September 25, 2008

Panama a Land of Rain Forests, Island Hideaways

By Gary Bogue


PANAMA CITY is an amazing city.

Its skyline is certainly as spectacular as San Francisco's -- some might even say more so -- with its tall skyscrapers.

And more modern buildings are under construction, even as we speak. (Donald Trump is building the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in the shape of a 68-story sail!)

What makes this cosmopolitan city amazing is that it springs up out of a primitive rain forest. A green jungle is just a 30-minute ride from the city. (Maybe a 15-minute ride by taxi, but Panamanian cab drivers are crazy!) It's also just a one-hour plane ride from a distinctly different tourist experience in paradise on Bocas del Toro.

My wife, Lois, and I have been flying down to Panama City every other year for the past 18 years to see my son, Jeff, and his wife, Markela, and our two darling granddaughters, Chantelle and Monique, who live there. One of my favorite jaunts is a visit to the Panama Canal. There's always something new to see there.

The Miraflores Locks, the first set of locks that ships pass through from the Pacific Ocean on the way to the Atlantic Ocean, are just outside of the city. There is a modern visitors center that gets better every time we're there. There are historical exhibits on the canal, video presentations, scale models, and even a mock ship's bridge where you can steer "your" ship through the canal.

If you get tired of the virtual passage you can always walk out onto a large deck and watch nearby gigantic container ships squeeze their way through the real canal.

This year the visitors center has a special display explaining how a new set of locks is being built to enable new and bigger modern ships to use the canal. Digging has already started, and this third set of locks is scheduled to be completed by 2014.

This year we also got to see a tiny 40-foot motor launch pass through the Miraflores Locks between the passage of two container ships. It was pretty funny because it never crosses your mind that little private boats are also using the canal. The best part was the woman in the very tiny bikini sunbathing on the deck, which prompted the canal dockhands to immediately whip out their binoculars.

Unexplored territory

Each time Lois and I visit Jeff and Markela, they take us to see new parts of the country that we've never seen before.

In past years:

-- We've paddled by canoe up the Chagres River into the deep rain forest to the village of one clan of the Embera native people.

-- We've driven up the Pan-American Highway almost to Costa Rica to the Province of Chiriqui and the town of Boquete to see where they grow coffee and to drive to the top of a nearby volcano.

-- We've also been to Barro Colorado Island, the largest island on Gatun Lake. (This lake, in the middle of the Panama Canal, provides water by gravity to raise and lower the ships.) The island is a biological reserve where they study tropical biology. That's where I stumbled into (ouch!) my first army of ants and got to watch a crocodile (I thought it was an intelligent log) lazily paddling around our boat.

This year we flew to Bocas del Toro, a popular tourist destination on the Atlantic side of the country on Isla Colon, surrounded by warm ocean waters and lots of other Caribbean islands with plenty of deserted white sandy beaches just waiting for our footprints.

We were delighted when we arrived at the little airport on the outskirts of Panama City for our flight to "Bocas." The Aeroperlas Regional "airliner" was a little two-engine transport that I last saw being used by Indiana Jones in one of his movies.

One hour later, we landed in a tropical paradise.

It was a quick two-block cab ride to the aptly named Hotel Limbo on the Sea. We walked in the front door, straight through the little lobby and into the hotel restaurant that projected out into the Caribbean on a floating dock.

A man shouted at me from a passing speedboat, asking if we wanted to hire a ride out to one of the islands.

I turned and looked at the rest of our group, and we all smiled at each other in delight.

An hour later -- after tending to the mundane tasks of registering at the hotel, unpacking in our rooms, and changing into our bathing suits -- we jumped out of the boat into the warm ocean waters in front of our very own Caribbean island.

What can I say?

We swam. We walked along the white sandy beaches. We explored the jungle that sprang up like a green wall at the edge of the beach. We ogled beautiful white and yellow orchids. We laughed at funny hermit crabs as they scrambled out of our way. We photographed giant fancy- striped spiders as big as your hand that were hanging on enormous webs stretched between coconut palms.

And we watched spectacular flocks of colorful tropical birds that spun in and out of the trees, and laughed and pointed at fancy front- heavy toucans with beaks longer than their bodies.

And just offshore, our boat and its driver bobbed quietly -- waiting at our beck and call to take us to other islands and new adventures.

Life with fishes

The next day we visited Bird Rock, a tiny island sanctuary -- more of a big rock with trees and vines growing on it, actually -- where brown boobies and other seabirds nest in large numbers.

Then our boat took us to a place called Starfish Beach, where the sandy bottom is crawling with starfish of every hue. The water there is absolutely clear and perfect for diving and snorkeling. The granddaughters (OK, me, too) had a great time looking at the starfish.

Lois, to her delight, discovered that the beautiful angelfish at Starfish Beach would swim right up to her and take little pieces of her sandwich gently from her fingers. She enjoyed this until something sleek and shiny silver streaked through the water behind her and the air was suddenly filled with flying angelfish and other fish popping out of the water as they frantically sought to escape from a darting barracuda.

It was only a little barracuda, about 15 inches long, and totally focused on grabbing a mouthful of fish dinner and not in the least bit interested in us humans.

Two minutes later the barracuda was 100 feet down the beach (we tracked it by watching where the fish were jumping out of the water) and Lois was back to feeding the angelfish.

The restaurant meals in Bocas del Toro are very tasty. Delicious fresh fish dishes (what else?) and one of my favorites, arroz con pollo (coconut rice). Yummy.

It's worth it to take a stroll around Bocas after dinner. You will find lots of interesting shops, even more interesting people, and the indigenous people peddle their colorful needlework and jewelry here and there along the streets.

That's where I found my iridescent conch shell ring.

How many people can say they have a conch shell ring?

Well, now you know where to get one.

Reach Gary Bogue at garybug you go-- GETTING THERE: American Airlines, Continental Airlines and Delta Airlines offer flights to Tocumen International Airport, 17 miles from Panama City. San Francisco flights are routed through Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.-- what you should know: A valid U.S. passport is required, plus $5 Tourist Card purchased at the airport in Panama or in the last U.S. stop before reaching Panama.

National currency is the balboa, but the U.S. dollar is equivalent to the balboa in value and accepted as the medium of exchange.

Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken.

Time zone is Central Standard Time.

No vaccinations are required, but be sure to take mosquito repellent.-- WHEN TO GO: Temperatures vary between 75 and 95 degrees in Panama's tropical climate. Humidity is always high and averages about 80 percent during the rainy season (April to mid-December). Weather patterns fluctuate year-round.-- WHERE TO STAY: Most tour operators can arrange and customize accommodations based on your needs. In Bocas del Toro we stayed at Hotel Limbo on the Sea (011- 507-757-9062,, which also has a little restaurant. You can find out more about hotels, restaurants, history information, islands, beaches, diving, coral reefs, bird sanctuaries, and more at WHAT TO DO: Bocas del Toro is a popular tourist destination. You can rent a boat and driver and visit the many little islands in the area and spend your day swimming in warm, clear ocean waters and loafing on white sandy beaches. In Panama City, check with Pesantez Tours S.A. at The Web site is in Spanish, but if you Google "Pesantez Tours" and then scroll down to the Web site, you can click on "translate this page" to English. Pesantez employees speak English.

Pesantez also can arrange day trips to the Panama Canal, canoe trips up the Chagres River, and day visits to the Barro Colorado Island biological reserve.

More photos

See a slide show of Panama photos at Travel.

Originally published by Gary Bogue, Contra Costa Times.

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