We visited Panama as part of a business trip in December 2006. Panama was part of Colombia until 1903. Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency and has close connections to the U.S. The population of Panama is growing as a result of many U.S. retirees who are moving there to take advantage of the fairly low cost of living. There are signs everywhere for new housing developments and resorts touting the good life in Panama. December is in the rainy season, and it rained, sometimes incredibly hard, almost every day we were there, but the showers didn’t last long. Don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!
Of course Panama is most famous for the Canal, which connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal Zone was officially part of the U.S. until it was turned over to Panama in 1979 by treaty. It was an incredible engineering feat to complete the Canal in 1914.
The Canal is currently undergoing renovation to widen and lengthen the locks to allow even larger ships to pass through. It is also a popular cruise ship route. To get from one end of the canal to the other is about a 10 hour event through the locks and to cruise the 40 miles. It costs each ship from $48,000 to $100,000 to transit the Canal. The cheapest fare collected was 36 cents by someone who swam the Canal!!
We stayed at the Country Inn & Suites Panama on the entrance to the Canal. On the western side of the Canal (Panama City side) is a buffet restaurant (Miraflores Restaurant at the Miraflores Locks). You can sit outside, right next to the locks, and the ships pass through almost close enough to touch. It is an entertaining dining experience to eat and watch the huge cargo ships enter the locks and raise or lower as they transit through the Canal.
We took a taxi from our hotel to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, less than 30 minutes away, which includes a beautiful hotel and gift shop, overlooking Gatun Lake.
At the resort, we paid for a tour on the Canal, and were taken down to the boat launch for a 60 minute boat ride on Gatun Lake (which is part of the Canal). If one wanted more seclusion, and to be in the rainforest, the Gamboa resort would be a good place to stay. On the Canal, we passed several large cargo ships.
In Gatun Lake, we pulled up to Monkey Island and the driver whistled and a number of monkeys came out to meet us. In a few minutes there were monkeys everywhere, and several came on to our boat-they are not shy and love getting bananas!
If you have the chance to visit Panama, definitely have dinner at the Miraflores locks and go for a boat ride on the Canal.