Panama: Now & Then

Feathered entertainers remain in Panama despite the many changes since the hand-over of ownership in 2000

PANAMA CITY, Panama » Pelicans circled above the bay with the cool deliberation of master marksmen. When one spotted a fish, he snapped his wings into a sort of sharp-angled italicized Z and power-dived into the water. Returning to the surface with his prey, he would slide his prize smoothly into his gullet with a proud shake of his ample beak.

I admired these deft acrobatics for an hour or two one sunny day in June 1963, in front of my hotel, the kind of marginal establishment that a nearly broke young vagabond could afford in those days. I can no longer name the hotel, but the pelican scene was firmly fixed in my memory by the time I flew home to the U.S. the following day.

Returning to Panama City after more than 42 years, I again found myself overlooking the same shoreline.

My previous modest accommodations were long gone. But from


A Capuchin (white-faced) monkey enjoys fruit taken to him on an excursion in Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal.

the balcony attached to a snazzy air-conditioned room in the Intercontinental Hotel Miramar, I saw that the pelicans had managed to remain on duty. And their aim was as good as ever.

Birds and Panama are almost synonymous. More than 500 species are said to populate the forests of this narrow country. While pelicans and flocks of slow-flying vultures are prevalent over the city, hundreds of other kinds populate the interior green jungles on the north and south sides of the Panama Canal.

One of the world's greatest engineering achievements, the canal is the raison d'etre of Panama.

With the support of the United States, Panama was created from


The cruise ship Celebrity Mercury is lifted in the Miraflores Locks, next to Panama City, on its way from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

the rib of Colombia in the 19th century. When the massive cut was finally made, a wide, fenced-off swath of the country became the U.S. Canal Zone. Those who lived there, who called themselves Zonians, became the proud residents of America's only overseas colony. They were often described as being "more American

 than the Americans."

I found Panama City fascinating in 1963. It seemed a loud, helter-skelter sort of a place but ultimately fun and an especially savory contrast to the antiseptic precincts in the American-owned Canal Zone. There, the buildings were uniformly white and set back from smoothly paved streets under cool shade trees and behind well-watered, closely cropped lawns.

Today, these aspects seem to be reversing. Panama City has become relatively clean and more conservative, dominated here and there by architecturally inspiring high-rise buildings. The former Canal Zone has belonged to Panama since Jan. 1, 2000,


The Bridge of the Americas crosses the beginning of the Panama Canal, next to Panama City. The road across it is a continuation of the Pan American Highway, which some intrepid drivers have driven from Canada and the U.S. through Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica to Panama.

 and except for the canal itself, the section bordering the city is not much as I remembered it.

The military-style buildings are still in evidence but generally showing their age. Many are now painted in colors. The grass is taller and grayer, and there is generally a more unkempt look. The streets and roads are often rough and potholed, and the former tightly controlled atmosphere of a U.S. government installation no longer exists.

The cultural strains with the Zonians are now considered ancient history, and Panamanians are welcoming more Americans annually, both as tourists and retirees. Some smile and describe their capital as, "kind of like Miami -- except more English is spoken here."

THE OLDER PARTS of the city are still around: The ruins of Panamá la Vieja, the original settlement destroyed by the English pirate, Henry Morgan, in 1671.

And Casco Viejo, whose narrow, Spanish-style streets were first formed in 1673.

Casco Viejo was favored by the French during their abortive attempt to build the first Panama Canal in the 1880s, so both Spanish and French touches can be seen.


On his way to a kill, a pelican snaps his wing into a special position for diving.

On my recent trip, I crossed over the canal on the mile-long Bridge of the Americas to spend some time at a new coastal resort, the Intercontinental Playa Bonita. Comparable to the sophisticated, beach-side resorts on the Big Island or Maui, it features one of the smoothest stretches of sand for miles around. During Canal Zone days, this beach was reserved for U.S. military officers and their families.

The Playa Bonita is also an outpost for Gamboa Tours. It is an easy way to take in a visit to the canal, including the visitor center and museum alongside the Miraflores Locks.

This is the first watery stair step up for ships entering the canal from the Pacific.

The company also offers excursions to the Gamboa Resort, on the banks of the Chagres River about a 45-minute drive into the interior, and within the borders of the Soberanía National Park.


A Panamanian Indian woman enjoys a light moment while selling handicraft items near the ruins of Panamá la Vieja.

While Playa Bonita was a luxury beach experience, the architecturally daring Gamboa Resort provides an interior, jungle adventure, and some visitors headquarter themselves there. One morning, I joined a group led by naturalist Hector Nodiel Sanchez. We sailed on a small boat along the river and into Gatun Lake, which forms an integral part of the canal. Traffic on the water included an occasional huge, oceangoing vessel which seemed out of place in these green, tropical forest environs.

When the lake was created, the nearby hills formed islands, and some contain landlocked colonies of jungle creatures. Hector took us to one he called Monkey Island. It was populated by families of Capuchin (white-faced) monkeys, which enthusiastically welcomed our boat and the hors d'ouvres that came with it. One of these exuberant residents landed briefly on my head while making his way toward a Snickers bar. On other islands we spotted more wildlife, including howler monkeys, a three-toed sloth, some tree iguanas and perhaps a dozen of those 500-plus varieties of birds.

After an outdoor lunch, which overlooked the Chagres River, more exotic birds and a sleepy caiman, I boarded an open-air aerial tram, which lifts visitors through the forest canopy to the summit of a hill. From the top of a 100-foot-tall observation tower there, we could see a wide area of the canal. This included the famous, or infamous, Gailard Cut, a relatively narrow slit which had given the canal builders considerable misery a century ago.

More varieties of birds were in evidence at the tower, one of which was a brightly colored toucan. The big-billed creature obligingly posed just long enough for me to make a close-up. Again, I left for home the following day, and the toucan has now joined the pelicans among my memories of Panama.



The grounds of the Intercontinental Playa Bonita are part of a new resort a few miles north of Panama City.

If you go...

Getting there

From the U.S., Panama City is served by American, Continental, Delta and COPA, the Panamanian airline. On entrance to the country at Tocumen International Airport, there is a $5 charge for a tourist card. Some cruise ships call for a day before entering the canal. And for the more intrepid explorer, Panama can be reached by the Pan American Highway through Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica.



» Intercontinental Miramar: Plaza Miramar, Avenida Balboa. Call 507-214-1000 or visit Rates: $200 and up.

» Intercontinental Playa Bonita: Carretera a Veracruz, Km. 7, Distrito de Arraijan, Panama. Call 507-316-1439 or visit Special rates of $195 until March 31. Afterward, $295 up.

» Gamboa Rainforest Resort: Soberania National Park, Panama. Call 507-314-9000, or toll-free 877-800-1690. Visit Rates: $225 and up.



» Manolo Caracol: Corner of Avenida Central and Calle Tercera in Casco Viejo. A single, multicourse Panamanian menu is different every night and available to all comers at $16 per person, including coffee. Call 507-228-4640 or visit

» Cafe El Barko: Calle Amador, Isla Flamenco, Panama City. Far out on the Amador peninsula, this restaurant's specialties are a house ceviche and fresh seafood. Meals are about $25. Call 507-314-0000.



» Electricity is the same as in the U.S., 110 volts, 60 cycles, and outlets use American-style flat plugs.

» Currency is tied directly to the U.S. dollar, which can be used everywhere.

» Tap water is considered safe.

» The time zone is Eastern Standard, with no daylight-saving time.

» By law, senior citizens qualify for large discounts, making the country more attractive to retirees.


More information

The Panamanian Tourism Institute (IPAT): Call toll-free 800-231-0568 or Also, see