Panama City to Colon, Panama
Built across the narrowest point between the pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Panama Canal is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. It stretches 50 miles from Panama City to Colon, and took first France, then the U.S., 65,000 workers and 20 years to build. Centuries of bankruptcy, mismanagement, and malaria delayed the project a number of times after the idea was first proposed in 1524 by King Charles V of Spain. But nearly 400 years later, on August 15, 1914, the SS Ancon became the first ship to sail from one side to the other. Today countless cruise and commercial ships line up for the 8- to 10- hour journey. Today’s ships are so big that the canal is being expanded by 2014, in time for its centennial.
The compressive museum at the Miraflores Visitors Center, just yards from the locks, features interactive displays and a mesmerizing view from its restaurant. To truly enjoy the canal, though, consider a partial or full transit boat tour lasting 4 to 8 hours.
Located at the canal’s southern end, cosmopolitan Panama City is a rich base for exploring the area. The romantic, 17th-century Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) is a city-within-a-city gradually being revived; of the growing number of boutique hotels occupying restored buildings here, the first was the Canal House, an 1893 mansion whose three elegantly appointed suites deliver contemporary style and plenty of amenities. Stroll through Plaza Bolivar, known for its charming sidewalk cafes, and dine at Manolo Caracol, popular for its ever-changing 12-course menu.
Just 10 minutes from the modern downtown, Natural Metropolitan Park is the world’s only tropical rain forest within city limits. The birding opportunities are impressive here, but it gets even better at Soberania Park, the species-rich rain forest that runs alongside the canal and is an easy 15-mile drive from Panama City; Pipeline Road, the canal’s former service road, is unmatched for birding; it holds the world’s record for the greatest numbers of bird species identified in a 24-hour period –a staggering 360 (of the 500 known to thrive here). In the heart of the park is Gambola Rainforest Resort, a luxurious, 107-room riverside hotel that includes 38 villas from the 1930s that once served as homes for Canal administrators. Both of its nearby sister properties – Canopy Tower (a refurbished, five-story formers U.S. radar station, also within the park) and the more comfortably Canopy Lodge – serve avid birders with tree-top viewing platforms and expert guides.