We Traveled on Lake Gatun after our walk along the Pipeline Road. The Lake has a touch of Disneyland to it, but it is well-worth the visit. People have likely been visiting the Lake because of the ease of seeing wildlife for hundreds of years, so the animals don’t seem to be bothered by us. It didn’t hurt that the gentleman piloting our small boat came with a supply of grapes, something that seems legal in Panama. The Geoffroy’s Tamarin in the trees have been a look out:
Once it let the troop know, about a dozen or so of these small monkeys boarded our boat. In exchange for grapes, they pose for photos.
We also encountered more White-headed Capuchins, though they stayed up in the canopy.
The canopy around Lake Gatun also held quite the assortment of wildlife. Fabio, my EcoCircuitos guide, who accompanied me on the boat (the boat captain didn’t speak English) spotted these tiny bats (definitely taking to the limit of the capability of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm lens here).
This next photo is interesting. I was going through my photos at the end of the trip and I couldn’t quite remember why I took it and nearly deleted it.
As I looked at it a bit more closely, I started enlarging sections. Much to my surprise, I found this Green Iguana. These guys grow to six feet in Panama. Unlike here in Florida they are Panamanian natives.
Given that I live in Florida, I tend to be selective in the birds I photograph. Egrets for example; well let’s just say an egret needs to be doing something pretty special to garner my attention. And, well some birds are just too fast for me (I do keep trying). This Broad-winged hawk, on the other hand, was neither too common nor too fast for me. It just sat and stared at us, so I had to take this photo.
We only spent about an hour on Lake Gatun before we headed out to the Panama Canal to take photos of a very different sort. It was well worth the visit.
If you have been following my Panama blog posts, you know that I primarily visited Panama to see the Panama Canal and learn more about its history. But I did want to spend some time learning about the rainforest. I have worked with the travel planners at EcoCircuitos. So when my educational trip to the Smithsonian Research Institute fell through, EcoCircuitos instead organized my trip to the rainforest with my guide, Fabio. We hiked about a mile and a half, along the muddy, SoberaniaNational Park Pipeline Trail, about a thirty minute drive from Panama City, near Gamboa. Because we stopped every few feet to photograph something, this was more of an amble, than a hike.
Almost immediately after we started our hike, Fabio spotted a troop of white-headed Capuchin monkeys up in the canopy. They weigh about eighteen ounces or thereabouts.
Our next wildlife visitors were a couple of these Central American Agoutis. To me they look a tailless squirrel, but they weigh in at close to five pounds. They seemed to not even notice us.
Next up the ants. Central American leaf cutter ants build roads and cities. Some sources claim they have the second-most complex social structure on the planet, with royalty, casts, farms and gardens of beneficial fungus, slaves and armies. They crossed the trail on their road and just kept on going across the trail and up a tree. The folks a Science Nation have a great video and a description of the ant cities can be found at Elegant Entomology
We next caught sight of a mantled howler monkey troop. I was fortunate to get this awesome photo before he made a point of exhibiting his underside for the rest of the time I watched. He’s about two feet long and weighs in at about ten pounds.
We saw quite a few lovely Blue Morpho butterflies, quite common in Panama, but they seemed in a hurry and refused to pose for a photo. This little butterfly was far more accommodating.
The canopy is lush and ripe with fruit during the rainy season so no need for a bird to drop down to eat and few plants flower in this shade. I do love this little kissing lips plant, though.
We were only on this trail for a few hours, but it was time well-spent. In particular a guide familiar with the area and my trusty telephoto lens made this a most enjoyable photo expedition. November is the rainy season, so the canopy shades the rainforest and often the afternoons are cloudy and drizzly. The lush, green, canopy mutes the light, even on sunny days. A telephoto lens is mandatory as so much activity takes place in this canopy. Needless to say, my lite-weight Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 lens, extended out to its full 300mm, did a great job here. I can’t wait to go back during the dry season!
Panama’s history as a transportation cross-roads of the Americas intrigued me. On this ultra short six day trip, I steeped myself in canal history in the morning and Panama’s Spanish history in the afternoon. I learned just enough about Panama’s history to plan for a future trip. Start studying Panama’s history at the Museum of Biodiversity. The museum, housed in world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s most colorful building provides a timeline of Panama’s history, beginning with the volcanic eruptions that created the isthmus.
From the start species moved back and forth across the newly created isthmus. This land bridge changed our world. Don’t miss the multi-dimensional movie on Panama’s history.
Visiting the Spanish Ruins
I visited three different historical sites, all UNESCO World heritage sites. Unfortunately, drizzle and grey skies marred these visits. It was, after all, the rainy season! I’ll be back some day on a bright sunny day to get better photos and experience all of Panama’s past. I barely had enough time for the canal and Spain.
South American riches traveled from South America, north to the Caribbean town of Portobelo, across the Panama isthmus on the cobbled Camino Real, through the Pacific coastal town of Panama Viejo (Old Panama City) and finally traveled on to Spain by ship. Through the eighteenth century British pirate attacks disrupted these Spanish settlements, not infrequently burning then to the ground. Casco Viejo finally replaced Panama Viejo, during the 19th century because of its more defensible location and port. Time brought independence from Spain, inclusion in Gran Columbia and irrelevance. In the 1840s, however, gold prospectors transited the isthmus on that same Spanish Camino Real to reach the Pacific Ocean and California. American speculators built a small railroad to transport the prospectors. Finally the canal saga began, first by the French and then the US.
Panama Viejo is open limited hours. The day I visited (a holiday) both the visitor’s center and the park were closed. I was able to see tops of the extensive ruins, including churches and schools, over the fence and at the entrance, though. Apparently, large parts of the town, along with many other historical buildings, was dismantled to build the Panama canal. (Leave it to us to dismantle old historic buildings!). The town literally sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and on the day I was there, the water was simply a mud flat. It seemed an odd place for a port
Historic Casco Viejo
Historic Casco Viejo (Panama City), more centrally located near modern-day downtown Panama City, is a work in progress. Panamanians have restored many old buildings as restaurants, coffee shops and museums. After a long day of touristing it was great to find the Casa Sucre Coffee House, one such repurposed building.
Many historic churches have remained in Panama; however, other buildings are still simply shells that will need much work. Contrast this yet to be restored building with the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis.
One can imagine extensive restoration producing a town similar to Florida’s St. Augustine.
Christopher Columbus named Portobelo when he visited in 1502. Portobelo became a major Spanish trading center, holding three-month long annual trading fairs at the peak of Spanish influence from the mid-sixteenth to early nineteenth century. My ecoCiruitos guides, Fabio and Roberto transported me into the center of this small town built amongst the ruins of this highly fortified town. Dark clouds threatened and when it began to rain we moved quickly…not necessarily the ideal circumstances for photographing ruins. The extensive ruins of forts and the village show evidence of tropical humidity and age the ruins as they are covered in soot, but they are otherwise in reasonably good shape for building of such age.
This area, like the ruins in Panama City is somewhat of a work in progress. The lovely restored customs house awaits content. It certainly has the bones to become an historical museum. This little slide show below is a sample of two and a half centuries of Spanish rule in Portobelo, including the forts and the customs house. With the Smithsonian Research Institute nearby, it seems that they would have another opportunity to develop a lovely regional museum here in Portobelo.
The other attraction here, Iglesia de San Felipe, houses the Black Christ. Portobelo celebrates the Black Christ statue at an October 21st festival. The church was the last building that the Spanish built before leaving Panama. Many believe that the Black Christ cures illness.
I think that it was the Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested that before visiting Panama visitors should finish David McCullough’s exhaustive book on the building of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas. Great advice and well worth the effort! I downloaded the audio version and finally finished listening to all 35 hours of it somewhere near the end of my six-day trip. I now understand the great importance of this wonder of the world and the cost associated with its building. I was lucky enough to view the canal from three perspectives, the train, a partial transit, and a jungle boat.
The Panama Canal Railway
My guide, Fabio and our driver Roberto of, EcoCircuitos, the guide company that had organized my tour, dropped me off on my first full day in Panama. (more about that in a different post). The first “mass transit” across the Panama isthmus was the train. Once-a-day this brightly colored commuter train leaves Panama City, traveling alongside the canal, as the sun rises on the Pacific, its destination, Colon, on the Caribbean. Mostly commuters use this train and tourists head for the restored antique passenger car or small observation car at the front. I traveled with a bunch of high school-aged students on a field trip and a few independent tourists like myself. Most tourists leaving the train travel elsewhere in the area, since the train does not return until evening. Options included the guided tours to ruins at Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. Some return to Panama by bus.
Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat
A number of companies in Panama City provide the opportunity for full or partial transit of the canal. The EcoCircuitos folks arranged for my half-day partial transit on Panama Marine Adventures Pacific Queen. Roberto, dropped me off at the Flemenco Island dock for my five-hour trip on the canal and through two of the three sets of canal locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel). The tour boat, filled with folks from around the world, transited alongside another filled tour boat and behind the Miltiades II, a bulk carrier ship. The commentary was in both English and Spanish.
The photo opportunities here were outstanding. Last year the Panamanians completed locks capable of handling larger neo-Panamax ships and we did see one of those transiting the nearby larger lock.
Most folks gather outside at the front, but the views from the back are also outstanding as you watch the massive metal gates of the locks open and close.
Lunch and breakfast provide breaks for the non-stop photography and there was even a local band entertaining us on the trip.
Jungle Boat Ride
Finally, there was the “jungle boat”. To be honest when this showed up on my proposed itinerary, I scoffed. This sounded so… touristy. Unfortunately, my first choice, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was filled (I needed to make reservations months in advance!), so I went with this…not wanting to completely miss a trip into the rainforest. This was actually a combined hike (more in a future post) through Soberania National Park and a boat ride from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River and onto the canal. I really enjoyed this canal view. We entered the canal north of Pedro Miguel Lock and in the small boat we were able to get quite close to the massive ships transiting the canal. A great photo-op. Take a look!
I have for most of my travel years traveled independently. Pre-internet, I would use travel agencies to buy tickets, and the like. In recent times, though, I’ve had occasion to develop what I call hybrid travel plans, where I still travel independently, but I use local travel agents to organize parts f my trip. I started doing this after a trip to Japan in which I discovered that in Japan travel agencies receive deep discounts, priority tickets, and finally they are a necessity to pay businesses that lack online payment systems and English-language websites. We also worked with an Alaskan company for a DIY trip that also included tours.
With this trip to Panama, my Frommer’s guide recommended hiring a guide if one isn’t renting a car. As it turned out, hiring a tour operator or joining a group during the rainy/off-season isn’t necessarily simple, as many tourist-related activities shift into low gear. Many of my email requests went without response. I did finally find Ecocircuitos.
However, though they had a tour listed on their website that matched my interest, I was told that it would not be available as a group tour since not enough people had signed up. But, they would work with me to do a semi-private tour. After a day of emailing, we settled on an itinerary. This would include: 1) A partial transit of the Panama Canal; 2) Transcontinental train and a visit to Portobelo; and 3) A visit to Barro Colorado Natural Monument; 5) Five nights of lodging and transportation. All for $1430. (In Central and South America you are also charged 5% if you use a credit card which you will likely have to use).
Case closed, correct? Well not quite. As I was busily transmitting my payment info, my agent emailed me that the Smithsonian would cancel the trip unless there were four people. Arghh!!! Stay tuned!
This month I’m off to my first visit to Panama, just in time, as it turns out, for the absolute worst of its rainy season! I’m retired, thus pretty flexible in my travel availability, so how did this happen? Well, I had some time in the Fall and I had hoped to visit South America (I have on my bucket list, visiting all the continents), but the more I looked at a trip to South America, the more I wanted to spend some time planning and prioritizing, so…
The trip to Panama morphed from a trip to Patagonia. In the interim I had also considered the Galapagos, a combination Galapagos-rainforest trip, Costa Rica, combined Panama and Costa Rica, and finally Panama. I found an incredible bargain trip to Panama but it had too many stops and too little time at the canal so I decided a DIY Panama trip was my trip (I couldn’t convince any of my relatives to come along, though).
I was able to make a booking.com reservation for five nights in a Panama City hotel cost for as much as one night in most other major cities of the world. This convinced me that I had chosen well.
Unfortunately, I failed to modify the time that I planned to travel: November in Patagonia would have been a good idea; In Panama, though, it is apparently the REALLY, REALLY, REALLY rainy season. Sad to say, a change in flight would have cost me $200 and Copa Airlines wouldn’t negotiate a change (I miss my Southwest). Well, I am Floridian, so I think that I can deal with a little bit of rain (she said hopefully).
I initially tried researching the trip online, but beyond the hotel and flights, I have found the Internet time-consuming for researching locality attractions. Google search generates Google and TripAdvisor reviews, and not much else. So, as I have been doing for years, I bought a paper guidebook. After testing out the various options (researching a specific question), I chose Frommer’s Panama guidebook as my cheap travel assistant, and horror of horrors, bought it at an actual bricks and mortar bookstore (Yes, I know, very retro and reflective of my age).
Frommer wisely suggests that the DIY traveler not completely go it alone. So, with the list of local Panamanian tour operators from Frommer in hand, I went back to the Internet with a better plan. I looked at the various local tour operator websites. Many have multi-day tours, but as I found out, most are only available during the peak tourist season as they have minimum number of participants. As always, traveling alone creates extra costs and issues. But I think that I finally found a tour operator through my various email inquiries that may provide me with what I need: a relatively inexpensive custom tour. We’ve been working out an itinerary. In my next post, I’ll know better and can report on the rest of my plan.