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Panama: The Country, the Canal and a 100th Anniversary

Andrea Gross | photos by Irv Green | Feb 17, 2014, midnight

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Today’s ships often have less than one foot of clearance on either side as they go through the canal, but after the canal expansion is completed in 2015, even larger ships will be able to use the waterway.

I’m standing on the deck of a 24-passenger catamaran, watching the sun rise over the Pacific. Yes, that’s right. The sun is rising over the Pacific.

Here, in the Central American country of Panama, which is positioned between two continents and two oceans, I can see a bit of the Pacific that juts to the east, poking into a portion of the Atlantic. So when the sun rises in the east, it appears over Pacific waters.

I find this intriguing but at the same time unsettling. But then, many things in Panama force me to rearrange my mind.

The hot pink hibiscus, the bright beaked toucans, the swirling skirts of the dancers ... Everywhere I look the country pulsates with the psychedelic colors that inspired Paul Gauguin, and I’m on sensory overload for the first part of my trip. Then, bingo, I board the MS Discovery for my cruise through the Panama Canal. The bright colors disappear as I enter a more ordered world, one that’s muted, mechanical and often confined by the gray cement bricks of the locks. The right side of my brain wars with the left.

My husband and I are in Panama with Grand Circle Travel precisely because their tour offers country culture as well as canal cruising. After all, there’s no doubt that the famed waterway has made the country a place to be reckoned with.

One hundred years ago this year, on Aug. 15, 1914, the SS Ancon made the first official canal passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. By eliminating the long trip around Cape Horn, the ocean-to-ocean journey was shortened by more than 8,000 miles. It was a feat that transformed both global commerce and the country of Panama.

In 2015, after a $5.2 billion expansion is completed, the canal will be able to handle larger ships, thus further fueling the country’s economy and increasing its importance.

We begin our tour in the capital of Panama, Panama City, which has morphed from a 15th century settlement (now evident in the ruins of Panama La Viejo) to a 17th century Spanish colonial town (quickly becoming the go-to neighborhood for after-hours fun) to a 21st century metropolis that is an international business center and a popular tourist destination. The city’s history is fascinating, the atmosphere electric, but still, I’m glad when we head out to the rural areas.

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A member of the Embera community takes visitors to his tribal village in a motorized dugout canoe. Along the way, he points out animals and birds that live in the rainforest.

In line with Grand Circle’s philosophy that meeting local people is as important as seeing historic sites, we stop at an agricultural cooperative where farmers work together to bring their produce to market, a sugar cane farm where a husband and wife have a small candy-making business, a school where youngsters perform traditional dances and their mothers serve us a homemade lunch, and a private home where the owner teaches us to make one of his grandmother’s favorite dishes. At each place our hosts talk freely, giving us insight into their daily lives. I emerge from these visits well fed and well informed.

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