Viewing the Panama Canal from a cruise ship might not be the best vista. Canal bound cruise ships are so large and the decks so far above the water line that you can’t see what is going on below in the lock passages.
Boat tours of the Canal locks are offered by various providers. I went with Argo Tours on a partial transit, the only option on the day I contacted them. I couldn’t find a web link to Argo recently, so maybe their name or management has changed, but whoever offers the canal lock passage tours, the experience is worthwhile. The food was much better than I expected for a tour boat, and copious. The guide explained the history, natural lore, and mechanical process of the lock transfers in English and Spanish.
I had hoped to walk the isthmus during this two-week trip to Panama, but had difficulty lining up maps sufficiently detailed for a solo walker. Next time I travel in Panama, I plan to ride the Panama Canal Railroad which has been refurbished for the tourist trade, but will offer another perspective of travel across the isthmus.
Prior to exploring the Canal area, I spent several days at Bocas del Toro on the Carribbean side and enjoyed a 1 day island boat-snorkel tour offered by several tour operators in Bocas. Make sure you hire a boat with a canopy as the sun can be fierce.
Another day, I flew from Panama City to Isla Coronado in the Pacific for an overnight in a spiffy cliffside beach hotel. Various high-level international refugees have stayed there — the Shah of Iran, possibly Manuel Noriega and other shady characters.
On one of the weekends, friends of Experience Panama tourism guru Ana Rojo invited me to join them for the cross country drive west-north-west to Boquet in the highlands, for cooler temperatures, ranch-style living and coffee plantations. Isla Verde guest house is nice there — run by a friendly German family. The hike up the mountain is worth the effort.
In Panama City, use good sense and hire a car and driver to view the tourist highlights, because public transport can be problematic unless you have lots of time to sit around and wait. Cabbies can be helpful, or not. I rode city buses a couple of times and boarded efficient inter-city buses to reach Bocas del Toro from Boquete.
The Smithsonian operates a world-class tropical research institute at Barro Colorado, an island in Gatun Lake. The day was interesting, but we were kept close to the administrative buildings. Experienced hiker-naturalists might find the nature walk a disappointment.
If you can, book into the Country Inn and Suites Hotel (an American style business hotel with the usual discounts for AAA, government/military and seniors) because of the direct view of the Canal and all the ships. For me, that made the trip, to be able to look up from the balcony and see a tanker nosing through the canal, or the sun setting over the tropical forest on the opposite side of the canal.
A 6 km causeway made from dirt excavated from the canal runs alongside the canal, open to pedestrians and cyclists. At the end of the causeway, there’s a handful of charming islands, one of which is a small Smithsonian marine research/education facility, converted from a WWII-era lookout station. The recreational port area attracts sightseers and the marina area is bracketed by seafood restaurants. For me, it was restful to walk along the causeway, maybe visit the marine research island, have a snack at one of the restaurants and walk back to the CountryInn Suites hotel then finish up the evening looking at the canal during twilight. All along the causeway, sea breezes rustle the palm trees and folks of all generations run, rollerblade, walk and cycle.
The birdwatching at Canopy Tower and nearby trails is incomparable. Panama offers many national parks, though transportation to the parks could present a logistical hurdle.
Travel Tips. Bring along a roll of $1 and $5 US banknotes. For some reason it was hard to get singles and that’s what you need in this tip driven economy. US currency is used throughout and some prices were quite modest, except for classy hotels in the city and resort areas. If you do find yourself taking taxis, be aware that the first rate quoted by the driver is the tourist price and the normal price is perhaps 1/4. ( e.g. for a $1.25 cab ride, 8 minutes travel time, the driver will quote me, Miss Gringo Tourist, $7.00, then come down to $5.00 and even when I offer $3.00, will still try and get me to agree to a “tour”.