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I read most of “The Path Between the Seas” — David McCullough’s 400-year history of the creation of the Panama Canal, complete with Spanish colonialism; deaths by the thousands from mudslide, malaria and yellow fever; French financial scheming; and U.S. imperialism — while sipping an ice-cold Fanta next to my wife in the shade of the flower-filled courtyard of the cozy Hotel Panamonte in the bucolic highland town of Boquete. Lush coffee farms hugged the hillside slopes surrounding us. The air felt cool and comfortable as if filtered by the sparkling streams flowing from the surrounding mountains. But that’s just like Panama: not at all what you would expect — if you’d expect anything at all. Many know Panama only by the canal and its notorious former leader, General Manuel Noriega, now serving a 40-year prison sentence in Miami for money laundering. We had come to Panama on a lark, when plans to visit Peru’s Inca ruins fell through, and were not disappointed. Panama — which serves as a land bridge between Central and South America, dividing the Atlantic and the Pacific — boasts nearly 2,000 miles of coastland dotted by chains of tropical islands. It also has dramatic rainforests with more species of flora and fauna than its better-publicized, eco-tourist-attracting neighbor, Costa Rica, and 14 national parks covering more than 20 percent of a nation that is slightly smaller in size than North Carolina and as narrow as 50 miles across. Unfortunately, most trips to Panama begin in Panama City, where nearly one third of the country’s 3 million people live. Flattering critics describe the capital city as a cross between Rio de Janiero and Miami. I found it mainly the intersection of traffic, urban decay and heat. But Panama City is not without attractive areas: Casco Viejo, the walled Colonial Quarter, with its mix of Spanish, French and U.S. colonial architecture, and Via Espana’s international banking district of glass skyscrapers and bustling casinos are two noteworthy examples. The Panama Canal, a short drive from Panama City, is by far the most fascinating sight in the area. From the observation deck at the Miraflores Locks (themselves a full one mile of the canal’s total 50 mile length), we watched as ships the size of city blocks shoehorned themselves into the chambers where, driven by nothing more than the force of gravity, millions of cubic meters of water — enough to supply a city of 100,000 for a day — lowered them to sea level. BARRO COLORADO We also traveled on the canal itself, joining a one-day tour of Barro Colorado Island, the largest island in Lake Gatun, the artificial body of water formed when the Chagres River was damned in 1912 as part of the canal’s construction. Once the top of a hill, Barro Colorado became an island as the waters rose around it, sending the local wildlife running to higher ground. Today, the island is a “nature monument” designated by international treaty, and home to the Smithsonian Institute’s Tropical Research Center. We spent the day hiking with an expert guide on steamy trails beneath the tree canopy of tropical forests to the exotic cries of monkeys and birds who seemed to mock us. After lunch in the rustic visitors’ center, we returned to the mainland to set out for the countryside. An hour’s plane flight to David, the capital of Panama’s southwestern province of Chiriqui, brought us to an entirely different clime: a tropical mountain highland with a cool climate and hillsides of rich fertile soil sprouting tropical fruit trees, coffee bushes and captivating flowers. A-frame, Swedish-style cottages built by Europeans, who came to dig the canal and found a home in the familiar alpine topography, dotted the landscape. BOQUETE An hour’s drive from David, at the base of Volcan Baru National Park, sits Boquete. The charming mountain town of 3,000 was recently selected by AARP as the fourth best place in the world for Americans to have a second home. The Rio Caldera flows lazily past brightly painted houses and fields of wildflowers. Here, for three generations, the Collins family has run the Hotel Panamonte. The hotel is a low-slung, U-shaped building with a corrugated tin roof and a courtyard garden where guests gather to read, relax and take in the mountain air. Like a hacienda from a bygone era, the bright-blue hotel is decorated in colonial art and furniture. Its 20 rooms, with rates from $49 to $80, are individually named, immaculate and inviting. The dining room provided exceptional meals, at prices ranging from $3.50 for breakfast to $11 for dinner. (The U.S. dollar is Panama’s official currency.) We spent our first day in Boquete exploring the village and visiting a coffee farm. Before dawn the next morning, we left for our SUV-assisted assault of Volcan Baru, at 11,401 feet, Panama’s tallest peak and only volcano. We hoped to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic with views of the Pacific over our shoulders, the only place in the world where such simultaneous sights are possible. At the top, our guide set up a portable picnic table where we enjoyed a boxed breakfast. Clouds obstructed our view somewhat, but as the sun gently rose we were treated to ocean vistas only Panama provides. CONTADORA We ended our trip with a brief visit to one of Panama’s tropical island chains for some beach time, opting for Contadora, a half-a-square-mile Pacific island just a 20-minute plane flight from Panama City. A dozen white sand beaches — including Panama’s only nude beach — ring the Contadora, which can be circumnavigated on foot in about an hour. Resorts with thatched-roof cottages and chaise lounges dotted the beaches. The water was crystal clear. In 10 short days, we went from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from tropical rainforest to refreshing mountains to palm-lined beaches — and visited one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time. All without ever changing our dollars. Robert A. Feinberg is deputy general counsel with American Lawyer Media, Inc.

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