(ieyenews.com) Panama is one of the hottest tropical destinations in the Caribbean. Nowhere else will you find such an abundance of beautiful rain forests, exotic animals, beaches — and a 38-mile-long canal that joins two of the world’s largest oceans.
August marks 100 years since the Panama Canal opened. To be there to see massive cargo ships squeeze through the canal’s locks with inches to spare is a thrill for any age.
The majority of this legendary waterway is not actually a canal, but a 164-square-mile lake, surrounded by some of Panama’s top eco-destinations.
Any canal tour should start at the Miraflores Locks, located on the Pacific end of the canal near Panama City. The museum here will supply you with all the technical details and history of this amazing project, and you can even drive a simulated ship through the length of the canal.
Panama is also celebrating the opening of new and improved locks along the canal. These wider, deeper, longer locks can handle some of the world’s largest container ships and will more than double the canal’s capacity.
The best place to tour the new locks is at the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center in Gatún, on the Caribbean end of the canal. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Panama City. Visitors can view the waterway from a 150-foot-high viewing platform.
When you’re done exploring the canal’s technical wonders, take some time to enjoy its natural beauty. Barro Colorado Island, located in Lake Gatún in the center of the canal, is one of the most-studied areas of tropical forest in the world. The Smithsonian Institution has a research center there, and National Geographic chose the island as the site for its documentary The World’s Last Great Places: Rain Forests.
The island is a protected area, so visitors must arrange for an official tour, which includes transportation to and from the island, a two- to three-hour guided hike and lunch.
Another fascinating eco-destination is Soberanía National Park, a 75-square-mile wilderness preserve. Soberanía’s humid forests of cotton trees, royal palms, orchids, mahogany and wild plum are home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including a large variety of bird species.
While in the park, stroll down the Camino de Cruces. The Spanish once used this trail to move gold from mines along the Pacific coast to their ships in the Caribbean.
Another historic route that was, and still is, used to move cargo across this great isthmus is the Panama Canal Railroad. If you want to see the entire length of the canal up close and personal, the railroad has reasonably priced one-way and round-trip fares. The route passes both locks and follows the canal through lush rainforests, the historic Gaillard Cut and across slender causeways through Gatún Lake.
Panama City is a great home base for visiting the canal. If you love glitzy five-star hotels, head downtown. This modern city has a skyline that rivals Dubai and plenty of shopping, casinos and nightclubs. I recommend the Ginger Restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria; they have a fantastic sushi bar.
If you’re looking for a more laid-back cultural scene, visit the recently restored colonial barrio of Casco Viejo, known for its Old World charm. You’ll find eclectic restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels.
The apartments at Los Cuatro Tulipanes have kitchens and large balconies, so you can cook in, kick back and enjoy an elevated view of the hustle and bustle of Casco.
I also like the boutique hotel and coffee juice bar Casa de Sucre. This restored 1873 home turned guesthouse typifies the eclectic charm and history of Casco Viejo.
Take a short taxi ride up nearby Cerro Ancon. This small urban park with fantastic views of Panama City and the Bridge of the Americas is also a favorite nesting spot for toucans.
A trip to Panama is not complete without a little beach time. Bocas del Toro, a short flight from Panama City, has some of Panama’s best white-sand beaches and turquoise waters.
My favorite island is Isla Bastimentos. It has a huge national marine park and boasts some great resorts, ranging from luxury villas at Red Frog Beach Resort to the more eclectic eco-lodges of Al Natural Beach Resort, Red Frog Beach Bungalows and La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm.
If you’re looking for that private island feel, visit Popa Paradise Beach Resort on nearby Popa Island. A bit off the beaten path, this resort has wonderful private bungalows and a very cool swim-up bar.
The Panama Canal is truly one of the world’s great wonders. Add to that Panama’s vast biodiversity and amazing beaches and jungles, and this is a vacation destination that has something for everyone.
Eric Vohr is a freelance writer in Baltimore.
When you go
The Panama Canal opened officially on Aug. 15, 1914.
Canal information micanaldepanama.com/centennial
Camino del Cruces National Park caminandopanama.org/en/regiones/region-canal/10-canal/30-camino-de-cruces-trail-soberania-national-park
Miraflores Visitor Center visitcanaldepanama.com/panama-canal-miraflores-visitor-center
The Expansion Observation Center visitcanaldepanama.com/expansion-observation-center
Gatún Lake Tours www.gamboatours.com/gatun-lake-expedition
Panama Canal Railway panarail.com/home