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Gatun Locks & Dam

The Gatún Locks, located at the Caribbean entrance of the canal about 10km (6 miles), or a 20-minute drive, from Colón, are the canal's busiest because there is just one set of locks here instead of the two at Miraflores -- meaning you have a better chance of seeing Panamax ships backed up here and waiting their turn to enter the canal. These locks are also the most impressive because they lift ships and tankers up 26m (85 ft.) to the level of Lake Gatún in three steps (taking about 1 1/2 hr. to complete), where they continue for 37km (23 miles) before reaching the Pedro Miguel Locks. The neat thing here is that you can drive over the canal at near-water level on your way out to Fort San Lorenzo. The Gatún Locks Visitors Pavilion (daily 9am-4pm; free admission) has a viewing platform, reached by a long flight of stairs, that offers a high perch for excellent photo opportunities. Apart from a model of the canal and a bilingual brochure, there are no other tourist facilities here. The visitor center is not well signed; to get here, head left just at the canal vehicle bridge until you see a parking lot to your right (pass around traffic if there is a line waiting to cross the canal bridge).

About 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the Gatún Locks is Gatún Dam, a tremendous earthen dam across Chagres River that was, at its completion, the largest in the world and one of the finest engineering achievements in history. The dam was built to create the artificial Lake Gatún, crossed by ships to reach Pedro Miguel Locks. During the rainy season from April to December, you'll want to visit when the spillway is open, but there are no regular hours so ask at the visitor center at the Gatún Locks.

The majority of visitors here are on shore excursions from the cruise-ship port at Colón or are staying at the Meliá Panama Canal hotel. If you're coming from Colón or the train station (in Panama City), a round-trip taxi ride will cost between $20 and $30 (£10-£15) for an hour, or $40 to $50 (£20-£25) for 2 hours (to see both the dam and the locks).

Fort San Lorenzo & Achiote Road

Continuing past the Gatún Locks, the road hugs the edge of the Sherman Forest Reserve until reaching the old U.S. military base Fort Sherman, a part of which was torn down to make way for a new Decameron Resort that never happened. If you're driving your own vehicle, the police guard at the gate may ask to see your passport. Continue for 8.9km (5 1/2 miles) on a paved/unpaved road shrouded in tropical greenery, until the road ends and the view opens onto the Caribbean Sea and the mouth of the Chagres River. The Chagres has been called the "world's most valuable river," for it was here that the Spanish transported staggering quantities of Incan gold, later followed by forty-niners passing through with millions of dollars of mined treasure, and now the river's immense value is derived by the fact that the Chagres provides the necessary water to keep the Panama Canal in operation. Most intriguing here is Fort San Lorenzo, a Spanish defensive fort first built in 1595 but subsequently sacked and burned three times and finally rebuilt in 1761 -- the version you see today. It was later used as a prison and, for a brief period, a campground for forty-niners during the Gold Rush. Fort San Lorenzo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with its well-preserved state -- rusty cannons pointed at enemies long gone, walls made of thick coral and rock, and a grassy moat -- it's a worthwhile detour. However, if you're short on time and already planning to visit the forts at Portobelo, you might skip San Lorenzo because of the 1 1/2-hour drive from Colón (unless you're a bird-watcher -- see below). The fort is open daily 9am to 4pm, and you must be back out of the police guard station by 6pm. The cost is $3 (£1.50) per person; tel. 226-6602 www.sanlorenzo.org.pa.

The village of Achiote lies midway between Piña and Escobal on the Achiote Road, quietly revered as a bird-watching mecca by those in the know -- the Audubon Society holds their Atlantic Christmas Bird Count here and has counted up to 390 species in 1 day, including the black-throated trogon, bare-crowned antbirds, white hawks, blue cotingas, and chestnut-mandible toucans. The area is just now developing as an eco-tourism site as a way to support the small local community, and there is a new Centro El Tucán (no phone; Mon-Fri 8am-4pm) in Achiote with interpretive exhibits. The best way to visit is with a birding guide who can arrange transportation; try Advantage Panama or Ancon Expeditions, or check the Audubon Society's site, www.panamaaudubon.org, to see if they've got any day trips planned to the area.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.