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Saturday, 01 March 2014 00:00

Panama: The Canal, History and Culture

Written by  Rita Cook

Most Americans have heard of the Panama Canal and in fact, it will be on most travel agents’ clients’ bucket lists, however, according to Guillaume de Vaudrey, owner of Cosmopolis Travel, there are a number of other things to do in Panama that should not go unnoticed.

The history of Panama is fascinating, it was a province of Columbia until the beginning of the 20th century and de Vaudrey says, “The culture there is very cosmopolitan. The main influence is Spanish, but also seen there today is a strong diversity of cultures from around the world.”

It was at the time when the Spaniards first arrived in Isthmus that building a route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was first conceived. And then, the work on the Panama Canal began.

Panama Canal
In the 1880s, the first real effort to build a route like this began with the French, but with obstacles such as financial problems and disease, the idea was soon declared a failure. When Panama received its independence in 1903, the country began to work with the United States on the construction of the Canal, which the US finished in August 1914, managing it until 1999. On December 31, 1999 Panama took over full operation and responsibility for the Canal, based on an agreement between the two countries negotiated in 1977.

More recently, the Panama Canal has undergone an expansion project that will include a new Pacific Access Channel parallel to the current channel, as well as the deepening and widening of the Canal entrances on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and design and construction of a third set of locks, which consists of the construction of two new complexes on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides.

“Because it was one of the masterpieces of man mastering nature and connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, the main interest in Panama is the canal,” de Vaudrey says. He  adds, “Don’t stop there, as the Panama Canal train is a great experience as well.” Traveling from Panama City to Colon, the train took its first trip in 1855 and is on a 47.6 mile track linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Much of the ride encompasses views of the canal along the way.

Portobelo and Beyond
From Colon, one of the best spots to visit is a one-and-a-half hour drive away in Portobelo Portobelo is the remains of a trading post from the time of the Spaniards when they arrived on the Atlantic Coast. You can also access Portobelo driving directly by car from Panama City, taking a little over two hours.

“Portobelo was founded in 1597 by a Spanish explorer as a storage port for Peruvian silver. The legend says that Portobelo was named by Christopher Columbus who named it ‘beautiful port’ in 1502,” de Vaudrey explains.These days, you can see the ruins of two fortresses in Portobelo, one that had been captured by pirates. Visitors can also see the treasury building where the silver was kept before being shipped to Spain.

Also of interest is what the locals call the Black Christ Church, officially called Iglesia de San Felipe, dating back to the 1840s. In this church there is a venerated representation of a black Christ with magical powers. The effigy has eyes that supposedly move. Every October 21 there is a special festival held with processions to celebrate the miracles associated with this life-sized figure. Some pilgrims walk 53 miles from Panama City to make their devotions. “Portobelo and the Panama Canal train is a day excursion that should not be missed, since it is an interesting place from the Spanish period,” de Vaudrey says.

History and Culture
While the Canal might be the main draw, there is one thing in Panama that really denotes the history of the country, and that is the indigenous culture there. Visitors can visit a local tribal group, the Embera. Getting to their village is half the adventure, including an hour-long hike and a canoe ride. The final destination is called the Embera Indian Village, and it a very popular tour in the country.  In a dugout canoe, you will head up the river through the rainforest before being greeted by the Embera people, dressed in traditional clothes. This is not just for show - the village continues to hold on to its authenticity even today. The homes in the village are built on stilts because of its location on the river. The area is prone to flooding. Guests can enjoy lunch while tribal members talk about the customs and history of the tribe, and women demonstrate their basket weaving skills. This is followed by traditional dance in which all are encouraged to take part.

One last suggestion for tourists who really want to get off the beaten path in Panama is to visit the country’s islands. Panama has an archipelago with 378 islands, called the San Blas islands, and this is home to the Kuna people.  “These islands offer a blink on the culture of the Kuna native people,” de Vaudrey concludes. “To get to the islands most folks fly from  the domestic airport in Panama City to a small town called El Porvenir, and then go by boat to the various islands - some with resorts some more remote, all worth the trip to see the real Panamanian culture.”

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