Panama - A Memorable Vacation Spot

There are many exotic vacation spots in the Caribbean that almost everyone is aware of, like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Aruba, etc.-just to mention a few. Not many think of Panama as a warm beach spot to visit.

But, it is a very exciting and memorable spot for a great vacation.
Although this beach resort is not really in the Caribbean (it is on the Pacific Ocean side), the Royal Decameron Beach Resort offers a beautiful golden sandy beach, the warm tropical climate that one is looking for, and many interesting places for sight-seeing, the main one being, of course, the Panama Canal. There are the typical fantastic sunsets, warm ocean waves lapping up the shore, numerous swimming pools, majestic palm trees and manicured tropical vegetation within the resort. The all-inclusive Royal Decameron offers great food with six a-la-carte themed restaurants, as well as two buffet restaurants and numerous bars and snack-bars. They have a disco, a casino, tennis courts, a spa, and a near-by golf course-virtually everything a vacationer could ask for.
But enough about the traditional beach resort amenities. What's special about Panama in particular?

First and foremost, the history of Panama and the Panama Canal is fascinating, even though we won't get into a big history lesson here, the Panama Canal is a marvel in engineering and one of the most significant waterways in the world. The canal stretches from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colon on the Atlantic side, and is 80 km (or 50 miles) in length. Over 12,000 ocean-going vessels use the canal per year, nudging their way through the narrow canal and rising up and down in the various locks to compensate for the difference in elevation between the two oceans. There are vast tracts of virgin jungle on both sides of the canal. It is truly an unforgettable sight to see the huge ships pass through the locks. It is a must-see when visiting Panama. The Mira Flores, Locks, located on the Pacific coast, is on the northeastern fringe of Panama City. A platform offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation and has a very interesting museum attached. We took the City & Canal Tour (at a cost of approximately $65 US) on which you can get a wonderful tour of Panama City as well as see the Mira Flores Locks in action. There are, however, Partial Transit Tours (approx. $96 US) of about four hours in length which start in Gamboa, located at the north end of the Gaillard Cut where the Chagres River flows into the Canal. Your vessel would pass through the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Mara Flores Locks, where the vessel is lowered 18 metres in two steps, and your voyage would end at the beautiful Flamenco Marina. Of course, there is also a full canal tour onboard the Pacific Queen, where you can experience the canal in close operation. This would be a once in a lifetime adventure where you could feel the sensation of going up or down in the locks in order to get from one ocean to the other. There is also a rail adventure available where you tour along-side the Canal while sitting comfortably on a train.

Panama City is also worth visiting. The city is split between the modern, thriving commercial center stretching 10 km (6 miles) along the Pacific coast and the old district of San Felipe, an area of decaying colonial grandeur. San Felipe juts into the sea on the southwestern side of town, and represents replicas of houses of the three most important cultures of the country: the Spanish, the Indian and the Afro-Antillan. The old-world architecture is beautiful and in many places is being restored to its original grandeur. The tour of the old district should not be missed.

Located in the modern part of Panama City is the Multicentro, Central America's largest shopping mall with over 250 stores. Panama City is famous for its shopping and offers a wide variety of merchandise including shoes, purses, sports articles, souvenirs, clothes, china, etc. Staying in the Radisson Decapolis Hotel in Panama City (a 5 * Hotel) which iss connected by a walkway to the Muticentro is truly unforgettable! The Radisson Decapolis offered an up-scale modern room and the dining was top-notch gourmet cuisine (no beach apparel here!) The main dining room was unique in that it was three stories high and looking up afforded you a view of the bottom of the roof-top pool above. As mentioned, it was only a short hop over to the shopping centre, which also hosted a large casino.

Panama boasts some of the greatest 'eco' sightseeing in the world with the Panamanian Rainforest. Over 300 species of birds have been seen in a day, and Panama offers terrific bird-watching with species such as the iris-beaked toucan, the tangara and the white-tailed sparrow hawk to mention a few. According to studies by the National Panamanian University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the mountains of basaltic rock at altitude contribute to the rich diversity of species. A tour of "Intro to Birdwatching at Cerro Campana National Park" costs approx. $78 US. It is wonderful to see tiny colourful hummingbirds flitting in and out of the hibiscus flowers, or viewing various types of birds in the trees outside of our hotel room patio. It is hard to identify all of them and it would be advisable to take a bird book along on your trip for more interesting viewing.

One thing that would be a nice feature in planning a Panama vacation would be the two-centre holiday option-for a one week vacation you would stay five nights at the Royal Decameron Beach Resort and two nights at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. That would give you both a beach holiday and the 'eco' experience. That would be an excellent vacation option, but unfortunately it is only offered at certain times of the year.

Other tours that may be of interest are the Jungle Boat Tour (approx. $85 US), the Canopy Adventure Tour (where you can ride the treetops in an eco adventure), or the Anton Valley Adventure ($40 US) where you visit an extinct volcano, a zoo and botanical garden, and a crafts market offering handmade crafts by local villagers. In other parts of Panama you can go deep-sea fishing, take a sunset sailboat cruise, go on the Panama Express train to Colon, or go scuba diving. In short, there are endless possibilities for adventure and fun, and at fairly reasonable rates too.

The people of Panama are very pleasant and companionable. Although Spanish is the official language, English is widely spoken and often times we found the locals spoke English so well that it is hard to tell if they are locals or not.

Panama has two seasons, the dry season (January to mid-April) and the rainy season (mid-April to December). It is best to keep these seasons in mind when planning your trip. I would also advise taking a small traveling umbrella just in case. They don't call it the rain forest for nothing! Temperatures are around 80-90◦ F (25-30◦ C) and are fairly consistent year-round, although nights are usually cooler. The equatorial sun is intense in Panama and care should be taken to use sunscreen. It is even possible to get a sunburn sitting under the canopy on the beach.

Visiting Panama is really an enjoyable experience, especially taking in the history of Panama City and the Canal. The resort mentioned above, hotel and the food are excellent. There were a couple of things that can present an area of concern. The Royal DeCameron has a vast amount of steps from the hotel rooms down to the restaurants and beach area. Although a small golf-cart shuttle conducted passengers down to the beach at various times, it is not always at a convenient time. This could be a problem for older folks. Also, the resort had several beautiful pools that flowed into each other and the beach are very nice and clean, but it is not possible to swim in the ocean. The red flag indicating unsafe conditions can be up often due to strong currents and under-tows. If you enjoy ocean swimming and snorkeling, this can pose a problem. However, the best snorkeling is really on Panama's other coast so if you enjoy that sort of thing it might be wise to book your vacation there. On the whole, sitting in the sun on the beach sipping a rum punch and relaxing can be very pleasurable.