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Panama's sights span centuries as its canal joins oceans

PANAMA CITY, Panama - Our speedboat trail of white foam stretches in a wide arc far behind as we race across Lake Gatun. We're searching for monkeys on the islands scattered across this massive man-made lake.

The author's son, Rohan, at San Jerónimo Fort, in Portobelo on the Caribbean.
The author's son, Rohan, at San Jerónimo Fort, in Portobelo on the Caribbean.Read more

PANAMA CITY, Panama - Our speedboat trail of white foam stretches in a wide arc far behind as we race across Lake Gatun. We're searching for monkeys on the islands scattered across this massive man-made lake.

As the boat nears the promisingly named Monkey Island, it pulls close to the bank where several tree branches overhang the water. There!

The ranger whispers that the little creatures with red patches of hair behind their ears are tamarin monkeys. They scamper through the lower branches, and two jump onto the bow of the boat, jostling for tidbits of food that the guide unfortunately offers. Still, we get a close-up view. The tamarins soon retreat, and the guide points out black-mantled howler monkeys, including a baby, up in the foliage.

This is Day Three of our week here. Lake Gatun, of course, is famous for its role in the middle of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World - the Panama Canal. In fact, most tourists visit the lake as part of transiting the engineering marvel that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

That's why my husband, son, and I initially flew here - that and some R&R at the Westin Playa Bonita resort, about a half-hour cab ride from the city. We soon discovered, however, that Panama's largest city and its environs had plenty to offer beyond the canal. Don't get us wrong. A transit through the locks is a day well spent and worth traveling to this part of the world. But it's not the only game in town, not by a long shot.

During our stay, we wandered the streets of the skyscraper-heavy downtown that recalls Miami, took in the reclaimed Old Town with its New Orleans-style wrought-iron balconies and colorful plaster facades, spied the 16th-century ruins of the original settlement, saw the celebrated Black Jesus, glimpsed the prison that held one of Panama's most notorious figures (remember Manuel Noriega?), and snorkeled the blue Caribbean waters. Oh, and we made a partial transit of the 100-plus-year-old canal, one more highlight of many.

The 164-square-mile Lake Gatun is lush with wildlife in the rain forest that covers the islands. Besides the tamarin and howler monkeys, we also saw white-faced capuchin monkeys that look like grumpy old men, a crocodile doing an imitation of driftwood, and various birds. Racing across the lake was just as exciting as spotting the critters.

When we booked this last-minute vacation, we expected to relax at the resort and spend a day, tops, exploring the canal. That's why we picked an out-of-the-way spot on the coast, far from the city. Once there, though, we realized that there was much to explore and that perhaps we should have booked a city hotel. The cab ride from the middle of nowhere to the city center proved expensive ($25 each way). Even the Gamboa Tours packages arranged at the hotel all departed from some distance, requiring a lengthy van ride.

Still, the Playa Bonita offered stunning views of the Pacific Ocean from our 18th-floor room. In the blue haze at the horizon, we saw a long line of ships waiting to enter the canal. Besides lazing poolside, we enjoyed kayaking along the stretch of water in front of the resort, strolling the narrow beach, and imbibing at the afternoon happy hour.

The tide was its own attraction. Each evening, it came in a good 20-plus feet. In the morning, it pulled back, more than doubling the width of the beach, and creating swirly sand art.

One day we snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea, not far from the historic and aptly named town of Portobelo. The water was warm, and the fish, though not that colorful, entertained us. A short beach break also was nice, though the surroundings could have been kept cleaner. After lunch in a fish house (the vegetarians got plantains and beans and rice), we spent the afternoon wandering the sleepy historic town.

The meager ruins of the San Jerónimo Fort, built from the 16th to 18th centuries and a UNESCO World Heritage Center, made for a pretty vantage point to take in the harbor with its boats and the nearby 1630 Royal Customs House. At the Black Christ Church, we saw the famed, four-foot Black Jesus Christ statue. Legend has it that a box containing the figure mysteriously appeared on the shores of Portobelo. Each October, the town attracts pilgrims.

Another day, we explored the three faces of Panama City, starting with a wander through Casco Antiguo (the Old Town), a World Heritage site. In the middle of a renaissance, the same block contains pristine, colorful houses restored to their colonial glory and dilapidated, grimy structures where a few squatters still live.

In the late afternoon, we planned to visit the ruins of Panama Viejo, the original settlement founded by Pedrarias Davila in 1519. (An attack on it by pirates led to the construction of Casco Antiguo.) As our cab inched along Avenue Cincuentenario, we realized we would never make it to the park before closing time. Lucky for us, the avenue runs parallel to the ruins, and we at least got a taste of the old settlement.

It was a wild contrast. On the right, we spied the 16th-century stone remains of the Spanish settlement. On the left, we took in the 21st-century skyscrapers of the financial district, including a Trump hotel and tower, which every cabdriver insisted on pointing out to U.S. visitors. Later, we got another perspective from atop Ancon Hill. At the Amador Causeway, we enjoyed ice cream and imagined life aboard the many fancy yachts docked there.

Of course, we spent a day on a partial crossing of the Panama Canal, more than a century old. The six-hour boat ride took us past El Renacer prison (which housed dictator Noriega), terraced hillsides, under two bridges (the modern Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas), and through the Continental Divide. But what happens inside the locks is the real point. In the Pedro Miguel Locks, one of two sets of locks on the Pacific side, the vessel was lowered nine meters in one step. Expansion was underway to widen the canal for the transit of larger ships. Almost imperceptibly, the water level dropped on the wall clad in green scum. Then the boat entered the artificial Miraflores Lake before moving into the Miraflores Locks. There, the vessel dropped 18 meters in two steps.

Even today, with iPhones and Mars probes, the engineering marvel commands attention. It is an experience that is often, and well, told. For us, the arguably equal marvel was the many lesser-known sides of Panama City and its surroundings - the Old Town, the ruins of the even older settlement, the skyscrapers of the New City, its waters and beaches, its history and legends.