Caribbean Zone
Gatun Locks and Gatun Dam - The Gatun Locks, three in a row, are bigger and even more impressive than the two locks at Miraflores. (The Gatun Locks raise or lower the boats 87 feet from sea level). Standing on the visitor's platform, you're right next to the locks, and it feels like you could reach out and touch the huge Panamax ships. From this vantage point, watch the locks in action, gates opening and closing, and the canal locomotives chugging along, holding the boat in position as it moves forward. At the entrance to the viewing platform, kids can climb up on one of original black electric GE locomotives (also called "mules").
After you've seen ships going through the locks, drive across the gate of the innermost lock to the other side, to see the Gatun Dam. The road goes over the spillway, flanked by the huge earthen dam on either side. When the spillway is open, a wall of water rushes out.
Fuerte San Lorenzo (Castillo San Lorenzo) - Not far from the Gatun Locks is an impressive ruin, the fort of San Lorenzo, guarding the entrance to the Chagres River. Built in the 16th century by the Spanish, this well-guarded fort was no match for Henry Morgan. In 1671, his band of pirates attacked the fort, conquered the garrison, and several days later, Henry Morgan sailed down the Chagres River on his way to loot and burn Panama City.
The castle, or fort, is sited on a promontory, built with tons of dark coral, quarried from the nearby beaches. There was only one entrance to the castle, a drawbridge, over a dirt moat (wide enough for horses and soldiers). Weapons and goods were stored in large rooms, and the castle was fortified with rows cannons and guard posts. Today, this castle is just a wonderful spot to explore, dark drippy rooms to run in and out, stone steps to the ramparts, rusting cannons, spectacular views of the river and ocean beyond, and it just invites kids to imagine they are pirates on the Spanish Main.
The road to the fort is a dirt road, and this fort is rather off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.
Panama Canal Railway (Colon) - After you've visited the pirate forts on the coast, take the Panama Canal Railway back to Panama City. It's a fun one hour ride on this historic railway, across Lake Gatun, along the canal, to the station on the outskirts of Panama City. Train leaves from Colon at 5:15pm daily.
Portobelo - Portobelo (Porto Bello), named by Christopher Columbus when he anchored in the bay in 1502, became another fortified Spanish city and important trading center for merchandise and gold from South America. Guarded by numerous forts, Portobelo was nonetheless repeatedly attacked by English buccaneers.
In town, check out Fuerte San Jeronimo, a seaside fort with rusted cannons in line, large stone gateway and guard posts, ruins of officer's quarters and barracks. Nearby, stop into the restored Customs House (Casa de Aduana), where Spanish gold and silver piled up, waiting for the treasure ships. You'll see replicas of weapons, pistols and swords, and models of wooden sailing ships. There's also an exhibit of gorgeous robes used in the Black Christ Festival, a yearly event in Portobelo, where a statue of Christ is dressed and carried through town.
Also on the outskirts of town, Fuerte Santiago is worth a look, a sturdy fort built in the 18th century, with incredibly thick walls.
To get to the Fuerte San Fernando, you'll need to take a water taxi across the bay. Fuerte San Fernando has a lower and upper level, with a protected path connecting the two forts, great views of the bay (and imaginary pirate ships in the distance).
Portobelo is also noted for Sir Francis Drake's final resting place. In 1596, Drake died of a tropical disease, and was buried in a lead coffin in the ocean, near Isla Drake, a small island near Portobelo.
Isla Grande - Take a water taxi to Isla Grande, with great beaches and popular with Panama City families. It's best to go in summer - in winter there can be wind and currents at these beaches.
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