Discover Panama beyond the canal

In the flood plain of the Panama Canal the jungle is everywhere. Sloths idle in the shadow of freighters; toucans rest on enormous floating cranes; bamboo forests skirmish the edge of the shipping stream. The juxtaposition is startling, like discovering a wild orchid in the cracks of the M25. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. The poster child of Panama may be the canal, but there is more to this narrow isthmus than commerce and cargo.

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And that’s exactly why I’d come. This month will mark 100 years since the SS Ancon made the first crossing of the canal – travelling 48 miles from Colon, on the Atlantic coast, to Panama City on the Pacific. It was, undoubtedly, a great moment in the history of human ingenuity, shrinking the parameters of the world and expanding the possibilities of global trade exponentially. But there is much more to Panama than its canal, shyly veiled behind the glare of its most famous creation.

Just an hour from the sleek, mirrored skyline of Panama City I boarded a dug-out canoe at the mouth of the Chagres River and immediately left all traces of modernity behind. For five miles we battled upstream, past thatched palm leaf cottages woven into thick forests of teak, bamboo and cashew; girls gutting fish, and giggling, by a white sand estuary; a young boy diving into the water, spear in hand. This is the land of the Emberra, one of nine major indigenous groups in the country. But while international investment, and the immense transit income of the last century, has rapidly developed the capital, time here has largely stood still. At the village of Drua we were welcomed with a choir of turtle shell bells, drums and a bamboo flute. The women, in bright beaded shawls, danced barefoot in circles, clapping their hands and singing traditional songs. The men told us how they hunt fish with spears, and deer with dogs; how the women forage in the forest for vines, and natural dyes, to make bright tapestries of jaguars and snakes.

Back in Panama City, Casco Viejo, the old town across the bay, stands in equally stark contrast to the American-influenced urban developments of the centre. Spanish colonial cathedrals and 16th-century orange-tiled townhouses bookend trendy bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and market stalls, where bullfights once bloodied the cobbled stones. Music is everywhere: from the balcony of the American Trade Hotel — a recently opened, decadently restored, magnet for Panama’s glitterati — I could hear rumba pressing in on the humid night like a coiled spring.

I poked my head around the stunning new Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum, watched the sun set from the point above Plaza Francia and joined the local crowd at the fish market for the best food in town: sea bass and prawn ceviche scooped up with crackers, spicy aji chombo sauce and disco-decibel reggaeton music.

The city buzzes, but the sound doesn’t carry far. An hour further north in the sleepy town of Portobello, once the epicentre of new world trade, I tore myself away from the hip, arty boutique hotel El Otro Lado to soak up some of the region’s pirate history. From the top of San Fernando fort, rusted cannons still pointing across the now silent bay, I could all but picture the English buccaneer Henry Morgan sailing in, cutlass drawn, to destroy the Spanish town in 1671; Sir Francis Drake finally succumbing to dysentery and a barrage of Spanish guns in 1596, sinking to the bottom of the bay in his leaden coffin, never to be found again.

There are other highlights near by too: over the water, to the east, are the popular San Blas islands, a tropical reservation of 378 paradise atolls owned and operated by the Kuna people. The beaches are deserted, the pace molasses slow, and the people welcoming, colourful and proud of a culture that has changed little in centuries.

Further to the west, in the cloud forests of the Chiriqui Highlands, the climate cools and the landscape becomes volcanic and fertile. I hiked to hidden waterfalls, searched (in vain) for the brightly coloured birds called quetzals and took a plantation tour of the world’s most expensive coffee, Café Geisha: $350 a pound, or up to $50 a cup to you and me.

But my last stop was saved for somewhere truly special. La Loma is a chocolate farm on a remote corner of Bastimentos Island, in Bocas del Toro: a Caribbean archipelago of white sand beaches and world-class surf breaks that has, as yet, resisted the homogenising squash of mass development. The four open-sided guest cabins – each built high on stilts and immersed entirely in the rainforest – are simple but luxurious in every way that matters: beautiful views, pampering hosts and that rare ambience of effortless tranquillity. I closed my eyes to fireflies and opened them to a troop of monkeys rustling leaves over my head. And the food is, unsurprisingly, chocolate heaven: nibs sprinkled onto fresh coconut granola, cakes surreptitiously placed in picnic bags, a trio of hot chocolate desserts that would make hardened foodies weep.

I toured their farm, trekked through the jungle to wild, windswept beaches and then, just when I was really starting to relax, a local Ngöbe-Buglé man, whose land borders the lodge, took me to do the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life: caving, neck deep through a pitch-black river — infested with bats. Never before have so many swear words been condensed into such a short space of time.

Afterwards, on my way back home, I couldn’t resist stopping back in Panama City for a look at the canal itself. There is no doubt it is a marvel of engineering wizardry. The facts alone are staggering: enough rock and dirt was removed during construction of the canal to circle the planet four times; a single lock, if stood on its end, would be taller than the Eiffel Tower; 500 lives were lost for every mile of its construction.

But as I floated along a partial transit of its waters the unforgivable thought entered my head: it’s also just a big ditch. “The canal is magnificent,” my guide, Iván Hoyos, confessed. “But it requires a bit of imagination.”

And then I saw it: crossing the continental divide, at the 8.5-mile Culebra Cut, where 70 per cent of the digging occurred, drab murky water and featureless earthen sides became filled with workers toiling in perpetual rain, and punishing sun, where temperatures rarely dropped below 120F (49C) and landslides would frequently wash out months, or even years, of work.

Taking the canal railway from Colon, I looked out at the tracks and could picture the men who built it, ravaged by yellow fever and malaria, unable to light a candle for the swarm of insects it gathered would put out a flame. I looked again and saw the ghosted bare-bone treetops of the drowned forest at Gatun Lake, where 160 square miles of jungle — an area the size of Barbados — was flooded to make way for the crossing. The wonder of the canal is not just that it was built, but that it was built in the jungle of Panama.

But having now seen those jungles, and discovered something of the country behind the cut, what once seemed emblematic of the nation, felt transplanted now: an idea realised here but conceived in another world. “I sometimes wonder,” Ivan said, “what a jaguar must think, looking out from the jungle at the lights of Panama City.” That image encapsulates the country: Panama may be known for concrete and cargo, but the best of it is still wild and green.

Need to know

Aaron Millar was a guest of Journey Latin America (020 8622 8444, which has a 12-day Highlights of Panama tour visiting Panama City, Gamboa and Boquete, a partial transit of the Panama Canal and beach time at Bocas del Toro. It costs from £2,733pp with flights, accommodation, most meals and excursions.

La Loma Jungle Lodge (507 6619 5364, has cabins from $110pp per night, based on two sharing, with a two-night minimum. The price includes all meals, the transfer from Bocas Town, and many excursions.

Great Central American holidays

Wildlife, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the world’s foremost birding destinations, with more than 830 species. Yet this biodiversity hotspot isn’t just a twitcher’s paradise: nesting turtles, manatees, monkeys and even the occasional wandering jaguar can be found too. Wildlife Worldwide (0845 1306982, has a 14-day trip in search of the country’s best bird and animal life. Travel from the capital San José, across the canals and black sand beaches of Tortuguero, to the cloud forests of Monteverde and laid-back Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. Accommodation is in small hotels and eco-lodges that have been hand picked for their location and accessibility to wildlife. Prices start at £2,345pp including return flights, accommodation, transfers and expert guides.

Diving, Belize

For scuba aficionados nothing comes close to the thrill of diving with the largest fish in the world, the whale shark. Yet, despite being roughly the size of a double-decker bus, sightings of these gentle ocean giants are rare. In Belize, however, chances radically improve. Original Diving (020 7978 0505, has an eight-day trip timed to coincide with an annual gathering of whale sharks at Gladden Spit Marine Reserve in April and May. Staying at Francis Ford-Coppola’s Mayan-themed boutique beach resort, Turtle Inn, other highlights include diving the Caribbean’s largest barrier reef and hiking in the surrounding rainforest. The price of £2,100pp includes accommodation, flights and transfers. Dives must be booked locally at additional charge. Time your visit around the full moon for best results.

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History, Guatemala

Travel deeply into the history and culture of one of Central America’s most diverse and captivating countries. Beginning in Antigua, one of the best preserved colonial cities in the region, the trip heads northwest, passing the volcano-framed emerald waters of Lake Atitlán and the sheer canyons of the Rio Dulce, before reaching the Mayan sites of Quiriguá and Tikal. Highlights include a sunset tour of the stelea, ball courts and pyramids of the Yaxhá archaeological site and an expert-led visit to the Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal National Park. Go Barefoot (020 3290 9591, has a 13-day Mayan Lake trip from £2,645pp including accommodation, excursions, transfers, expert guides and most meals. Flights are not included; departures are year-round, but are recommended from December to May.

Family friendly, Honduras

Honduras may not be at the top of many family’s lists for a holiday with children, but think again. It’s economical, easy to get around and full of enough tropical seas and high adventure to keep the little ones smiling from ear to ear. Steppes Travel (0843 7789926, has a 13-day family adventure travelling from the Indiana Jones-style Mayan ruins of Copán, through the waterfalls and wildlife of Pico Bonito National Park, to the relaxed island of Roatán. Accommodation is in child-friendly boutique lodges and haciendas, with a range of activities available for all ages including horse riding, whitewater rafting and that ultimate water baby dream-come-true, swimming with dolphins. The price of £2,295 per adult and £1,450 per child includes international flights, transfers and most activities.

Culture, El Salvador

El Salvador may be the smallest Central American country, but it packs a lot in its tiny punch, particularly when it comes to culture and history. Last Frontiers (01296 653000, has a 14-day self-guided trip beginning in one of the country’s prettiest colonial towns, Suchitoto, before exploring the markets, ruins and museums of the capital, San Salvador. From there it’s two days visiting the cobbled streets and coffee plantations of the 36km-long Ruta de la Flores, filled with artisan galleries, cafés and restaurants, and then time at the end to relax on the beaches of the Pacific coast. The price of £3,600pp includes accommodation, transfers, excursions and flights.

Adventure, Nicaragua

Follow in the footsteps of Lord Nelson and Mark Twain on a new 15-day adventure along the Rio San Juan. Once an important trading route and notorious pirate highway, intrepid travellers will follow the course of this iconic river as it carves through impenetrable jungle to the Atlantic coast. Highlights include exploring the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, a dense, wildlife-rich rainforest; discovering the buccaneer history and warm Caribbean waters of the Corn Islands; and kayaking the country’s largest body of fresh water, Lake Nicaragua. Steppes Travel (0843 7789926, has a pioneering, small group Pirates of the Caribbean tour departing on May 15 next year. The price of £2,595pp includes accommodation, most meals and activities. Flights are not included.

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