This famous canal-bisected isthmus has a lot to offer these days, not only to tourists and boat-showgoers but to cruisers as well.
Thanks to the immense canal that bears its name, Panama is often seen as merely a place where all sorts of vessels, from giant commercial ships to relatively small recreational watercraft, can easily move from one ocean to another. And while having the experience of transiting the canal, whether from the Caribbean side or the Pacific, typically tops the bucket lists of many yachtsmen today, the country itself has never quite caught on as a popular cruising destination, although this odd state of affairs is changing rather rapidly these days.
Of course, Panama has always been associated with change and transition. With Costa Rica to the northwest and Colombia to the southeast, this country of mountainous jungles, beach towns, huge national parks, and top-tier urban sophistication is literally wedged between the disparate regions of Central and South America. Moreover, it was thoroughly ransacked by Spanish conquistadors during the 1500s, was subsequently made a province of Colombia by Spain, and eventually seceded from that arrangement with the backing of the United States, which began digging the Panama Canal in 1903, finished in 1914, and exercised sovereignty over the so-called Canal Zone until the late ’70s, when a lengthy process began that ultimately returned control of the canal to the Republic of Panama and its people.
The success of that process is undeniable. During the past quarter-century Panama has established itself as an independent nation with a flourishing economy, a stable political landscape, and a government eager to expand the canal’s capacity as well as Panama City’s Pacific-washed waterfront with its high-rise hotels and their highly entertaining proximity to zip lines, ATV scrambles, and numerous other tourist attractions. This is all good news for cruising yachtsmen, by the way, especially those who want to enjoy the modern ambience of an urban destination on the Pacific side but also cruise to their heart’s content among the hundreds of gorgeously tropical, comparatively remote, coastal anchorages and islands on the Caribbean side.
The San Blas archipelago is the showpiece of this latter group. Located to the east and slightly north of the canal’s Caribbean entrance, it is home to the indigenous Kuna Indians, who preserve their heritage by keeping their customs, village structures, and dress unchanged. The women wear traditional, handmade blouses adorned with colorful, rectangular-shaped, reverse-appliqued pieces of cloth called molas, and ornament their faces with nose rings and painted designs. On occasion, they approach cruising boats in the islands to sell the molas they’ve made at home, each a one-of-a-kind souvenir well worth buying.
The actual entrance to the canal from the Caribbean side is particularly stunning, especially when viewed for the first time. Dozens of modern tankers, car carriers, and cargo ships swing at anchor in an immense anchorage there waiting their turn to transit the canal. Canal operations run round the clock, but a daylight passage is the preferred timing, at least for yachts.
Up-to-the-minute modernity is the theme on the country’s Pacific side. Whether you’re the skipper of a cruise ship or a yacht, passing under the Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas) signals an undoubtedly much anticipated approach to Panama City, a booming metropolis with a Latin beat. The old city, with narrow stone streets, charming cafés, and historical churches, is an easy walking experience. The Encima Rooftop Bar atop the Tántalo Hotel is an especially good place to enjoy a drink and an ocean breeze.
Look for transient dockage at the Flamenco Marina on Flamenco Island, the spot where the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show’s producer Show Management is hosting the inaugural Panama International Boat Show (see: The Panama International Boat Show ▶) this year. The marina is minutes from restaurants, shopping, hotels, casinos, bars, and nightlife.
Arguably, much of the fun to be had during the show will be found at the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, a 66-story glass tower with four restaurants, seven clubs, and an array of Rock Star Suites, each complete with a Fender electric guitar delivered to your door via room service. Visitors with a passion for even more variety and adventure should plan on hitting the Panama City districts of Casco Viejo, Calzada de Amador, and Calle Uruguay for classical music, jazz, theater, dancing, and perhaps an intimate oceanside dinner or an exciting stint in one of the state-of-the-art night clubs.
Indeed, considering all these enticements, Panama today is not quite the isthmus it used to be. If it’s your time to check another exotic and sophisticated destination off your bucket list, or better still, if you want to partake of the pleasures of a newly emergent, undeniably picturesque crusing destination, set a course for this famed global intersection. You’ll be glad you did.
The Gem of the Canal
Transiting the Panama Canal is a waiting game: You wait for your pilot to board in the morning. You wait for your turn in the locks. You wait to tie up, for the gates to close, and the locks to fill only to repeat the process. All in all a trip through the Canal in its entirety can run you 10 hours. So I suggest you take a bit longer and spend a night on the hook in the lake. One of the most stunning surprises of the canal is Gatun Lake, created around 1907 with the diversion of the Chagres River. The lake itself makes up about 20 miles of the total transit and acts as a holding tank for the massive amount of water needed to operate the three locks on either end of the canal. But the lake is beautiful, and the scene is an interesting paradox: Pristine islands (actually the tops of submerged hills) and sparkling clear water are punctuated by huge, passing container ships bookended by steel and concrete locks. — Mark Fusco
Now That is Radical!
I remember the first time I transited the Panama Canal back in the mid-80s. Besides the way the guys on the lockwalls sent monkey’s fist-accoutered heaving lines back to us (with a vengeance), what impressed me most was the maneuverability of the canal-based, double-ended-looking tractor tugs. I was working on oceangoing tuge at the time and all I knew was that our vessele didn’t get around with even a smidge of the agility and speed of these monsters that nudged and prodded freighters, tankers, and other immense ships through the locks. The darn things went forward, astern, from side to side, and spun in place like piñatas, all at almost emergency-vehicle velocities. It was radical!
Well-known yachtbuilder Cheoy Lee has for years also been active in commercial shipbuilding and these days, with the expansion of the Panama Canal going great guns, they are fielding even gutsier, more agile canal tugs than the ones I remember, to shepherd even larger, post-Panamax ships from one ocean to the other.
Typically, the tugs that Cheoy Lee builds are powered by a Z-drive propulsion system that combines the performance features of an Azimuthing Stern Drive (ASD) configuration with those of a Z-drive tractor tug with Kort nozzles. A large skeg forward provides indirect steering force, enabling directional stability whether going ahead or astern. Helm stations fore and aft facilitate precise control in either case and big-shouldered power comes from huge Wartsila diesels driving immense, 8-foot fixed-pitch propellers. Cheoy Lee builds the vessels in its shipyard in China and they make their way to Panama by traveling across the Pacific, weather be darned, on their own bottoms. — Capt. Bill Pike
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.