Forays into South America

The famous Panama Canal, as seen at dusk, celebrates its 100th birthday in August this year.
The famous Panama Canal, as seen at dusk, celebrates its 100th birthday in August this year. --SCREENGRAB: WWW.PANCANAL.COM
Columbia's Amazon rainforest teems with lush greenery.
Columbia's Amazon rainforest teems with lush greenery.-- SCREENGRAB: WWW.COLUMBIA.TRAVEL/EN
An Indian preparing Yucca or cassava, the “potato” of the people of the Amazon. It can also be fermented to be made into wine.
An Indian preparing Yucca or cassava, the “potato” of the people of the Amazon. It can also be fermented to be made into wine. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Beyond Ecuador, other countries in the vast continent of South America are often fantasy frontiers for the traveller.

My conversations with travel industry players at TravelMart Latin America, an annual trade fair held last year in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, were a quick window into several lands, including:

PANAMA
The Panama Canal celebrates its 100th birthday on Aug 15 this year and many cruise ships are converging on the engineering marvel this year.

While the 77km canal is famous as a conduit between the Atlantic and Pacific for maritime trade, it is less known that the canal also cradles a rainforest reserve or that birdwatching is possible.

Indeed, Panama has 1,000 bird species, including their national bird, the rare Harpy Eagle, which has talons the same size as the claws of a grizzly bear.

 

Mr Marco Gandasegui from Ancon Expeditions of Panama alludes to the intertwined man-made and wild sides of the canal when he says: “You can see monkeys as cargo ships go by.”

Tourists can choose full-day tours that focus on the engineering story of the canal or opt for nature trails and forest canopy tours.

Panama, a cosmopolitan country, also has indigenous cultures, Atlantic beaches and colonial Spanish architecture.

A Museum of Biodiversity, designed by architect Frank Gehry and located at the mouth of the canal, is due to open this year.

HONDURAS
The country conjures up Mayan ruins and myths, coffee plantations and a luxuriously long Caribbean coastline. Honduras is a destination as much for travellers passionate about culture as wanderers who enjoy beach vacations.

Within the archaeological site of Copan, once the Paris of Mayan civilisation, a new park opened last August. The Rastrojos contains the ruined quarters of Mayan warriors who watched over the city. Copan is dotted with 3,500 Mayan ruins, from the fifth to ninth centuries, in the jungle near Gautemala.

COLOMBIA
The nation has, since last April, pushed its wonders with an international campaign, Colombia is Magical Realism. This plays with the idea that Colombia is so exotic that reality and fantasy seem to coalesce, just like the magical realism genre in literature.

So there are pink dolphins that change colour in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest. In the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, lodged inside a mountain, tourists can play miner for a day. And in the capital Bogota, the Gold Museum mesmerises with 34,000 pieces of gold and 20,000 objects from pre-Columbian cultures.

OTHER BEGUILING PLACES
The Falkland Islands at the tip of South America, where penguins and other marine life abound. Patagonia, a realm of glaciers and Andean peaks shared by Argentina and Chile, has huge mystique as the edge of the continent. Guatemala is a distinctive blend of Mayan and Spanish cultures.