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.
Officially founded by the Americans in 1852, as the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Railroad, COLÓN, at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, is all rubble and attitude. The city is dangerously poor, with a bad record of violent crime, set in a crumbling colonial shell that begs for a renovation it is unlikely ever to see. Colón’s fortunes have fluctuated with those of the railway, and later the canal. Despite its status as Panama’s main port, not to mention the financial success of both the canal and the Free Zone (established in 1949), very little of the money generated stays here, and many people who work in these areas live in Panama City. In the face of extreme poverty and unemployment levels, the crime rate – particularly drug-related crime – has rocketed.
For many, Colón’s edginess will not appeal in the slightest, and a visit will only be a necessary evil in order to visit the nearby Gatún Locks or Fort San Lorenzo or the Costa Arriba (though even then it could be avoided entirely by changing buses at Sabanitas). Many people come solely to shop at the Colón Free Zone – a walled enclave where goods from all over the world can be bought at very low prices – and assiduously avoid the rest of the city. However, the combination of a luxurious rail trip from Panama City followed by a taxi tour of this unique and decaying place can be fascinating, giving powerful insights into what the canal and the railroad have meant physically and economically to the country.
The best and safest way to explore Colón is by taxi (see Safety in Colón), taking in the main streets, the historic New Washington Hotel and the adjacent dark-stone Episcopalian Christ Church by the Sea, the first Protestant church in Central America, built in the mid-1860s for the railroad workers. You get great views of ships waiting to enter the canal from the seafront.
The southeast corner of Colón is occupied by the Zona Libre, or Free Zone (wcolonfreezone.com). Covering more than a square kilometre, this is the second-largest duty-free zone in the world after Hong Kong, with an annual turnover of more than US$10 billion. Colón’s residents are not allowed in unless they work here, but you and your wallet are free to enter if you present your passport at the gate, though the place holds minimal interest for the casual shopper.
Near the Free Zone an enclave known as Colón 2000, which comprises a handful of souvenir shops and restaurants, has been established in the hopes of luring passengers from the many cruise ships that pass through the canal.
With a spectacular setting on a promontory above the Caribbean and overlooking the mouth of the Río Chagres, Fort San Lorenzo is the most impressive Spanish fortification still standing in Panama. Until the construction of the railway, the Chagres was the main cargo route across the isthmus to Panama City, and thus of enormous strategic importance to Spain. The first fortifications to protect the entrance to the river were built here in 1595, but the fort was taken by Francis Drake in 1596 and, though heavily reinforced, fell again to Henry Morgan’s pirates in December 1670. Morgan then proceeded up the Chagres and across the isthmus to ransack Panama City. The fortifications that remain today were built in the mid-eighteenth century. The site as a whole is imposing, with a moat surrounding stout stone walls and great cannons looking out from the embrasures, all of it kept in isolation by the dense rainforest all around.
From Colón, a road runs 10km southwest to the Gatún Locks, where ships transit between Lago Gatún and Bahía Limón. The nearly 2km-long locks, which raise and lower ships the 26.5m between the lake and sea level in three stages, are among the canal’s most monumental engineering features. The observation platform at the visitors’ centre is so close to the canal that you could speak quite easily to anyone on the deck of the ships – your best chance of having a chat is between 8am and 11am, and after 3pm. The locks can also be visited as part of a tour.
Colón’s reputation throughout the rest of the country for violent crime is not undeserved, and if you come here you should exercise extreme caution – mugging, even on the main streets in broad daylight, does happen. Don’t carry anything that may attract attention or that you can’t afford to lose, try to stay in sight of the police on the main streets and take taxis rather than walk. Many drivers will give tours of the city (about US$12/hr); consider hiring one if you want to explore. Asking for Pablo (who speaks English and Spanish) at the Hotel Internacional is a good option.
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.
The PANAMA CANAL really is amazing, both physically and in concept. The basis of the country’s modern economy, it’s also the key to much of its history: were it not for the US government’s determination to build the waterway, Panama might never have come into existence as an independent republic. Construction on the project began in the late nineteenth century, initiated by the French, but their efforts were abandoned in 1893, having taken the lives of nearly 22,000 workers through disease. The US took up the construction just over ten years later, aided by more powerful machinery than the French had been using, and improved understanding of malaria, yellow fever and the engineering that was necessary. The job was finally finished in 1914, the isthmus having been breached by the 77km-long canal, with vessels raised from and lowered to sea level by three sets of locks totalling 5km in length.
From 1903 to 1977, the strip of land that extends 8km on either side of the canal was de facto US territory, an area known as the Canal Zone. After more than ninety years the waterway was finally handed over to Panamanian jurisdiction at midnight on December 31, 1999, to be managed thereafter by the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP). In 2006 a proposal for a US$5 billion expansion of the canal, due to be completed in 2015, was approved first by President Torrijos and then by public referendum. The ACP claims that the expansion will directly benefit Panama’s people, though critics contend that the country will be crippled by debt – the project will be paid for by increased tolls, supplemented by US$2.3 billion in loans – and that only the elite of society will benefit.
A day-trip from Panama City could see you scanning the rainforest canopy for harpy eagles from the top of a former radar station, taking in the engineering masterpiece of the Miraflores Locks, or visiting an indigenous Emberá community in Parque Nacional Chagres. If you’re in the mood for hiking, try out the celebrated routes of Camino de Cruces and the Pipeline Road in Parque Nacional Soberanía. A cool and comfortable early-morning train ride on the Panama Canal Railway to Colón gives wonderful panoramic views of the canal and the rainforest, and from the city it’s a hot and bumpy bus ride northeast along the coast to the colonial ruins of Portobelo.
From the Bahía de Panamá on the country’s Pacific coast, the canal runs at sea level approximately 6km inland to the Miraflores Locks, where ships are raised some 16.5m to Lago de Miraflores. About 2km further on, ships are raised another 10m to the canal’s maximum elevation of 26.5m above sea level, after which they enter the Gaillard Cut. This 14km slice through the shifting shale of the continental divide was the deepest and most difficult section of the canal’s construction and was plagued by devastating landslides and loss of life.
The canal channel continues for 38km across the broad expanse of Lago Gatún, once the largest artificial lake in the world. Covering 420 square kilometres, it is tranquil and stunningly beautiful; until you see an ocean-going ship appear from behind one of the densely forested headlands, it’s difficult to believe that this is part of one of the busiest waterways in the world. At the lake’s far end ships are brought back down to sea level in three stages by the Gatún Locks, after which they run 3km through a narrow cut into the calm Caribbean waters of Bahía Limón.
Heading north out of Panama City along the canal, the first sight of note is the Miraflores Locks. The first lock gates here are the tallest in the whole canal system. Even so, they open in just two minutes, guiding ships through by electric locomotives known as mules. The visitor complex is a ten-minute walk from the point on the main road where any Gamboa- or Paraíso-bound bus from Panama City can drop you off – just ask the driver. The best time to see ships passing through is 8am to 11am, when they come up from the Pacific side, and after 3pm, when they complete their transit from the Atlantic side. There is an overpriced café here, as well as an expensive restaurant and a souvenir shop.
East of the older highway that connects Panama City with Colón – the Transístmica – lies Parque Nacional Chagres, 1290 square kilometres of mountainous rainforest comprising four different life zones that are home to more than three hundred bird species and several Emberá communities displaced by the flooding of Lago Bayano, further east.
Day-trips to the park include transport – bus from Panama City – followed by a glorious trip by motorized dugout up the Río Chagres, a rainforest walk, a traditional meal, and the opportunity to buy handicrafts directly from producers. Note that sometimes these Emberá villages can be overrun with cruise ship groups (Dec–April); you’ll find fewer visitors in the Emberá communities of the Darién.
Stretching along the eastern flank of the canal, the 220-square-kilometre PARQUE NACIONAL SOBERANÍA provides essential protection for the rainforest-covered watershed that is vital for the canal’s continued operation. Just thirty minutes from Panama City by road, Soberanía is the most easily accessible national park in Panama and is popular with both locals and visitors. Most spend just a few hours exploring one of the trails, which are mostly well marked and pass over rugged terrain cloaked in pristine rainforest, offering reasonable odds of seeing monkeys and innumerable birds as well as smaller mammals such as sloths and agoutis.
You can collect trail information and pay the entrance fee at the park office, where the road to Gamboa branches off the main road from Panama City. Indicate to the bus driver that you want to go to the park office. If you ring in advance you may be able to engage the services of a park warden as a guide.
All the trails have something to recommend them, but a few stand out. The 24km Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto), accessed from Gamboa, is world famous for its birding opportunities; you can also visit the excellent, but costly, nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, whose highlight is a canopy observation tower. Plantation Road, which begins at a right-hand turn-off 1.5km past the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo – tell the bus driver where you want to get off – follows a stream and offers great birdwatching. It runs some 4km to an intersection with the 10km Camino de las Cruces, the only trail for which you would need a guide. The Camino is a remnant of the cobbled track that the Spanish colonists used to transport their goods and treasures to Portobelo on the Caribbean coast.
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.
The Costa Arriba, stretching northeast of Colón, features lovely beaches, excellent diving and snorkelling, and the historic towns of Nombre de Dios and PORTOBELO (“beautiful harbour”). Though Portobelo today has a somewhat stagnant atmosphere, the remnants and ruins of its former glories retain an evocative power. More powerful still – at least to the thousands of pilgrims who come to gaze on it – is the agonized face of the small Black Christ statue in the Iglesia de San Felipe.
Every two years in early March, Portobelo hosts the hugely enjoyable Afro-colonial Festival de Congos y Diablos (wdiablosycongos.org), with smaller celebrations over the weekends leading up to it. Originating from cimarrones – outlawed bands of escaped slaves (see – in the sixteenth century, these colourful explosions of drumming, dancing, devil costumes and satirical play-acting were originally aimed at mocking their former colonial rulers.
Most of Portobelo is pretty down-at-heel. Other than the highly revered Cristo Negro, which fills the town every October, the ruins are the main attraction. Walking into Portobelo along the road from Colón brings you to the well-preserved Santiago Battery, which still features fourteen rusting but menacing cannons. The road then leads to the main tree-shaded plaza.
On the square, 100m along the main road, beyond the Casa Real de la Aduana, the large, white Iglesia de San Felipe houses Panama’s most revered religious icon, the Cristo Negro, or Black Christ. Tucked away behind the church, a small museum (under restoration at the time of writing) exhibits an intriguing display of some of the opulent claret and purple robes donated each year to the Black Christ. Outside the church is the tiny Mercado San Felipe, a small cluster of stalls selling religious (often quite kitsch) paraphernalia, most of which depicts the image of El Cristo, and a variety of Panamanian artesanía.
Without question the most revered religious figure in Panama is the Black Christ or Cristo Negro in Portobelo, which draws tens of thousands of pilgrims to the town every October. A small effigy carved from black cocobolo wood with an anguished face and eyes raised to heaven, the Black Christ is reputed to possess miraculous powers. The origins of the icon still remain something of a mystery. Some say that it was found floating in the sea during a cholera epidemic, which ended after the Christ was brought into the town; others maintain it was on a ship bound for Colombia that stopped at Portobelo for supplies and was repeatedly prevented from leaving the bay by bad weather, sailing successfully only when the statue was left ashore. Every year on October 21 up to fifty thousand devotees, known as Nazareños and dressed in purple robes, come to Portobelo – a number walking or crawling the last few kilometres – for a huge procession that is followed by festivities throughout the night.
After the town of Nombre de Dios was destroyed by Francis Drake in 1597, Portobelo was founded to replace it as the Atlantic terminus of the Camino Real – the route across the isthmus along which the Spanish hauled their plundered treasures. Portobelo’s setting on a deep-water bay was supposed to make it easier to defend from the ravages of pirates, and for 150 years it played host to the famous ferias, grand trading events held when the Spanish treasure fleet came to collect the riches that arrived on mule trains from Panama City. Unsurprisingly, the pirates who scoured the Spanish Main – most famously Henry Morgan – could not resist the wealth concentrated in the royal warehouses here. Eventually the Spanish decided enough was enough: the treasure fleet was rerouted around Cape Horn and Portobelo’s star began to fade.