Trying to understand Panama is an exercise in mental dexterity. It’s the most fascinating place I’ve ever been. Amidst the sweltering muddle of skyscrapers and indigenous villages with thatched huts, there is even more. The Canal. The five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And of course, the Golden Alter. But Hitler’s crane? Did you know about that?
Join me on this magical visit to a country where the sights and sounds are mesmerizing. All of this is thanks to Apple Vacations and their fabulous Business Development Manager (BDM), Sarah Rau.
First up, Copa Airlines– can’t forget them. This is an airline where you’re greeted with a sincere welcome, free cocktails, warm food with real silverware, plus a pillow and blanket if you need one. Free inflight entertainment too, with limited but free selections! Upon landing, the airport underwhelms with a bathroom stall that is held together in a fashion with duct tape. There is a NEW terminal you can see being built but as our handsome Gamboa Tours guide, Octovio, explains it is being held up while the former president and his rascal buddies are rounded up for trial for taking all the money. Hmm, what money? No clear answer but the rumor is, he is hiding in Miami.
We weave through town, skimming fishing village slums perched over low tide shallows and skyscraper condo complexes along rocky shores. The heat undulates as my traveling companions ooh and aah all through town, then emerge to head across the Bridge of Americas. Here you can first grasp the magnitude of what the canal is. Huge tankers,
freighters and cruise ships line up waiting their turn to sail through (it can take two days waiting your turn!). I excitedly message my friend who loves these big ships and he tells me about the website where you can see what ship is lined up, what they’re carrying and where they’re heading. I know. Nerd stuff but it is really cool! A prominent feature is the drought which has colored what I knew as a very lush country, a crispy brown with green tips. More on that when I get to the canal section.
Swaying into the Playa Bonita area, we approach the Secrets. Noticeable en route is garbage on the side of the road. Pick up your garbage, Panama! But then there is the resort; gated, luxurious and waiting for me! This property had been the Intercontinental and sits
just thirty minutes outside of town. I’m are greeted with a cool cloth (needed that, thank you!) and a spritzer drinks to refresh. Ushered into the Preferred Club (aaaahhh), I sit, waiting patiently for a room key because I had slept very little in the hours before my plane left. Finally released and headed to the room, it’s way down the hall at the very end of the building. I arrive to my room and the maids are still in there. A supervisor is lolling in a chair as a couple of uniformed maids move about putting finishing touches on. They are very sweet as I shove them out the door so I can strip my sweat soaked clothes off. No air conditioned hallways here.
This place is luxurious, the view over the canal is amazing and the room is just perfect. Everything I could want and more because yes, there is a robe and slippers. I always
feel like I’m being punished if I check into a resort and I don’t have a robe and slippers. I know, delusions of grandeur, but please just let me have my moment. It is only three days. The evening tour showcases a beautiful spa, amazing gym overlooking the Canal and lovely grounds. Dinner at Oceana offers scallops and shrimp on a skewer, and crab cakes. Our group continues to order crab cakes until they simply stop bringing them. A dessert sampler follows so I’m done. Sated, sweating, and staggering up the little hill to home base, I’m in love.
Morning’s ride features a sloth and vistas where the landscape has changed dramatically in the four years since I have been here. Mega shopping complexes, an incredible amount of development, both residential and business. The drivers are a tad crazy but you rarely see accidents. That is one of the things I truly wonder about when traveling to the countries with crazy drivers and traffic. I never see accidents. Playa Blanca is one of the beachy areas of Panama, a full two hours away from Panama City. The area is mostly rural and there is a regional airport RIGHT THERE but no US carriers have a contract yet, only Canada. It would be so convenient to be able to fly right into that area and then take a day to visit the city and the rain forest! The draw here is the beaches. The beaches here are white (with grey underneath), but lovely and very swimmable.
Let’s visit some hotels!
The Riu Playa Blanca is a nice family resort with a small water park for the kids. Families are having a blast and on the other side, the swim up bar is full. The rooms are decent and the views are lovely. This is for your middle budget traveler who wants convenience and comfort. Their buffets are always good!
Next up is the Sheraton Bijao and this is of course, a little more fancy but with fewer restaurants. It also has a lovely golf course which is actually green and the rooms are very
nice! This is a large resort with timeshares attached and many happy people strolling about. Lunch here at the buffet is dizzying with all the choices and my plate is full when I finally sit.
The sitting never lasts so it’s on to the Royal Decameron. This is by far the largest resort in Playa Blanca and it definitely has the most steps. There are many pools, many
restaurants and two large water slides. Families are loving it and the sun is HOT. The salesperson proudly points out the beach here has the whitest sand in the area! Strolling through the lush, extensive grounds, I gaze longingly at the adult pool perched high up the stairs, overlooking a quiet area of the resort. This place has everything.
Another long ride brings me to the Playa Bonita area again and I’m dropped at the Westin. This is a large resort, splendid Westin luxury and I’m offered Gelato from their shop and it lingers on my mind, so smooth and creamy and delicious. The rooms are simple but offer
deep elegance. The view from the Penthouse is the best so far (Joe Biden liked it). There are plenty of pools, restaurants, a lovely spa plus on water’s edge, a round glassed in room where they’re preparing for a wedding reception. Just lovely! This place would be perfect for groups because there is plenty of space for everyone with 611 rooms total.
Adventure calls on day two -a trip to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and a sail on the Chagres River! Winding through the Soberania National Forest, the sites of the Canal keep me spellbound. That serenity is disturbed as we cross the “Oh My God” bridge, built in 1903 for the railroad, it made Canal construction possible. Wooden beams, a century old steel structure, it is a shaky crossing. A little scary, but past that soon enough, the bus heads up a verdant, lush slope. Perched on the hillside, this open air resort focuses on the natural wildlife and beauty of the rain forest. Many eco activities are available, including a two hour tram ride through the rain forest, an onsite butterfly house and orchid nursery, tours to the indigenous Embera village, plus opportunities to fish and hike. Overlooking the river, the view stretches far and the landscape is alive in the sun. Built specifically to bring people closer to nature,this resort has achieved that. The hammock on the balcony calls my name as I see the dark clouds gathering in the distance. What a great place to lay and read a book mere feet from the deluge.
Off to the boat dock and smashed into a big orange life vest, I can’t help but think about the pictures of the alligators I’ve seen that they have taken out of the Panama Canal. This is where they come to grow big and dominate the water. And I’m in a skiff with a bunch of excited people that may capsize us if they see a cute monkey. Moving through the area, the boat stops and our guide and driver start making really weird noises- to call the monkeys. We sit and wait. Another boat pulls up and some of them step out of the boat. I want to scream “Stop! Alligators!!” They seem oblivious to where they are. No one else is walking along that river bank. Get back in your boat! No monkeys appear so we sidle over to the other bank in this cove and there they are – a herd of alligators about twelve inched long scurrying all over the place. “Momma is underneath the water or these guys wouldn’t be here,” says the guide. “Most of them will not make it because of the predators, maybe one or two in forty.” I spot a turkey vulture sitting not far off. These are babies! Mom is watching you, you crazy bird. A scoop with a fishing net grabs one and it’s passed around and people are loving it.I touch it but I’m not the one who cracks his mouth open to see the teeth. No, thank you, no.
At the mouth of the Chagres, the tall orange crane on the bank is explained as Hitler’s crane, the Titan. Wait, what? Hitler? Panama? So yes, this is the crane he was using to build submarines. I tell a trucking pal of mine who is a history buff and he explains he used to see it in Long Beach, CA.
Hmm, how did it end up here? I investigate. It is a floating crane, one of the largest in the world and the US seized it as war booty after WWII. In 1996, Panama bought it and it’s still in use because it floats and is helping with repairs and construction when needed. What you won’t see or learn in Panama. Amazing.
A little farther on, we spot black lumps in the tree and they’re Howler monkeys. A little farther, Capuchin monkeys and they are friendly and hungry. I wonder how they survive on this island, this tiny island. So many natural predators here and they’re the size of a kitten if you don’t count their tail. I imagine nightfall when, while the big ships still ply the waters, the scary predators come out.
Another drastic contrast in the land called Panama. First world goods (think Mercedes freighter) moving through the canal while on the banks, it’s surely close to a brutal and feral existence. It’s hard to reconcile how the two worlds coexist, intersecting but not interfacing, and mostly unaware of each other.
Back on land and not a minute too soon. The sky’s answer to the drought that has gripped the land is black clouds that unleash a torrent. It’s almost a violent rain and everyone is very happy it has arrived. “You brought the rain!”, our hostess exclaims. During lunch at Los Lagartos, she explains she is very representative of Panama’s history. Her ancestry includes Spanish, French, Asian, Indigenous Wounaan, English, and American. The perfect Panamanian.The torrential view and sounds are a fabulous accompaniment to a fabulous lunch buffet. To cap it off, I buy a boar’s tusk necklace. There. I embraced some wildlife.
Back over the Oh My God bridge and onto the Milaflores Locks. The museum here has bugs that could give me nightmares. The history of the almost insurmountable building of the Canal is aptly displayed and because it is a holiday, the place is packed. People have sat in stadium chairs for two hours to wait for a ship to enter the locks, be lowered, and then do it again in the next set of locks, then finally pass through. Spectators jockey for position in the sports arena atmosphere. This is an event and the latecomers are jeered for blocking the views of those who have sat and waited for two hours! Many ships pass through here night and
day, but this one is being heralded like a champion race horse. It is very fun to be part of the excitement! Tolls are high for ships passing through. The record toll paid was by the Norwegian Pearl in 2010 (more than $450,000). Now, with the opening of the new channel on June 26, bigger ships will pass through so bigger tolls will be collected! This nation truly moves the Western World. It transports 70% of goods the US produces and that figure will rise when the new channel opens. There’s only one problem- the drought. Yes, Panama’s drought has lowered the water level and if it doesn’t start raining, ships will have to lighten their loads, thus lost revenue for the ships and the canal. Hurry rain! When running at peak performance, the Canal creates a revenue stream that has created opportunity for 130 global banks in Panama City. Global banks. It’s hard to wrap my brain around.
Moving back into the city, weagain careen past areas where luxury high rises are being built and roar past slums. The Mercedes SUVs stand out next to the Red Devils or Diablo Rojos (individually owned buses that are totally pimped out to look a bit frightening). Arriving at Casco Viejo, there is supposed to be a moratorium on motor vehicle traffic on Sundays (it is Sunday). I’m left off at Plaza Francia, the area where the
French are edified for their valiant (but doomed) efforts at building the Canal. Also remembered here are the 22,000 lives lost (mostly from malaria and yellow fever) during the building of the Canal. Here also are the dungeons used by the Spaniards and Columbians, sometimes under water at high tide so the prisoners simply had to wait until the tides went out again to become dry. Well, this is the tale I was told, and in Panama, anything is possible?
Climbing the stairs at Plaza Francia, the view over the city and Canal is fabulous. It is obvious that not only are the gringo tourists on the prowl, but that as a Sunday on a long weekend, many families have come to see and be seen. One tall beauty in Christian Louboutin stilettos is being photographed by a young man who avidly juggles all of his gear while trying to capture her. The indigenous Kuna women selling their handicrafts are deliciously covered in beaded leggings and cuffs. Two gentlemen wearing Panama hats sing passionately in the shade of bougainvillea vines on the Estaban Huertas Promenade . The breeze kicks up and scatters smiles while molas (indigenous Wounaan textiles) wave
like flags. Heading back into the cobblestone streets, the buildings again represent the great divide – sleek stucco facades with flower filled balconies abut abandoned shells with feral cats and creepy graffiti. Looming over the Plaza Catedral is the Catedral Metropolitana, built in 1796, with the two side spires covered in mother of Pearl from the Pearl Islands. The Canal Museum is here, so MUCH history is here and an interesting tidbit just steps away, the Iglesia San Jose. Here is the Golden Altar. The legend is it was hid under a layer of black paint by a devoted priest when pirates were actively sacking the area for gold in the 1700 and 1800s. It is immense and lustrous, a sacred and active church, candles flickering, prayers being murmured. A moving space I don’t really want to leave… Raveling back through the narrow, cobbled streets, the cars that aren’t supposed to be there Sundays honk at us as we squeeze through traffic.
Evening holds another splendid dinner at the Secrets. Tranquil surrounding, attentive waiters, and some of the best Caprese salad I’ve ever tasted. So fresh! A lot of stairs were climbed today, a lot of vistas viewed, all of them interesting. I’ve tethered my heart to this dream of Panama, and see why many people from all over the world choose to live here. The little isthmus of Casco Viejo holds enough history and magic that I could spend a month exploring and never grow tired. The view from my balcony after dinner is this, the darkness frames the lights of ocean liners waiting to cross the Canal. The night sounds from the adjacent dark treed hill are interesting, but makes me aware once again, being in Panama means walking the line between modernity and the primal. It’s a compelling vantage point that really calls to me.
Morning comes and so does room service. The woman who delivers it is very sweet. Coffee, croissants, fruit and juices, I’m in heaven. Packing, packing, I forget my favorite
tan pants, hung by the curtains because they were damp and blended in with the curtains. Ugh. This day takes me into the heart of the city with the Riu Plaza our first stop! This place is fabulous. The buffet is really good and the rooms are exquisite. The Penthouse once hosted J Lo and Marc Antony. It is top notch.
Next stop is the Marriott Panama and forgive me if I gush about our host, Juan. He is a former Venezuelan lawyer and current body builder who loves being in charge of sales at the Panama Marriott. This is a fabulous location with the largest rattan light fixture in the
bar area, possibly the largest on earth. The rooms are very nice and there is plenty of space for meetings, weddings, etc. There is also a casino on site plus a fabulous gym and pool area. And then there is Juan.Many reasons to return here!
Wrapping this up, I’m ushered into pure luxury at the Bristol Panama. The premise of this building was to bring the historical elegance of the Casco Viejo area into downtown. They have met and surpassed that target; muted colors with elegant details, fine furnishings, and a great lounge/dining area. The spa is immaculate and the lounge overlooking the
downtown compelling. Everything you need is here, sequestered in thick walls that move your mind out of the city and into relaxation. This is the premium property for staying in the business district. This property sits on a street with a wealth of construction/renovation and the ubiquitous telephone and power lines. It’s odd to see that when you’re not used to it anymore and in the business district, there are a lot of them!
Final stop – the F&F Tower for a final photo op. This building is 52 floors of twisting glass and steel, all offices. It embodies the spirit of Panama as it reflects upward movement,
emerging opportunity, unlimited vision and clarity that mirrors every facet of this incredible country. Many reasons to return here, and I am excited about them all. I long to linger but just like Panama, very little is static and the airport calls.