PANAMA CITY — Most people who visit Panama go through it, not to it.
They stay on ships cruising the Panama Canal, a grand sluice carved from the narrow isthmus more than 100 years ago that remains one of the greatest engineering marvels in the world. It's a daylong trip with vistas of rain forests, lakes and three sets of gigantic locks. Then the ships exit on the Pacific or Caribbean sides and move along.
The Panama Canal transit is a stirring and unforgettable experience. But I'm an advocate for a different Panama experience, an urban one. A trip to Panama City, the nation's capital, yields a rich package of history, horticulture and high life all within its metropolitan limits. The variety of that package makes a trip to the city a great four-day getaway, an opportunity to see a lot — including the Panama Canal — in very little time because of the convenience and accessibility of its major attractions.
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Long before the Canal, long even before its recognition as a geographic entity, the area was an international crossroads. It contains the narrowest point in Central America, less than 50 miles wide, making it ideal from earliest times for transcontinental crossings. Today the city bears the imprint of four centuries of explorers from all over the world, a city in which 16th century Spanish ruins sit almost side-by-side with contemporary high-rises being stacked ever higher along the curve of Panama Bay.
To get the most out of Panama City, you have to start with its layout, which is an integral part of its history. The city runs east to west and has four general areas: Panama Viejo, the oldest section and now a historic ruin to the east; Casco Viejo, the 19th century city now also a historic site to the west; modern Panama City, which sits between the two; and the Canal Zone, northwest of the city proper. Here are my suggestions for top tourist experiences.
You'll want to spend at least an hour at Panama Viejo (Old Panama), more if you stop at the visitors center, which has a small but interesting time line of Panamanian culture with artifacts and a scale model of what the village looked like in its 16th century heyday.
Little is left and less known of the area's pre-Columbian civilization since the indigenous inhabitants didn't build large cities as did the Incas or Mayans. Recorded history of the region really begins with the Spanish, who arrived in 1501 and governed it for more than 300 years. Christopher Columbus made a brief visit, sailing into the beautiful island archipelago of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side. It was from Panama, in 1513, that Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to hack his way through jungle and see the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the ruins of the early European settlement, which was burned by pirates in 1671, are spread over several grassy acres shaded by old trees. Admission is charged only for a fenced central area that was once the village's heart, centered on what remains of a three-story tower and cathedral. A new stair allows visitors to climb to the tower's top and view the village layout. Information boards dot the site, explaining in Spanish and English what each building was. The parking area has shops targeting tourists. Some of the crafts are better than others. I always stop at a stand offering a whole coconut, top chopped off and stuck with a straw for a cool drink of coconut milk.
About that milk and other fresh foods and drinks: I have been to Panama City numerous times and lived there for several months. The city has an excellent water purification system linked to the canal and imports its foods from all over the world. I daily drank tap water and ate fresh produce, never once having any problems. I would offer a caveat to perhaps stay away from street vendors in poorer neighborhoods.
This is my favorite part of Panama City, the neighborhood where I lived for three months in an apartment on the top floor of a restored 19th century house. It's truly pedestrian-friendly with narrow streets, flower-filled balconies and pocket gardens and old-world charm. It was established in 1673 by survivors of the original settlement who moved several miles west on a more defensible rocky promontory jutting into the bay. It's also called by its first name, San Felipe, and Casco Antiguo. Casco Viejo has the highest concentration of historic buildings in Panama and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997 by UNESCO, so you'll see many examples of painstaking renovation completed or in progress.
Almost nothing of its 17th century roots remain, victims of fires and modernization. Most of the architecture dates from the 19th century and is a mix of Spanish and French colonial since it was then that the French arrived to begin their ill-fated attempt to build a canal.
Casco Viejo is a compact area, less than a square mile, easily walked in an hour though lingering and getting a closer look at its historical buildings can stretch the time much further. That and a meal from some fine restaurants in the neighborhood could easily make it a half-day trip.
Your hotel can probably match you with a tour guide and group but you can also hire a driver. During the day, taxis are easy to flag for a ride back to town.
If you go solo, get a map marked with major landmarks:
• The Plaza Independencia is the official heart of Panama City where national holidays are recognized by parades, processions and speeches. It was there that Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903 in a bloodless coup supported by the United States, which was by then into its own canal project and wanted greater autonomy with it. Fronting the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the largest in Central America with two bell towers encrusted in mother-of-pearl. On another side is a small Panama Canal Museum housed in a lovely neoclassical building that was once the French's canal headquarters.
• The presidential palace, called the Palacio de las Garzas, is one block away on the waterfront, and is so named because of the African herons that reside there and do their stately strut several times a day. It's the office rather than the residence of the president, and its accessibility to tourists is startling to those used to the high-level security surrounding government buildings here. You can walk past guards right up to the entrance though you might be asked to stand aside if the president happens to be coming or going in a small caravan of SUVs.
• The Plaza Bolivar is a lovely small plaza with more restored buildings, now government offices with ground floors usually open to the public, and the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the area's oldest buildings. Farther along is the National Theater, built in the early 20th century. For a small admission charge, you may look around its baroque interior with frescos by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis.
• The grandest area is the Plaza de Francia, named to honor the valiant French effort to build a canal, which was abandoned in the late 19th century after millions of dollars and thousands of lives lost. It is part of the original promontory battlement, now a breezy platform with a bougainvillea-lined arbor built on top of the infamous "vaults," once dungeons that would occasionally flood with high tide and drown its unfortunate occupants. Today the vaults house a wonderful restaurant and jazz club (Las Bovedas, meaning vaults, of course). Street vendors in the plaza sell shaved ice cones laced with fruit juice and condensed milk — they're good, trust me.
On the edge of Casco Viejo is Plaza Herrera, where you'll see lots of locals gather for midday chats and the Iglesia de San Jose with its magnificent altar made of gold.
Casco Viejo has gotten a recent, glamorous frisson when it was used as a backdrop for the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, due out in November. When you visit, be aware that, despite its renovations and popularity, Casco Viejo is still home to some of the city's poorest residents, living as squatters in the many abandoned buildings dotting the place. Take care where you wander and do not walk around alone at night.
There are several ways to see the Panama Canal. Ideally, you would have the time and several hundred dollars to take a day cruise that begins at the Miraflores Locks near the city and ends at Colon, on the Caribbean side. These cruises include return transportation on buses.
The train system, built by the French to haul people and materials during construction, is another option. It's a fun ride along the edge of the canal and takes only a few hours. This option can be problematic because it operates each way only once a day. So unless you arrange private transportation back to Panama City, you'll be stuck in Colon for about five hours. And Colon is not an inviting place to visit, with little of historical interest and a reputation for rampant crime.
Probably the most practical, though partial, canal experience is a visit to the Miraflores Locks, a 20-minute drive from downtown. It's set up for maximum tourist enjoyment with several floors of historical and technical exhibits that will give you a real sense of how monumental the canal project was. A huge platform provides a perfect vantage point for seeing the locks at work. Late morning and early afternoon are the best times. A glass-walled restaurant provides equally good views while you dine on above-average food. (Reservations for the restaurant are advised.) On the way back into the city, ask your driver to take you over the Centennial Bridge, a suspension span with a spectacular view of the Gaillard Cut, a section of the canal carved from rock that was one of the most challenging aspects of canal construction.
Gamboa is about 45 minutes from Panama City and if you have another half or, better yet, full day and want a real nature hit, fit it into your itinerary. Soberania National Park has almost 50,000 acres of rain forest and is one of the top bird-watching spots in the world with more than 500 species.
You can go to the park on a day visit; a better alternative is the Gamboa Rainforest Resort as a base. You can stay overnight but you don't have to be a guest to arrange at the front desk for aerial tram rides through the forest or, my favorite, a boat ride onto Lake Gatun. It's part of the canal system, so you'll cruise past ships and meander around small coastal islands with lots of wildlife, especially monkeys. Jungle cruise companies also operate out of Panama City so you should be able to book one through your hotel that includes transportation to and from Gamboa.
This itinerary is a start but it will give you a real sense of Panama, which is a fascinating cultural stew both because of and in spite of the canal. Return and you'll discover much more to offer in the city and farther afield. I fell hard for the place on my first visit and I'm still, after several years, in love with it.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or