Fly.com is delighted to report that Andy Mossack, a well-known British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, is now a guest contributor for the Fly.com blog. Andy has been writing about world travel destinations for over 10 years and, during that time, he has experienced his fair share of highs and lows. We hope you enjoy this first post about his recent trip to Panama. Be sure to check back in for other insightful reviews from his travel exploits.
Early morning and the ceaseless activity on the Panama Canal continues as it has done every hour of every day for the last 50 years. A huge ship inches its way along the lock, no more than a few inches to spare on either side.
Time is money here and there’s no shortage of customers going one way or the other, with over 14,000 ships passing through this water in 2011 alone. Each ship pays a sizable sum into Panama’s now very deep pockets. It’s a highly profitable business and once the canal expansion is completed, it will be even busier.
For such a small country, an isthmus wedged between the Atlantic/Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, Panama has a lot to say for itself. After all, without the use of its extraordinary canal, many parts of the world would have to pay a lot more and wait a lot longer for their goods. But Panama has been a strategically vital port ever since the 1500s when the Spanish conquistadors used it to transport most of their plunder back home.
Any trip you take to Panama must include a visit to the canal, and the Miraflores Lock in particular, which has a large visitor centre and a spectacular viewing gallery. It has come a long way since construction began in the late 1800’s when over 22,000 workers perished, mostly from mosquito borne malaria. These days, the man made islands and waterways created from all that digging are a haven for birding and wildlife and you’ll get a great day out watching ships and taking walks in the surrounding rainforest.
But it’s not just about the canal. Panama may be on the thin side but it’s packed with diversity wherever you go. Think about it; it was once part of Costa Rica (cue instant images of swaying palms and beaches) and where else can you go and visit two huge oceans just 50 miles apart. Best of all, the dry season is from mid-December to mid-April, so now is an ideal time to visit.
The Pacific coast is lined with mangrove forests and impressive beaches (many belonging to the 1,000 islands that sit off the coast). It is also the commercial centre of the country – thanks to Panama City, the nation’s capital. However, despite more rainfall, the Caribbean side offers up better looking beaches and higher temperatures if you are willing to trade-off for less infrastructure and quieter towns.
And did I mention the country’s history? Portobelo on the Caribbean side may look like a sleepy coastal town these days, but after Columbus discovered the bay in 1502 it grew to become one of the most important ports in the world, literally teeming with Spanish galleons laden with gold. Amazingly, the Spanish 17th and 18th century fortifications are still there, albeit in a state of neglect in many sections – which is not surprising when you consider you’re free to walk all over them and there is very little money available for much needed restoration. Portobelo comes alive once a year when thousands make a pilgrimage every October 21 to the 17th century Iglesia de San Félipe church for the Festival de Cristo Negro (Festival of the Black Christ).
Joining Portobelo under UNESCO protection is Fuerte San Lorenzo, a stunning 16th century ruined fort high up on a cliff overlooking the mouth of Chagres River as it flows into the Caribbean. None other than messers Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake trod these very stones as the fort was Panama’s main defense from pirate attacks.
Another must-see are the wonderful cobbled streets and crumbling edifices of Casco Viejo, the fine old town close to Panama City which took on the mantle of the capital city when Henry Morgan destroyed the original in 1671. It’s gradually getting restored now and taking a stroll around the ancient streets, you can begin to see how magnificent some of those old building really were.
In short, Panama is much more than a canal. It will surprise you, I guarantee it.
To keep up with Andy and his travels, be sure to check out:
Featured Image: Panama Canal (Shutterstock.com)