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HATS OFF TO PANAMA - AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE WORLD
 
(2014 - Spring Issue)

Writer: JANIE ROBINSON



From pristine rainforests and a sizzling cosmopolitan capital with Dubai-like skyscrapers to remote indigenous villages and one of the world’s busiest canals, Panama in Central America is the next must-see destination.

The Panama Canal is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014. The 80-kilometre waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans remains one of the greatest feats of civil engineering ever realized. Today, the Panama Canal is in the midst of a US$5.25-billion makeover that is expected to double its capacity when it opens next year, with anticipated revenues from the canal to exceed US$4 billion by 2025. 

The busy cruise season on the Panama Canal typically runs from October to April. For the best weather you might want to wait until the end of the rainy season in November before sailing this “Crossroads of the World” cruise.

Cruise ship passengers get a great view of the new Museum of Biodiversity (Biomuseo) on the scenic Amador Causeway at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. This colourful creation is the work of world-famous Canadian architect Frank Gehry.

“It’s a loud, visible building—very appropriate for Panama’s loud, visible culture,” says museum exhibit coordinator, Darien Montanez of Gehry’s signature-style science museum— the hulk of vivid red, orange, green, blue and yellow angles and forms, which is often compared to a colourful sandwich, a crumpled, jumbled scrap heap or the plumage of the country’s many tropical birds. 

Long stifled by the oppression of the Noriega dictatorship and political instability, Panama is now home to the fastest-growing economy in Central America. 

There is pandemonium in Panama City these days and the once-sleepy city is now a high-octane cosmopolitan capital with vaulting new skyscrapers appearing almost overnight. In the past two years alone, five major hotels, including the 70-storey Trump Ocean Club and the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, have opened in this sizzling city now being dubbed “Miami of the South.” 

A Tropical Wonderland

The world’s natural history was changed forever three million years ago when the Isthmus of Panama rose from the ocean, connecting North and South America. With more than 300 mammals and 900 bird species, nature-lovers are wild about Panama’s teeming tropical biodiversity. Nearly one-third of this tropical country is set aside for conservation, with some 40 national parks and protected areas. 

Soar through the bird-filled cloud forests in verdant El Valle de Anton, a popular getaway in Coclé Province not far from Panama City. Strap in and zip line your way through the treetops to get an awesome aerial view of the cascading Chorro El Macho waterfall, where a short hike takes you to the base of the 23-storey-high waterfall for a cool dip in a natural swimming pool secreted in the rainforest and fed by clear mountain water.

Boat up the mighty Rio Chagres in a primitive dugout canoe and discover one of Panama’s remote indigenous villages. Parara Puru village is one of four Embera indigenous riverside communities, which generously share their fascinating traditions, customs, lifestyles and beliefs with both day visitors and overnight guests.

We are welcomed to this remote rainforest village by musicians playing instruments crafted from nature. Embera men are dressed in colourful guayucocloth and an intricately beaded skirt called an amburawhile village women wear colourful cloth skirts or parumas, with tops made from beads and coins. 

Fascinating History Lessons

Discover sleepy little Natá, the oldest surviving town in Panama with the lovely, well-preserved Iglesia de Natá, one of the oldest churches in the Americas whose original church bells are made of solid gold. In 1515, the Spanish conquistadors conquered this golden village under the reign of an Indian chief named Natá, enslaving the rich natives and establishing Natá as one of the earliest European settlements on the isthmus.

Talk with friendly locals in Natá who are happy to share stories of their famed longevity and healthy rural roots (tomatoes, onions, peppers, corn and fruit grow in abundance here). Obviously something’s working, since the oldest woman in town is an independent 102-year-old and the oldest man, still spry at 106.

The fascinating history behind Panama’s newfound burial tombs, mounds and monoliths of El Caño Archaeological Park could be as intriguing as that of Stonehenge. Unearthed by accident in the 1970s, historians believe this fascinating new discovery dates back to an extremely prosperous Native American settlement with burial tombs from between AD 500 and 1550.

We learn all about the history of those famous Panama hats while exploring the tropical nation’s colourful countryside too. Panama hats became the height of fashion during the construction of the Panama Canal early in the 20th century, when American president Theodore Roosevelt was pictured in a panama during his visit to the canal in 1904. 

Long before the panama became a trendy souvenir however, farmers have donned this practical hand-woven work hat and it’s still a common sight in the rural regions of Panama. According to shopkeeper Reinaldo Quiroz at Mercado de Artesanias Coclé, you can buy a traditional brimmed panama for as little as US$15, but a high-quality hand-crafted hat can take five to 15 days to make and will cost from US$130 to $250 depending on the quality, style and craftsmanship of these hand-woven creations.

Travel Planner

The new Scarlet Martinez International Airport recently opened in Coclé Province with easier access to Panama’s Pacific beaches. Panama uses U.S. dollars, referred to by locals as balboas. For more information on Panama, go to visitpanama.com.

Air Transat (airtransat.ca) offers seasonal flights from Toronto to Panama City while Nolitours (nolitours.com) offers one- or two-week, all-inclusive beach and city packages to Panama as well as excursions.

 
 
 
 
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