The woman checking us in snaps hospital-style bracelets on our wrists to indicate that we signed up for the “all-inclusive” package, allowing us to endlessly drink free at the hotel’s many bars and endlessly eat free at the buffets, which overlap to fill up nearly 24 hours. My son loves it all but, even though I’m getting my hammock and wide-brimmed hat, I still don’t feel like I’ve seen anything Panamanian.
The next morning, we do what everyone has done on their first day in Panama for nearly 100 years: We see the canal. Container ships, it turns out, are way bigger than I guessed they would be; railroad cars are stacked so high on their decks that it looks like a strong wind or wave would send them tumbling into the sea as they go through the canal’s locks. (If you want to take a big ship through a narrow, shallow river that goes up or down a mountain, you need to move it up or down via locks. Locks are like little elevators; they’re basically baths that fill up to the ship’s level and then empty to lower them, or vice versa, which is both cool and peaceful to watch.)
There are actually three sets of locks (one Atlantic and two Pacific), and Panama is building additional locks that can handle newer, even wider ships … because this is Panama City and they are building everything. We walk through the Panama Canal Museum — note to the minister of tourism: Maybe, in the exhibits of local flora and fauna, take down the display of giant bed bugs — and sit in a theater to watch the English version of a film about the building of the canal, which is very, very kind to America. Then we watch the ships pass by while dining at the International Miraflores Restaurant at the canal’s visitors center, where I feel like I’m in a photo of my grandparents — sitting in the same chairs, in the same room, eating the same buffet, waving the same wave at the people on the vessels below. I feel nostalgic for a time when lazy tourism was actually active tourism. Then I need to leave.
The next day, our driver takes us 30 minutes from the hotel, over a one-lane wooden bridge, past the prison where Noriega now resides, to a town called Gamboa, at the entrance to the Soberanía National Park, which is a huge rain forest reserve. While waiting for our tour to leave, we get a drink at the big, cabin-like lobby of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which — along with the modern hotel — consists of houses from the 1930s where officers from the Panama Canal Administration once lived. We take a boat tour through Gatun Lake and pull up to see crocodiles, monkeys and iguanas, all of which greatly impress my son. Then we take an aerial tram through jungle trees, where we see sloths and hear woodpeckers and jungle birds and generally get to see all that Sting has saved. We climb ramps in a wooden lookout that seems like it was built by M.C. Escher, until finally we’re at a platform high above the jungle looking, yet again, at that canal. To protect the forest, you can’t go hiking in it, so this is as close as you can get to seeing what’s going on below, all of which seemed far more like paradise than the dank, squirminess I pictured a rain forest to be.
You can do, at most, only two things in Panama on one day, even though each event should take only an hour. That’s partly because the heat wears you out and partly because Panama City traffic is awful. So, after the tours, we were barely able to check out the Amador Causeway, a long, scarcely trafficked new road on the water outside of the city where the Gehry museum is being built. Right now, though, it’s just a bunch of Florida-style tourist restaurants and ice-cream places. We rent a four-wheeled bicycle and pedal Laszlo to Mi Ranchito Restaurant, a Panamanian restaurant where we have some crisp Balboa beers and passable shrimp. Then, of course, we eat and drink again at the hotel. Because we’ve got wristbands that command us to.