March 2005

Panoramic Panama

Nearly six years ago, I revealed in The Mail on Sunday the existence of a new rainforest resort in Panama. I'm delighted to discover that since then no less a bunch of celebs than Sean Connery, President Jimmy Carter and Pierce Brosnan have taken the advice and spent relaxing moments there. I had been working in Panama when I came across the almost finished Gamboa Rainforest resort. Hidden deep inside the Soberania - Panama's great national park - the resort nestles on the banks of the mighty Chagres river, which waters the canal and most of Panama. I visited it in the run-up to the departure of the Americans from the old Panama Canal zone in December 1999 and I predicted the nation's first national eco-tourist resort had every chance of attracting holidaymakers. It has, but not yet so many that the place is overcrowded or the infrastructure creaks.

Owned by a local zillionaire-backed property company, it encompasses 340 acres of lowland tropical forest. But it's the water that makes this location unique. To sit on your balcony at first light and overlook a horizon of river and mountains with a twitcher's heaven of assorted tropical birds in the foreground is a reminder that, this time, you are not on the Costa del Concrete. The resort is not luxurious but it is aimed at the £100-£130-a-night market. Its simple but workmanlike suites with hammocks on the balcony, the two dining rooms and the functional bar are good three-star reminders that comfort and eco-tourism do not go hand in hand. Two downsides - the pool area is very basic, like a hangover from something in Bulgaria.

And generally the staff have only a few stock phrases in English. So don't try chatting to waiters in the restaurant or asking for anything too sophisticated at the bar unless your Spanish is better than mine. 'Have you got a good New World sauvignon blanc?' reduced the barman to a frenzy of incomprehension. (He didn't have one, either.) The resort's forte is the tours it arranges - real value for money and usually involving boat rides into the canal proper. It is with a never-ending sense of bewilderment that one moves alongside the awesome container ships, bulkers and tankers that glide silently through the still water. The fusion of the most modern engineering and marine science with nature is hypnotic. One minute you've trained your binoculars on howler monkeys doing something odd in a giant banyan tree. The next, you focus on a Chinese container ship the size of Wembley Stadium almost bearing down on you.

All the water tours are fun. The bird-watching is stimulating with a generous variety of waders, forest birds, exotics and water fowl. I know this won't bring the world to its feet, but I saw my first tiger heron in Panama and I'm still boring Britain about it. Some tours heave-to at islands and allow insolent white-faced capuchin monkeys to dash on board to snatch food from your hands. You can also plough noiselessly through fields of water hyacinths, or just take in the cool slipstream breezes on a sunset cruise which goes nowhere in particular. President Carter took some of these tours (complete with secret service bodyguard) and no one heard him complain, either. There are no crowds, buses, cars or tourist hell sites here. It won't last for ever so go now before the location is properly 'discovered'. I particularly took to the resort's marina restaurant, where you can have classy salads and freshcooked fish while watching dozens of turtles play in the water below. It was on the broad wooden balcony of this restaurant that Pierce Brosnan, playing the slimy MI6 man, attempted yet another seduction in The Tailor Of Panama

I recommend a ride in the aerial tram - a jungle cable-car that takes you above the rainforest to an observation point 700ft high. There was one particular moment for me. As I stood alone on the platform overlooking several miles of the canal, the great ships were reduced to bathtub-size and the only sound was the whistle of balmy winds. Then an osprey (common as muck here) soared aloft, riding a thermal and carrying a huge tarpon in its claws. It is these unpredictable minutes of peace and almost metaphysical contentment that seal this kind of adventure holiday. Eco-tourism doesn't have to be all bug-spray, sweaty armpits and leeches on the leg.
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is worth about three days. Panama City, an hour away, is worth another three. Be warned - the pavements haven't seen a workman in 50 years and the traffic makes rush-hour Oxford Street look like a sleepy English village on a Sunday. The only safe way to cross the road in Panama City is to be born on the other side. Failing that, try prayer.

The old city of Panama contains a large and fascinating heritage site of the fortress town disobligingly looted and sacked by the British pirate Henry Morgan long before Johnny Depp was born. But enough remains to make a tour around the ruins genuinely interesting and the Panamanian attempts at restoration have been artful. The old town itself is almost a clone of Havana, with its colourful and cramped townhouses and quietly fashionable bars and restaurants. The government wants to renovate and rebuild here but cannot afford to chuck out the residents, so the place still has a Cuban/Hispanic feel. Go with a taxi here. In fact, go with a taxi everywhere and bring your Spanish/English phrase book. Take the cab out to the Miraflores locks, the Pacific gateway to the canal.

Tourism is now Panama's No 1 export and money earner and considerable thought has gone into presenting the canal locks for what they are - a triumph of engineering, truly one of the wonders of the world. We watched the slow procession of the maritime leviathans from the luxury of a new covered stand overlooking the locks. The entire cycle of filling and emptying the locks and raising or lowering a vessel the size of your street by 26ft is hypnotic. I thought the tour would be a blokey thing only, but there were actually more women than men present and they were equally fascinated.

As someone who would rather stick needles in his eyes than go to museums, I have to acknowledge the newly completed museum at the lock reminds me I should never say never. In simple captions, gripping pictures and early film, the displays outline the incredible feat of engineering that is the canal, how and why thousands of men lost their lives building it and what that triumph of will over terrain and mosquitoes still means today. This has resonance for a nation such as ours that can't even build a modest dome on the banks of the Thames without screwing up.
Give Panama City a couple of days to shop and drop. You thought New York was cheap with a droopy dollar? Take off a further 10-25 per cent in Panama. The US dollar is the official currency but goes further because quality goods come into the tax-free zone of Colon (on the Atlantic side) and soon find their way into the malls of Panama City.

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