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Exploring Panama waterways

Tourists take a boat along the Panama canal into the depths of the rainforest. (File photo, 5/3/2016. Please credit: "Michael Juhran / dpa".)


Panama City / DPA

Residents of Panama City are unlikely to say anything good about Henry Morgan, the well-known pirate who planned to stage his biggest raid there in 1671. With 1,800 men, he went from the mouth of the Chagres River, in the Caribbean, to Panama City on the Pacific Ocean, hoping to steal the gold and silver and the Spanish settlers had taken from South American peoples.
However, the plan fell through: the Spaniards found out about it and brought a major portion of their treasures to safety. Morgan’s men plundered Panama City causing a fire that consumed what was at the time the largest and richest Spanish metropolis in the Americas.
Nowadays, tourist trips through Panama begin in this city, taking visitors along the country’s famous canal into the jungle. Tourist guide Felix Escobar is still proud that his compatriots managed to trick Morgan. “We simply covered the golden altar in black paint, so the pirates would not realize its value,” he says.
More and more glistening new buildings are emerging among the old ones. Luxury hotels, bars, chic restaurants and souvenir shops are pushing out older residents. You can walk along the old city’s fortress walls to see the new city’s impressive skyline. But Escobar points in the opposite direction, to where the Bridge of the Americas marks the entrance to the Panama Canal.
In a minibus, he drives his guests to Miraflores, so they can see the huge ships go through one of the locks. “You can only get a real impression of the canal on the water,” he says. The group sets off from Gamboa on one of the many tourist boats, and reaches Gatun Lake through a busy waterway.
You feel almost torn. On the one hand,
container ships do not fit the unspoilt rainforest picture at all. On the other hand, the howling monkeys, turtles, American crocodiles, iguanas and capuchin monkeys do not seem to mind them. The small islands and the banks of the canal are teeming with birds. Butterflies and dragonflies compete with each other for the most beautiful colours. Young crocodiles play at a spot where a long pipeline spews out mud and rocks.
East of the canal, the Soberania, Chagres and Camino de Cruces national parks preserve fauna and flora. Protected areas currently make up 29 per cent of Panama’s territory. Scientists have counted 954 bird species, 220 mammals and 354 species of reptiles and amphibians within its borders.
Tourists value the fact that the country is taking environmental protection seriously. In 2015 alone, the number of visitors to Panama rose by 22 per cent, to total 2.13 million. Unlike the about 2 billion dollars the country gets from canal operations every year, part of its income from tourism does trickle down directly. That is good for the Embera people. This indigenous community needed to change its lifestyle when a portion of their home territory was declared part of the Chagres national park. Hunting and large-scale agriculture were banned, and foreign tourists are now their main source of income.Fabio is one of the guides. Wearing only a loincloth, on a dug-out, he takes tourists to the Embera settlement in the national park. There, women in colourful skirts and pearl necklaces greet the guests with songs and accompany them to dwellings made of wooden stilts and covered with foliage. Tourists are quickly invited to get involved.
Some younger members of the Embera people surprise visitors with their good English and tell them about their everyday lives. Some are temporarily living in the city, while others prefer to remain in the settlement. Income from tourism allows the community to live comfortably. Even in the rainforest, solar panels enable the Embera to embrace electric light, stoves or television.
For all these acquisitions, however, the Embera have kept many of their traditions. They weave baskets and bowls out of palm leaves, carve cocobolo wood and use spears to fish tilapia they serve to visitors on palm leaves, with plantains. In 1513, the Embera community’s forebears led Vasco Nunez de Balboa and his men to become the first Europeans to cross the Panama isthmus, from the Caribbean to the Pacific.

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