A man, a plan, a canal: Panamá

Panamá is a place facing significant tourism development. The Central
American country, recently the backdrop too much of the James Bond movie
Quantum of Solace, is one of the fastest-growing markets in the region with
4,500 hotel rooms on the table with nearly 3,000 in actual construction. With
nine official languages, a location at the hub of Latin America, North America
and the Caribbean, the country is an intriguing mix of culture, history and
natural magnificence.

Palindromic canal

Panamá, of course, is
rightly-famous for the Panamá Canal, a still impressive man-made link from the
Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean that revolutionised international trade (and
spawned the famous palindrome of this article’s title). The concept of a canal
was first mooted in the early 1500s, the King of Spain seeing its value in both
trading and military terms. However, efforts to build the canal only began in
the late 19th century. During its construction it claimed nearly 30,000 lives
before it was finally opened in 1914. Given its strategic importance, it’s long
been coveted – the United States controlled it until 1999 (the latter 20 years
in conjunction with the Panamanian government) when it was finally taken over
by the Panamá Canal Authority.

This engineering wonder of the
world, some 50 miles long, is simply awesome, more so if you can view two ships
crossing – they’re built to the maximum proportions the canal can allow, hence
their name: Panamax. There’s a visitor centre at Miraflores Locks. Check out
the schedules to check which ships are passing through the canal – this is
where they’re raised and lowered 54 feet to their next journey phase.

Surrounded by trees

Panamá’s efficiently-named capital
city, Panamá City, is unique in Latin America in that it is less than ten
minutes away from a rainforest. The array of national parks are a world
treasure. Darién National Park, for example, has 10,000 plant species and over
1,000 species of bird. Like all national parks in the country, it’s been
declared Biosphere Reserve and Mankind Heritage. Rainforest rules the roost at
Barú Volcano National Park and International Park La Amistad in Chiriqui
Province Highlands over 50,000 acres. Monkey Island is a popular and extraordinary
day-tour. Situated in Gatun Lake – part of the Panama Canal system – it’s
possible to see three species of monkey as well as crocodiles and iguana. Note,
too, that the canal’s thirst for water in its locks means that the canal zone
has had to look after its natural resources – one of the reasons why the
national parks are so fabulous. Closer to the border with Costa Rica is the Bocas
del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side – a location where 18 different
countries have filmed their version of the TV reality show, Survivor.

Life’s a beach

On the Pacific side are a slew of
beaches just an hour from the capital city. Here’s where to go for full-service
resorts, golf courses and all kind of surfing-based activities. It’s also where
you can see some of the most expensive homes constructed in the country dotting
the coastline. Try a day-trip out to the ancient volcano crater town of El
Valle de Anton or cool down in the mountains at villages like Los Altos de
Maria or El Valle de Anton. It’s particularly popular with US retirees; Panamá
is a dollarised economy. There are thousands of second-homes and retirement
villages in this area where cable TV, net access and US-friendly mall-life
seems to be turning this part of the country into Florida, mark II. Try Comarca
Kuna Yala on the Caribbean side – it’s over 350 islands with white sand, coral
and palm trees. Scuba is prohibited here but the Isla Coiba National Park more
than makes up for that with world-class diving.

In the city

The capital city is a metropolitan,
technically-advanced place which is a hub for international banking and
commerce. It’s not all skyscrapers and bull markets, however; as is often the
case, the old town is a beautiful site which has some outstanding architecture.
Panamá La Vieja was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast and the
historic district still adheres to some of that initial settlement’s street
pattern. Casco Antiguo is currently being revamped but is an unique treasure
trove of Caribbean, Art Deco, French Colonial and Republican buildings.

On the other side of the coin, of
course, is a lucrative and ever-expanding casino and gambling culture. Most of
the larger hotels are centres for gaming as well as a raft of designated
casinos throughout the city and, indeed, the country itself.

Nightlife in this city of 800, 00
inhabitants is vibrant and varied. From the nightclubs and swish bars of the
business district to the cool-kids hangouts of Calle Uruguay, there are plenty
of options to keep the traveller right in the heart of the action. After a hard
day’s travelling between the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts, a dance and a
drink might be just the ticket.