Panama City, Panama is one of those places that is perhaps best explained by using the various nicknames it has earned over the centuries. Some historians call it “the movable city” because it has relocated several times during the past 300 years. When the first Spanish governor arrived on the isthmus, he wisely moved the capital from Acla on the Caribbean and established Panama City on the healthier and drier Pacific coast. Today, only photogenic ruins remain of Old Panama City; the English pirate Henry Morgan looted, sacked, and burned the place to the ground. The Spaniards moved the capital and their treasured “Golden Altar” to the more defensible peninsula, now called the Casco Viejo (Old Compound).
Travelers should plan to see the Altar along with the architectural treasures to be found on the Plaza Bolivar and Plaza Herrara, including the President’s Palace of the Herons and the recently restored National Theater. For 90 years, Panama City’s growth was restricted to a narrow strip of land between the sea and the border of the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone.
Modern Panama City, with buildings similar to those found around Miami Beach, is actually a series of suburbs about five miles west of Casco Viejo. Within hours of the transfer of the Canal to Panama by the U.S. government, growth began again near the city center as buildings quickly sprouted and spread across the previously sealed off border.
Due to the proximity of the Canal, Panama City earned the title “The Crossroads of the World.” The 450,000 residents are a mixture of all the travelers who stopped here to rest during their journey and decided to stay on. The city has a cosmopolitan vitality similar to San Francisco, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong, set off with competing rhythms from tropic tamboritos and the hard-cash tinkling of slot machines. There is a saying that “nights are too short” in Panama City, where drinking has become a full-time occupation for many. Residents claim that the consumption of alcohol has medical benefits, since it keeps away any mosquitoes that bring malaria. Bartenders are sworn to keep secret the fact that malaria hasn’t been a threat in Panama for the past quarter-century.
The word “Panama” is said to mean “an abundance of fish” in the native Indian language, and almost every restaurant serves items from the Atlantic, Pacific or the rivers in between them. With hundreds of restaurants to choose from, you can find great Central American food as well as meals rivaling the best dishes served in Miami, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bombay.
Tourist guides frequently refer to Panama City as “a bargainer’s paradise” or “a shopping Mecca.” With numerous free trade zones, shopping is the second most popular occupation in the city. Driving in from the airport on the Tumbo Muerto road, one passes the Centro Comercial Los Pueblos, which advertises itself as the biggest shopping mall in Central America. For a more “authentic” experience, one might try to visit the early morning, wharf side market at Salsipuedes, where produce and fishing boats jostle for space to sell their bounty.
During construction, the Panama Canal was called “One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” and it is still an impressive endeavor, continuing to grow and expand. By 2014, it is expected that the expansion project of the Canal will be completed, allowing for double the capacity to transit between the two oceans. The recently remodeled visitor´s center allows for an informative and breathtaking view of the ships that pass, seemingly within reach, Many visitors are surprised by how the Canal appears like a wide, slowly flowing jungle river instead of a highly mechanical system of pumping stations and locks. One of the best places to view the Canal is only an hour’s drive from Panama City, in Soberania National Park. While you are there, you will probably get to see huge turkey vultures soaring and circling overhead. These huge birds are so numerous that locals refer to them as the “Panamanian Air Force.”
Things to do in Panama City:
Daytime – Shopping, for a start! Everything from bond issues to boa constrictors is available in Panama. Visitors from all over the world are received to sell their products, many at duty-free prices. Tours are a must after shopping. First and foremost, see the Canal: to visit Panama without checking out the Canal would be like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.
Nightlife – Casinos, restaurants, clubs, lounges, bars, and floorshows: the rhythm of the tropics is alive and well. Enjoy Panamanian cuisine, Spanish, Brazilian, French; Beijing Tokyo, or Seoul, it has it all..
Tour the City – City tours take about two and a half hours. A typical city tour covers the ruins of Old Panama, Colonial Panama (El Casco Viejo) and the modern sections.
Visit the Canal – Tours of the Canal area usually take about two and a half hours and can be combined with the city tour. You can also transit the canal, an unforgettable experience. Both partial and full transits are available, depending on the dates.
Visit Mi Pueblito – This exact replica of a small town from Panama´s interior at the turn of the century, Mi Pueblito is a historic and fun visit. Government offices, shops, a school and a tiny church surround a cobblestone plaza, complete with fountain. There is a museum devoted to the pollera, Panama’s national dress, and folklore shows are offered every Thursday. Recent additions have been replicas of an Afro-Antillean village and dwellings of the Kuna and Choco Indians.
Watch a folklore show with colorful typical costume and traditional dances. These cultural shows are offered by the Tinajas Restaurant, the Plaza Paitilla Inn Hotel, and Mi Pueblito.
Go on an eco tour in the Metropolitan National Park (MNP), only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and the most accessible rainforest in the region. The MNP is the only tropical forest in Latin America located inside a major urban center and is characterized by the increasingly rare dry lowland pacific forest, two- and three-toed sloths and over 200 bird species. This rainforest retreat and several other protected areas form the “Interoceanic Biological Corridor” that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. Visitors can access four walking trails, a bike trail (you must be in shape for this one) and the Cedar Hill lookout over Panama City and the Canal. A library and souvenir shop is also found here.
Panama has been called a melting pot, but actually it is a sancocho pot, as in the local dish. All ingredients are there and contributing their own flavor, but keeping their own identity in the process. Here is a sample of the ingredients:
- Criollos – Iberian-descended Panamanians, as proud of their ancestry as New Englanders are flattered at being called English.
- Mestizos- The Criollo-Indian blend, the non-silent majority in most of Latin America.
- Blacks whose fathers signed on in the then-British West Indies to dig the canal.
- Chinese- descendents of the Panamanian railroad workers brought over in the latter half of the 19th century.
This sancocho of peoples, languages, backgrounds and traditions is the specialty of the house only in Panama City. Travel to the Interior, which in practice means anywhere beyond about five miles from the Canal in the direction of Costa Rica, and you will be in a land of criollos and mestizos.
Panama City has been on the move, geographically as well as figuratively, for the past 300 years. In fact, you could call it the world’s only moveable fiesta.
The original Isthmian headquarters of Balboa and the Spanish was Acla on the Atlantic coast near the San Blas island of Mulatupo. The first governor, Pedrarias, paused only to behead Balboa before relocating the miniature colony to the healthier and drier Pacific coast where he founded what is now Old Panama, a photogenic disposition of ruins.
Panama grew and prospered at its new site and was a sizeable township when it attracted the larcenous attention of the English pirate, Henry Morgan. After Morgan and his men marched into Old Panama singing “There’ll be a hot time in the Old Town Tonight,” the Spaniards opted to move the fiesta again to the more defensible peninsula where the Casco Viejo, or Old Compound now stands.
Along with them went the Golden Altar, a sacred wood carved altar covered in golden flakes. The altar was carefully hidden during the invasion and left alone by the pirates. Today, the Golden Altar is a prime tourist attraction in the Church of San José in Casco Viejo. The President’s Palace of the Herons and the restored National Theatre are also prime visits for touring. In the 273 years from the rebuilding of Panama City behind the walls of the Old Compound to the end of World War II the fiesta that is Panama City moved no further than to about where El Panama Hotel now stands. However, the pace has quickened. The growth of the city used to be restricted to a relatively narrow strip between the coast and the border of the U.S. administered Canal Zone. In recent years suburbs and shopping centers have spread rapidly outwards. Now with the Canal Zone is in Panama´s hands, the city has begun to move over the once confining border. Panama City´s public transportation system is also on the rise with the construction of a 14-kilometer ¨metro¨ mass transit system.