Stretching 80km from Panama City in the south to Colón in the north, the Panama Canal is a work of mesmerizing engineering brilliance. One of the largest and most ambitious human endeavours, the waterway allows massive vessels – which otherwise would have to travel all the way south around Cape Horn – to traverse the isthmus in less than one day. East of the canal spreads the rainforest of Parque Nacional Soberanía, the greatest possible contrast to its mechanical might. Delve into the park’s humming, humid atmosphere on one of its many accessible pathways, and you’ll discover unparalleled biodiversity. Colón, at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, and only a boat or train or bus ride away from Panama City, seems like a different world from the capital – a brief tour of the poverty-stricken city from the safety of a taxi leaves you in no doubt about the canal’s socioeconomic importance, and the depth of Panama’s social inequalities. Some 45km northeast of Colón lies another port – Portobelo – whose glory days are even more distant. Its riches once proved irresistible to such pirates as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, and its once-mighty fortifications are now atmospheric ruins.
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Parque Nacional Portobelo
Parque Nacional Portobelo
The PARQUE NACIONAL PORTOBELO encompasses the town and surrounding coast, although the area receives little protection or responsible management and you don’t need permission from ANAM to enter. It does have good beaches and some of the best diving and snorkelling on the Caribbean coast, including coral reefs, shipwrecks and, somewhere in front of Isla de Drake, the as-yet-undiscovered grave of Francis Drake, buried at sea in a lead coffin after he died of dysentery in 1596. Most of this area can only be reached by sea; you can either hire a boatman in Portobelo, Isla Grande, or Puerto Lindo, a fishing village 14km northeast of Portobelo (also the best option for accommodation), or join an excursion; PADI-certified dive trips take place within the park.
Some 12km northeast along the coast from Portobelo, a side road branches off left and runs a few kilometres to the tiny village of La Guaira. Here lanchas provide transport to ISLA GRANDE, a short 300m hop from the mainland. A hugely popular weekend resort for residents of Colón and Panama City, topped by a rickety 200-year-old lighthouse, the island has become rather spoilt by unchecked development and the gradually receding beach, but it’s a pleasant enough day-trip if you’re killing time in Portobelo or Puerto Lindo waiting for a boat to Colombia.
Isla Grande fills up at weekends, and peaks during national holidays; during the week it is so quiet you can struggle to find a place open to serve you food. The only real sand beach, known as “La Punta”, is around the island to the southwest, and you’ll need to pay US$3 to use most of it (entry gives you access to Hotel Isla Grande’s showers and lounge chairs). Around to the east by Sister Moon you’ll find a reef break that’s good for surfing. There’s also some snorkelling round the northern part of the island by the Bananas Village Resort.
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