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Adventures Alongside the Panama Canal

By Sandra Scott

My husband, John, and I are in Panama, where we are experiencing adventures at every turn.

On the road again
After staying at the Riande Airport Resort near Panama City, we picked up our rental car. A fellow Anerican advised us to "Drive like you stole the car!" However, our, our 30-minute drive to Gamboa Rainforest Resort was unevenful, if you don't count the flat tire.

Luxury in the rain forest
Gamboa is a five-star hotel that has attracted the rich and famous, including Jimmy Carter, Queen Sofia of Spain and Prince Hitachi of Japan. It offers eco-tourism in comfort and style.

It is located at the Panama Canel's midpoint, so we enjoyed eating lunch at their marina restaurant whil;e watching ships navigate the crossing.

Gamboa has a close working relationship with the nearby Smithsonian Tropical Reasearch Institute, so the emphisis is on nature. Bird watching is the primary draw, with more than 900 different kinds of birds sighted in the area. There are plenty of other activities, including fishing, relaxing in a spa, visiting an Indian village or just lazing around the 200-foot free-form pool.

The major attraction is the resorts's aerial tram that moves silently through the jungle canopy to the top of the hill, where it is an easy climb up a 100-foot tower for an incredible view of the rain forest and the Panama Canal.

Amazingly, the tour is wheelchair-accessible, as is the entire resort. Another day, along with a television crew filmed a segment for a Sunday variety show, we motored into the canal's Lake Gatun and sped past the big ships to islands, where we saw howler and the white-faced monkeys and took in some fishing

The TV crew filmed John catching a peacock bass. In the morning, we listen for howler monkeys, and in the evening, we watched for capybaras, a rodentlike creature the size of a racoon

The Panama Canal
Today it is truly Panama's Canal. The United States turned over control on Dec. 31, 1999. From the viewing area at the Miraflores locks, we watched the cruise-ship Rotterdam go through. We also took a partial transit tour up through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguael Locks, where our boat was like a minnow compared to the whale of a container vessel that went through with us.

The cargo ships are guided through the locks by tugboats and electric "mules," similar to push-me-pull-you train engines that run on tracks along both sides of the locks. Because of some of the confusion over one of our tours, we received a complimentary helicopter tour of the canal. Like a scene from a James Bond movie, we lifted off from Gamboa's heliport and whisked along the length of the canal with the pilot pointing out the many areas that were once under the auspices of the American military. We buzzed around Panama City before being dropped off at Albrook airport to catch our flight to Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro
After enjoying our slice of the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," we headed to Bocas del Toro, where it is more like life on "Gilligans Island." Bocas del Toro is a cluster of tropical islands in the north of pPanama near the Costa Rican border. The quaint coastal town in the jumping-off point for a marine park famed for surfing, diving and snorkeling, but we are here to study at "Spanish by the Sea." Each day, after four hours of class, we studied around the pool, where a production crew for the British version of reality-TV series "Survivor" works on its schedule. The series was being filmed on one of the nearby islands. Their boats and the helicopter buzzed back and forth; everyone associated with the show was very close-mouthed. We stayed at the school for $10 a night and were awakened frequently by a rooster who likes to get up 3:30 a.m. As a reward for studying diligently, we spent the weekend at a little piece of heaven called Punta Carocol, where the picturesque cabins are built above the water. We snorkeled right off our front porch, spotting stingray, moray eels, starfish, sea cucumbers and many colorful small fishes. Our tranquility was moved only by the breeze and the sea; there were no roosters.

I made all our arrangements via the Internet or after I arrived in Panama. Rooms at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort (877-800-1690) start at $80 for a room in one of the villas, houses built for canal personnel, and for as high as $800 for a suite; they also offer a variety of packages.
Five days of classes, four hours a day, one-on-one, at Spanish by the Sea are $190. The nightly rate for a shared room with a shared bathroom and kitchen is now $6 per person. There are only two rooms, but there are many hotels nearby ranging from$10 to $70 a night. At Punta Caracol we paid $80 per person a night for a cottage, which included breakfast, dimmer and transfers by water taxi.
For more information, visit these Web sites;
or www.puntacaracol.com
or call the Panamian Embassy at (202) 483-1407

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