Words by Roderick Eime
When anyone mentions Panama, it’s usually to do with hats, ‘papers’, rogue presidents or the famed canal. The trademark ‘Montecristi’ hat, which originated in Ecuador, costs around $20 upwards, and can be found in any of the dozens of street stalls throughout Casco Viejo in the old town.
The so-called ‘Panama Papers’ and the former president Manuel Noriega reveal a whole other side to Panama you won’t read about in any travel brochure. Yet like so many Central American republics, there is a fascinating cultural and ecological side waiting to be explored. From a cruise traveller’s perspective, the mighty canal is a shining beacon, drawing travellers in the many thousands.
A Panama Canal transit is a gold medal achievement for many. But beyond this massive 80km trench, completed in 1914 at great human cost, there exists much more for the truly inquisitive adventurer.
For example, the old city in Panama is a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserved thanks to its fascinating blend of Spanish, French and Caribbean architectural styles. There are abundant shopping and photo opportunities among the narrow, cobbled laneways.
In recent years, small ship cruise companies like Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, UnCruise and Star Clippers have used Panama as a starting point for explorations to the neighbouring Darien Jungle Reserve, the abode of the indigenous Emberá people, and even as far afield as Costa Rica and Colombia.
Even within the confines of the Canal Zone itself, there exists the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in Gatún Lake. Scientists have worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute since its establishment in 1923, researching the 120 mammals and diverse tree species in the reserve. Lindblad has secured special access to this zone and it features prominently in its acclaimed week-long ‘Costa Rica and Panama Canal’ itinerary.
On the Caribbean side, there are the most peculiar San Blas Islands where the native Kuna people withdrew decades ago after pressure from landowners. They now enjoy a special political status within Panama, and the many flat islands offer both a refuge and a tropical playground.
If transiting the Panama Canal is your objective, a voyage on any of the numerous ‘big ship’ itineraries is sufficient. The small expeditions, on the other hand, deliver a more intimate encounter with the indigenous people, the rare and endemic flora and fauna, and an exploration of the complex and fragile ecosystems within this fascinating region.
- The 80km Panama Canal was begun by the French in 1881 and completed by the USA in 1914. More than 20,000 lives were lost in the process. A transit typically takes 10 hours.
- Panama City was inaugurated in 1519 by Spanish conquistador, Pedro Arias Dávila.
- Lindblad Expeditions has assigned its brand new, 100-passenger vessel, National Geographic Quest, to cruising Panama and Costa Rica.
- Independent from Spain since 1821, Costa Rica’s 4.3 million inhabitants enjoy the highest standard of living in all of Central America. The tiny 51,000sq km country is famous for wild and beautiful landscapes, rain forests, volcanoes, tropical beaches and its rich biodiversity.
- Small ship cruise lines will typically travel through Central America during the Alaskan ‘off season’ (the northern hemisphere winter), with a concentration over December and January.