Photo Essay: Death of the Diablos Rojos – Panama City, Panama

Unlike in the US, where the dominant bus line has the word “grey” right in the name, buses in much of Latin America are pandimonious converted Bluebird school buses covered in bright artwork, stickers, flashing lights and anything else the driver/owners can think of to one-up the competition in the unspoken bus beauty pageant that goes on in the street. In Panama, the local festive buses are called diablos rojos (red devils) not because of their looks but because of their reputation as overcrowded death traps. You can still see these moving pieces of art across the country but in March of 2013 all 1,200 diablos rojos in Panama City were decommissioned, deemed too gaudy, polluting and dangerous for the city’s shiny new profile as Miami South.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Owners of diablos rojos in the capital were given US$25,000 per city bus. Diablos rojos drivers who did not have too many tickets or deaths on their hands were also given the chance to train to drive Panama City’s new Metro Buses which are the same drab make and model as buses that ply Mexico City and other metropolises.

After years of “service” the diablos rojos were unceremoniously rounded up in a large dirt lot at a giant field which was part of the old US Howard Air Force Base, and taken apart piece by piece. Hundreds of wheels were loaded into containers which we’re told were headed to China. Mountains of scrap metal were created. Engines were lined up on the ground. And we were there to witness the death of the infamous diablos rojos.

Colorful Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos bus demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  City Junked Diablos Rojos buses Panama City Diablos Rojos tires Panama Diablos Rojos bus detail Diablos Rojos motors Panama  City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama Diablos Rojos Panama City   Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  Pacifico Diablos Rojos buses Panama Decomissioned Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos Panama export metal china Diablos Rojos bus Panama City Diablos Rojos bus junkyard Westin Hotel Panama Diablos Rojos detail Panama

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End of the Road – Yaviza, Darién Jungle, Panama

For all but the craziest among us (more on them later), driving through the Darién Jungle overland is not within the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to the end of the road in the Darién and visit a town called Yaviza where the pavement of the Pan-American Highway stops and ass-whupping jungle begins.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

Our truck entering Darién Province, home of the Darién Jungle, on our way to the end of the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

The only break in the Pan-American Highway

The Darién Jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, covers 10,000 square miles (26,000 square km) just on the Panamanian side. The region’s dense vegetation and marshy expanses create the only break in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs around 16,000 miles (25,750 km) from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina along the length of the American Continents.

The 60 mile (96 km) break in the action caused by the Darién Jungle is called the Darién Gap and it’s a pain in the ass for overland travelers like us who aren’t certifiably insane and, therefore, are forced to ship our vehicles around the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia rather than driving through.

Welcome to Yaviza, Darien Panama - End of the PanAmerican Highway

Welcome to the town of Yaviza where the Darién Jungle forms the only break in the Pan-American Highway.

Oh, sure. Some crazies have attempted to drive through the Darién Jungle. A handful have even made it starting with the Trans-Darién Expedition in 1960 during which a husband and wife team spent five months hacking a “road” through the Darién Jungle and averaging about 600 feet (200 meters) per hour. Good times.

It was 12 more years before another team made it through the Darién Jungle, but just barely. Back axles on Range Rovers driven by members of the British Trans-Americas Expedition broke and new parts had to be air dropped in. Clothing rotted on their bodies from the humidity. About half the team suffered serious injury and illness.

In 1975 some dudes on Rokon motorcycles tried four times before getting through the Darién Jungle overland. In 2015 a fresh crew of crazies plans to attempt to drive through the Darién Jungle and for US$4,400 you can join them. Send a postcard.

Literal end of the Pan American Highway - Darien Gap, Panama

A bit anticlimactic, perhaps, but that’s the end of the road for the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

Mother Nature’s border

“Why don’t they just close the Darién Gap by connecting the highway through the Darién Jungle?” you may wonder. First of all, building a road through a jungle is never easy. Think about it. Then consider the fact that the remote Darién Jungle has proven to be a good hideout for all kinds of bad guys who have moved in over the years and they don’t take too kindly to bulldozers and work crews getting in the way of their lucrative, totally illegal business. So, if the snakes don’t get you the narco traffickers and FARC guerrillas will.

Yaviza Panama end of PanAmerican Highway. Roadless Darien Gap

This bridge in the town of Yaviza goes over the Rio Chicanaque, the longest river in Panama, and marks the end of the Pan-American Highway and the beginning of the Darién Gap created by the road less Darién Jungle.

There are also political reasons why the Darién Jungle remains a vast, road less expanse: it’s Mother Nature’s border and a really excellent buffer zone between Central America and South America.

In the early 2000’s Alvaro Uribe, then President of Colombia, proposed a road through the Darién Jungle to complete the Pan-Am and make trade between nations easier. That idea obviously never got off the ground and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s never a road through the Darién.

Darien bus terminal, Yaviza, Panama

Someday there will be a bus station at the end of the road in Yaviza, Panama. Someday.

Drive to the end of the road in the Darién

We were in Darién Provence at the end of four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle with Panama Exotic Adventures. Rather than return immediately to Panama City, we decided to drive to the end of the road in the Darién.

Rio Chucanaque, Yaviza Darien Panama

Yaviza at the end (or beginning) of Pan-American Highway in Panama is a port town and villagers bring there produce, including these plantains, to town so the goods can be distributed to other parts of the country.

The road continues until you reach a town called Yaviza, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. It’s not the predictably lousy quality of the road that makes this little drive hard, it’s the hoops you have to jump through to get there.

Bringing produce to Yaviza on the Rio Chucanaque, Panama

Space is money so plantains are packed into boats like sardines in Yaviza at the beginning of their journey to other parts of Panama.

As we mentioned before, the Darién Jungle has become something of a hot spot for illicit activity. Therefore, Panamanian officials are anxious to keep tabs (as best they can) on who goes into the region. This means that everyone, including day tripping tourists, have to follow the rules and regulations of Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (Senafront), Panama’s border police.

Loading plantains in Yaviza Darien

We’ve never seen produce packed more precisely than these plantains on their way out of Yaviza.

Senafront officers control access to the Darién region with multiple checkpoints along the Pan-American Highway. At these stops, everyone’s documents are checked and rechecked. At any point a traveler may be turned back.

Luckily, we weren’t turned back though we did have to sweet talk our way past some officials especially when we wanted to park the truck and walk around Yaviza on foot. For some reason officials were worried that we were going to abandon our truck and wander off into the Darién.

Fried fish lunch & Balboa beer in Yaviza Darien, Panama

Lunch of champions (and everyone else) in Yaviza, Panama where the road less Darién Jungle brings the mighty Pan-American Highway to a screeching halt.

Not that there was much to see in Yaviza where reportedly less than 2,000 people live, but, hey it’s the end of the road.

Yaviza Darien Panama

There’s only one way to go from Yaviza, Panama.

A new way to stay in the Darién

It’s not exactly a hotel boom, but it is worth noting that in 2014 the folks behind Canopy Tower and two other hotels in Panama opened Canopy Camp in the Darién Jungle offering luxury safari tents from South Africa and some of the best bird watching in the country.

Canopy Camp, Darien Panama

In 2014 Canopy Camp opened in the Darién Jungle offering travelers luxury platform tents and plenty of rainforest immersion.

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Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

To: Paso Canoas, Panama

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Lay of the land: Exiting Costa Rica was a swift process that took less than 15 minutes and involved no exit fees. On the Panama side our first step was to buy insurance which is mandatory for anyone driving in Panama. Then we got our Panamanian visa which was given without forms or fees. Then we went upstairs and had our insurance papers stamped before returning downstairs to a glass-fronted booth marked “Tursimo” where we handed in our paperwork and were told to wait for 20 minutes. Nearly an hour later we got our completed paperwork back.

Elapsed time: 2 hours

Fees: US$15 for 30 days of mandatory driving insurance.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. We were given 180 days at this border. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny town at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Beware of accidents sign Panama

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.81 a gallon.

Need to know: Though there is a tourism information office at this border it was locked when we were there. A lot of the agents at this border spoke English. It’s good advice for any border crossing, but be sure to check the facts on your vehicle importation permit at this border. We didn’t realize until much later that the authorities at this border had mistakenly listed Eric’s nationality as Costa Rican and this error had to be fixed later. **If you will be shipping your vehicle onward from Panama to Colombia your paperwork has to be perfect and this border is known for making careless mistakes that if not noticed at the time have to be corrected later. Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch.

This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork when we left the country since we knew we’d be returning.

Panamerican Highway Panama

Duty free finds: We crossed near Christmas so the duty free shops were scenes of shopping chaos. We avoided them. If you do find bargains, remember that you’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you. However, alcohol is very cheap throughout Panama compared to prices in neighboring countries because taxes are lower (though there are nasty rumors that the Panamanian government may be increasing them soon).

When we were in Panama the country had the cheapest alcohol prices we’ve seen in any Latin American country from Mexico south and you could find things in Panama that were unavailable in other Latin American countries including our sorely missed bourbon (both Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark) at well-stocked and well-priced stores like Filipe Motta.

Overall border rating: Easy and relatively snappy, even during the busy holiday period.

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Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

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Sleeping Around on the Panama Canal – Panama

Anyone can cruise through the Panama Canal or visit one of the canal-side observation facilities, as we told you in our previous post about how to explore the Panama Canal. Few travelers know that it’s possible to sleep next to the Panama Canal in a converted US Air Force radar tower or even spend the night right on the Panama Canal in the only houseboat hotel in Panama. Here’s your guide to sleeping around on the Panama Canal.

Panama’s only houseboat hotel

Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. On top of that, it’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. Jungle Land Panama is the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats, crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake.

Jungleland PanJungle Land Panama floating hotel houseboat Panama Canalama floating hotel houseboat Panama Canal

Jungle Land Panama, the only houseboat hotel in Panama. Check in and sleep on the Panama Canal.

Panama  Jungle Land houseboat room Panama Canal

Comfortable, clean rooms onboard Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel were designed for relaxation and a pretty much unobstructed feeling of being right in the jungle.

Kayaking the Panama Canal Lake Gatun - Jungle Land Panama

Many excursions from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel take guests on adventures around the waterways of Lake Gatún and the Panama Canal.

While staying at Jungle Land Panama you can go fishing, look for monkeys and caiman or just relax in the hammocks or on the two astro-turfed “lawns” on board. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel.

Baby Caiman  Jungle Land Panama

A baby caiman discovered while exploring waterways of the Panama Canal with Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel.

Panamanian Night Monkey  -  Jungle Land Panama

A rescued Panamanian night monkey lives at Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel and sometimes agrees to interact with guests.

Lake Gatun Sunset Panama Canal -Panamanian Night Monkey  -  Jungle Land Panama

Sunset over the jungle seen from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel. It’s hard to believe the world’s busiest shipping channel is just a stone’s throw away.

Cunard's MS Queen Elizabeth cruising the Panama Canal

During one excursion from Jungle Land Panama houseboat hotel we nearly bumped into the MS Queen Elizabeth as she made her way through the Panama Canal.

From radar tower to hotel on the Panama Canal

In 1965 the US Air Force built a radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal and by 1969 is was being used by the Federal Aviation Administration to control air traffic in the area and by the Panama Canal Commission as a communications tower.

In September of 1988 the radar tower became Site One in the Caribbean Basin Radar Network which was used by the US government to monitor, spot and deter planes suspected of carrying drugs north from South America.

In 1995 the US decommissioned the tower and in 1996, the tower was transferred to Panamanian control.  After extensive renovation, the round tower was transformed into the Canopy Tower hotel.

Old US Radar tower - Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

Canopy Tower hotel, on the banks of the Panama Canal, is shaped that way because it used to be a US military radar tower.

Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower soon became a magnet for bird watchers, including some famous ones like Oprah Winfrey, eager to explore the surrounding rainforest and spot wildlife from their own rooms which are at tree top level.

Rainforest,canal and skyline view - Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

Rainforest, the Panama Canal and the skyline of Panama City as seen from the roof deck of the Canopy Tower hotel.

birdwatching Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

The roof deck of Canopy Tower is at tree top level, perfect for bird watching.

We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room.

Keel Billed Toucan Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

One of many toucans we saw right from Canopy Tower hotel on the banks of the Panama Canal.

Geoffroys Tamarin, Panama

There are more than just colorful birds in the protected rainforest around Canopy Tower hotel. We also saw howler monkeys and Geoffroy’s tamarins like this one.

And don’t worry. You won’t be roughing it in barracks with a bunch of drill sargeants. Rooms are clean, simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay.

Birdwatching Canopy Tower Lodge -Parrot Aracari Motmot

More than 500 species of birds have been documented in the rainforest around Canopy Tower including (left to right) mot mots, parrots and aracaris.

There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but we never heard anything. You’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.

Capybara Canopy Tower Lodge, Panama

A small herd of capybaras, the largest rodent in the world, seen during a wildlife walk around Canopy Tower.

The food is plentiful and terrific and meals often include local seasonal specialties like palm nuts. The guides are knowledgeable, patient and enthusiastic and the trips, including hiking along the wildlife filled (but not very ecologically named) Pipeline Road and night drives, are fulfilling.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Oprah…

Cocktails on the Panama Canal

Enjoying a Panamanian rum cocktail on the Panama Canal.

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How to Explore the Panama Canal – Panama

Traveling to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal is like going to New York City without seeing the Statue of Liberty. There are many ways to explore the Panama Canal including dramatic canal-side observation facilities, a nearby fort reached via a bridge that lets your drive over the Panama Canal at Gatún Locks and, of course, you can cruise the canal. We did it all since one of us (guess which one) is certifiably canal obsessed.

Cruise Ships Miraflores locks Panama Canal - Princess Cruises Seven Seas Cruises

Princess Cruises Line’s Island Princess and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner enter the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.

First, here’s how the Panama Canal moves ships from ocean to ocean. The Panama canal consist of six lock chambers. Three are on the Pacific side (there are two locks at Miraflores and a third at Pedro Miguel) and three locks are on the Atlantic side (all of them at Gatún). Massive Lake Gatún lies in the middle.

Ships enter the first three locks and are raised a total of 87 feet to reach Lake Gatún which they slowly travel across. Then they enter the second set of three locks which lowers them back to sea level. Think of locks as water-powered escalators.

Our time-lapse video, below, shows two cruise ships passing through the Miraflores Locks and will demonstrate how this engineering wonder works.

Another time-lapse video, below, shows a container ship being lowered through the Miraflores Locks.

 

At the top of the two lock chambers of the Miraflores Locks we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level of the Pacific Ocean

At the top of the two lock chambers at Miraflores we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level during our tourist transit on board the Pacific Queen departing the Pacific Ocean.

Panama Canal smack down: Miraflores vs Gatún Locks

The Miraflores Visitors Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children) includes a museum, snack bars and observation platforms that allow you to watch mega ships pass gracefully through the Miraflores Locks right in front of your very eyes.

Ship transiting Miraflores locks, Panama Canal Visitors center

A ship transits through the Miraflores Locks and past the visitor center and observation decks there.

The Miraflores Visitor Center is located just outside Panama City and is a popular stop for tourists. Their restaurant lunch buffet is said to be as terrific as the views. However, Miraflores isn’t the only way to get close to the action in the Panama Canal.

The Gatún Visitor Center (US$5, children free), located close to Colon on the Atlantic side, has an observation area over Gatún Lock which is the longest lock in the whole canal since all three lock chambers are together here. It’s a simpler facility but it’s also the cheapest observation point on the canal, you can get closer to the action here and it doesn’t get nearly as crowded as Miraflores which can be wall to wall at times.

Gatun locks visitors center, PanamaCanal

The small grandstand on the right lets visitors to Gatún Lock get close to the action.

really close

Massive ships pass THIS close at the Gatún Visitor Center.

There’s also a third observation option called the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children). It’s the only place where you can get a good look at the work being done to build larger parallel locks. These locks will be the size of four football fields and able to accommodate larger so-called “New Panamax” ships which are so big they can carry 12,000 containers as opposed to the older “Panamax” ships which carry just 5,000 containers. 

Even after seeing the enormous machinery and massive engineering challenges involved in the canal expansion project it was still difficult to comprehend the scale of the work.

Panama Canal Expansion Project

The work being done to create much larger parallel locks at the Panama Canal is on such a large-scale that it’s hard to comprehend even when you’re standing there looking at it.

The expansion project, which has cost US$6.5 billion so far, was started in 2007 and is expected to be done in 2015 (though it’s already blown through one completion deadline). When the expansion is complete, this observation facility, with its sleek design, restaurant and short nature loop trail, will serve as a third canal observation area.

Cruise the Panama Canal

If you’ve got the time and the money (at least half a day and around US$135 per adult and US$85 per child) you can experience the Panama Canal by traveling through the locks on a tourist boat. On board guides do a good job of explaining the engineering wonders of the canal and the process of moving safely through the locks.

The tourist boats are some of the smallest vessels that travel through the Panama Canal and it’s quite dramatic to be on board when the boat is squeezed into a lock along with massive cargo ships for the ride up (or down) inside the lock as water rushes in or is drained out.

Panamax ships in Gatun locks, Panama Canal

Cargo ships making their way through the Gatún Locks on the Panama Canal.

One-way canal cruises depart from either Panama City or Colon with bus transport one way. Half day cruises take passengers through three locks while full day cruises include all six locks taking you from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa.

We, of course, did the full day cruise through all six locks. You can take the trip through the Panama Canal from ocean to ocean in under 11 minutes in our video, below, from on board our Pacific Queen canal cruise tourist boat.

A free way to travel through the canal is to volunteer to be a deck hand on a small boat scheduled to move through the locks. The Panama Canal authority requires a minimum number of line handlers on all vessels traveling through the Panama Canal and many small boats simply don’t have enough hands in their normal crew. Captains looking for volunteers through the canal post notices at area marinas.

Sea dragon, Pangea expedition research yacht in panama canal

Though most of the vessels in the Panama Canal are enormous ships, some small craft like this pass through as well and they often need volunteers to be line handlers during the transit which represents a chance to make the journey for free.

Drive over the Panama Canal

The San Lorenzo Fort (US$5) is cool. The Spanish finished the fort in 1599 and its position at the mouth of the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean allowed the Spanish to stay vigilant against pirates who were on the hunt for the treasures the Spanish were hoarding.  Today you can see massive stone walls, turrets and domes plus great views down the Chagres. The fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

San Lorenzo Fort, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Fort San Lorenzo, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Getting to San Lorenzo Fort is even cooler than the fort itself because it involves waiting for the massive, metal gates at Gatun Locks to close then watching as a metal swinging bridge rotates to create a roadway over the canal. Then you drive over the Panama Canal.

Our truck gingerly entered the small bridge and we crept right past massive metal lock doors which were so close we could almost touch them as we passed. Water actually sprayed out from cracks and crevices in the doors which made the drive even more dramatic.

Drive over tha Panama Canal, Gatun Locks bridge

This shot was taken through the windshield of our truck as we drove onto a swing bridge over the Panama Canal. The thing marked 06 on the left is a massive metal lock door holding back tons of water so we can drive safely past.

Locked up on the Panama Canal

You can’t actually visit it, but there’s a prison on the banks of the Panama Canal. It’s called El Renacer Prison and Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama and nemesis to the US, calls it home.Though Noriega was on the CIA’s payroll at one time, he ultimately became the first foreign head of state to be convicted in a US court. The US wanted him so bad we even launched a short-lived but bomb-filled invasion of Panama to get this guy which pretty much destroyed the Casco Viejo area which is now the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Panamanians call Noriega la cara piña (pineapple face) because of his famously bad complexion. Given the nasty stuff Noriega was involved in and the bad things he did to his own people (murder, money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking) you’d think they could come up with something meaner.

Panama Canal fast facts

  • More than 14,000 vessels a year use the 48 mile (80 km) long Panama Canal to cut 8,000 miles (13,000 km) and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans instead of navigating the long and dangerous route through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
Regent Seven Seas Cruise Princess Cruise transit Panama canal Miraflores Locks

The largest cruise ships pay more than US$300,000 per Panama Canal transit.

  • More than one million vessels have gone through the Panama Canal so far.
  • The existing Panama Canal locks can accommodate ships up to 106 feet (32 meters) wide by 950 feet (290 meters) long. Many ships are built exactly to these specifications and they are called “Panamax” ships.  When the expanded parallel locks are finished they will be able to take ships up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide and 1,200 feet (365 meters) long. Those larger ships are called “New Panamax” ships.
Miguel-lock_Panama-Canal.jpg Septe

It’s a tight fit for Panamax-size ships in the existing Panama Canal locks which is why billions are being spent to create new, larger locks to accommodate even larger ships.

  • Average transit time is between 8 and 10 hours.
  • 5% of the world’s maritime traffic goes through the Panama Canal.
  • The countries that ship the most goods through the Panama Canal are the US and China.
  • The concrete walls of the Panama Canal locks are 55 feet (17 meters) thick.
  • In 2013, 12,045 ships traveled through the Panama Canal generating US$1.8 billion in tolls.
  • Cruise ships pay US$134 per occupied berth which is over US$300,000 for a Panamax-size cruise ship. Container ships pay US$82 per full container and a Panamax ship can carry 5,000 containers. Vessels must also pay a myriad of additional charges and handling fees.
Zim New York entering Culebra Cut. Panamax sized container ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers. It costs full panamax cargo and cruise more than $450,000 in tolls and fees to transit the canal.

Ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers and pay more than US$400,000 in tolls and fees to transit the Panama Canal when fully loaded.

  • It cost US$375 million to build the Panama Canal including US$10 million paid to Panama and US$40 million paid to the French Canal Company for the rights to the canal which they’d originally started and abandoned.
  • The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th birthday on August 15, 2014. A lot of the original infrastructure, including the massive lock doors which hold back tons and tons of water, are still being used today.
Panamal canal giant lock gates doors

Lock doors on the Panama Canal are 47 to 82 feet (14.3 to 25 meters) high, seven feet (2.1 meters) thick and they’re hollow and buoyant which means that even though they weight up to 662 tons each it only takes a pair of 25 horsepower motors to move them. Did we mention that they’re also 100 years old?

  • Scientists learned the hard way that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, not bad air (mal aire), during the building of the Panama Canal. More than 5,600 workers died during the US completion of the canal and as many as 22,000 died during the failed French attempt at the canal, many of them from malaria.
  • In 2011 Gary Saavedra, a champion surfer from Panama, rode a static wave through the Panama Canal for more than five hours covering more than 40 miles (64 km) and setting a Guinness Book of World Records milestone for the longest wave surfed in open water.
Panama canal Mitre gates of gatun locks opening

Lock gates at Gatún opening to let a ship pass.

  • In 1928 Richard Halliburton, an adventurer from the United States, paid 36 cents for the right to swim through the Panama Canal. He’s still in the Guinness Book of World Records as having paid the lowest toll ever on the Panama Canal and it’s a record that’s likely to stand since swimming through the canal was promptly banned.
  • The United States had jurisdiction over the Panama Canal until full control went to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Centennial Bridge Panama canal Pedro miguel locks

Centennial Bridge in the background as a ship heads for the Pedro Miguel Locks during its journey through the Panama Canal.

  • The Panama Canal, which employs more than 10,000 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Still want to know more about the Panama Canal? Read “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough, you big geek.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

Princess Cruise Lines’ Island Princess exiting Miraflores Locks and entering the Pacific Ocean.

Bonus: There are two ways to sleep on the Panama Canal including in an abandoned US Army Radar Tower turned into a hotel on the banks of the canal and in Panama’s only houseboat hotel, right on canal waters. We’ll tell you all about that in our next post.

 

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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