Touring from Panama City

By Randy Keck
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(Second of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Many visitors to Panama, having settled into their hotel on arrival in Panama City, do not pack their bags again until they are ready to depart for home. On an exploration of Panama in May ’06 as a guest of the tour operator Panama Jones, I had the opportunity to experience a full range of day-touring opportunities available from Panama City.

In my 13-day visit I took in all of the day excursions contained in Panama Jones’ most popular tour package, the 8-day/7-night “Panama Discovery Tour.” On many of the excursions I was fortunate to have as my guide Chuck Shirley, former U.S. military and Canal Zone resident, who is now married to a Panamanian and living in the countryside. Chuck was able to provide a unique cultural transition and historical perspective — invaluable to my Panama education.

 

My touring began with a tour of Panama City, the oldest city on the Pacific in the New World. While the city’s highrise skyline is most impressive, the allure of the Old City, Casa Viejo, with its charming historic French and Spanish architecture flooded my camera lens.

Casa Viejo has for the past few years been experiencing a historic urban renewal in which many of the old buildings have been restored to their former glory and prominence. This restoration continues, to the delight of visitors and locals alike, and the Old City has become a popular business, restaurant and entertainment venue.

In the afternoon we had our first taste of the Panama Canal at the nearby Mira Flores Locks. After watching, from the viewing deck, several ships pass through the locks, we visited the highly educational museum for an excellent historical perspective of the canal, which was turned over to the Panamanian government by the Carter administration in 1977 in a move steeped in controversy.

This handoff ended a long history of the Canal Zone’s effectively operating as a U.S. foreign territory within a Central American country and in the stroke of a pen ended the favored lifestyle experienced by decades of American Canal Zone military and civilian employees and their families, some of whom had retired in the Zone. Some departed after the turnover, but many remained, assimilating into the Panamanian culture and lifestyle.

“Hotel Central”

During my total of eight nights in Panama City, I sampled both the standard- and superior-category hotels used by Panama Jones and chosen because of their central city locations and good service.
The standard-level Granada had pleasant rooms ($105 per room, double occupancy, including tax) and a decidedly Panamanian flavor, with excellent service and a 24-hour restaurant.

The superior hotel I used, the historic El Panama ($138 per room, including tax), is quite unique for a city hotel because of its spacious grounds, featuring a huge pool deck with a large, resort-size pool complete with swim-up bar. We stayed in the poolside cabana rooms, which proved to be both convenient and quiet.

Canal transit

Winston Rice, owner of Panama Jones, reports that most visitors to Panama wish to make the full Panama Canal transit, but the full transit operates only on two Saturdays each month. Because of this, Panama Jones tour packages have Thursday departures from the U.S.

Some of our small group did the full transit and some the partial, both groups being happy with what they chose. The full transit includes all three locks plus the Gaillard Cut, the Bridge of the Americas and Century Bridge.

I was amazed most by the canal-development technology, now a century old, still being utilized today. Plans are under way to expand the canal so in future it will be usable by supertankers. Detailed information on all aspects of the amazing Panama Canal is available at the websites www.pancanal.com and www.panamacanal.com.

We also on this day visited Summit Gardens, Panama’s oldest zoo and public gardens, where we visited the fascinating harpy eagle display.

El Valle

One day we traveled to the Anton Valley cloudforest, also known as El Valle, which is one of only two extinct volcanoes in the world being lived in. On arrival, we enjoyed a rainforest hike, another short walk to see petroglyphs and then the colorful Sunday market in the main village.

El Valle is a popular second-home destination for Panama City residents because at nearly 2,500 feet above sea level it provides a cooler residential alternative to Panama’s coastal towns.

Historic Portobelo

Another day we transferred in the morning to the train station for a 45-minute train ride — sitting comfortably on the second deck of a double-decker observation car — on the first transcontinental train in the world (1855). Straddling the Panama Canal for much of the way, we traveled from Panama City to Colón, the canal’s Atlantic cruise port and historic seaport.

After seeing more of the Atlantic end of the canal, we undertook a wildlife safari during which we sighted white-faced monkeys, three-toed sloths and a variety of bird life. We were advised that Panama is now the top birding destination in the world, having more species than any other country and more than the rest of Central America combined.

Columbus christened the original enclave of Portobelo in 1502, and most of the important early trading history of the region directly involved the strategically located seaport. The bay and surrounding coast was a favored destination of Sir Francis Drake. Almost all of the gold in this region of the New World passed through Portobelo, which also at one time hosted the largest world trading fair.

Surviving seven separate attacks on the town by English ships and various pirates, Portobelo later ceased to be important. It is now quiet and nondescript, requiring the mind to stretch to fully imagine its past significance. We toured old fort ruins, the customs house and the Church of the Black Christ before returning to Colón and our train ride back to Panama City.

Embera Indians’ lost world

The next day we traveled about one hour inland to Chagres National Park to explore the world of the gentle Embera Indians, who, amazingly, look, dress and still live much as they did when explorers came to the New World in the 1500s.

On arrival at Madden Lake in the park, we boarded a motorized 40-foot dugout canoe for an additional one-hour, back-in-time trip up the Chagres River. On arrival at Tucipino Village, you can feel your tempo slow down as you begin to merge into the peaceful Embera culture.

We were welcomed by the village elders and treated to demonstrations of cultural dances, music and body painting. We then enjoyed lunch, consisting of traditionally prepared tilapia and plantains in the open-air thatched huts in which the Embera reside. There was ample time to wander the village, including surveying and purchasing fine basketry and other village-made crafts.

Later we traveled farther up the Chagres in our canoe, passing a village where women were washing clothes in the river and, still farther upstream, stopping for a refreshing swim in the clear waters.
We backtracked to Panama City richer for the cultural exchange and, in my case, with several fine baskets and a special cocobolo woodcarving in hand.

Panama City dining

Panama City dining recommendations include Ristorante Napoli (Calle 57, Obarrio), a traditional Italian pizzeria and Panama City landmark that has been around for 40-plus years and has the best pizza I have ever had anywhere. My sensational seafood pizza cost $9 and was easily enough for two.

For quick, inexpensive local Panamanian food, I recommend Niko’s Café, a local favorite known to all (four locations), and Monolo’s, with two city locations, one only a block from El Panama Hotel.

A quality yet reasonably priced spot for seafood is Trapiche, in a restaurant row area of Via Argentina. I enjoyed my fried corvina (sea bass) with plantains and vegetables ($8) and mixed seafood ceviche ($5).

Panama packages

Panama Jones offers packages, starting with the 4-day/3-night “Panama At A Glance,” $546-$754. Most providing the option of economy, standard or superior hotels, packages include accommodations, meals as listed, domestic flights (if applicable), touring as indicated in the itinerary and bilingual guide.

Other packages include the 6-day/5-night “Best of Panama,” $840-$1,187; the 8-day/7-night “Panama Discovery Tour,” $1,258-$1,743, and the 9-day/8-night “Panama Adventure Tour,” $1,699-$2,253.

Panama advisory

In Panama, it is advisable to book all touring arrangements with a registered, licensed tour operator that is experienced with the needs of North American visitors. Booking a hotel on your own with the idea of arranging touring locally is risky in terms of receiving a quality touring experience.

Many tours operate only one or two days per week, so precise planning is required. We came across several independent travelers wanting to join our local tours because of dissatisfaction in what they had received by winging their arrangements.

Experienced tour operators, such as Panama Jones, also tend to know which hotels are user-friendly and which are less so. This is not, in my opinion, the place to try to save a few dollars.

Panama information

For information on traveling to Panama, contact Panama Jones, Box 130, Clarita, OK 74535; call 888/726-2621 or visit www.panamacanal.com.

(Second of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Temperate perfection for the physical being,
Effervescent enlivenment for the mental being,
Meditative balancing for the spirit being. ❞
— Randy’s advisory regarding the types of special energies commonly experienced by visitors to the Panamanian uplands of eternal springtime

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Second of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Many visitors to Panama, having settled into their hotel on arrival in Panama City, do not pack their bags again until they are ready to depart for home. On an exploration of Panama in May ’06 as a guest of the tour operator Panama Jones, I had the opportunity to experience a full range of day-touring opportunities available from Panama City.

In my 13-day visit I took in all of the day excursions contained in Panama Jones’ most popular tour package, the 8-day/7-night “Panama Discovery Tour.” On many of the excursions I was fortunate to have as my guide Chuck Shirley, former U.S. military and Canal Zone resident, who is now married to a Panamanian and living in the countryside. Chuck was able to provide a unique cultural transition and historical perspective — invaluable to my Panama education.

 

My touring began with a tour of Panama City, the oldest city on the Pacific in the New World. While the city’s highrise skyline is most impressive, the allure of the Old City, Casa Viejo, with its charming historic French and Spanish architecture flooded my camera lens.

Casa Viejo has for the past few years been experiencing a historic urban renewal in which many of the old buildings have been restored to their former glory and prominence. This restoration continues, to the delight of visitors and locals alike, and the Old City has become a popular business, restaurant and entertainment venue.

In the afternoon we had our first taste of the Panama Canal at the nearby Mira Flores Locks. After watching, from the viewing deck, several ships pass through the locks, we visited the highly educational museum for an excellent historical perspective of the canal, which was turned over to the Panamanian government by the Carter administration in 1977 in a move steeped in controversy.

This handoff ended a long history of the Canal Zone’s effectively operating as a U.S. foreign territory within a Central American country and in the stroke of a pen ended the favored lifestyle experienced by decades of American Canal Zone military and civilian employees and their families, some of whom had retired in the Zone. Some departed after the turnover, but many remained, assimilating into the Panamanian culture and lifestyle.

“Hotel Central”

During my total of eight nights in Panama City, I sampled both the standard- and superior-category hotels used by Panama Jones and chosen because of their central city locations and good service.
The standard-level Granada had pleasant rooms ($105 per room, double occupancy, including tax) and a decidedly Panamanian flavor, with excellent service and a 24-hour restaurant.

The superior hotel I used, the historic El Panama ($138 per room, including tax), is quite unique for a city hotel because of its spacious grounds, featuring a huge pool deck with a large, resort-size pool complete with swim-up bar. We stayed in the poolside cabana rooms, which proved to be both convenient and quiet.

Canal transit

Winston Rice, owner of Panama Jones, reports that most visitors to Panama wish to make the full Panama Canal transit, but the full transit operates only on two Saturdays each month. Because of this, Panama Jones tour packages have Thursday departures from the U.S.

Some of our small group did the full transit and some the partial, both groups being happy with what they chose. The full transit includes all three locks plus the Gaillard Cut, the Bridge of the Americas and Century Bridge.

I was amazed most by the canal-development technology, now a century old, still being utilized today. Plans are under way to expand the canal so in future it will be usable by supertankers. Detailed information on all aspects of the amazing Panama Canal is available at the websites www.pancanal.com and www.panamacanal.com.

We also on this day visited Summit Gardens, Panama’s oldest zoo and public gardens, where we visited the fascinating harpy eagle display.

El Valle

One day we traveled to the Anton Valley cloudforest, also known as El Valle, which is one of only two extinct volcanoes in the world being lived in. On arrival, we enjoyed a rainforest hike, another short walk to see petroglyphs and then the colorful Sunday market in the main village.

El Valle is a popular second-home destination for Panama City residents because at nearly 2,500 feet above sea level it provides a cooler residential alternative to Panama’s coastal towns.

Historic Portobelo

Another day we transferred in the morning to the train station for a 45-minute train ride — sitting comfortably on the second deck of a double-decker observation car — on the first transcontinental train in the world (1855). Straddling the Panama Canal for much of the way, we traveled from Panama City to Colón, the canal’s Atlantic cruise port and historic seaport.

After seeing more of the Atlantic end of the canal, we undertook a wildlife safari during which we sighted white-faced monkeys, three-toed sloths and a variety of bird life. We were advised that Panama is now the top birding destination in the world, having more species than any other country and more than the rest of Central America combined.

Columbus christened the original enclave of Portobelo in 1502, and most of the important early trading history of the region directly involved the strategically located seaport. The bay and surrounding coast was a favored destination of Sir Francis Drake. Almost all of the gold in this region of the New World passed through Portobelo, which also at one time hosted the largest world trading fair.

Surviving seven separate attacks on the town by English ships and various pirates, Portobelo later ceased to be important. It is now quiet and nondescript, requiring the mind to stretch to fully imagine its past significance. We toured old fort ruins, the customs house and the Church of the Black Christ before returning to Colón and our train ride back to Panama City.

Embera Indians’ lost world

The next day we traveled about one hour inland to Chagres National Park to explore the world of the gentle Embera Indians, who, amazingly, look, dress and still live much as they did when explorers came to the New World in the 1500s.

On arrival at Madden Lake in the park, we boarded a motorized 40-foot dugout canoe for an additional one-hour, back-in-time trip up the Chagres River. On arrival at Tucipino Village, you can feel your tempo slow down as you begin to merge into the peaceful Embera culture.

We were welcomed by the village elders and treated to demonstrations of cultural dances, music and body painting. We then enjoyed lunch, consisting of traditionally prepared tilapia and plantains in the open-air thatched huts in which the Embera reside. There was ample time to wander the village, including surveying and purchasing fine basketry and other village-made crafts.

Later we traveled farther up the Chagres in our canoe, passing a village where women were washing clothes in the river and, still farther upstream, stopping for a refreshing swim in the clear waters.
We backtracked to Panama City richer for the cultural exchange and, in my case, with several fine baskets and a special cocobolo woodcarving in hand.

Panama City dining

Panama City dining recommendations include Ristorante Napoli (Calle 57, Obarrio), a traditional Italian pizzeria and Panama City landmark that has been around for 40-plus years and has the best pizza I have ever had anywhere. My sensational seafood pizza cost $9 and was easily enough for two.

For quick, inexpensive local Panamanian food, I recommend Niko’s Café, a local favorite known to all (four locations), and Monolo’s, with two city locations, one only a block from El Panama Hotel.

A quality yet reasonably priced spot for seafood is Trapiche, in a restaurant row area of Via Argentina. I enjoyed my fried corvina (sea bass) with plantains and vegetables ($8) and mixed seafood ceviche ($5).

Panama packages

Panama Jones offers packages, starting with the 4-day/3-night “Panama At A Glance,” $546-$754. Most providing the option of economy, standard or superior hotels, packages include accommodations, meals as listed, domestic flights (if applicable), touring as indicated in the itinerary and bilingual guide.

Other packages include the 6-day/5-night “Best of Panama,” $840-$1,187; the 8-day/7-night “Panama Discovery Tour,” $1,258-$1,743, and the 9-day/8-night “Panama Adventure Tour,” $1,699-$2,253.

Panama advisory

In Panama, it is advisable to book all touring arrangements with a registered, licensed tour operator that is experienced with the needs of North American visitors. Booking a hotel on your own with the idea of arranging touring locally is risky in terms of receiving a quality touring experience.

Many tours operate only one or two days per week, so precise planning is required. We came across several independent travelers wanting to join our local tours because of dissatisfaction in what they had received by winging their arrangements.

Experienced tour operators, such as Panama Jones, also tend to know which hotels are user-friendly and which are less so. This is not, in my opinion, the place to try to save a few dollars.

Panama information

For information on traveling to Panama, contact Panama Jones, Box 130, Clarita, OK 74535; call 888/726-2621 or visit www.panamacanal.com.

(Second of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Temperate perfection for the physical being,
Effervescent enlivenment for the mental being,
Meditative balancing for the spirit being. ❞
— Randy’s advisory regarding the types of special energies commonly experienced by visitors to the Panamanian uplands of eternal springtime