Panama… Much More than a Canal


By Pamela McCourt Francescone

When you say Panama the word canal automatically spring to mind. And the Panama Canal is certainly one of the country´s main attractions and most important sources of income, standing in second place at 5% of the GNP after tourism, which is the number one eamer al 10.4%

Successful as it is, Panamas tourism is not a lone runner as, to quote tourism minister Salomon Shamah, speaking in October at the 8th Central America Travel Market in Panama City, and underlining the importance of working with the other five Central American countries, “Our strength lies in the fact that we ate a multi-destination.”

Nelly Jerez, the Honduran minister for tourism, summed up the strengths of the six nations emphasizing how, when it comes to successful tourism promotion, diversity is the name of the game. “Panama is a modem country with excellent access. Costa Rica an ecological container without artificial ingredients, El Salvador has its Ruta Colonial y de los Volcanoes, Nicaragua its history, Belize its wonderful barrier reef and Honduras, which will host the 2012 Central American Travel Market, an event which will showcase a single and integrated Central America, its archaeology and the island of Roatan.”

In 2012 the 6 countries, which are aiming at 12.5 million arrivals, plan to unify and facilitate customs´ procedures.

“We would also like to introduce a complimentary insurance plan similar to Panama’s 30-day coverage which is given to tourists on the arrival at Tocumen international Airport in Panama City”, added Jerez.

The 48-mile Panama Canal, which joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was built from 1904 to 1914 and some 14,000 vessels pass through it every year. To give an idea of its importance, and of the time and money saved by using it, a ship sailing from New York to San Francisco via the canal travels 5,900 miles, less than half the 14,000 it would take to sail down and then up South America and rounding Cape Hom. The Canal is a system of artificial lakes, fed by rivers, and three sets of locks. Tolls vary according to the type of vessel, the highest having benn EU€254,140, (UK£213,342) paid by a cruise ship, and it takes from 20 to 30 hours to pass from one ocean to the other. A morning spent on Lake Gatun, also to admire the scenery and the wildlife including Capuchin and Howler monkeys, and then at the Miraflores Lock is the best way to get an overview of this synchronized and highly impressive complex.

But Panama is more than the canal. It has 1,800 miles of spending Caribbean and Pacific coast, 15,ooo islands, a fascinating ethnic variety with Indian communities living on reserved territories, an amazing biodiversity in its rainforests, and Panama City. While being Central America’s most contemporary city with its own “Manhattan” and a vibrant nightlife, is still has its colonial heritage.

The original settlement, the Casco Viejo, is currently undergoing massive renovation on its architecture and promises to become one of the country’s major attractions.

Another is Bocas de Toro which, after the canal, is Panama’s top spot, In this laidback little town it is easier and more fun to hop on a bicycle than into a car, it is a favourite with scuba divers, surfers, sun-seekers and nature lovers, and is has a range of facilities and hotels to suit all tastes and all budgets.