24 Hours In Panama : A Travel Guide To Panama City
By Eimear O'Driscoll
Panama is an adventure wonderland just waiting to be discovered.
The country's expansive rainforests are among the richest and
most complex on the planet. It's the only country where jaguars
and pumas prowl just a short drive from the capital. Its vast,
roadless jungles are home to over 940 recorded bird species and
105 endangered species, including the spectacled bear, the
Central American tapir, the American crocodile, the scarlet
macaw, as well as several eagle species.
This small, untapped country offers some of the finest diving,
birdwatching, and deep-sea fishing in all of the Americas--yet
only the most avid adventurers are aware of it. Panama boasts
scores of deserted palm-lined beaches, miles of lush
rainforests, great national parks, mysterious mangroves (where
you'll feel like you've been transported back to a time when
dinosaurs walked the earth), steamy cloud forests, mountains,
waterfalls, raging rivers, abandoned forts, as well as desert.
In Panama you can spend the morning diving in the Caribbean and
the afternoon swimming in the Pacific. You can explore historic
ruins of the colonial era...dive for Sir Francis Drake's lead
coffin (supposedly buried at sea near Portobello Bay)...see the
rainforest in an aerial tram...ride a dug-out canoe to a native
Indian village...discover the remote and mysterious forests of
the Darién region right on the border of Colombia (where the
roads end a few miles before the border, leaving you with the
feeling you've reached the end of civilization)...come
nose-to-nose with a red-napped tamarind monkey or a trio of
Conde Nast Traveler, in an article from its February 2005 issue
said "Panama has temperate rain forests, great surf and beaches,
and more birdlife than any other country in Central America.
Now...it also has a newly elected administration that wants
travelers to enjoy every bit of it."
Fortunately, Panama is a small country. In a short one- or
two-week trip, you can see much of what this diverse country has
In this special report, the IL team proposes a plan to get the
most out of 24 hours in Panama. From a traditional Panamanian
breakfast to a trip to the Miraflores Locks to evening drinks in
a little boutique hotel overlooking the Bay of Panama...we have
it all thought out.
Breakfast in El Trapiche
Exploring the best Panama has to offer is hungry work. Start
your day on a full stomach and head for breakfast in El
Trapiche, a busy diner in El Cangrejo (Vía Argentina, tel.
(507)269-4353). Here you can enjoy breakfast Panama style and
indulge in a hearty feed of carimañol--a yummy roll made of
mashed yucca and stuffed with ground beef and boiled eggs--and a
side of corn tortillas, that more resemble silverdollar pancakes
than taco shells. The bill should be less than $8, even with
that second café con leche.
Trip to the Miraflores Locks
No trip to Panama is complete without seeing the "Eighth Wonder
of the World," the Panama Canal. According to the Panama Canal
Authority "The history of the construction of the Panama Canal
is the saga of human ingenuity and courage: years of sacrifice,
crushing defeat, and final victory." This statement, while true,
doesn't go far enough to describe the mighty toll taken by the
building of the Panama Canal. Construction began in 1904 and
took 10 years to complete. It remains one of the greatest
engineering achievements of all time, completed despite
landslides, disease, setbacks, and the loss of 75,000 lives in
total. Engineers directed most of the actual construction, which
cost $375 million, and involved the excavation of 240 million
cubic yards of earth.
The Canal, 51 miles long, opened to shipping in August 1914 and
was formally dedicated on July 12, 1920. In 1921, the U.S. paid
Colombia $25 million as redress for the loss of Panama; in
exchange, Colombia formally recognized Panama's independence.
On average it takes a vessel eight hours to travel from one
ocean to the other, passing through three sets of locks. The
best place to see the Canal is from the Miraflores Locks (open 9
a.m. to 5 p.m., admission free). Make sure to get to the
Miraflores Locks for 9 a.m. as this is when you are most likely
to see large ships passing through.
Tamales in Casco Viejo
By now you're probably feeling a tad peckish... Time to hop on a
bus or hail a taxi and make your way toward Casco Viejo for
tamales. If you're in luck, you'll bump into Luis Antonio
Visuette on the streets of Casco Viejo, where he has been
selling delicious homemade tamales, wrapped in plaintain leaves,
for more than 10 years. With his Yankee cap and five-gallon
bucket of hot and spicy tameles calientitos, Luis is hard to
miss. These lunchtime treats are available in both large (50
cents), and small (25 cents), and are a real hit when washed
down with an ice-cold drink. International Living's local office
is located in the Casco Viejo area, in the Cathedral Plaza, next
to the Panama Canal Museum and just in front of the stunning
Metropolitan Cathedral, so if you want to enjoy your tamales in
our office (Luis will be making the rounds) call in for a
Panamanian style "power lunch."
Explore Casco Viejo
Located at the mouth of the Panama Canal, Casco Viejo is the
oldest city on the Pacific Coast of the Americas...although it
was there long before the Canal was built.
In fairness to history, the original Panama City (now known as
Old Panama or Panama La Vieja) was founded in 1519, about two
miles from the center of Panama City as we know it today. From
here, expeditions were mounted to conquer the Inca Empire of
South America and all of the wealth pillaged from Peru, Chile,
and California flowed to Spain through Old Panama. It is no
surprise that this booty attracted pirates like Henry Morgan,
who looted the city in 1671.
During Morgan's attack, this original Panama City was burned to
the ground. Two years later, in 1673, the capital was moved two
miles to the west, and present-day Panama City was founded. This
is the area now known as Casco Viejo.
As the city was being rebuilt by the Spanish settlers, they
decided to build a massive surrounding wall and a stronger
fortress for its protection and to ensure that the enormous
wealth in gold and silver that passed through it would never
again be susceptible to the likes of Henry Morgan.
The new city boasted a cross-sectioned design of 38 blocks, with
three main streets running from east to west and seven streets
running from north to south. Unfortunately, this urban
development was interrupted by various fires that devastated its
streets. In 1737, the "big fire" destroyed two thirds of the
city, and the "small fire" of 1756 destroyed more than 90
houses. These and other catastrophic fires help explain why so
few true examples of Spanish colonial architecture exist today.
The fortress still survives, though, and today houses several
important, cultural, and historic buildings and monuments. But
it is the architecture of Casco Viejo that makes it so special.
The old Spanish colonial style is overlaid with French balconies
and architecture, remnants of the French inhabitants who made
the initial attempt to build the Panama Canal in 1881. Over the
years, a Caribbean influence also took hold and, today, Casco
Viejo is a melting pot of architectural inspiration and style,
with some buildings dating as far back as 300 years.
Museums, shopping, and fortune telling
Up until the early parts of this century, Casco Viejo remained a
thriving cultural center. But as Panama City modernized, and as
the automotive age made transportation easier, it spread
outward, leaving Casco Viejo behind. The old city's narrow
labyrinth streets were difficult for cars to maneuver and its
buildings were obsolete in comparison to modern skyscrapers
being built. By the mid 1900s, Casco Viejo had gone the way of
most city centers of that century. No longer the center of
Panama City, it was too oppressed for the upper class and
quickly became a poor area of tenement-style housing.
The area is currently undergoing a complete transformation,
however. Restaurants and bars are opening with gusto, tourists
are coming in growing numbers, and people from all over now want
to make their homes in Casco Viejo.
In 1997, UNESCO declared Casco Viejo a Patrimony of Humanity.
Today, it is revered as the historic center of Panama City. Two-
and three-story houses with flower-adorned balconies overlook
narrow streets. At its tip is French Park, where you will find
the French Embassy and a monument to the hardy French builders
who began the Panama Canal. On one side is an historical Spanish
building called Las Bovedas, now housing an art gallery and
French restaurant. Panama's Supreme Court was once housed here.
A walkway around the monument offers a nice view of the Amador
Causeway, Bridge of the Americas, and Panama City's skyscraper
skyline to the east. A plaque commemorates the firing of canon
shots to ward off a Colombian warship and solidify Panama's
independence from Colombia in 1903.
There are excellent museums in the Casco Viejo area, including
the Museo de Canal. Here, you can learn about Panama's history
as the connector between the Atlantic and the Pacific from
pre-Hispanic to modern times. Next door is the Museum of
National History and across the way is the National Cathedral.
Nearby is a small museum dedicated to religious art, found in
the old Santo Domingo monastery. This is where you will find the
famous Flat Arch, which reportedly helped convince engineers
that Panama was earthquake-proof and a geologically stable area
for building the Canal. A few blocks away is the old San Jose
Cathedral, with gleaming spires inlaid with mother-of-pearl and
its beautiful gold altar, intricately carved of wood and gilded
with gold. This is a must-see when you visit Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo is home to the Presidential House. If you want to
see this, be sure to come on a Sunday as it is closed to the
public for the rest of the week. Famous sons and daughters of
Panama also make their homes here, including actor/singer (and
now Panama's minister of tourism) Ruben Blades, and boxer
Bargain hunters can take a break from the historical sights at
Salsipuedes, which roughly translates to "get out if you can."
Located just before the entrance to Casco Viejo, it is Panama's
bizarre bazaar, a street so narrow and filled with vendors that
it is dark at noon. A few steps away is Santa Ana's Plaza, where
you can have your fortune told for just $5.
Dine at The Bristol
To finish off your day in style, make your way to The Bristol
Hotel, just a short taxi journey from Casco Viejo. Dining at the
Barandas Restaurant at The Bristol Hotel is an event to savor.
The Panamanian-inspired gourmet cuisine, restful ambiance,
stunning presentation, elegant settings, and attentive service
combine to create an unforgettable dining experience.
A Trip To Panama Caught Your Fancy?
Hopefully, this special report has given you a few ideas on how
to spend your time in Panama, but don't forget that this amazing
country has much more to offer. Pacific Coast beaches near the
city; Coiba Island National Marine Park; and the Darién Province
to name just a few.
About the author:
This article initially appeared in International
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