By SUSAN HOLMES and BESSY REYNA
The Hartford Courant
August 18, 2002
Choosing to travel to the beautiful small country of Panama is easy, but selecting where you will stay and what you’ll do once on vacation there is another matter.
Panama is a 30,000-square-mile strip of land, like a long arm uniting Central and South America. It has a wonderfully rich diversity of natural and man-made wonders. There are the crystal-clear waters and gorgeous sandy beaches on the islands and shores of two oceans; a tropical rain forest populated with more than 700 varieties of birds, 16 species of butterflies and myriad fascinating creatures prowling the flora and fauna; and mountains with breathtaking vistas.
Panama City is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with hundreds of restaurants featuring world cuisine and a great nightlife with casinos and discos. Panama’s stunning skyscrapers keep watch over the bay that is the entryway into that most spectacular engineering wonder, the Panama Canal.
One of us is an avid birdwatcher and the other a devoted beach-lover, and we both wanted this vacation to help us wind down from hectic work lives. After consulting the Lonely Planet Guide to Panama and a multitude of Internet sites, we chose to split our nearly two weeks between ecotourism in the rain forest and pampering at a beach resort.
Continental Airlines’ daily nonstop flight from Newark to Panama City’s Tocumen airport arrives late in the evening, so the first night was spent in one of the many reasonably priced hotels in the city. Early next morning we started our ascent to Canopy Tower, an ecolodge and nature observatory, which was our haven in the rain forest for four days and nights. The drive to the lodge takes about an hour on a road that cuts across the country from Pacific to Atlantic, running parallel to the canal. Just before reaching the point where the Chagres River feeds the canal by flowing into Gatun Lake, we take a right onto Semaphore Hill Road. We traveled ever upward on this narrow, winding, paved road for what seemed like miles until we reached the summit and the gates to Canopy Tower.
This hotel is one of the world’s best examples of recycling. A former U.S. armed forces radar tower, it is one of the most comfortable and rewarding destinations in the world of ecotourism. There are single and double rooms and two suites, space for 20 guests, at rates from $95 to $185 per person (depending on the season) – including meals. Our room looks out at the uppermost limbs of the trees that are more than 100 feet high.
We were told not to bother with an alarm clock, but to be prepared to be awakened by the unnerving pre-dawn calls of howler monkeys. We quickly learned to keep binoculars at hand. Our first sighting of an exotic bird, a gorgeously iridescent green honeycreeper, the first sighting of an exotic bird, came through the open window of our oversized shower.
On the next level was the common room, a large, open space with a dining area and a very comfortable living area with a display of magazines from around the world that featured articles and photographs about Canopy Tower. With huge windows all around and tall director’s chairs at each window, the interior design has been created to enjoy the rain forest surroundings. The open windows are ideal vantage points for the many nature photographers and writers who visit the tower.
As beautiful as the view from the top level is, there is another breathtaking view awaiting us when we emerged from a hatch onto a large deck that encircles the geodesic dome at the top of the tower. Perched above the canopy, the deck provides views of the vast rain forest and mountains, ships passing through the canal and, off in the distance, the high rises of Panama City and then the Pacific Ocean. On a pre-dawn visit to the deck we are rewarded with an indescribable solitude under the vast starry sky. Gradually, noises indicate wildlife awakening around us, and the misty light explodes into an exquisite sunrise over the Pacific (check a map, every visitor gets discombobulated over direction – which way is east, west, north or south?).
The Wildlife Parade
More than 300 species of birds have been spotted at Canopy Tower and its environs. We kept a list and, in only four days, we recorded 68 birds along with two- and three-toed sloths, blue morpho butterflies, agoutis, anteaters and a kinkajou.
The inspiration and imagination behind Canopy Tower is our host Raúl Arias de Para, who in 1996 made a deal with the government for the radar tower and the Semaphore Hill site, consisting of about 35 acres of rain forest within Soberanía National Park. He converted the tower into this unique ecolodge. He and his staff of friendly and knowledgeable young Panamanians keep the building impeccably clean and comfortable, giving careful attention to the needs of each guest. During our stay, de Para stopped to chat and have dinner with his visitors from England, Texas, Washington, Oregon and Connecticut, who share a love of nature and bird watching.
The living room and communal meals encouraged guests to share adventures and sightings of the day, especially at dusk over cocktails and appetizers. No television or radio to distract. The hearty evening meals are served with wine and wonderful desserts. During breakfast, guests spent the time deciding whether to take the standard guided hike down the Canopy Tower road, or one of the nature hikes that can be arranged at an extra cost or, as we chose one morning, to just sit in a hammock or deck chair and watch the parade of exotic birds.
To The Beach
After our rain forest experience, we were ready for the beach – sunshine, sea breeze and lazing under a thatched umbrella. The Royal Decameron Costa Blanca Beach Resort proved to be the right choice. An hour by road from Panama City, Decameron is located on the beach at Farrallon on the Pacific Ocean. The beauty of Farrallon makes it is easy to understand why Panamanian dictators built homes there.
This 2-year-old hotel with more than 600 rooms is the newest in the international chain of Decameron hotels. Having asked for quiet, we were placed at the far edge of the resort grounds in the newly opened section. Early the next morning we awakened to passersby arguing in French, the housekeeping staff singing “La Cucaracha” and a toilet that wouldn’t flush. The rest of our stay improved considerably.
It seems U.S. tourists have yet to discover this very comfortable and gorgeous place, which caters mostly to European, Canadian and Latin American visitors.
There’s no need to pack money with your bathing suit; the all-inclusive resort package provides meals in any of six restaurants, snacks and drinks until the wee hours at a number of locations throughout the grounds. Rooms are large and comfortable and provide bottled water and cable TV. There are three enormous pools, activities for children, exercise routines for adults and an almost-private beach to occupy your days. At night there are shows for children and a nightclub with dancing. Staying at Decameron is like going on a cruise ship vacation without leaving port. And, for an extra cost, the management provides a number of tours of the canal and historic sites, or trips for shopping, bird watching or horseback riding.
The staff is friendly, if indifferent. Since the resort is geared to large groups being brought in by tourist agencies, those tourists arriving on their own have to work a bit to figure out how to take advantage of all the facilities available.
Bessy Reyna is a free-lance writer and op-ed columnist for The Hartford Courant. Susan Holmes is artistic programs director at the University of Connecticut.
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