15. Seeing Panama

Sample chapter from PANAMA CANAL DAY-  Copyright RLD 2014 All rights reserved.

“Get off the Dam ship!”

That line worked well when I worked on Holland America since all of their ships are named dam-something … EURODAM, WESTERDAM, ZUIDERDAM, etc. I even wanted Holland America to print up T-shirts reading, “Get off the Dam ship!”

Yes, Panama is world famous for its Canal … but there is so much more to see and do, throughout Panama, and in Panama City.

You’ve come all this way, so why not see some of Panama?

Unfortunately a lot of cruises, including many billed as offering “a complete transit of the Panama Canal,” offer only a Canal transit, without stopping, and without any opportunity to actually see some of Panama.

Ships that do a “turn around” itinerary, usually 10 or 11 days, roundtrip from Florida, enter the Canal through Gatun Locks. Once they get into Gatun Lake they disembark guests by tender to go on various ship-sponsored tours. Because they are disembarking guests in the Canal in a secure area of the Canal with nothing but a parking lot, independent tour operators and taxis are not allowed. So if you are doing a turn around itinerary you must book your shore excursion through the ship.

There are about three major tour companies, and a few smaller ones, that serve the cruise industry in Panama, as well as a lot of smaller independent tour operators.

Ship Tour or Independent

There are advantages and disadvantages to booking your tour with the ship. The off-touted advantage is, “the ship is not going to leave without you.” True! And, given that traffic in Panama can sometime be horrendous, worth considering. But most of the independent tour operators know where and when traffic is bad, keep abreast of current conditions, and understand that their future success depends on getting passengers back to the ship with time to spare.

The ship tours have done all the research and work so you just sit back and go with the flow. A big plus, since a cruise is a vacation, unless you are the type of person who likes to be in control.

On a ship tour you generally will be in a bus with thirty to forty other people. On an independent tour you will likely be in a minivan with eight to fourteen others, depending on the size of the van, or a small “coaster” bus. Just leaving the port with a smaller group doesn’t mean that when you get to where you are going, you won’t be surrounded with hordes of folks from your ship and other ships.

The larger companies that the cruise lines utilize are accountable to the ship for the safety and security of their operations, the knowledge and language skills of their guides, the safety of any food involved, and required to have insurance. When I’ve worked with cruise lines, I’ve often been assigned to go along on tours and make spot safety checks … things like does the driver have a license, what is the tread depth on the tires, do the driver and guide have working cell phones, are exits properly marked, are the brakes working, is there emergency equipment, and, if it involves a boat, are their life jackets and are guests instructed on their use. Sometimes, when there has been food involved in the tour, I’ve gone along with the ship’s executive chef, who checks out the sanitation of the kitchen and temperatures of food and refrigeration.

When we did a 20-hour Copper Canyon tour in Mexico, the cruise line sent a crew of our room stewards to clean and sanitize the train before our guests boarded. In Egypt we traveled in a caravan of buses, with spare buses if needed, a police escort and an undercover policeman on each bus. In both cases the ship tour provided a level of sanitation and security that no independent tour could have offered. Although I may not be as important in Panama as in Egypt or Mexico, a ship tour does provide a level of safety and security. A lot of the choice between going with a ship tour, or independently, depends on your personal comfort with adventure.

Independent tour operators may, or may not, be cheaper than booking a ship tour. It depends. How do you find reliable independent operators? If you do enough online research you will find some of the same names coming up again and again. If you check out sites like CruiseCritic.com you will find some of the same independent operators who always get good reviews.

Most tourist buses in Panama do not have restrooms. Knowing that it may be a while until the first rest stop, I do not have a second cup of coffee for breakfast. And, just before the tour group is called to the gangway, or en route to the gangway, I make a quick rest room stop on board ship. If you don’t dawdle, you’ll still have time to get to the bus. In an emergency, given a little lead time, most drivers will find a place to stop. In Panama it’s easy, and culturally acceptable, for men to find the nearest tree. It’s a little more difficult for women. Know that it Panama, as in most places in the world, toilet paper is not necessarily provided, so bring some along. Also, like everywhere in the world, public facilities are not as spotless as those at home or on the ship.

Tour names vary from cruise line to cruise line, but since most of the cruise lines are buying tours from the same big operators, although the names of the tours may vary, the tours themselves are quite similar.

Unfortunately few ships remain in Panama overnight, so generally you’ve got one day with a lot of fantastic tour opportunities. Folks always ask, “What is the best tour?”   I generally answer that it depends on you and your interests: unfortunately you can’t do them all.

The tours offered in Panama will generally focus on three interests … Culture, Nature and History.   Obviously, there will be overlaps.

Tours Focusing On Culture

Authentic Embera Indian Village Tour[Cultural – available Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

Hands-down, this is my favorite tour. If I had to pick the “best” tour, it would be this one! Why?  The Embera village experience is so different, so unique and special to Panama.

The Embera people inhabited a wide swath of what is today Panama, Colombia and Ecuador long before Europeans arrived.  Visiting the authentic Embera Village at Rio San Juan de Pequini has been accurately been described as “something right out of National Geographic.”

Tour companies use about six different villages.  This helps spread the “wealth” around while not overwhelming any one village.  River levels vary depending on the season, so some villages up river are only available during the wet season.  Each village has developed its own traditions, and while some may be more “authentic” than others, this is not a “show.”  These are real Embera people who live and work in the villages and are committed to preserving their culture.

These are warm, friendly, intelligent people who are committed to preserving a traditional lifestyle in a “second world” country that is rapidly moving toward “first world” status.   After the Canal turnover much of the area that had been Canal Zone was turned into a National Park in order to preserve the rain forest, which is essential to providing the water supply necessary to keep the Canal operating. Suddenly the Embera people living in this area were no longer able to practice their traditional subsistence way of life since, as a National Park, hunting … even with traditional blow darts using poison from tree frogs … and agriculture were outlawed. Today they make their living by sharing their culture with visitors and selling crafts.

Usually, the chief of the village will give a welcome, translated by your guide, and explain about Embera history and culture.  There will be traditional dances and music and the opportunity to sample traditional food such as delicious, freshly caught, fried tilapia fish, fried plantains, and incredibly fresh fruit.   This is not a full meal, but a chance to sample the native cuisine. People always ask if it is “safe” to eat the food and drink the water. Bring your own bottled water from the ship, but the food is delicious and safe. The Embera are as concerned as you would be with guests in your home, and are knowledgeable about hygienic and safe food handling. They know if they send a bus load of sick people back to the ship the tour business is over.

You can wander around the village and view each family’s selection of crafts for sale.  The men carve a very hard tropical wood called cocobolo, and make beautiful animal carvings from a nut called a tagua, sometimes known as vegetable ivory.  When tagua dries it is very hard and so is used to make buttons for high-end clothes. The women make beautiful baskets from palm fibers with all natural dies.

Dug out canoe ride to the “best” authentic village, Embera Puru.
Dug out canoe ride to the “best” authentic village, Embera Puru.


Natural, totally non-erotic, and forgotten about in ten minutes.
Natural, totally non-erotic, and forgotten about in ten minutes.

When I lecture on ships I always hesitate to oversell this tour, but I can tell you that, again and again, people come back from this tour, sometimes wet and muddy, and say things like, “Richard, that was the best shore excursion ever” or “That was the best experience of my life.”

There are a couple of things to remember if you take this tour.

The most authentic tour that visits the real villages, not touristy “demonstration” villages, takes all day.

Take along enough money. You will see spectacular baskets and carvings at reasonable prices. Indians don’t cash traveler’s checks and they don’t take credit cards.

By request of the Embera village chiefs, do not take anything for the children. No pens, pencils, notebooks, no quarters or dollar bills. If you want to help the family, purchase some craft items. The Embera want their children to know the Embera tradition of hospitality, not become little beggars.

If you’d like to take some educational supplies, which are needed and appreciated, give them to the chief who will pass them on to the village school teacher.

If you buy a craft item from the artisan, I suggest having you picture taken with the artist. It will make the souvenir of your visit even more meaningful.

This tour can also be booked independently from Colon and Fuerte Amador/Panama City. Anne Gordon is a former Hollywood animal wrangler who came to Panama to film a movie that was in part filmed at Embera Puru. She fell in love with one of the Embera men, married and they live in Panama City and do private tours to visit their families at Embera Puru. [EmberaVillageTours.com]

Embera baskets are made out of totally natural palm fiber and dyes, and make as special souvenir of Panama.
Embera baskets are made out of totally natural palm fiber and dyes, and make as special souvenir of Panama.


Having your picture taken with the artisan makes your souvenir even more special.
Having your picture taken with the artisan makes your souvenir even more special.

You should know that regardless of the price you pay for the tour, the host village receives around $15 per person. So if you want to “help out,” and take home a unique souvenir of Panama, check out the craft items for sale.


The Shaping of Panama … or similarly named tour [History – available Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

One of the challenges for cruise ship tourists in Panama coming from Colon is that it requires about an hour to drive across the Isthmus.

The post-European history starts when Columbus arrived in 1503, stopping near the Bay of Limon and later up in the area of Bocas del Toro to repair his ships. In 1510 Balboa founded the first settlement on the mainland of the Americas at Darien in Panama. At the site of the original city of Panama, “Old Panama” or “Panama Viejo,” there is a bridge called “The Bridge of The King” that dates back to 1619.

Coming from the Atlantic side, typically this tour travels across the Isthmus to the Amador Peninsula, the peninsula joining several little islands that was created with earth from the Canal excavations. On the one side of Amador Peninsula is the Canal and on the other side is the Bay of Panama with incredible views of the towering skyline of the current, modern Panama City. There is usually a nice lunch at a restaurant in Amador before venturing to “Casco Viejo,” the old French quarter of Panama City dating back to the French Canal days.   Generally there is a forty minute walking tour around Casco Viejo led by your tour guide.  The tour moves on to Balboa, the heart of the old U. S. Canal Zone, and usually stops at an Indian craft market behind the old Balboa YMCA, before returning back to the ship in Colon. If you aren’t up to walking forty minutes, this is not the tour for you.

Portobelo… or similarly described tour [History: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

Portobelo was founded in 1597, was an important port for exporting silver and gold, and one of the important ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. In spite of all the fortifications, many still standing, in 1668 the pirate Henry Morgan captured and plundered Portobelo.

Portobelo is also home to the statue of the Black Christ. There are several traditions as to how the life-size figure of Christ arrived in Portobello, all of which have three parts … the miraculous arrival of the statue, the statue’s refusal to leave the village, and the miracles attributed to the statue. At the time of the arrival of the Black Christ statue, a plague was devastating the area, but when people began to venerate the statue the plague ended.

For three centuries, on October 21st, the Feast Day of Cristo Negro de Portobelo, as many as sixty thousand people make a pilgrimage to Portobelo to visit the statue.

The area around Portobelo is dominated by a West Indian culture and there is a lot of poverty.  Sometimes cruise passengers complain when they see poverty or “trash in the streets.” The reality is that not everyone in the world can live the same way folks do who take luxury cruises, and not everyone in the world is so compulsive about trash as North Americans and Europeans.

The Fort at San Lorenzo [History: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

Here’s another great tour for history buffs! Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Fort San Lorenzo, guarding the mouth of the Chagres River, is an outstanding example of Spanish colonial military architecture. Fort San Lorenzo was abandoned by Spain in 1821 when Panama became independent. During the California Gold Rush in 1849 it served as a camping ground for adventurers, particularly on the old town of Chagres below the fort and on the west bank of the Chagres River.

Looking from Casco Viejo across the Bay of Panama to the modern city. [i]
Looking from Casco Viejo across the Bay of Panama to the modern city. [i]
The heart of the old U. S. Canal Zone: Balboa Union Church, the only church founded by act of Congress; building donated by John D. Rockefeller.
The heart of the old U. S. Canal Zone: Balboa Union Church, the only church founded by act of Congress; building donated by John D. Rockefeller.

Unfortunately, the fortifications at Portobelo and San Lorenzo are in poor repair, but it is hoped with the patronage of UNESCO, eventually they will be restored.

Old Canal Zone [History: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

Generally refers to Balboa and surrounds, which was the “downtown” of the old U. S. Canal Zone. The tour generally visits Ancon Hill, where the officers lived, and some of the housing areas around what used to be Fort Clayton. Most of these places are now private residences, or offices, but it does give you the idea of what life was like in the U. S. Canal Zone.

On this tour you usually drive by the Panama Canal Headquarters building, the residence of the head of the Panama Canal Authority that was once de Lesseps’ mansion, and the Gorgas Institute of Tropical Medicine. This tour will usually stop at the craft market behind the old YMCA, a very good place to buy Embera baskets and carvings and Kuna molas at pretty good prices.

The Panama Canal Experience … or similarly named tour [History – available Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

This is particularly valuable for people on a ship just calling at Panama, but not making a Canal transit. It is also good for folks on a cruise that is going to enter the Canal and turn around without making a complete transit. You board a small ferry boat at the midway point of the Canal and continue through Gaillard Cut, under the Centennial Bridge, through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, under the Bridge of the Americas and out to Amador Peninsula, where a bus picks you up to take you back to your ship.

Going through the locks in a small boat is very different than on a giant cruise ship!  You get a whole different perspective and really sense the immensity of the locks.  You can actually reach out and touch the sides of the Canal from the ferry boat.  The ferry is a ferry, a simple small boat and not a luxury cruise ship by any means.  They have narration, free soft drinks and water, local beer for purchase … Atlas, Soberana and my favorite, Panamá … and a simple Panamanian lunch, definitely not like the buffet on board, but good.

Although this tour is available independently of the ship, departure and return times do not work well with the length of time that most ships are in Panama, so has to be booked through the ship.

The independent tour is aimed at tourists staying in Panama City.

Lock Tours & Observation Centers … or similarly named tour [History – available Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

If you are transiting the Canal you, and not the folks at the two observation centers, will have the best view. There is no “behind the scenes” tour at the Canal: what you see is what you get.

The Miraflores Visitor Center has restaurants, a gift shop and a small museum and a new 3D movie about the history of the Canal. Admission is $15 and the Miraflores Vistor Center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

What I consider to be the better museum is the Panama Canal Museum in the Casco Viejo or the “Colonial” area of Panama City. The Panama Canal Museum is located in what was a luxury hotel built during the French canal effort, and served as headquarters for both the French and U. S. construction companies. Unfortunately, few tours seem to visit that museum.

On the Panama Canal Experience tour you can reach out and touch the Canal walls.
On the Panama Canal Experience tour you can reach out and touch the Canal walls.
View from Gatun Locks observation platform.
View from Gatun Locks observation platform.

The observation “center” at Gatun is just a raised platform. Frankly, if you are on a cruise that is actually transiting the Canal, you are paying top dollar for the best seat in the house, so I don’t see the reason to pay more to go on a lock and observation center tour where the view won’t compare.

There is a new observation center near Gatun where you can watch the construction of the new Atlantic Lock complex. When the present Canal was being built, people came from all over the world to see the construction underway. The new locks are a massive construction project and well worth seeing. A cab can take you to the Center for Observation of The Canal Expansion. It is open daily 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.   Admission is $15.

Old Canal Zone, Old Panama, Colonial Panama [History: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

There are three different Panama Cities … “Old Panama,” the ruins of the original city from the 1500’s, “Colonial Panama” or “Casco Viejo” dating back to the colonial period and time of the Canal construction, and the modern-day Panama City. The Balboa area of Panama City was the heart of the U. S. Canal Zone.

Different tours combine different areas of the city. You want to read the tour descriptions carefully so you understand exactly what you are going to see. Given traffic in Panama City, it would be very ambitious to try and see all of this in one day.

Hop On Hop Off Bus Independent Sightseeing [History: Fuerte Amador]

Across Europe these big red Hop On Hop Off buses are everywhere. Now, thankfully, the operation is in Panama City as well. If an organized tour is not for you, this is an excellent way to sight see at your own pace.

There are two routes, one of which picks up passengers at the tender pier in Fuerte Amador. A single ticket, about $29, lets you enjoy both tours. You can purchase the ticket when you get on the bus. Buses run continually, so you just hop on and hop off. The entire tour, without getting off, is two hours. Recorded commentary is provided in six different languages.

The Canal from the Panama Canal Railway.
The Canal from the Panama Canal Railway.


Regular car on the Panama Canal Railway.
Regular car on the Panama Canal Railway.

You need to be aware that traffic in Panama City can be horrendous. If you are on a big ship or there is more than one big ship and everyone is trying to get back to the ship at the same time. your return can be delayed, so, allow plenty of time to get back to the ship. It is “independent” so only you are responsible to watch the clock. It’s better to get back to the ship a little early, kick back and have a drink, rather than stress over possibly missing the boat. [citysightseeingpty.com]

The Panama Canal Railway [History: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

When the Chagres was dammed to create Gatun Lake much of the original route of the Panama Railroad ended up under water.  The Panama Canal Railway is the lineal descendant of the original Panama Railroad.  Today’s railway exists solely to move cargo containers from one side of Panama to the other and is a joint venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and privately held Lanigan Holdings. Old Amtrak engines provide the power.

There is one passenger train that makes one run a day for locals and when cruise ships are in port provides tours for the ships. Cars are restored ‘60s Pullman cars and there is one dome car from 1938.

The run between Colon and Balboa takes about an hour, unless the tourist train has to pull over to allow freight trains priority. Although the track runs through stretches of rain forest, forget seeing wildlife at forty miles an hour! You will catch glimpses of the Panama Canal and some of the old Canal Zone buildings. If you are a railroad buff, or just want a relaxing glimpse of some of Panama this may be a good choice.

Some cruise lines offer you the opportunity to ride in the glass-domed observation car. There is only one of these cars and it is usually sold out online long before the cruise departs.

The dome car is usually a lot more expensive. Is it worth it? It depends. In my opinion the view is the same from the dome car as from the regular cars. And it is a glass dome car in the tropics so it is often hotter in the dome car. Funny thing, people pay a whole lot extra to sit in the dome car and then complain that there are no shades to pull down to keep the sun from shining in!

So, unless you are looking for bragging rights or the other components of the dome car tour version are significantly different, I wouldn’t worry if you are unable to book a seat in the dome car.

There, I just saved you a whole lot more than the price of this book!

Be aware that this trip is usually sold as one way on the train and one way by bus. Since there only is one passenger train offering trips only in one direction allows more cruise visitors the opportunity of riding the rails in Panama.

I should mention that the coffee sold on board the train is actually produced by my neighbor in Boquete, is the real deal, and is excellent.


Wildlife abounds in the area around the Panama Canal, but that doesn’t mean that you are likely to see it. When the ship is actually in the Canal, it is far enough from the shore that you aren’t going to see wildlife. It is “wild” life, and a Canal passage isn’t a Disney-imagineered ride where animals pop up on cue. Most self-respecting wild animals are sleeping during the day and active at night.

When you cross Gatun Lake you will see many islands which are the tops of mountains that became islands after Gatun Dam was built and the lake was created. Many of these islands have been pretty much undisturbed. For over a hundred years, both during the U. S. Canal days and today with Panama running the show, the watershed around the Canal has been preserved and protected, not just to protect the environment but to provide the fresh water necessary to operate the Canal.

One of the most interesting islands, Barro Colorado, is home to a research center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, locally called “STRI.” STRI provides a unique opportunity for long-term ecological studies in the tropics, and every year is used by visiting scientists from academic and research institutions in the United States and around the world. Thirty eight staff scientists reside at STRI and are encouraged to pursue their own research priorities without geographic limitations.

Scientists set up remote cameras that would automatically be tripped at night to record the habits of jaguars that still live on the islands. And these huge cats … a full grown male can reach 350 pounds [160 kilograms] … actually swim from island to island. So all the animals you would imagine are still here, it’s just very unlikely that you will see them … except, perhaps, monkeys.

Gatun Lake Safari [Nature: Fuerte Amador]

This tour is operated by a “gringo” [not an offensive term in Panama, just descriptive of expats] who actually lives on a houseboat on Gatun Lake. This tour used to be offered through the cruise lines. Now you have to book it independently and directly with Captain Carl. [JungleLandPanama.com]

About twenty guests ride in small boats across Gatun Lake into some of the many little eddies and bays. This guy knows where the troops of monkeys hang out. When I did the tour we saw five of the six different types of monkeys and in several places the monkeys came right on the boat to eat grapes out of our hands. We saw caiman, iguana and sloths as well as monkeys. It is the one tour where I can almost guarantee you will actually see some of the abundance of wildlife living in the protected area that surrounds Gatun Lake. Lunch is served on Captain Carl’s houseboat and if you like you can view and hold some of his pet animals.

Monkeys come right down onto the boat and eat out of your hand.
Monkeys come right down onto the boat and eat out of your hand.


Gamboa aerial tram ride.
Gamboa aerial tram ride.

Monkey Island Tour or similar [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon].

When Captain Carl decided to no longer offer the highly popular “Gatun Lake Safari” through the cruise line shore excursion program, the cruise lines developed the “Monkey Island Tour.” The small boat trip along the shores of Gatun Lake and stop at an island in the lake gives guests the opportunity to explore the rain forest and, hopefully, experience a little of Panama’s wildlife.

Gamboa Aerial Tram [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

The area along the Canal where Gamboa Resort is located is part of the 55,000 acre [222.6 square kilometer] Soberania National Park. The Gamboa Resort bills itself as an ecological experience and has a butterfly exhibit and even a little demonstration Embera village, created for tourists.

The Aerial Tram takes you through the treetops up a hill to a viewing platform from which you get a spectacular view of the Panama Canal snaking its way through the jungle. You need to climb stairs to get to the viewing platform … think taking the stairs from Deck Five to Deck Twelve … so if you aren’t prepared for the climb, you might pass on this tour. I’ve seen monkeys, agouti, coati, parakeets, Amazon parrots and toucans, but of course wildlife is wild and there are no guarantees.

Fishing for Peacock Bass on Gatun Lake [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon].

Peacock Bass are not native to Panama but came from South America where they are found on the Orinoco, Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers. A Panamanian brought the fish to raise in a pond near Gatun Lake. In 1958 a flood wiped out his pond and the Peacock Bass accidentally got into Gatun Lake. The Peacock Bass have flourished and have become the dominant fresh water game fish in the Panama Canal. The tour departs from Gamboa Resort. I’ve done the fishing tour and I’ve caught fish. Nothing like the thirty-two pound record, but it was fun. If you are a serious fisherman you won’t like this tour, but if you just want some time in a little boat along the shores of a beautiful lake, it’s great.

Kayaking on Gatun Lake [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

This is another tour that generally departs from Gamboa Resort. If you enjoy sit-on-top kayaking and just want a day enjoying the beauty of Gatun Lake and are looking for some exercise, this may be the thing. It is a group tour, so you will be with a group, and most cruise lines require operators to make you to wear a life jacket.

If your tour is departing from Gamboa Resort, there usually are some vendors selling various crafts including Embera baskets and carvings and Kuna molas in the lobby area of the Gamboa reception building.

Rainforest Hikes [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

There are a number of variations offered but generally these are relatively easy walks on relatively open pathways through the rain forest with a knowledgeable guide who will introduce you to the rain forest and point out various plants, including plants that are used for medicinal purposes.

Peacock bass fishing in Gatun Lake.
Peacock bass fishing in Gatun Lake.


This is your chance to explore the rain forest. Rope bridge to Anton’s waterfall.
This is your chance to explore the rain forest. Rope bridge to Anton’s waterfall.

The tour brochure narrative will read something like this, “Look for coati iguanas, sloth’s, monkeys and other birds and animal life.” The operative word here is “look” … not “see.” You can look all you want, and you will probably see birds and you may see some wildlife. However, because most ship tours are going to be in the middle of the day, most self-respecting wild animals are curled up taking naps and not prowling around the jungle looking for tourists.

That being said, the tropical rain forest is an amazing ecosystem and Panama is one of the best places in the world to experience the rain forest first hand. Frequently you will spot a line of leaf-cutter ants, a sight which always amazes tourists who don’t have to watch the leaf-cutter ants denude a bush in their garden overnight.

I know I really shouldn’t tell you this story, and not to in any way discourage you from taking a guided walk through the rain forest, because this really is an aberration, but … the story is just too good to pass up!

When I talk about Panama on ships, and take questions, someone inevitably asks about snakes. And, yes, we do have a lot of snakes, 127 varieties to be exact. But, not to worry, only twenty are poisonous. However, those twenty include some of the most venomous snakes in the world, including the fer de lance. Most of the really dangerous snakes stay away from populated areas, except, unfortunately, the fer de lance. The fer de lance can outrun a horse on an open beach and is an aggressive snake, known to even lie in wait in an area frequented by warm blooded animals.

When people ask about snakes I always tell them that you will be very lucky to even see a snake in Panama and your chances of getting bitten by a poisonous snake are less than your chances of getting struck by lightening. In most of Panama you are within an hour of a government hospital that has antivenin, so your chances of actually dying are nil. The people who do die from snakebite in Panama are either young children, elderly people in poor health, or agricultural workers in very remote areas.

After one talk a lady from Milwaukee came up to me and said, “Richard, I was bitten by fer de lance in Panama and lived to tell about it.” I was dumbfounded!

“Really! How?”

You didn’t hear this from me, but, the lady from Milwaukee took one of these rain forest walks. She was at the end of the line of guests when they stopped to hear the guide explain a particular plant. She felt something snap at her ankle, looked down, and didn’t see anything but two tiny marks, which she assumed might have been insect bites. She mentioned it to the guide who told her she probably had just stepped on a twig.

By the time she got back to the ship her ankle was feeling sore and a little discolored so she went to the medical center.   The ship’s doctor told her she probably had stepped on a twig, gave her some aspirin and charged her account for an office visit. By the next morning she was feeling worse and went back to the doctor, who charged her for another visit, gave her some more aspirin and told her she would feel better the next day.   That evening, feeling worse and with the discoloration spreading, she went back to the ship’s doctor for yet another office call and another charge. By this time she says, “He was looking at me like I was some kind of hypochondriac, gave me some more aspirin and said I’d feel better in the morning.”

By the next morning her leg was discolored, the discoloration was spreading to her arms, and she had blood in her urine. She went back to the ship’s doctor, insistent that something was wrong and she was not leaving until he took notice. Finally, they did some blood tests, which they should have done in the first place, set up a video conference with their medical people in the United States and with the Centers For Disease Control, and it was determined that she had been bitten by a fer de lance. At this point the ship diverted to a port where they had a medical jet standing by to evacuate the lady to Miami, where she was in the hospital for two months recovering.

Wow! The woman was young, athletic in good physical shape, in her 30s, all of which contributed to her successful recovery. So it is possible to get struck by lightening, get bitten by a fer de lance, or even win the lottery! All very unlikely, but possible.

Sorry! It’s still a great tour if you’ve never had opportunity to walk through a rain forest! I know some of you would love to see any snake in the wild, but that is very unlikely. Even herpetologists who visit Panama looking for snakes have a hard time finding them.

El Valle de Anton [Nature: Fuerte Amador, Gatun Lake … ship tour only, Colon]

El Valle is a mountain town about two hours from Panama City that is actually nestled in the second largest volcano crater in the world. Unlike the humid, hot climate of Panama City, El Valle has a spring-like climate year round with jagged mountains, lush forest and lots of flowers. Although I don’t think it’s as nice as Boquete, which is where I live, it does have the advantage of being closer to Panama City, so a lot of expats and retirees from North America have settled in El Valle. If you want to get a glimpse of another side of Panama, a trip to El Valle is a good choice. There is a market in El Valle where you can shop for craft items and sample local tropical fruits. There is a thirty-minute hike through the rain forest to a beautiful waterfall which gives you a chance to experience a bit of the rain forest.

Looking For Adventure

Most of the more adventurous tours are outside of the Panama City area. Where I live, in the province of Chiriqui, about a seven hour drive or fifty minute flight from Panama City, we have mountain climbing, ATV tours, birding, white water rafting, zip line canopy tours, deep sea fishing, hiking to the top of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama.

About an hour boat ride from Panama City are the Pearl Islands which is where some of the early “Survivor” reality TV shows were filmed. If you are embarking or disembarking in Panama City, and want action you can stay at Nitro City in Punta Chame which achieved some fame when teen-heartthrob Justin Beiber decided it was the perfect R&R spot.   A little further up the coast is the Coronado beach area and even further the Azuero Peninsula with some of the best surfing in Central America.

Quickie Stops

Some ships stop and only spend an evening in Panama. Frankly, it really doesn’t give you much opportunity to do much of anything.

If your port call is just at night in Colon, good luck. Colon is not a city in which to wander around at night! Panama City is too far away.   The highlight of a night in Colon at Colon 2000 Pier is a visit to a Super 99 supermarket, a chain incidentally owned by the current President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli.

Fuerte Amador is a tender port and the tender ride it at night can give you a beautiful view of downtown. Amador, or Fuerte Amador as some cruise lines like to call it, is an area of Panama City, but main part of downtown Panama or Albrook Mall are about a thirty minute cab ride. Casco Viejo, the old French area, is also about a thirty minute cab ride away, but can be an “iffy” area at night, despite the of clubs and restaurants that are springing up.

The Amador Peninsula itself can be a happening area at night particularly on weekends. But most of the clubs open late and run until the early morning hours. There are some restaurants with great nighttime views of the city. A favorite activity in Panama City is to stroll along the Peninsula at dusk and watch the city lights come on. The view of Panama City from Amador Peninsula is fantastic. The “Panama City by Night” tours typically give you a bus tour of a big, busy bustling city at night which, I suppose, is better than nothing, and you do get a chance to see some of Panama City.

Colonial Panama by Night or the Casco Viejo [Fuerte Amador]

What is called “Casco Viejo” today was the Panama City of the French Canal era and the areas that weren’t damaged in the U. S. Invasion still have a French architectural feel, almost like old New Orleans. The area is being preserved and restored and there are boutique hotels, craft stores, boutiques and trendy restaurants and bars. It’s a wonderful place to visit and while it may not be an area for the uninitiated to walk around alone at night, if you are going with a tour you will be fine.

Miraflores Locks by Night [Fuerte Amador]

Here is an opportunity to see the locks in operation at night. There aren’t always ships actually in the locks, so it may just be the locks and Canal lit up. There is a lot of work going on the new lock complex at Miraflores and this work generally goes on around the clock with the construction areas lit up by huge lights.   But if you are actually transiting the Canal, you will get the best view from your ship.

Advance Booking Online

More and more cruise lines encourage you to book your shore excursions online in advance of your cruise. This makes a lot of sense since you don’t have to stand in long lines while on your cruise. However, sometimes tour information has changed between the time you booked online and when you are actually on the ship. Sometimes the folks writing the Internet copy haven’t a clue what the trip is really like. A lot of cruise lines now include video clips of the actual tour which is a big help and some offer a way for guests to rate the tour, assuming the legitimacy of the rating game.

Go ahead and book your tours online, but before the final closing date, the date after which there is no refund, attend the port talks … which hopefully are more than just shopping talks pushing “preferred” stores … and the shore excursion lectures and find out the latest information.

Most lines allow you to cancel or change up until the final closing date with no penalty. Some cruise lines even allow you to book more than one tour for the same time period. I think it’s a flaw in some systems and often I’ve seen guests book three or four tours with the idea that they will wait until they get on board and then decide which reservations to keep and which to let go. So even if the tour you really want is showing “sold out,” go ahead and ask to be put on a waiting list.

Some of the most popular tours … the “Authentic Embera Village Tour”(not just any Embera tour), “Panama Railway Dome Car,” and “Panama Canal Experience” can often be sold out before you board the vessel. This is a reason for booking these tours online in advance, but should this happen, go ahead and wait list for these tours.


Yes, you can do your own thing, hire a taxi for $25-30 an hour, and be independent. It works well for some people and in some ports. But Panama being Panama, I think most people will do best booking one of the shore excursions from the ship. There are a lot of adventures available and a limited time. The tour operators are vetted by the cruise lines, quality controlled, are required to have insurance and operate safely and, important in an area like Panama City with tons of unpredictable traffic, the ship isn’t going to leave until the last ship tour bus has returned.

If you do wish to book your own tours in advance work the Internet. There are several bulletin board sites for frequent cruisers, like CruiseCritic.com, and sites like TripAdvisor.com, where people share their experiences and recommend independent tour operators that they have used. There are lots of independent adventure tour operators who may be able to provide you with a more unique experience.

There are actually three “Panama Cities.” Old Panama was the first Panama City. It was the richest city in the Americas until it was looted by the privateer Henry Morgan. In the fighting the old city burned and the citizens decided they would relocate and build a new city. Old Panama is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a very interesting place to visit. Unfortunately I don’t know of a ship tour that visits Old Panama.

The ship tours do visit the second Panama City, known as Casco Viejo or sometimes “Colonial Panama.” This is the picturesque city of the French Canal era is home of the president’s residence known as the House of the Herons, the old opera house and the Ministry of the Exterior which houses the actual little house where Simón Bolivar called the Congress of Latin American presidents in 1826.   The Church of St Joseph is located here where Panama’s famous altar of solid gold is located. Most ship tours just drive past the church and I don’t know of any who give you time to actually go inside and see the gold altar.

The Panama Canal Museum is located in Casco Viejo. Great museum and again, a visit inside isn’t usually on the ship tours

The third “Panama City” is the contemporary city with its Singapore-like skyline of high rise towers and notably the new Trump Ocean Plaza with its sail-like profile reminiscent of Dubai’s Al Arab Hotel and the Revolution Tower, derisively named “Screw Tower,” which looks like a giant pile of CD jewel cases twisted askew and ready to fall

Briant Dominici is a trained botanist, fluent in English, who does a variety of nature tours around Panama City. Briant does full and half day tours, and if you are embarking or disembarking your cruise in Panama, even offers a nine-hour tour to the San Blas Islands which would only work if your cruise is beginning or ending in Panama City. We have several friends, including groups, that have used Briant. And Briant responds to emails. [PanamaTravelTours.com]

Preparing to board dug out canoes to Authentic Embera Village.
Preparing to board dug out canoes to Authentic Embera Village.
Boarding the Panama Canal Experience ferry boat.
Boarding the Panama Canal Experience ferry boat.

I’ve already mentioned Anne Gordon, who in addition to independent tours of her husband’s Embera Village, also offers Whale Watching tours in season. [WhaleWatchingPanama.com and EmberaVillageTours.com]

We’ve talked about the Hop On Hop Off bus in Panama City which is a great independent choice. If you are really twisted you could always just do your own shopping tour of Panama City’s giant shopping malls, each trying to outdo the other.

Independent is fine … just be sure your driver or operator gets you back to the ship on time.

Just Be Aware

Accessibility – Please note outside of the United States, Canada and the European Union the concept of “accessibility” is virtually unknown.  If you have specific mobility issues you will need to discuss those with the shore excursion folks on your ship.  Most tours are not going to be suitable for wheelchairs or scooters.

Activity levels – For your own enjoyment and in consideration of your fellow guests pay particular attention to the tour descriptions and the amounts of walking and climbing involved. Every tour is not for every body. Know and respect your body and limitations. While others may admire your “can do” attitude, even when you suspect you can’t, no one likes to have a tour held up or compromised by people who shouldn’t have booked the tour in the first place.   If you have physical challenges you may do best to book an independent tour: just be sure to inform the operator in advance of your situation.

Making a new friend at on Captain Carl’s “Gatun Lake Safari.”
Making a new friend at on Captain Carl’s “Gatun Lake Safari.”


Boarding the Panama Canal Railway.
Boarding the Panama Canal Railway.

Buses– The buses used by tour operators are good and usually air conditioned, but may not be up to the standard you might expect in Europe or North America.   Don’t expect rest rooms on buses and don’t always expect toilet paper in public rest rooms.

Roads – Can be bumpy, particularly on the road out to where you board the canoes for the Authentic Embera Village Tour.

Guides – Panamanians often speak English like they speak Spanish … fast. So if your guide’s rapid-fire Spanish-accented English is difficult to understand, just ask him or her to speak more slowly.

Rain – Panama is in the rain forest. It will usually rain sometime, so go prepared. It will be warm rain and it

probably won’t last all day, but it’s a good idea to take along a plastic poncho. Incredibly the gift shops on most ships don’t sell plastic ponchos even although the ship is visiting rain forest ports, so it’s a good idea to pack an inexpensive poncho.   If it rains your footwear may get muddy.

Mosquitoes and pests – The rain forest has more bugs than anyplace else on earth. Keep your eyes open and you will be amazed at the variety of insects. Sometimes there are mosquitoes although not nearly what you would expect. Yellow fever was eradicated in Panama during the U. S. era of Canal construction and malaria isn’t a problem except in some remote areas like the Darien and Bocas which you won’t be visiting. What is a problem in the Caribbean, Central and South America is dengue fever. I recommend bringing bug repellant along but using it only as needed. Again, incredibly, the shops on ships generally either don’t sell bug repellant or are sold out. Go figure!

Safety – Generally Panama is a very safe country. Like any city of more than a million people, there are a few places in Panama City where you need to be careful. Colon is, in my opinion, not a city where tourists should walk around. As in any place in the world there are a few maleantes (good Spanish word for crooks) who prey on tourists. You can help by dressing down, leaving the crown jewels and Rolex watches (including the fake Rolexes since a potential thief may not note the difference at first glance) in your stateroom safe, and not flashing excessive amounts of money.

Sometimes tour buses will have police escorts. This is primarily to get tour buses through traffic and back to the ship on time. And sometimes a tourist police officer will ride along with the group on the Authentic Embera village tour, usually to talk with the girls. Panama’s special tourist police officers generally speak only Spanish … go figure!

Taxis – By law official licensed taxis must be painted yellow with a horizontal checkered stripe. Lots of folks with cars will make extra money carting folks around and maybe even offering tours, but only the yellow taxis are licensed. Panama is experimenting with metering taxis, but most are not metered and operate on a zone fare system. Like anywhere else in the world there are “local” rates and tourist rates. A local may take a taxi within the same zone for $2 and you may pay $5 to $10 for the same trip. Taxi drivers are the same the world over. Keep in mind that the hourly rate for a taxi in Panama City is about $25-30 per hour.

Trash– What amazes me all over the world is that North American and European cruise passengers may take tours to some of the most exciting and famous places in the world, and when they come back to the ship … they talk trash!

Culturally people’s attitudes about trash differ. I have been in villages along the Amazon where are guests are focused on trash along the trail while the people who live there are focused on finding food for that night’s dinner. Not everyone has the luxury of worrying about trash in the streets.

Cleanliness, neatness and order are very important cultural values in Europe and North America. What makes traveling the world interesting is that not everyone has the same cultural values.   The reason why you visit far off places is to experience different cultures with at times different values.

You will see trash in some areas of Panama. Panama is aware of it and working on it, but it takes time to alter attitudes and traditions.

Unfinished houses – People often comment on all the little houses that are in various stages of construction. Most Panamanians build what they can afford and finish the project as they can afford it, rather than building what they can’t afford, taking out a loan, and spending a lifetime paying off the bank.

Bars on windows – Yes, the bars are there to keep out burglars, just as you may have a more expensive security system in your home, or pay more for a private security service. In Panama people use bars and dogs instead, both of which are just as effective, if not more so. Bars on windows are actually an aspect of traditional Spanish architecture. If you visit any of the old Spanish colonial cities in Latin America you will find ornate bars on the windows. In Panama the bars are, yes, designed to keep out robbers, but they also send a message to your neighbors that you are so successful that your home is filled and you must put up window bars to keep out the thieves, whether you actually have anything worth stealing or not. Panamanians only invite close relatives inside the house, so bars on the windows are a good way to keep up the appearance of success.



[i] Photo: Rodolfo Aragundi Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Copyright RLD 2014 All rights reserved.

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