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Visiting the canal that shrank the world

Panama City tour with Air Journey

You might not think of it this way, but Panama, and its capital, Panama City, are critical links between North and South America.

Should you be passing to or from destinations north or south, a stop in Panama City makes a lot of sense. AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis and I were lucky enough to make a stop in Panama City on the way home from an Air Journey visit to the Galápagos Islands in December. We were surprised, and educated, by the sights there.

First of all, if you’re planning a visit, I’d recommend landing at the Panama Pacifico International Airport in Balboa, Panama. It’s a sleepy, towered field with a single, 8,501-foot runway—but no instrument approaches. For weather information, you can check the nearby Tocumen International Airport, which is a huge international hub. You might be tempted to land there instead, but that sprawling airport is chock-full of airliners and can be a busy place.

The Balboa airport has avgas as well as Jet A, plus a big ramp. You’ll clear customs nearby, and after calling a cab you’ll be on your way to the city. We stayed in the “old city,” which dates back to the sixteenth century when the Spanish empire ruled. We stayed in the hotel Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. Built in 1917, the Casco Viejo had just reopened when we arrived, so it was spacious, elegant, and up to date. Plus, it was located right on the Pacific Ocean shore. It’s pricey, but worth it. You could open your hotel room door and look down on the plantings in the huge courtyard, the pool, and the beach—except when the tide comes in and the ocean covers it.

A tour of the old city lets you visit a number of trendy and historical sites. Sprinkled throughout are attractive marketplaces and parks, restaurants, and shops. You’re bound to notice the height of the curbs in the old city. They can reach almost a foot above street level, and they’re a subtle hint of Panama’s climate. Torrential rains are common in the summer months, and the streets become rivers. So here’s a tip: Visit in the winter months, when the dry season prevails.

Every once in a while you’ll come across a dilapidated gap between two newer buildings. Perhaps they’re left behind from the days when the pirate Henry Morgan attacked the city. Rather than have him take any spoils, the governor vowed to burn down the city—so he spread barrels of gunpowder and set them off.

Brian Dunsirn flew his TBM 910 to Panama City, Panama, during an Air Journey expedition in December. Photo by David Tulis. Air Journey host Christophe Mathy, right, listens as a Panama City guide refers to a map in the hotel lobby to explain the history and significance of the Panama Canal, a vital shipping shortcut for more than a century. Photo by David Tulis. Delectable pastries on display in the hotel coffee bar. Photo by David Tulis. A Panamanian white-faced capuchin monkey studies the passing tourists. An intelligent species, the capuchin has become a people-pleaser on screen and off, appearing in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' film series, and also being trained to assist people with disabilities.  Photo by David Tulis. The tour group learns about the dynamics of locks able to raise and lower huge vessels passing through the Panama Canal. Photo by David Tulis. Dancers in traditional costume make their contribution to the ambience at the newly renovated Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. Photo by David Tulis. Panama City has preserved much of its historic arcitecture. Photo by David Tulis.

Of course, this isn’t the only detail in Panama’s long history. The main attraction is, of course, the Panama Canal. It’s a 51-mile-long wonder with three sets of locks and an artificial lake—Gatun Lake—made to lift ships between locks. In 1881, the French began the first attempt to create the canal, but the effort collapsed in a financial scandal. That, and some 20,000 deaths from yellow fever and malaria, left the minimal work lying fallow. The United States took over the effort in 1904, and by 1914 the first ships were moving between the Atlantic and Pacific. The American work brought with it a major medical breakthrough: Army physician Walter Reed identified mosquitos as the transmitters of yellow fever.

By the way, anyone interested in the tortured history of the Panama Canal’s construction should read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, a carefully documented and fascinating rendition of the challenges faced by the canal’s builders.

Trips down the canal are must-do items. Tulis and I boarded a covered launch with several other tourists and set out on Gatun Lake. A knowledgeable guide held forth on points of interest, and we even cruised by the dense, jungle shoreline. A word to the wise: Don’t bring any food on these trips; the guides will give you drinks, but that’s about it.

Why no food? Our boat paused along the shore, and it wasn’t long before we saw movement in the trees. Howler monkeys. Their aerial hijinks are very entertaining as they leap from branch to branch, but make no mistake: They’re checking us out for food. Stories abound of monkeys boarding boats to make “raids” for food. We were spared. We had no food, and the monkeys could tell.

Out on the lake, don’t be surprised by passing ships. On our trip, a giant container ship that must have been 10 stories tall glided by, packed with hundreds of containers.

Back at the Casco Viejo, we packed up and went back to the Balboa airport for our departure. Then came a final treat: Our route took us the length of the Panama Canal. It was quite a sight to take in the entire engineering marvel in one glance. If you’re ever in the neighborhood don’t miss it.

  • Over the Panama Canal on approach to Panama Pacifico International Airport. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Brian Dunsirn prepares his TBM 910 for departure. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Another 'tough day at the office' for AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis and pilot Brian Dunsirn. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Passing Banco Pichincha Monumental Stadium in Guayaquil, Ecuador, after departure, bound for Panama. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Ships carrying containers and bulk cargo from around the world converge, line up, and wait their turn to transit the Panama Canal. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Panama Pacifico International Airport in Balboa, Panama, is where general aviation pilots find customs, fuel, and a short cab ride to Panama City. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Containers are stacked high on the 'Gunhilde Maersk' as it transits the Panama Canal with a little help. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The 'Gunhilde Maersk' maneuvers around a bend. Photo by David Tulis.
  • 'AOPA Pilot' Editor at Large Tom Horne admires the view during the Panama Canal boat tour. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Pilots Bob Kocher, right, and Tom Horne enjoy a boat tour of the Panama Canal with fellow Air Journey guests. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Puente Centenario (the Centennial Bridge) crosses the canal near Panama City. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Panama City retains many examples of historic architecture preserved from redevelopment even after much of the structure is gone. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A view of the Panama Canal on departure, including the area toured by a small boat among ships. Photo by David Tulis.
Thomas A. Horne
Thomas A. Horne
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
Topics: International Travel, Travel

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