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

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

We learn about yet another Panamanian lifestyle when we meet the Embera people, members of one of Panama’s seven indigenous tribes. I step out of our dugout canoe to find a village of thatched huts perched on stilts, an open-air schoolhouse, a soccer field, meeting hall, a woman weaving baskets and an entire community of people in traditional attire.


The Embera people live in a small village comprised of thatched huts perched on stilts.

The tribal spokesman explains that opening their village to outsiders allows the Emberas to earn a living while continuing to live according to the ways of their ancestors. It’s a Margaret Mead experience, and I love every minute.

In between people visits, we take mini treks through the rainforest. Unlike the men who built the canal, we’re slathered with sunscreen, protected with insect repellent, and our only goals are to see a monkey, spot a toucan and track a capybara. We aren’t charged with digging a path through a thick jungle where the temperature is often above 80 degrees and the humidity above 90 percent. Of the 80,000 men who worked on the canal, more than a third died of yellow fever or malaria.

A normal trip through the canal takes 10 hours, but Grand Circle has arranged for us to have a full daylight passage. Therefore, we enter on the Pacific, head northwest through two sets of locks that raise the Discovery 85 feet above sea level, cross the Continental Divide and spend the night on Gatun Lake. The next morning we go ashore to visit the Gatun Dam and take our final rainforest trek, which reminds us of the travails that went into building the canal. Then we re-board our ship, go through the final set of locks and descend to sea level in another ocean.

I go to the upper deck and look to the west. Yes, the sun is setting over the Atlantic.


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