Training ground for tyrants turned into a comfort zone
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.
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.