Panama is set to hit the headlines next year as it approaches the centenary of the canal’s construction. Joanna Booth visited on a Cox & Kings fam

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Let’s play a game of word association. I say Panama, you say… I’ll bet it was either hat or canal.

There’s a certain irony to this. Panama hats actually originated in Ecuador, but were shipped to Panama on their way to Europe, hence the misleading name.

And the canal – while indisputably slap bang in the centre of Panama – belonged for many years to the US.

Until December 31, 1999, the US had the right to operate the canal and maintain a military presence within the strip adjoining the waterway.

These days, this unique shipping channel is firmly in Panamanian hands, and – with the centenary of the canal’s construction approaching in August 2014 – even more firmly embedded in many a traveller’s bucket list.

THE CANAL




While the canal isn’t the only reason to come to Panama, for many tourists it remains the unique selling point that persuades them to visit, or more commonly, to bolt on a trip to a wider Central American itinerary.

It took 10 years to build and provided a quicker and safer route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans than rounding Cape Horn at the tip of South America and is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats.

As the country’s number-one visitor attraction it can be experienced in a number of ways, as I – and the agents who travelled with me on a fam organised by Cox & Kings and the Central America Tourism Agency – were to discover.

A good place to start is from the ground – specifically from the Miraflores Lock Visitors Centre. Nine miles outside Panama City, this centre sits next to one of the major locks on the canal. As well as watching ships pass through the two-step lock – which lowers or raises vessels by 16 metres – visitors can take a look at four exhibition halls packed full of information on the canal.

Even if clients have little interest in engineering, the story of the canal’s construction is compelling – a tale of false starts, international wrangling, and a sobering loss of life. The build cost more than $300 million, and an estimated 25,000 lives, through accidents and disease.

To slice through the rock, more than 600 holes were drilled and blasted per day – enough to stretch through the planet and 560 miles further, if laid end to end.

Alongside hundreds of fascinating facts and figures, a navigation simulator allows visitors to pilot a ship through a lock, and they can read about the ongoing expansion project that is set to double the capacity of the canal by 2015.

There’s also the option to experience the canal from the water. There are many cruise options that transit the canal – see Cruising the Panama Canal box, right – but it’s possible to take a partial transit on one of three ferries that make the journey three or four days a week.

Partial transits cover the stretch nearest Panama City on the Pacific side, take around four-and-a-half hours and cost in the region of $140.

The benefit of transiting by ferry rather than cruise ship is the chance to sit far lower in the water and get right up close to the walls and gates of the huge locks as you pass through them.

The price one pays is comfort – the ferries are basic rather than luxurious – and clients should be aware that much of the time is spent chugging along rather than moving through a lock, so it’s not an action-packed journey.

There is a third way to experience the canal – from the air. We didn’t try a helicopter flight, but for those with deep pockets who want to experience the scale of the canal in just 30 minutes or an hour, a scenic flight could well be a suitable choice.

Panama

BEYOND THE CANAL




While the canal is the big-ticket attraction, there’s more to Panama than this 50-mile strip slicing through the country.

Based on first impressions, Panama City looks like an ultra-modern forest of high-rise skyscrapers – and that’s what the downtown business districts are. Head to the old town though, and visitors will get a pleasant surprise.

Our walking tour of Casco Antiguo, as it is known, was one of the highlights for our whole group. Undergoing a comprehensive yet sensitive renovation – scheduled to be completed by 2017 – it’s full of Havana-esque colonial buildings that are being transformed into restaurants, shops and boutique hotels.

Our group also took a half-day excursion from the city to visit one of Panama’s indigenous communities. Most of the Embera people are still living in their original homeland of Darien, in the south of Panama, but some families have relocated to sites along the banks of the Chagres River outside Panama City. The tourist dollars from organised excursions enable them to continue their traditional lifestyle.

We made the journey in long, low, wooden canoes, punted along by men from the Parara Puru community. Arriving at their village, the women welcomed us with traditional dancing, and a village leader explained how their community functions, before a lunch of fish caught from the river.

Our whistle-stop visit to Panama meant we didn’t have time to explore further, but the north of the country has plenty more to offer. The town of Boquete is in a verdant valley, where clients can take tours of coffee plantations and explore the cloud forest, which is filled with a brightly-coloured array of bird and plant life.

On the Caribbean coast, the islands of the Bocas Del Toro (pictured above) are ringed with idyllic beaches, coral reefs and mangroves, and visitors can take relaxing stays at over-water eco lodges such as Punta Caracol.


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