A conversation about Panama usually starts out with a comment about the famous Panama Canal, undoubtedly a marvelous engineering feat of the 20th century, and the reason why Panama is in a class out its own in Central America.
We took our chances one morning in Panama City this past February, and left out hotel at 6:00 am to go to the dockyard. There we watched while busloads of people presented their tickets and boarded the Pacific Queen for a sold out cruise of the canal. With credit card in hand we approached the ticket booth and as luck would have it, a few people didn’t show up, so we paid for our tickets and had the most exciting day of our vacation.
The canal is about 50 miles long and ships pass through three locks between Panama City (Pacific) and Colon (Caribbean). We were amazed at the container and cruise ships, dubbed Panamax ships, squeezing through the locks with only inches to spare. We were informed that the mechanics and hydraulics developed in 1914 to operate the locks are the same technology that is being used today. The average ship pays a toll of $90,000 to transit the canal but it is still much cheaper than going around Cape Horn.
A running commentary onboard the vessel traced the history of the canal building from the 1880’s under the French, followed by the U.S takeover and completion of the canal in 1914. Finally, the Canal and its entire infrastructure in the former Canal Zone were transferred to Panama in 1999 and remains under Panamanian control.
We spent the remaining part of our month long vacation in a small town called Boquete, a little slice of paradise tucked away in the Chiriqui Highlands, in northern Panama. It is a one-hour flight on a small aircraft from Panama City to David, followed by a 40-kilometer taxi ride to Boquete. The altitude is 3,500 feet above sea level so it has a moderating effect on the temperature that is about 25°C with a low of 15°C. Once or twice a week before sunset, the combination of mist, cloud and sun causes beautiful rainbows against a backdrop of mountains while you hear church bells ringing in the background.
It’s an idyllic setting, and tourists are discovering this charming little hideaway. Boquete is well suited for tourism and has the amenities and special events that attract people. The town hosted an international flower festival in January that is world-renowned. We had a taste of the colours during our pleasant visit to “Your Garden- My Garden,” a public garden donated to the town by a now-deceased philanthropist, and enjoyed by thousands of people each year. A jazz festival was scheduled for February, and the expat community recently built a center for the arts downtown.
Boquete’s location has a lot to do with its uniqueness as a tourist destination. The road from David juts north from the Pan American highway and except for a smaller road to the big volcano, Volcan, and the waterfalls, there is no through road to the Caribbean side which means that traffic is light. The locals are extremely friendly and always interested in helping tourists out with their rudimentary Spanish. They value the tourists, mostly Americans and Canadians and some Europeans. There is a good mix of shops including: grocery stores, restaurants, clothing, hardware, optician, dentistry, medical offices and clinics- even a new, natural food store.
As a plantation owner explained to us while we were on a motorcycle tour in the mountains, tourism development in this area has relied on local input to preserve the natural beauty of the area, and to keep out the large corporations who build hotels, condos and fast food restaurants. Boquete prefers a more traditional approach to tourism, and hopes to keep it that way.