By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2000; Page E01
The giant hinged jaws of the Panama Canal's Miraflores Lock swung shut
behind our boat, blocking our ocean view and deepening the echo of our
voices. We were temporarily boxed in by the lock's concrete walls and
gates, one of three vessels in the 1,000-by-110-foot holding tank. Our
three-level tour boat was mere flotsam in the wake of the 700-foot
Nepalese work ship in front of us.
Millions of gallons of water filled the chamber silently through unseen
below the waterline, and we rose 24 feet into full daylight in just three
minutes. Our eventual liberation into Miraflores Lake, a small pool located
below the Pedro Miguel Locks, was delayed further while the Nepalese
hulk was pulled through the slot by four locomotives crawling atop the lock
walls, tethered to the giant ship by fat cables.
Of my adventures during a two-week trip to Panama in
mid-January--archipelagoes, jungles and highlands included--making the
50-mile canal transit is the one that made me feel most at home. The tour
vessel was clean, announcements were translated into English (albeit
roughly), the transit departed on time, service was attentive and I got a fair
idea upfront of what lay in store for the day ahead.
But such certainties are largely absent while touring Panama's incredible
natural attractions. And shaky infrastructure and spotty services are only
exacerbated by the unflagging enthusiasm of the nation's tourism
promoters, who do their best to make a stuffy, buggy hotel on a littered
beach sound like a five-star Tahitian bungalow.
Witnessing the canal and its awesome, gentle efficiency up close prompts
swarm of questions and fascinating answers. But nothing you hear now is
as colorful as the stories from the route's distant history: the U.S. gold
rushers who rode steamships from the East Coast, walked the isthmus and
ferried up the West Coast to avoid Native Americans in the Midwest; the
22,000 French lives lost to yellow fever and malaria during construction;
the 1928 swimming of the passage by a man named Richard Halliburton
(his toll: 36 cents).
The transfer of the canal on Dec. 31, 1999, from U.S. to Panamanian
control has unsettled the remaining U.S. residents of the Canal Zone, the
area surrounding the waterway that has essentially been a U.S. colony for
90 years. Many Zonians departed during the past year as U.S. operations
there wound down. Those who stayed are watching their cloistered
Once-homogenous clusters of white stucco buildings with red-tiled roofs
are now spiced by the multicolored paint jobs of Panamanian families who
bought some of the vacated structures. The waterway's work force has
become almost exclusively Panamanian. And among other edicts, the
government recently ordered that all signs in the Canal Zone be translated
from English to Spanish, a move that Zonians took as an insult. For now, at
least, English remains the official language of business within the canal.
Meantime, adventure-seeking tourists are starting to flood Panama, drawn
by affordable and accessible beaches, jungles, hills and islands, and by the
safety of travel there (notwithstanding parts of Panama City and the eastern
Darien province, where Colombian bandits vie with malaria and poisonous
snakes for threat of the day). With the turmoil of the Manuel Noriega years
well in the past, Panama has earned a reputation for friendly people,
low-key living and mugger-free travel.
The total number of foreigners entering Panama rose only 3.8 percent from
1998 to 1999, but visits from the United States jumped by 18.5 percent
during that period (from 97,100 people to 115,119 visitors), according to
Panama's tourism department. Between 1990 and 1999, the total number
of tourists entering the country more than tripled (from 171,800 to
Panama's outdoor offerings easily equal those of its tourist-besotted
neighbor Costa Rica, and available rooms and airline seats--and
uncrowded beaches and untrammeled jungles--are a lot more prevalent on
the isthmus than in Costa Rica.
The question remains whether Panama's tourism industry will mature
enough to handle the inevitable traveler influx, or opt to sit on the sidelines
counting money while the very environment that drew the visitors falls
The dugout canoe sank lower in the water as each trash barrel was added
by a Kuna Indian teenager. Two other adolescents adjusted the load and
motored away from the dock.
The three cans of garbage represented a few days' worth of refuse from
Nalunega, one of about 400 islands in the San Blas archipelago, a string of
mostly photo-perfect islets freckling the Panamanian Caribbean. Much of
the trash came from the Hotel San Blas, a bare- bones sand-and-thatch
arrangement amid a 448-person Kuna settlement. Though modest, the
hotel is the most popular and accessible San Blas destination for gringos on
"They'll tell you it's going to a landfill on the mainland," said Bill,
peddler from Kansas City, Mo., as he swung in a hammock, an open beer
resting on his belly. He and his girlfriend, Linda, spend up to two months
yearly in Panama, much of it at the hotel. "But watch that boat. They'll go a
half-mile offshore, hang out, then come back without any trash."
Sadly, the boys followed the script, methodically unloading the empty
barrels when they returned to land.
Many of Panama's waste management practices are appalling--and typical
of the Third World. But for the Kuna, such behavior is part of a stubborn
resistance to any change, fueled by fear that outsiders want the Indians to
assimilate into modern society. Kuna have governed the San Blas since the
1920s, when they took a stand after centuries of fleeing warring Indian
tribes, Spanish conquistadors and others. The Kuna have two
representatives in the Panamanian legislature and may vote in national
Still, they distrust outsiders and keep a solemn profile, unless you show
interest in buying one of their brightly woven molas--textiles typically
depicting resident fauna or flora. Sales opportunities transform reserved
Kuna women into animated marketers capable of haggling indefinitely
without lowering their prices much at all. (I returned to the United States
with four molas.) Kuna women also sustain tradition by wearing long,
mola-adorned dresses, beads wound tightly from ankle to knee and a thin
black line of paint down their noses (the men in this matriarchal society
have no such traditional costume).
Nalunega is a typical Kuna community: dozens of huts crammed tightly
together, built right up to the shoreline. This creates a trade-off for visitors:
gorgeous white beaches lay like silk under palm fronds on hundreds of the
islands, but not on the ones where tourists sleep and eat. So each morning
we'd pile into dugouts and head out to isles occupied by, at most, a handful
of Kuna. (The boatmen favor the inhabited islands because island-dwellers
collect $1 from each tourist per visit. But you can hire guys in San Blas to
take you to deserted islands.)
Because each island will take no more than eight tourists at a time and
because the Kuna living there keep to themselves, I never felt crowded on
these excursions. On successive mornings, we landed on Isla de los Perros
and Grass Island, places clearly cooked up in the fantasies of island lovers.
I walked the circumference of each island in under 10 minutes before
descending with snorkel into the plentiful coral reefs where pastel parrotfish
wandered in force, and even the elusive sea turtle and octopus showed
As I sidled from the water to a Kuna hut on Isla de los Perros (Island
the Dogs), I was handed a halved coconut by Ramon, who constituted half
of the island's population (the other half was his brother, Jose). The sun
pounded like a fist on the exposed beach, but the shade of a thatch
overhang was cool and sweet. Palms rustled, pelicans cruised and I
gnawed at the coconut, sea salt caking slowly on my skin.
"You don't think that cage is too small for them?" I asked our boatman,
Oriel, as we stood looking at two 20-inch sea turtles confined in a bamboo
pen built between the pilings on the dock of a restaurant in the Bocas del
Toro archipelago, off Panama's northwest Caribbean coast. He smiled and
shook his head, either to dispel my suggestion or to say he didn't
understand the question, and walked away. As I too walked away, four
Taiwanese women from our nine-person group chattered in a huddle,
photographing and pointing at the turtles.
The restaurant itself was unusual--a rickety slat-and-thatch structure
on stilts next to a band of mangroves and unattached to any land above sea
level--but our time there was frustrating. I wanted to snorkel. Back in the
town of Bocas del Toro (the one real town among these islands), my friend
Courtney and I had paid $15 each for what we thought would be a day of
shuttling among snorkel sites, with a beach stop or two and a quick break
for lunch. But here we were on this docketeria and the entire purpose of
our visit was to order, but not yet eat, lunch.
"It takes time to cook so we come back later to eat," Oriel explained.
had spent our first hour that morning buzzing around wide lagoons and
mangrove forests, engaged in an absurd game wherein Oriel would spot
broaching dolphins, roar toward them in the 25-foot motorized dugout,
look disappointed at their sudden disappearance and start scanning for
more creatures to harass. With each surfacing fin the Taiwanese tourists
would shriek with excitement and take pictures of the rippled water.
As we were preparing to leave the restaurant, another boat of eight tourists
arrived and within minutes two Argentine women were standing in the
waist-deep turtle cage laughing while grabbing at the terrified reptiles as
they squirted from one side of the jail to the other. The women's friends
filmed this while flicking cigarette ashes into the water. Among the entire
boatload, only a young Australian woman named Ness exhibited any
"This is horrible," she said, dangling her legs from the dock 20 feet from
where the Argentines played stupidly with the turtles. "I thought we were
going out to explore these islands and snorkel and have a real experience."
After this unfortunate side trip, our day improved. We snorkeled shallow
coral beds swarming with psychedelic fish, and after lunch hiked barefoot
through hilariously muddy jungle to a remote, rough-hewn beach, home to
a colony of tiny, dark-orange frogs.
Later, with margaritas flowing on a waterfront deck, our one regret was
that we could have tailored a perfect day--Bocas del Toro contains scores
of quiet islands and pristine beaches--had we known to hire for ourselves
one of the entrepreneurial boatmen plying the docks along Bocas's main
street instead of signing up with a standard tourist excursion (we had
booked our trip at a fishing/snorkeling/diving business).
Like so much of Panama, Bocas (the town) is expanding fast. Once just a
single, muddy main street smattered with pensiones, a couple of restaurants
and a dive shop, the business district has quickly crept up side roads and
into the hills, and has increased markedly in density, say locals and repeat
visitors. Calle 3, the now-paved main drag, supports a procession of
backpackers and, just as I saw in Costa Rica seven years ago, vacationers
can be spotted following locals through leafy paths to view land for sale.
Not until I reached the modest cabin in the cold, hard rain of dusk did
realize how menacing I must have looked. Clad head to toe in dark-toned
rain gear, I was soaked and muddy and clutching a small log, a prop to
help communicate to whoever lived here that I desperately needed dry
firewood (what is that Spanish word?) to heat my quarters.
Courtney and I had just finished a four-hour, rain-drenched hike through
the high jungle of Parque Internacional La Amistad, a 157-square-mile
park straddling the Costa Rica border and containing seven of the world's
12 classified life zones.
We were in the hills above Guadaloupe, an agricultural village in
west-central Panama, and hiked from 6,625 feet above sea level to about
7,300 feet, chilly altitudes made chillier by the relentless rain. Upon our
shivering return, we found one lone log in the bin that was supposed to
hold our night's warmth. The welcome sheet for the place promised ample
dry wood (strike one) and the two guides who had led us to the forested
hut were mysteriously absent from their hovel next door (strike two). So I
grabbed the log and set out toward the only other people we'd seen all
Realizing how scary I must have looked, I set the firewood down,
removed my hood and knocked on the cabin door. Four bewildered faces
answered and I think even the swaddled baby wondered why this really
wet guy stood in his doorway in the pouring rain at nightfall.
But--base hit: The father was a caretaker of the scattered cabanas, and
directed his teenage son to lead me to a sheltered wood pile. Minutes later,
I was weaving down the quarter-mile, rain-slicked path in the dark with a
90-pound Santa sack over my shoulder and the father's apology echoing in
my head: "My son cannot accompany you; it's too cold out."
Though not as high as the nearby Baru volcano (Panama's highest point at
11,408 feet), the steep, jagged hills of Amistad nonetheless snag most
passing rain clouds, providing an ideal incubator for a loamy cocoon of
green tinged with red bromeliads, orchids and orange blossoms. In sunnier
times, we were told, the park is a bird watcher's Eden, replete with
hundreds of species, including the bright and wildly plumed quetzal.
Though as skittish as most jungle birds, quetzals reportedly abound in these
hills and at times even leave the forest to flit around Guadaloupe. But
because they hate the rain, it was not until we were speeding out of town in
a taxi that we saw our only quetzal. It was silhouetted against the white sky
under a picnic shelter on the side of the road.
"You'll see those everywhere," said Gwendy, a friend of mine who lives
Panama City, as we drove past a car wreck, the loser's bumper lying on
the ground. "And the big problem is that drivers aren't allowed to move
their cars until the cops show up, which sometimes takes hours."
This policy, coupled with brazen Panamanian drivers and a proliferation
road work projects, clogs Panama City with more traffic jams than I have
ever seen. The silver lining on this congestion is that most backups are
physically short and usually brief, more like rush hour tangles in downtown
Washington than a 20-mile stall on I-95.
With a few pockets of exception, the city is a morass of incongruous
architecture--a corrugated tin supermarket next to an apartment building
adjacent to a strip mall abutting a string of quaint homes. But tucked
among this confusion are fabulous restaurants, modern necessities
(including ATMs) and opportunities for some enlightening excursions.
My three days in the capital included the canal transit, long hikes in
legitimate jungle parks within 15 minutes of downtown (one so large that
guides are recommended), a blur of affordable (!) fresh seafood meals,
and visits to both of Panama City's former locations, Casco Viejo and
The latter, neglected for too long by the government, was partially overrun
by residents of a neighboring slum and is now an uninspiring set of early
17th-century ruins, worth a look only for incurable historians. But Casco
Viejo, which became the city center in the 1670s, is home to museums,
historical buildings (including a dungeon-turned-restaurant and the
presidential palace) and a pulsing barrio of 18th-century wooden houses,
flower-covered balconies and street life. It's hard to tell restaurants and
bars from homes and stores because so many doors are open, freeing
music to the streets.
Peer a little harder and Casco Viejo looks like the French Quarter of New
Orleans with a bad hangover; peeling paint, listing houses and tattered
clothing reveal the economic hardship of the residents. But what they lack
in dollars they reap in spirit: Neighbors chat and laugh across balconies,
kids play soccer in the streets and food vendors roll by on bicycle carts.
You could spend hours here by yourself without feeling lonely.
Just watch out at night; almost all tourist resources warn that bandits
Casco Viejo after dark. Even my cabby cautioned me to leave before
nightfall, and he used a Spanish word for mugger that I had never heard
So as the shadows filled the narrow streets, I walked toward the newer
downtown to burn calories and see more of the city before dark. My route
took me through the six-block Avenida Central pedestrian mall, Panama
City's tourist de force of shopping, where I didn't notice daylight fading for
all the glare from the open storefronts. The frenzied street scene far
outclassed the goods for sale--everything from electronics, $5 shirts and
high-end hiking boots to jewelry, grains and raw sausages. So when I tired
of people-watching, I stopped to consult my guidebook on the quickest
way out of the area.
From the teeming crowd a woman caught my eye, a tall Latina with
swaying hips and painted-on jeans angling across the mall. Without
breaking stride she brushed within an inch of me and whispered Spanish
into my ear: "Put the map away! The rateros are watching you!"
She was gone and I was too, striding quickly in and out of stores, my pack
clutched to my chest, toward an intersection and a taxi. It was such a
simple gesture, a woman warning a tourist about street urchins without
endangering herself at all, yet one that may have spared me a miserable
I have no clever analogy to draw between that incident and the state of
Panama tourism. Suffice to say that Panama delivers adventure travel on its
own terms, a product that ranges from wonderfully authentic to pitifully
ignorant, occasionally both at the same time.
So go now, but travel with an open mind and don't expect anything like
ease or comfort as the travel industry normally defines them. Endure the
rough edges, tolerate the middling service and, by all means, rejoice in the
sparkling waters, virgin jungles and tranquil towns. As more Americans
follow behind you, it's unclear what will become of them.
John Briley last wrote for Travel on recreational off-road driving. Panama
Details, Page E11.
GETTING THERE: American, Continental and Delta offer daily
connecting service to Panama City's Tocumen International Airport from
the Washington area; fares start at $441 round trip, with restrictions. I
used the consolidator Airdeals.com (1-888-999-2174) and paid $369
GETTING AROUND: Taxis are everywhere in Panama and, for the most
part, cheap. Expect to pay $18 to $25 (the local currency is the U.S.
dollar) to get from the airport into Panama City but less than $4 for rides
within the city (establish the fare before accepting the ride).
Flying is the easiest way to shuttle from Panama City to tourist spots,
domestic flights, though often bumpy, are affordable and generally
available, even at the last minute (there are no discounts for buying in
advance). Panamanian airlines offering domestic service include Aeroperlas
(011-507-315-7555 or 011-507-315-7500, www.aeroperlas.com),
Aereo Taxi (011-507-264-8644) and Aviatur (011-507-270-1748). Or,
you can book through a U.S. tour operator with a Panamanian branch
office, such as Panama Jones (1-888-726-2621,
Be aware that these flights depart from Albrook, the former Air Force
base-cum-domestic-airport that's closer to Panama City than Tocumen (a
taxi to Albrook costs about $5 from town). Sample fares, all round trip
from Panama City, include: San Blas (the island of El Porvenir), $50;
Bocas del Toro, $94; and David (the nearest city to Guadeloupe), $116.
David is one of the only cities to offer flights to destinations besides
Panama City; flights to Bocas del Toro are $40 round trip.
Rental cars are available in Panama City and David for reasonable rates
paid $35 per day, including insurance, from National Car Rental; you can
book ahead at the major firms' U.S. offices). Be very alert when driving in
Panama City; aggressive driving is less of an issue outside the city, but road
conditions mandate constant attention.
LANGUAGE: Spanish is the official tongue, though English is spoken in
many places around Panama City and in tourist spots, such as Bocas del
Toro, San Blas and Isla Grande.
WHERE TO STAY: Panama City has dozens of hotels in all budget
ranges. I liked the Hotel Marbella (on Calle D between calles 49 B Oeste
and Eusebio A Morales, 011-507-263-2220; rates are $36 for a double
weeknights, $44 weekends). It's a modern place with air conditioning, hot
water and a pleasant restaurant/bar in the lobby. It's close to numerous
restaurants in a safe neighborhood.
In Bocas del Toro: The Hotel Laguna (on Calle 3, Bocas's main drag,
011-507-757-9091) has clean, small doubles with air conditioning and hot
water for $56 (though this price fluctuates with demand). There's also a
restaurant on the property.
In the San Blas Islands: On Nalunega, Hotel San Blas
(011-507-262-5410; rooms $35 per person) is basic--thin bamboo walls,
sand floors, shared cold-water bathrooms--but it really fits the island
mood. I bought a San Blas package for $135 that included the hotel (three
meals daily and boat trips) and round-trip air. Flights land on El Porvenir; a
boatman meets hotel guests at the airstrip.
In Guadaloupe: I stayed at one of the Cabanas los Quetzales (in the forest
at the park boundary, about two miles from town, 011-507-771-2182;
$100 to $125 per cabin for up to six people). The cabins have full kitchens
and hot water (though mine was only tepid) and are set amid lush forest.
You can also stay in the village at the Hotel los Quetzales (same owner and
phone number as the cabanas; $30 to $35 per double), a beautiful, fairly
modern wooden lodge with a restaurant. Prices for the cabanas and the
lodge include guides and horses and use of ponchos and rubber boots.
PANAMA CANAL TOURS: Argo Tours (011-507-228-6069,
www.islamorada.com) transits most of the canal every Saturday (about
eight hours; cost is $90, including breakfast and lunch) and runs a full
transit 12 times a year ($135). You can also view operations for free from
an observation platform at the canal's Miraflores locks.
WHERE TO EAT: Panama City's restaurant selection is endless. I had
fantastic fresh seafood at La Coralina (Calle 6 Norte y Via Simon Bolivar;
about $6 for lunch) and the more upscale Siete Mares (n Calle Guatemala,
next to El Cortijo; $22 for dinner and wine). In Casco Viejo, a wonderfully
low-key spot for a break is Cafe de Asis (San Felipe; dinner with wine
from $14), with indoor-outdoor seating. For an authentic Panamanian
breakfast of shredded beef and onions, try El Boulevard (Avenida Balboa
y Calle 31 Este); it's cheap, fast and full of locals.
In Bocas del Toro, El Pirate and Buena Vista (both on Calle 3, the main
strip) have nice decks over the water. El Pirate has a local ambiance, with
slower service and dinners from about $6. Buena Vista feels
American--the Californian owners beam in TV sports from the States--and
serves great blender drinks as well as food; dinner starts at $8.
Final note: Panamanian tap water is safe to drink.
TRAVEL AGENCIES: Nabila Travel (011-507-269-5847,
firstname.lastname@example.org) took care of all my internal arrangements, including
booking my canal tour and arranging air travel. Owner Lina Troendle
moved from Boston two years ago. For harder-core eco-tours, try Eco
Circuitos/Margo Tours (011-507-264-8888, www.ecocircuitos.com);
managers Aida Orillac and Ana Young speak English.
INFORMATION: Panama Embassy, 202-483-1407
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