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International excursion

Flying over the canal that changed the world

Panama, and its capital, Panama City, are critical links between North and South America.
A view of the Panama Canal on departure. (Photography by David Tulis)
Zoomed image
A view of the Panama Canal on departure. (Photography by David Tulis)

If you’re planning a visit, land at the Panama Pacifico International Airport in Balboa, Panama. It’s a sleepy, towered field with a single, 8,501-foot runway—but no instrument approaches. For weather information, you can check the nearby Tocumen International Airport, which is a huge international hub. You might be tempted to land there instead, but that sprawling airport is chock-full of airliners and can be a busy place. The Balboa airport has avgas as well as Jet A, plus a big ramp. You’ll clear customs nearby, and after calling a cab you’ll be on your way to the city.

Panama Canal

Containers stacked high on the 'Gunhilde Maersk'. The Hotel Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in the “old city.” Monkeys on the lookout for food. The author (left) enjoying a river cruise. Puente Centenario crosses the canal near Panama City. Panama Pacifico International Airport in Balboa, Panama.

The “old city,” which dates to the sixteenth century when the Spanish empire ruled, lets you visit trendy and historical sites. The hotel Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, built in 1917, has just reopened, and it is spacious, elegant, and up to date. Plus, it is located right on the Pacific Ocean shore. Sprinkled throughout the old city are attractive marketplaces and parks, restaurants, and shops. You’re bound to notice the height of the curbs in the old city. They can reach almost a foot above street level, and they’re a subtle hint of Panama’s climate. Torrential rains are common in the summer months, and the streets become rivers.

Every once in a while, there’s a dilapidated gap between two newer buildings. Perhaps they’re left behind from the days when the pirate Henry Morgan attacked the city. Rather than have him take any spoils, the governor vowed to burn down the city—so he spread barrels of gunpowder and set them off.

The main attraction is, of course, the Panama Canal. It’s a 51-mile-long wonder with three sets of locks and an artificial lake—Gatun Lake—made to lift ships between locks. In 1881, the French began the first attempt to create the canal, but the effort collapsed in a financial scandal. That, and some 20,000 deaths from yellow fever and malaria, left the minimal work lying fallow. The United States took over the effort in 1904, and by 1914 the first ships were moving between the Atlantic and Pacific. The American work brought with it a major medical breakthrough: U.S. Army physician Walter Reed identified mosquitos as the transmitters of yellow fever.

Trips down the canal are must-do items. A knowledgeable guide offers points of interest, and you cruise by the dense, jungle shoreline. A word to the wise: Don’t bring any food on these trips; the guides will give you drinks, but that’s about it. Why no food? The boats pause along the shore, and it isn’t long before there is movement in the trees: howler monkeys. Their aerial hijinks are entertaining as they leap from branch to branch but make no mistake: They’re checking for food. Stories abound of monkeys raiding boats for food.

Out on the lake, don’t be surprised by the massive passing ships. Giant container ships that must be 10 stories tall glide by, packed with hundreds of containers. Flying out, the route can take you over the length of the Panama Canal. It is quite a sight to take in the entire engineering marvel in one glance.

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Thomas A. Horne
Thomas A. Horne
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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