, I happily toured the city with another very able taxi driver/tour guide who spoke English. He showed me all the sights - the ruins of Old Panama; the narrow, brick-layered streets of Colonial Panama; the ultra-modern skyline of New Panama, with its luxury hotels, banks, and shops lining the Pacific Ocean. We went to the national zoo, and I saw jaguars, tapirs, toucans, macaws, and Panama's national bird, the harpy eagle. I was happy to learn that Panama is big on ecological preservation. We crossed the famous "Bridge of the Americas", and visited the state-of-the-art museum at the Miraflores Locks. I was lucky again to see a ship crossing the Canal, this time from the Pacific Ocean.
The men returned from their golf game, excited and laden with gifts. I also came back excited, with lots of pictures taken of the places I'd been. Everyone got what they wanted out of this trip, and we would have our own stories to tell, once we're back in the U.S.