The Panama Canal is one of the most awe-inspiring of all human endeavors. Built across the isthmus of Panama at one of its narrowest and lowest points, it is 50 miles (80 kilometers) long, extending from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean to the city of Colón on the Caribbean Sea. To the bafflement of many a visitor, the Caribbean entrance is northwest of the Pacific entrance.
What was once the Canal Zone ran the length of the canal, extending five miles (eight kilometers) on either side of it. The U.S. civilian townsites and military bases are now abandoned or being engulfed by the surrounding urban centers, though some of the forested lands in the former Canal Zone have been set aside as protected areas.
The canal itself is so impressive it’s easy to overlook nature’s equally astonishing handiwork on its banks and in its waters. Parque Nacional Soberanía is one of the most accessible tropical forests in the world. It and the surrounding forests have some of the best bird-watching in the country.
There’s also a surprisingly decent chance of coming across largish mammals, including three species of monkeys (white-faced capuchins, Geoffroy’s tamarins, and howlers), sloths, kinkajous, coatimundis, and capybaras (the largest rodent in the world) in the extensive moist tropical forests still standing here. Even jaguars and harpy eagles are not unheard of, but the chances of spotting either are extremely slim. You may also see a green iguana or two.
Though less visited than the Pacific side, the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal and the nearby coastline are rich in history and even richer in natural beauty. Evidence of the former includes the well-preserved ruins of Spanish forts, built to protect looted Inca treasure, and some of the most awe-inspiring structures of the canal.
The area’s natural attractions can be found among the mangroves, coral reefs, beaches, and forests that still abound with wildlife. Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular and easily accessible in the warm Caribbean waters, home to brilliant tropical fish and ancient shipwrecks. All this begins within a two-hour drive of Panama City.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition