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The perfect all in one destination

Published in the Summer  2012 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos

Panama City and all it’s flashy, classy glory

The vibrations of passion and expression never seem to cease in Panama City. As soon as I arrived the looming and futuristics high rises caught my eye, giving off a modern and progressive feel that this metropolis is looking to be noticed. Mimicking the sights and sounds of Miami, this destination pulses with Latin beats and a rich cultural history I experienced in the city center and throughout the region.

Panama City’s Trump Ocean Club

Upon arrival, I stayed at the Trump Ocean Club, the first of its kind outside of North America. It boasts beautiful views of the waterfront and closely resembles the iconic Dubai landmark hotel, with a silhouette like a giant sail. Alongside the shining new hotel, there are many other projects being completed to better cater to Panama City’s business and leisure travelers. These giant buildings are up to 60 stories high and are changing the skyline at a rapid pace.

Visiting the Embera community

I explored the city, taking in my pleasantly busy surroundings before heading off to spend some time with the Embera community. This small tribe is only one of two left in the country and the group lives only a short distance outside Panama City. Visiting the residents of this small villages was one of the best parts of the trip, as it allowed me to fully immerse into the fascinating Panamanian way of life.
Traditional garb for this tribe is very colorful and incorporated various patterns into daily wear. Adornments are also common, especially for the chief and leaders of the community. I was honored to witness a special ceremony presented by various Embera members that had dancing and singing in their native tongue.

Lunch with the Embera tribe

Five-star restaurants can be a thrill to indulge, but there may be nothing like a fresh and locally sourced meal boasting simple and delicious ingredients. I had a wonderful meal of just-caught fish, broiled potatoes, cantaloupe and pineapple while with the community members.

Panama’s urban history

Back in town, I was able to take a great tour that pointed out some of the notable historic and aesthetically pleasing sights in Panama City. One of the oldest districts that visitors should not miss is Casco Antiguo. I loved the pastel hues of the resident homes that lines narrow, cobblestone streets. In the past, this district was alive with Spanish traders who used to transport gold from neighboring South American countries, along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The golden Iglesia San Jose

In homage to this part Spanish of history in the Casco Antiguo neighborhood, the Iglesia San Jose has several parts of its interior, including a large altar piece, created from solid gold. Legend has it that the infamous Captain Morgan did not pillage the expensive installation, because church members cleverly painted it black to hide its value.

The Panama Canal and Miraflores locks

One of the most famous parts of Panama is the majestic canal. I was lucky to take a tour of this massive waterway and learn about the lock system that keeps it flowing regularly for nautical traffic. It is not cheap to use the canal as a passage for commercial use, the minimum fee to glide through the locks is $350,000. Part of the reason there is such a high charge is that the ecosystem needs to keep well-preserved, as freshwater is released in large quantities every time a ship goes through the canal. On my tour, I learned that this waterway was originally started by the French, but was later finished by Americans as an options for travel by the military.

Relaxing at the Gamboa Resort

After a tasty lunch at the Miraflores restaurant overlooking the canal, I checked in at the stylish Gamboa Resort. This comfortable wildlife sanctuary doubles as top-notch accommodations, boasting views from the balconies and plush decor, complete with hammocks to help you relax and unwind.

Gamboa’s ecological exhibitions

I spent a good part of my time at Gamboa exploring the dense jungle surroundings through tours organized by the resort. One great way to get an overall experience of the diverse environment is by boat ride in Gatun Lake or on a guided bird watching tour. The waterway was great to visit, as monkeys would come right to the boat and let us feed them treats. We were also able to spy a rainbow of birds squawking and flying high as we glided along the lake.

Aerial Tram tour

My favorite way to see the jungle was indulging in a spectacular bird’s eye view. I took a tram ride up a nearby hill and was rewarded with a memorable 360-degree view of the canal and lush vegetation of the tropical rain forest. Most of the land is protected for its beauty and ecological benefits, so the panoramic vistas were especially impressive of this exotic and alluring landscape.
Monkey Island and Soberania Park
Things got even wilder as I made my way to tours of Monkey Island and Soberania Park. Both areas were full of wildlife and truly captured the essence of Panama’s effort in eco-conservation. Soberania not only had plenty of jungle to see, but it stretches between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and has great coastlines too.

The busiest mall in Panama

As much as I was enjoying all the adventures in the country’s wildlife reserves, I also spent some time doing other travel activities, such as shopping. The Multiplaza Mall is the country’s second biggest and arguably the most crowded, since it offers a little bit of everything. From cosmetics and high-end fashion to electronics and watches, those looking to pick up some souvenirs on their trip will want to take advantage of Panama’s duty-free shopping.

Conga festival in Portobelo

The next leg of my journey brought me to the city of Colon, known for being a sunny waterside retreat used by both locals and foreign visitors. As soon as I arrived, I headed outside the city center to a small village called Portobelo. Here, I was fortunate enough to happen upon a lively celebration of conga dancing, the first of its kind in town. Along the historical streets and elegant landmarks, people young and old gathered to move and shake to some infectious Latin rhythms.

A meal at El Otro Lado

My time at the El Otro Lado restaurant included some fresh and savory dishes that encompassed many locally sourced ingredients from the rain forest and oceans. Guests can sample clams and shrimp while sipping a homemade beverage infused with citrus and mint.

Cristo Negro Church and San Geronimo Fort

I was especially taken with the Cristo Negro Church, which has a unique statue of Jesus who looks of African descent, dating back more than three centuries. The San Geronimo Fort also has a deep history as well, as the large stoned structure has kept the city safe from pirates since the early 1500s. The gorgeous views of palm trees and the harbor were well worth the visit, and I found out why Portobelo’s name means “beautiful fort” in Italian.

The Pacific beaches of Panama

All my adventures did not leave a lot of room for lazing on the beach, but towards the end of my trip I did get a chance to admire the Buenaventura beach community, about two hours outside Panama City. This area is another world of affluent residents and holidaymakers who have modern, stylish million-dollar homes right by the shorelines. There are great accommodations as well, such as the Buenaventura Hotel where I had a great lunch overlooking the sandy beaches. Seeing this luxurious spot was the ideal conclusion to my visit, as it gave me a look into the country’s progressive future and how it would continue to thrive.