How a big dig in Panama to make shippers richer saved a rainforest and astounded paleontologists

By Dave McBride


Standing at the new Cocoli Pacific Locks of the Panama Canal today in the company of heads-of-state and assorted Pooh-Bahs and Potentates) we watched as Panama opened a bigger door to world commerce.


By this time, most everybody knows the basic way that a lock system provides the steps for ships to climb and descend between sea level and the lakes above. But we also learned that the expansion of the canal is also the story of a scientific sensation and environmental salvation.

There is a newly made-up word in the world’s lexicography which, in that single word, describes a complex story about how corporate profiteering and a national need partnered to save the rain forests of Panama from ruinous development. The word is Neopanamax. Panamax was the word coined to describe the biggest size a cargo ship can be to fit through the Panama Canal. The locks newly opened after a decade of construction were designed for an even more immense ship called Neopanamax, which requires a space that is wider, longer and deeper. The wider and longer requirements are accommodated by the brand new locks on either end of the Canal. The deeper element of the design required that the waters across the interior of Panama be raised higher to float the enormous new ships. Deeper means more water and that requires rain.

Canal lake interior

Lake Gatun—Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

Like the Everglades in Florida, the tropical rainforests of Panama help create their own weather.  The humid forests give up evaporated moisture that rises into the clouds and condenses into rain. To ensure that enough rainwater falls to raise the rivers and lakes that fill the canal and float bigger ships, the government of Panama, realizing their reliance on this symbiosis, declared the interior rainforests throughout the canal region to be protected from development.

Another gift to Panama from the new canal project is that scientists were able to follow the diggers into the bedrock carved out for the new locks and to discover fossils that surprised paleontologists around the world. Deep in the Las Cascades Geologic Formation, researchers from the University of Florida and elsewhere found seven fossil teeth that shook the foundations of animal origin theory. These are teeth of a monkey similar to the capuchin that wears a bellhop’s hat and dances to the tune of the organ grinder. The teeth are 21 million years old. That means monkeys lived in North America before it was connected to South America by the Panama land bridge.

Monkey images

Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

Till now it was assumed that South American monkeys evolved there and traveled to North America after the isthmus rose up. Now it is clear that somehow monkeys floated north, perhaps on rafts of floating debris, across a hundred miles of ocean separating the two continents to colonize the forests in the southern tip of North America millions of years before the two continents were connected. The scientists called the ancient monkey species Panamacebus transitus, to allude to the monkey’s movement across the ancient seaway that divided the continents. The U.S. National Science Foundation contributed almost four million dollars to the scientific project to study the fossil record revealed by the cutting of the new canal lock, which was led by researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History. The great variety of fossils identified in the dig include those of camels, crocodiles and fierce bear dogs (Oh my).

Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.

Top 5 Travel Tips for traveling to Panama

As told by Ruth Daniels

I would consider myself a little bit of a “seasoned” traveler. I’ve been throughout the Caribbean Islands, to several vacation spots in Mexico, and the all over the U.S. So when I was thinking about going away, I definitely wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere a little more adventurous. My friends and I decided to go to Panama! I found that this booming Central American hotspot has much more going on than its namesake canal.


Photo Credit: Apple Vacations – The Westin Playa Bonita Panama


Here are my top 5 travel tips for going to this destination:

1.      Fly Non-Stop!

We left from DC where we flew out on Copa Airlines. It was a non-stop flight, which was really nice. They even had blankets and pillows and served meals on the plane! I can’t remember the last time I was on a flight that did that. It definitely added an unexpected touch of luxury.

2.      Private Transfers

For the convenience of Apple Vacations customers, all hotel bookings have private transfers included. Whether you are arriving at the airport or transferring between different hotels in our program, our local ground handler, Gamboa Tours, will provide a private air-conditioned transfer at a time requested by you. This makes booking a double (City & Beach) or triple center vacation (City, Rainforest & Beach) simpler and will ensure you get the most out of your vacation experience in Panama. It’s a really nice added touch, and one less thing to worry about while traveling.


Photo Credit: Apple Vacations – Trump Ocean Club Panama

3.      See everything! – Beach & City

We had heard through various contacts that the best way to experience Panama was to stay for a couple nights in the city, and then, spend a few nights at a beach hotel. The first 2 nights we spent at the Riu Panama Plaza. It’s in the financial district close to a lot of boutiques and shopping malls. I definitely came back with my bags a few pounds heavier! Our rooms were on the 17th floor and we had a breathtaking view of the city. From our hotel in Panama City we were less than 20 minutes from the Panama Canal and the Old City ruins. We went to Miraflores Locks and actually got to see a huge boat go through! It was neat to see the water levels change in the locks to get the boat through. The ruins were great too, because we got to see another historic side to Panama. Our last 2 nights were spent at the Sheraton Bijao where we spent some time on the gorgeous white sand beach and enjoyed the spa, bars and sun!


Photo Credit: Apple Vacations – Capuchin Monkey, Monkey Island Boat Tour

 4.      Monkeys!  (Technically, it’s the Monkey Island Boat Tour)

You can take a boat tour through secret waterways to find hidden islands where Capuchin monkeys and Howler monkeys can be seen leaping in the trees above! Occasionally, they become curious of visitors and venture down to take a closer look. This tour is roughly a ½ day and includes transportation, English-speaking guide and boat ride around the Gatun Lake.

 Last but not least…

 5.      The Panama Canal Tour

This tour begins at the Flamenco Resort and Marina. After a 45 minute motor coach ride to Gamboa, you will board a boat and enter the canal at Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal. While traveling the Cut’s 8.5 miles, you will view the new Centennial Bridge. Next, enter Pedro Miguel Locks and then Miraflores Lake. Once in the Pacific Ocean, sail to the Flamenco Marina and disembark. On the way, pass under the Bridge of the Americas. Admire the Bay of Panama and Panama City’s splendorous skyline. The ½ day tour includes round-trip transportation, bilingual guide, Panama Canal transit with all fees, lunch on board, soft drinks and water. The full day tour includes in addition to the partial transit, you will enjoy a trip through Gatun Lake, which was formed by erecting the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River.

Now you can see why Panama is a top destination for adventurists, eco-tourists, history buffs, beach lovers, families and romantics.  What are you waiting for?!? Go find your paradise in Panama!


*Apple Vacations Representatives are provided by Gamboa Tours DMC, an independent destination management company operating in Panama and providing services to Apple Vacationers. All prices are per person in U.S. dollars. Prices and excursions subject to change without notice. Excursions operated by local independent suppliers. Some require physical activity. Please consider the nature of the excursion to ensure it is appropriate for your age and physical condition.



Tina Tiano’s review from DAY 2 – Excursions!

3I went on a few excursions. The first was Mira Flores Locks Tour. This tour gives an interesting overview of the history and building of the Panama Canal which includes a 10 minute movie (in English) followed by a walk thru of the 3 tiered museum and viewing platform of the locks. You are able to see a transit in action from this high perch. This is a good tour for those that may want to get a taste of the canal without actually having to invest the time in doing an entire transit themselves.

Next is the Casco Viejo / City Sightseeing Tour. Driving from the Mira Flores locks to the old historical section of town takes about 15 minutes thru typical city sites. Once you arrive in the old, colonial section, it is very charming. The restored buildings, churches and squares are now home to shops, bars and restaurants. This area has been declared an UNESCO world heritage site. It has the feel and look of downtown Puerto Vallarta with its cobblestone streets and tiled roofs. The buildings have a distinctive colonial feel with wrought iron balconies and old world architecture much like Key West, Jamaica or the French quarter in New Orleans. Some of the highlights include the National Theatre, the San Francisco de Asis church and Las Bovedas, a restored prison that is now home to a wonderful restaurant and wine bar as well as a promenade with amazing views of the city. The best way to see and experience Casco Viejo is by foot, so a walking tour is a must.

5I was also taken shopping at the Artisan village, which is set up like a flea market consisting of numerous stalls all located under one roof. Clients can barter for arts, crafts, jewelry as well as the local molas (hand stitched, brightly colored, quilted embroidery) etc. The vendors are NOT at all aggressive.

Stay tunes for the next blog with more hotel reviews!