Panama is much more than a canal. It offers the same ecological wonders as its Central American neighbours – rainforests,volcanoes, mountains, rivers and both Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
It also offers two things those neighbours lack – a sophisticated capital and good highways. And few visitors will forget the shopping. It knocks their socks off. This explains why flight crews whose schedules have them staying in Panama City often get off the airplane carrying giant-sized suitcases. “It has some of the best duty-free shopping in the world,” says one, “and we’re going shopping.”
A lot of visitors do too. Even guys can go shopping and come back with wonderful finds. Our group’s biggest complaint was that our two-hour shopping trip wasn’t long enough to put a big enough dent in the credit cards.
That means they have less time to enjoy some of Panama’s other marvels.
The country, like its next-door neighbour Costa Rica, is one of the places for adventure tours. You can walk through the rainforest, go river rafting in Rio Grande, take a tour on a 4X4 ATV, go fishing or diving, visit a town within a volcano, have a canopy adventure, try zip-trekking or just marvel at the flora and fauna. There are tours that go partway through the
Panama Canal by boat or a tour beside the canal that includes the museum.
The list goes on and on.
It wasn’t my first visit to Panama, but much has changed in the years since the Americans turned the canal over to the Panamanian government. There seem to be even more high-rises and hotels in Panama
City. There’s a second bridge over the Panama Canal. They seem to be doing more restorations in the old city; and they’re building some dandy new hotels like the Grand Playa Blanca Resort.
The layout works well; nothing is too far from the two pools, the buffet, the beach and the entertainment. It’s the kind of resort where Lucy, the server asks my name, tells me hers, and says “Hello Sam” every time she sees me. I’ve never had that happen
before, and yes, I was charmed.
It’s also the kind of resort where other guests introduce themselves and join you for a drink. Some resorts just seem to be more hospitable than others and this is certainly one of those friendly places.
The resort is west of the capital, a 105-minute coach ride on an excellent highway that crosses over the famed Panama Canal, one of mankind’s largest engineering marvels. Controversial, revolutionary and a must-see, the Panama Canal has been call the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Time zips by as the guide gives a delightful history of the area. The guides speak perfect English and each has a master’s degree in Panamanian history.
They’re almost as good as Tourism Minister Rubén Blades, who has a resume that’s as memorable as the stunning country he represents: A lawyer with two law degrees (one from Panama, the other from Harvard), an internationally renowned salsa singer with eight Grammy Awards under his belt, an actor with 30 movies to his credit, a composer, a screenwriter and a passionate lover of his country.
“I didn’t say ‘no’ to my music, I said ‘yes’ to my country,” says the tourism minister, who once formed a political party and
finished third in a presidential election.
“We had 800,000 tourists in the late ’70s. The U.S. Army and their family were our visitors,” he tells me. “Now that the U.S. Army bases are closed, we are looking to
expand tourism, starting with the basics, so we support the environment. We’ve learned to be careful of the goose that lays the eggs.”
Panama has had a stable government since 1989 after the American invasion that toppled dictator Manuel Noriega. “We had
a million tourists last year. This is a safe country for visitors,” says Blades. “We don’t even have an army.”
“And did you know that the fishermen in the area started ‘catch and release’ in the ’40s?”
Rubén, as he wants to be called, brags about what tourists will see when they visit. “We have a 17th Century fortress and eight
indigenous tribes. Have you seen our crafts?”
Well, yes, I had, and they are wonderful – the Kunas from the San Blas Islands make wonderful panels of cloth appliqué called Molas, used on clothes; other groups make
stunning baskets, pottery and the list goes on.
Are electronics a good buy? I ask for the selfish reason that I needed a new battery for my digital camera ($130 in Canada) and more memory ($150). “We love anything
new,” was the response. “What we sell here, Japan sells tomorrow.”
With that, Rubén called an assistant in to take my camera and called around for prices. At the end of the interview, the assistant was all set to drive me to the nearest camera shop that carried my brand.
I told him the ride wasn’t needed, I had my own transportation, but thanked him
for directions to what turned out to be one of the most modern malls I’ve ever seen. It had absolutely every designer shop from Oscar de La Renta to Armani; and a camera
shop where my new battery costs just
$57US and a memory card only $78US.
Great bargains and a great day.
And yes, the rest of Panama was as hospitable as the minister of tourism.