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Wednesday, June 26 2019 @ 02:56 PM UTC

The Panama Canal: history gets a makeover

Travel & TourismBy SHANNON MELNYK / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News PANAMA CITY, Panama – It's a new day in Central America. The $5.5 billion expansion of the hydraulic eighth wonder of the world, the Panama Canal, is expected to have a major impact on global trade in what has steadily become a bustling business hub of the Americas. Widening and deepening the passage will make room for a new generation of monster ships carrying anything from humans to a million barrels of oil, shaving weeks off of current transport times and reshaping trade patterns throughout the world. It also is expected to offer travelers new horizons to explore. Fittingly, "Panama" – loosely translated from an indigenous dialect – means abundance. With the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of the former Walmart employee and new Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, the new government plans to live up to the nation's name by profiting from world business with the birth of the bigger, better canal. In what may be a metaphorical baby shower, it's also injecting undisclosed millions into welcoming the world. With sights set on giving neighboring Costa Rica a run for its tourism dollars, Panama is gearing up to becoming both a cosmopolitan and resort destination, luring tourists with its spectacular Old World history, hurricane-free tropical beaches, luxury shopping and jungle adventures. (more)

Leading the way is real estate magnate Donald Trump's much-anticipated $400 million, 70-story Trump Ocean Club, on the Pacifica Peninsula in Panama City. Scheduled to open this year, it's getting the full Trump treatment of luxurious trappings complete with yacht club, international casino and gourmet restaurants in a crossover combination of business, residential and hotel condominiums.

The Donald might be trumped however, by another architectural marvel soon to be opened just outside the nation's capital. Frank Gehry of Guggenheim fame is blending art and science in his latest expression, the Bridge of Life Museum of Biodiversity.

Whoville meets a Tim Burton movie set in this post-modern vessel to nature's wonders. It's only blocks from the main cruise-ship port in Panama, and minutes from Panama's Soberania National Park, a lush rain-forest preserve adjacent to Panama City. Excited anticipation for the project runs high among scientists, environmentalists, artists and tourists alike. Celebrity couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have already taken a sneak peek.

Perhaps they were also drawn to the site of a scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, filmed at the colonial city of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Golden Altar, the Plaza de Francia Square and Las Bóvedas are all getting a polish, as are the historical monuments at the ruins of Panama Vieja, the original settlement in Panama that was destroyed by the pirate Sir Henry Morgan in 1671.

Both government and the business community continue to invest in refurbishing the old and creating the new in this historical neighborhood for a new age of tourism.

In addition to resorts and all-inclusives dotting the coast and nestled in the tropical splendor of the vast rain forest, development has been equally hard and heavy in other parts of Panama City. Tour companies are beefing up adventure-til- you-drop fare such as fishing, diving, hiking, wet rappelling, zip trekking and jungle excursions.

Beach life meets the tropical surround of exotic fruit, monkeys and misty cascading falls. Panama is home to some of the world's sweetest pineapple and many species of rare flora and wildlife. In what constitutes rural rain forest neighborhoods, tourists will also spot curious quirks of Latin life such as the industrious drive-in motels for lovers adorned with unassuming white signs and candy red hearts. Tu y Yo (You and Me) lodgings look like North American garages and are rumored to be owned by the crooner king of Latin America, Julio Iglesias.

Ecotourism is also growing in the little country that could. Volunteer work holidays and visits with indigenous rain-forest cultures are growing industries. Tourists can board small dugout canoes paddled by semiclothed natives in crocodile-infested waters to see an old way of life relatively untouched by modern society.

Tribes that include the Kuna and Embera indians have been working with the government and tour companies to increase tourism opportunities by showcasing their authentic jewelry, crafts, cuisine and dance traditions.

The new Panama Canal may not open until 2014, but Panama is intent on encouraging a rebirth of its nation in the meantime.

Shannon Melnyk is a freelance writer in Canada.

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