The Fuerte San Lorenzo
The shoreline of Lago Gatún
Portobelo’s turquoise bay

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A present-day view of the past

Cristóbal is the port enclave in Colón where you will arrive with an MSC cruise.

Southwest of the city, a road runs through to the enormous Gatún Locks, where you can get up close to gigantic container ships being raised and lowered between sea level and Lago Gatún.

Once across the canal, the road divides: to the right it meanders 22km through dense forest to the evocative ruins of the colonial Fuerte San Lorenzo, standing guard at the mouth of the Río Chagres; to the left, it rises above the shoreline of Lago Gatún, offering splendid views across the water and its sprinkling of tree-topped islands before undulating through agricultural land to the rarely visited coastal communities of the Costa Abajo.

MSC Caribbean and Antilles cruises also offer excursions to Portobelo. In colonial times this scenically situated town was the most important settlement on the isthmus after Panama City, since all the plunder from South America passed through here en route for Spain. 

The ruined fortresses, remnants of the conquistadors’ attempts to safeguard the treasure from the envious grasp of pirates and privateers, constitute the town’s primary tourist sites. Indeed, a soldier’s-eye view across the turquoise bay from the forts’ rusting Spanish cannons is one of the most popular postcard views in Panama, conveying the impression of a remote military outpost surrounded by dense vegetation. 

You may therefore be surprised to find the forts located in the middle of quite a poor modern town, with dilapidated houses propped up against the historical ruins and kids playing football in what was once a parade ground. The town itself is mostly squeezed along a thin strip of land between the main road and the bay, which spills into the Caribbean, and is easily walkable.

Qué ver en Cristóbal

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    Republic of Panama

    A captivating exuberance
    A captivating exuberance

    Encompassing cloud-forested highlands, glorious palm-fringed islands, vibrant indigenous cultures and Central America’s most ebullient capital city, a holiday to Panama offers a surprisingly varied landscape for such a small country.

    This slender, serpentine nation has a unique history: from the loot-laden mule trains of the Spanish Camino Real to the scything open of the rainforest by the world’s most famous canal, Panama has long proved valuable as a shortcut between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific waves

    Constituting a biological crossroads, too, the isthmus boasts an even greater density of plant biodiversity than Amazonia. 

    Panama’s compact size means the vast majority of its sights are easily accessible. 

    On a cruise to Panama you’ll encounter the irresistible juxtaposition of  ancient and modern, artificial and natural: vast computerized Panamax container ships transiting the canal slice through primeval rainforests teeming with fluorescent frogs and elusive wild cats, only half an hour by dugout from where Emberá villagers practise subsistence agriculture. 

    Visiting the country’s fringes and little-visited interior, you can explore archipelagos and untracked jungle, basing yourself in small towns, friendly villages and remote eco-lodges, and from Volcán Barú – Panama’s highest peak – you can witness the unique and breathtaking sight of the sun rising over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.