Marco Traveler: Panama canal, culture captivates

Dave Pattison
Special to the Sun Times
A cargo ship eases through a lock in the Panama Canal.
  • Simply passing through the locks is a thrill

Central to any trip to Panama is a cruise on one of the major engineering marvels on the modern world -- its canal that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

A recent journey provided the experience of traversing this massive waterway close-up on a 3-day voyage on a 24-passenger catamaran. But the trip, sponsored by Grand Circle Travel Cruise Line, also featured visits to Panama City, smaller historic towns and villages, workshops of artisans and craftsmen, and a local Indian tribe that retains its ancient traditions.

Panama City itself is a remarkable city to see today after the recent building of several remarkable high rise buildings constructed in unique architectural styles and designs. Its skyline is unlike any seen elsewhere in Central America, and resemble many seen in our cities. A must is a walk through Panama City's old quarter of San Felipe that surrounds a Spanish colonial plaza and Cathedral. The area has retained its ancient area of cobblestone streets and wrought-iron balconies.

Traveler Pattison enjoys a photo with two young Embera tribe girls.

A trip highlight was boarding motorized dugout canoes to reach a remote village of the indigenous Embera tribe which has successfully preserved its ancient traditions and practices. The tribe, associated with those found in the Amazon, is recognized by its body painting of black jungle dye, which facilitates their movement through the forest.

While the women usually wear minimal clothing, they are more modest when visited by tourists. We ate our lunch in one of the thatched roof huts of one family, and also witnessed ceremonial dancing by tribe members.

The journey also took in Chitre, one of Panama's oldest colonial cities. It retains its red tiled roofs on its Spanish homes, and nearby Las Tablas, famous for its popular Carnival that rivals Rio's. The time here featured visits to private homes and workshops of local artisans and craftsmen.

For example, we stopped at a home of a husband and wife team who, along with the help of 14 neighbors, work hard to embroider the lavish Pollera dresses and costumes, called the most beautiful dresses in the World. They actually make fewer than 10 a year, and each one sells for thousands of dollars. The tradition traces from the Spanish, and the complexity and skill of the work is legendary.

Similarly, we visited a family workshop that makes exquisite pottery and painted artifacts; the home of a carnival artisan who designs floats and gowns for the annual carnival celebration; a man who makes masks for the carnival; and another man's workshop who makes the famous Panama hats that sell for hundreds of dollars.

Panama hats are, of course, everywhere to be found in the country that spawned them.

A fascinating stop featured a sugarcane farm operated to this day by an 82-yearl old man who has been wielding his machete to cut the cane for his whole life. I helped to stir the pot that produced a sample of this sweetened product.

Touring the more remote areas of Panama allowed us to witness the incredible skill that has allowed generations to carry on their ancient artisan traditions and preserve their country's heritage. The spectacular canal is clearly the featured attraction on a visit to Panama, but seeing the remote villages and homes of local craftsmen makes a journey to the country all the more interesting and memorable.

The Canal cruise began in Balboa at the Pacific entrance as we joined the 40 ships, most much larger then our catamaran, that cross its 50-mile length every day, as they have since the opening of the Canal in 1914.

After passing the docks and loading platforms of the commercial port of Balboa we passed under the huge Bridge of the Americas which carries the Pan American Highway over the Canal.

Next was the thrill of passing through the Locks of Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. These locks are the amazing pieces of engineering that allows maritime traffic to avoid the 9000 mile trip around Cape Horn. The locks are aquatic elevators that raise and lower the ships to allow their passage through the different water levels of the canal. Many of the huge vessels have only inches to spare as they negotiate their passage. After the locks came the narrowest section of the Canal that also crosses the Continental Divide.

We anchored that evening in Gatun Lake that was created when the Chagres River was damned. The next morning we saw the Gatun Dam, which was the largest earthen dam in the world in 1913, while the lake it created was then the largest artificial lake in the world.

Next we passed through the Gatun Locks, the largest in the Canal. Nearby we saw the construction underway to build a new lane to expand the canal. Before leaving this area we toured the San Lorenzo Fortress, built centuries ago by the Spanish to protect the Caribbean shoreline.

See a photo spread of Dave Pattison’s latest excursion on Pages B6-7 of the print issue, and also an online gallery.