Beyond the Zone

As the United States prepares to hand over the canal, Panama's wild wonders are ripe for discovery

The easy way to spot quetzals: Lounge on the deck of a private chalet in Panama's Chiriqui highlands.    

Nowhere else on earth do the wonders of man and nature collide so abruptly as they do near the banks of the Panama Canal. From my perch atop a radar tower once used to track drug traffickers' planes, I peer out over a lush rainforest canopy that flows across lumpy green mountains. Flocks of veridian parrots buzz the treetops and disappear over the Caribbean horizon to the north. Howler monkeys crash through the foliage below me. And during my visit, nearly a million migrating hawks have been dotting the skies as they fly south toward the Pacific. Stretched out along a 3.5-million-year-old land bridge, Panama is the ultimate ecological crossroads, a habitat for more than a thousand bird and animal species whose northern- and southernmost ranges overlap, with the result that a country one-fifth the size of California claims a greater variety of species than the entire United States.
At the same time, bisecting this S-shaped isthmus is a gargantuan ditch, the surreal scale of which only becomes clear as I spot the white bow of a 40,000-ton cruise ship that seems to float through the jungle. Mention Panama and it's this marvel of engineering that first comes to mind. (The United States, which built the Canal between 1904 and 1914, will hand over control of the waterway to Panama at noon on December 31 of this year.) The second popular image of the country, which still dissuades most cruise-ship passengers from disembarking to explore, is that of a banana republic awash in drugs and ruled by pineapple-skinned dictators.

In fact, much has changed in the near-decade since the United States invaded Panama and extricated strongman Manuel Noriega from the scene. The second round of free elections was recently held, and in accordance with the Panama Canal Treaty, the United States is about to complete a two-decade-long process of turning over hundreds of square miles of primary rainforest and tropical beachfront. Already more than four million acres—about a quarter of the country—are protected, more parkland than in any other Central American country, including Costa Rica.
A chunk of this land is a green legacy of the Canal Zone. Most of 1,300 square miles surrounding the Canal is a forested, soil-preserving watershed; the locks depend on freshwater to operate. And large tracts of former U.S. military properties are nearly as undeveloped as they were when occupied almost a century ago.
The long-term U.S. presence has left other positive legacies, including perhaps the most modern road system in Central America, scores of remote airstrips, and a dollar-based, English-friendly economy. Panama is one of the world's easiest countries for Americans to explore. You can even drink the water right out of the tap.
Unlike neighboring Costa Rica, however, Panama's ecotourism industry is still in its infancy, and qualified guides are scarce. But there is no shortage of places worth exploring. If you've got a week to wander, consider the following itinerary: Fly into Panama City and stay at Rainforest Canopy Tower, a former radar installation that has been converted into a funky lodge for birders and Zone explorers. After a couple of days, puddlejump north to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro for an interlude of Robinson Crusoe role-playing and snorkeling. Then drive up into the cloud-forested highlands around Boquete, where the whitewater rafting is superb. If you have time, also investigate the surfing along the Pacific's Playa Santa Catalina; try deep-sea fishing off Bahía Pina; or trek in the primordial Darien jungle, home of the Emberá, one of Panama's seven remaining indigenous tribes.
If you do decide to explore Panama, don't expect deluxe accommodations—or the crowds of tourists who need that kind of hand-holding. Panama may be a country on the brink, with plans to make tourism the nation's number-two industry in the new millennium, but for adventurous travelers the time to visit is now.

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