Train­ing ground for tyrants turned into a com­fort zone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Louise Souther­den

THEY say get­ting lost is an au­then­tic way into the heart of a place. But I am not so sure about ask­ing di­rec­tions to my ho­tel at a ser­vice sta­tion where a guard wav­ing a pump-ac­tion shot­gun tells me where to go. I amal­ready ner­vous, hav­ing read a lit­tle of the his­tory of Ho­tel Sol Melia Panama Canal, for­merly known as the School of the Amer­i­cas, the US-funded in­sti­tu­tion that trained some of Latin Amer­ica’s most in­fa­mous dic­ta­tors.

When it was set up in 1946, the School of the Amer­i­cas, then in­nocu­ously called the Latin Amer­i­can Ground School, taught old-fash­ioned na­tion-build­ing skills such as well-dig­ging and bridge-build­ing. Within a few years, Cold War con­cerns prompted the US gov­ern­ment to be­come in­creas­ingly in­volved in Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly around the Panama Canal, so the school’s cur­ricu­lum ex­panded to in­clude in­struc­tion in coun­terin­sur­gency and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare, sniper train­ing and weaponry.

Train­ing man­u­als later made pub­lic by the Pen­tagon in­cluded chap­ters on tor­ture, ex­tor­tion and ex­e­cu­tion. More than 60,000 Span­ish-speak­ing sol­diers went through the school un­til it was moved to Fort Ben­ning, Ge­or­gia, in 1984; the alumni in­cluded Manuel Nor­iega, Panama’s de facto leader dur­ing the 1980s.

The five-star ho­tel on this no­to­ri­ous site is owned by the Sol Melia ho­tel com­pany, a kind of Span­ish Club Med with 318 ho­tels in 27 coun­tries.

I start to feel bet­ter about be­ing here un­til my com­pan­ion jokes about man­a­cles in the mini­bar and drips fall­ing from the ceil­ing on to our fore­heads as we sleep.

Panama may not be the safest coun­try in the world but it’s far from be­ing the most dan­ger­ous. At Ho­tel Sol Melia, well-dressed cou­ples stroll arm in arm across man­i­cured lawns while chil­dren frolic by the enor­mous three-tiered swim­ming pool and their par­ents sip cock­tails on green and blue striped sun lounges.

Each of the Ho­tel Sol Melia’s 285 deluxe rooms is dec­o­rated in Span­ish mis­sion style — enor­mous beds, or­nate furniture, cur­tained bath­tubs — and has ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect at this lux­ury level, from cable television chan­nels to elec­tronic room keys. The clos­est we come to any­thing re­sem­bling wa­ter tor­ture is self-in­flicted: I tem­po­rar­ily for­get that the let­ter C on taps stands not for cold but caliente, hot.

Be­cause the ho­tel is not right in town and leav­ing in­volves a se­cu­rity check at the front gates, guests tend to stay put, mak­ing good use of two bars, a night­club, casino

School’s out: Ho­tel Sol Melia’s Panama Canal lo­ca­tion is its main draw­card and two restau­rants. Darien Restau­rant, named af­ter the rain­for­est re­gion known for its birdlife and Colom­bian guer­ril­las (it’s on the Panama-Colom­bia border), is an a la carte steak­house, while Mi­raflo­res, the ho­tel’s main din­ing venue, of­fers a la carte, buf­fets on the ter­race and themed evenings.

Ho­tel Sol Melia’s main draw­card is its lo­ca­tion right on the Panama Canal. But ban­ish ideas of con­crete chan­nels and freighters steam­ing past un­der your win­dows. This stretch is a pris­tine nat­u­ral water­way sur­rounded by dense jun­gle where you’re like­lier to see blue mor­pho but­ter­flies, sloths, jun­gle cats and some of Panama’s 900 species of birds.

The ho­tel’s im­pos­ing build­ings could def­i­nitely pass for a mil­i­tary com­plex, al­beit a bright orange one. (The ho­tel de­clines to com­ment on whether any of the orig­i­nal School of the Amer­i­cas build­ings are still in use.) And be pre­pared for the eerie calls of the howler mon­keys: they sure can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to at­ten­tion. Louise Souther­den trav­elled with as­sis­tance from United Air­lines.

Check­list

Ho­tel Sol Melia Panama Canal, Lago Gatun, Colon, Panama. 1800 221 176; www.meli­a­pana­macanal.com. Tar­iff: From $US90 ($96) a room a night, in­clud­ing break­fast. Get­ting there: Take the Panama Canal Rail­way from Panama City North to Colon along the Panama Canal (www.pa­narail.com); the ho­tel is 10 min­utes by taxi from Colon. Check­ing in: Mostly Span­ish-speak­ing cou­ples and fam­i­lies. Wheel­chair ac­cess: El­e­va­tors and ramps through­out. Bed­time read­ing: Amer­ica’sPrisoner:The Me­moir­sofManuelNor­iega by Peter Eis­ner. Step­ping out: Take an eco-tour by boat on the lake, or visit the Smith­so­nian Trop­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute, or pad­dle a kayak on a guided daytrip with Ex­pe­di­ciones Trop­i­cales (www.xtrop.com). Brick­bats: Armed se­cu­rity guards (per­haps also a bou­quet), slow ser­vice, old­fash­ioned decor. Bou­quets: The lo­ca­tion.

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