On August 15, 1914 the SS Ancon made the first official ocean to ocean transit through the Panama Canal. This event, that soon proved to have changed the world forever, was possible thanks to the labor of more than 75,000 men and women who worked for 10 years facing unprecedented challenges. Since 1914, more than 1,000,000 vessels have transited through the waterway bringing commerce, cultures and people from all corners of the world closer together. On June 26, 2016 the expansion of the Panama Canal was completed.
DAY 1 – Arrival to Panama City
On arrival to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City we’ll be transferred to our home for the next 3 nights the Bristol Hotel located in the heart of Panama City. Enjoy great views as we indulge in a welcome dinner Bristol Hotel (D)
Day 2 – Panama City & Canal Zone
Our first tour is the ruins of Old Panama City… founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila and other 100 inhabitants. At the time, it was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Ocean, replacing the two cities of Santa María la Antigüa del Darién and Acla. Two years later, in 1521, the settlement was promoted to the status of city by a royal decree and was given a coat of arms by Charles V of Spain, forming a new cabido. Shortly after its creation the city became a starting point for various expeditions in Peru and an important base where gold and silver were sent to Spain. You’ll have some time to explore Casco Viejo on your own and sample some local cuisine this afternoon. Next we will visit the Casco Viejo, and enjoy a historical walking tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Casco Viejo is home to the Presidential Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Theater, the French Plaza and several other iconic landmarks that offer testament to the city’s rich history, culture and heritage. From the top of old city’s wall enjoy spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean dotted with local fishing boats near port and massive ships lined up waiting to cross the Panama Canal as well as the impressive skyline of modern Panama City.
Tonight we will enjoy a folkloric dinner show including traditional Panamanian cuisine accompanied by a dance and music presentation where we will learn about the local Pollera dress and its cultural value, the musicians and their instruments, songs, clothing and singing. Bristol Hotel (B, D)
Day 3 – Panama Canal Partial Transit
The Panama Canal tour starts with an early morning pick up at our hotel for a short transfer to Flamenco Island on Causeway Amador where we will embark a 250 passenger ferry. We will first sail under the bridge of the Americas, which raises over 324 feet above sea level and reunites the land divided during construction of the canal forming another link in the Pan-American Highway. The Panama Canal is approximately 50 miles long from the deep waters in the Pacific Ocean to deep waters in the Caribbean Sea. It was cut through the lowest and one of the narrowest saddles of the long mountainous Isthmus that joins North and South America. The original elevation was 311 feet above sea level where it crosses the Continental Divide.
Northbound on the Panama Canal, the first stop is at Miraflores locks, which are the tallest in the locks system due to the extreme tidal variation of the Pacific Ocean. The boat will be raised 56 feet above sea level in two steps to enter Miraflores Lake which is almost ¾ of a mile long. A transition from salt water to fresh water takes place here. Next the ship will rise an additional 30 feet, at the Pedro Miguel locks. At this point the ship will be sailing in Gatun Lake at 85 feet above sea level and entering Gaillard Cut, the narrowest section of the Panama Canal. The 8.5 miles long portion of the waterway was carved through rock and shale and it is flanked by the backbones of the Continental Divide. The original width of Gaillard Cut was 300 feet and was increased to 500 feet in the early 1970s. Gaillard Cut opens up into Gatun Lake where the Chagres River flows into the waterway near the town of Gamboa, site of the Panama Canal’s Dredging Division. The Chagres River has the distinction of being the only river in the world that flows into two oceans and it is the main source of fresh water which guarantees the operation of the waterway. Lunch is served buffet style, while enjoying views of the giant cranes and dredging near Gamboa, Gatun Lake was once the largest man-made lake in the world.
We’ll continue with a visit to the Biodiversity Museum, designed by the world renowned architect Frank Gehry. As a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, the Biodiversity Museum serves as a gateway to new information about the biodiversity and natural history of the Isthmus of Panama. The contents of the museum are to teach visitors about eco-awareness, conservation and Panama’s extraordinary natural treasures in various unique exhibition galleries. Did you know that the Isthmus of Panama has more bird, mammal, reptile and plant species than the US and Canada together in just 29,000 square miles? In fact, 3 million years ago, the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama changed both the climate and the biodiversity in the planet and played a key role in the creation of the world we know today. We will also visit Punta Culebra Nature Center… a non-profit initiative of STRI that relies on the support of the Smithsonian Foundation of Panama and international entities. It offers visitors an open-air museum focusing mainly on marine science and education, conservation. Bristol Hotel (B, L)
Day 4 – Gatun River & Embera Indians
This morning we’ll drive to El Corotu on the shores of Madden Lake. The main reservoir of drinking water for the cities of Panama and Colon, Madden also supplies 40% of the water required for the operation of the Panama Canal. Here we will board a motorized piragua to travel up the Chagres River. The dugout canoe journey will take us through the rainforests of the 320,000-acre Chagres National Park, the largest of the national parks protecting the Panama Canal Watershed. Along the Chagres River, we may be able to spot Little Blue and Green Heron, Great Egret, Anhinga, Neo-tropical Cormorant, Amazon, Ringed, and Green Kingfisher, along with Red-lored Amazon Parrot and Keel-billed Toucan flying above. We will reach the Embera village where we will be greeted with dancing, music and a sumptuous lunch made up of fresh fish, plantains and tropical fruits prepared by our hosts. Learn about Embera customs and their relationship with nature while visiting the village. The Embera are famous for their basketry and wood carving skills. There will be handcrafts available for sale and we will have a chance to be painted with the traditional jagua, a natural dye used by the Embera to adorn their bodies.
Welcome to our home for the next 5 nights located in the buffer zone of Camino de Cruces National Park and next to Soberania National Park. Gamboa Rainforest Resort is one of the most unique resorts located on the Panama Canal. It blends the design and ambiance of an eco-lodge with modern comforts. Gamboa Rainforest Resort (B, L, D)
Day 5 – Jungle Boat tour on the Panama Canal
We’ll take a short ride to the marina at Gamboa where the Chagres River meets the Panama Canal. Here we board an expedition boat and depart on an adventure that will include a voyage across Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal passing by gigantic cargo ships transiting the waterway, making contrast with the natural surroundings. Along the way, we’ll have the opportunity to spot Green Iguana and Three-toed Sloth, Crocodile, Osprey in the hunt for Peacock Bass, Snail Kite and Keel-billed Toucan among other wildlife. Gatun Lake was formed to give way to the Panama Canal in 1914. At the time of its creation it was the largest man-made lake in the world. The flow of all the rivers within the Panama Canal Watershed is contained in Gatun Lake to provide water for the operation of the lock system. More than 52 million gallons of fresh water are used for every ship that transits through the Panama Canal. Lunch at the resort… afternoon is free. Gamboa Rainforest Resort (B, L, D)
Day 6 – Free Day – Enjoy Gamboa Rainfores Resort
Today enjoy the resort or take in another adventure on your own… Gamboa features a landscaped pool with waterfalls. Exhilarating eco-tours and adventures include zip lining, kayaking and more. The Sensory Spa replenishes the body with pampering treatments. Gamboa Rainforest Resort (B, D)
Day 7 – The Spanish Main in Portobelo & Agua Clara Locks
We’ll ride across the Isthmus of Panama heading North East along the Caribbean coast to the historic town of Portobelo. Famous for its trade fairs during the 17th century, Portobelo is a World Heritage Site. During colonial times it was one of the most important strongholds of the Spanish. Enjoy tours of Fort San Geronimo and Santiago de la Gloria as well as the Church of San Felipe before a scrumptious lunch at Gatun Restaurant overlooking the Lake. Then step out on the lookout platform right over the new Agua Clara Locks which are part of the Panama Canal expansion. The $5.25 billion dollar project included, among other tasks, dredging works on both ends of the canal and the route itself in order to increase water depth and the straightening of bends along the route that will allow larger ships to transit through the canal. The most important aspect of the project, however, was the building of two new sets of locks, one at each terminus of the canal, which will increase the waterway’s capacity to move cargo from one ocean to the other by 50% and will allow the passage of bigger ships (almost 3 times the capacity of the largest size vessels that can cross the old locks). The new locks accommodate ships that can carry up to 14,000 containers. A ship with this capacity pays approximately $850,000 in toll fees to cross the Panama Canal. The new locks were designed to reuse up to 60% of the fresh water that would flow into the ocean by using recycling water basins. The return to Panama City will be aboard the Panama Canal Railroad. The railway follows a similar route as the original train built to transport gold prospectors, the 49ers, in the mid to late 1800s coming from the east coast of the United States across the Isthmus of Panama to continue their journey by steamboat to California. The route was diverted when Gatun Lake was formed to give way to the Panama Canal. The train will take us along the magnificent waterway, flanked by the exuberant rainforests of Soberania National Park. Gamboa Rainforest Resort (B, L)
Day 8 – Soberania National Park
Today we’ll have a short transfer to the Soberania National Park in the Panama Canal Watershed. We cross the Chagres River first stop… the Rainforest Discovery Center where we will enjoy spectacular views of Soberania’s canopy from the 100 foot observation tower. Standing above the canopy, we will witness the morning flight of Keel-billed Toucans, Red-lored Amazons and the silent and stealthy movement of Mantled Howler Monkeys. We’ll continue to explore the network of trails surrounding the Discovery Center and enjoy the hummingbird feeders that provide up close and personal views of 10 species of hummingbirds! During World War II a pipeline was built along the Panama Canal to transport fuel from one ocean to the other in the event the waterway was attacked. Fortunately, it was never used. The now abandoned gravel road built to maintain the pipeline provides excellent walking access to Soberania’s tropical rainforest. The park boasts an impressive list of 525 species of birds. Soberania is also home to 105 species of mammals including large felines, Tamandua, Two and Three-toed Sloth, 4 species of monkeys, Agouti, some of which are listed under endangered species and 59 endemic plant species in 4 life zones. Enjoy a picnic lunch, and more opportunities to further explore the healthy and productive habitats of the Panama Canal Watershed.
After some time to rest up we’ll head out to tour the Panama Canal Museum at Miraflores Locks and a special farewell dinner venue called Atlantic Pacific, located right above the Panama Canal! Enjoy dinner with close-up views over the locks´ operation. Marvel at the workings of this feat of human engineering. Gamboa Rainforest Resort (B, L, D)
Day 9 – Panama to home
We’ll head home today with great memories of this beautiful place and the great people we encountered along the way!