PANAMA CITY, PANAMA: Panama City, the capital of Panama, a modern, commercial, thriving part of the whole Central America. Situated by the beautiful Bay of Panama, this capital can satisfy all ranges of tourists and guests. Its forest of buildings may remind you of Hong Kong or Dubai for its countless high-rises and beautiful skyscrapers. But that’s not all the capital has to offer. From ancient history to modern technology…this town has got it all.
If you speak Spanish, then you can mix in easily in Panama. But if you are like us and don’t know anything in Spanish, it’s ok too…most of the Panamanians speak some form of English. On our very first day here, we hired a taxi for the whole day. It wasn’t booked ahead of time, just something our hotel arranged for our family of four. The driver spoke OK English and was able to give us some information on the places we’ve visited. If you are looking for an extensive tour, then hiring a professional guide would be a better choice. But nonetheless, it worked out great for us.
Be careful of the taxis in Panama City. Best idea is to fix a price with the drive before you get on with your journey, since most of them don’t have meters. Sometimes they will try to get extra passengers on the way for extra money. Getting taxi from the airport can be tricky too. If you agree to carpool with other passengers, make sure to negotiate the price according to that and not pay full price to go to your destination. From the airport to the downtown hotels should be around $30, depending on which route the cabby is taking or where your hotel is exactly located.
TIME of TRAVEL: We made a trip to Central America right before our girls’ spring break in mid-March of 2015. Before we came to Panama, we spent few days in El Salvador (please check the right-side bar for information on our El Salvador trip). After Panama, we headed towards Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was our first trip to this part of the world and it was a memorable one indeed. It is usually very hot in this time of the year. Being closer to the bay, the heat was milder than El Salvador. But still you would want to carry sun hats, sun screens, and flip-flops if you plan to stay out for a long time.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hyatt Place Panama City in downtown capital. In the heart of Panama City, this was a great location for us. Other than Hyatt’s best customer service, we had roof-top swimming pool, fantastic view of the downtown from our room, and many eateries within the walking distance. You have lots of hotel options when you are in Panama City, different price range, locations, and variety of amenities. Casco Viejo can be another great place to stay also, if you like that colonial style atmosphere or cozy neighborhoods. Whatever you do, don’t get a hotel in a shabby places, especially when you are traveling with family or kids.
EATING and SHOPPING: Panama City won’t disappoint you when it comes to meals. You will find countless American fast-food at every corner of the town along with many local gourmet cuisines. International restaurants are also very popular and they are everywhere, especially in the downtown area. We had fast food for most of our lunches and dinners, due to shortage of time. Casco Viejo offers some of the finest dining in the whole Panama City. For true local tastes, you may have to get of the crowded city life and visit smaller towns, like we visited Portoello on our second day in Panama. We did manage to have some nice food at a fancy place, called “Restaurant Tinajas” in downtown, only 10 minutes of walk from our hotel. Hotel reception actually recommended this place when we asked where to go to try some local dishes. We had some rice with chicken and fried plantains, seafood stew, and fresh juices. They had all sorts of dishes from different appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, and desserts.
Casco Viejo is a good place to get some signature souvenirs from Panama. I found the items in gifts shops very colorful and vibrant. They had summer hats, paintings, wall hangings, purses, and many other trinkets in these historic town of Panama City.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We stayed two days all together in Panama, spending one day exploring the capital and last day somewhere outside the crowd, in Portobello. Panama City is big and scattered. All of the tourist destinations are located all over the city and usually not within walking distance. Hiring a taxi for the whole day was the way to go for us. Though the drive didn’t speak much English, he could still explain little bit to us. Here are some places we visited in Panama City in a day.
1) PANAMA VIEJO: Our first stop was Panama Viejo…an open-air museum very close to the downtown. This is where the Panamanians originally settled many centuries ago, was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in the 1600s, and was moved to Casco Viejo later. Its big grounds display skeletons and ruins form the 1600s settlements.
Honestly speaking, if you are very much into history and visiting ruins, this is a good place to explore. I dig history too, but this place didn’t attract me much. I would rather enjoy the soft morning sun by a beautiful coast or doing something else. It was an awful lot of walking, I was tired and my girls were tired as well from the heat and sun. I wouldn’t recommend this place to anyone just to see some skeletons of old structures…I have seen those enough in Europe.
Among all the ruins here, Panama Viejo Cathedral is one of the highlights here. It was built of wood after 1540. The cathedral played a major role in Colonial Urbanism and represented the religious power and dominated the physical space of the Plaza Mayor. You can see The Tower of a medieval cathedral standing at a high of 30 meters, nicely preserved. Aside from serving as the purpose of tolling the church bells, the tower was given the function of a lookout post.
The Jesuit Convent from 1582 in Panama Viejo is another noteworthy structure. The construction of the church began in 1640 and was stopped due to Sir Henry Morgan’s attack in 1671. At the end of Panama Viejoe be sure to check out the Visitor Center and its museum where exhibition halls have artifacts from the 1600s Panama.
Ticket to Panama Viejo is $8 for adults and $3 for kids. Near the Visitor Center Museum, there is an indoor souvenir market, called Centro Artesanal de Panama Viejo. They are all a bit expensive but you will see two floors full of shops with many local handcrafts and trinkets.
2) CASCO VIEJO or CASCO ANTIGO: Leaving the medieval ruins behind, we then came to more recent history of Panama, which dates back only couple centuries. Now, this is a town that I really loved exploring. After parking the cab, our driver slowly walked us towards the heart of Casco Viejo. You get a good view of the capital and its high-rises from this side of the bay.
Casco Viejo is a place where you will find hidden gems at each corner. Vibrant, artistic, and colonial-style buildings standing beside newer architectures, boutique hotels, and narrow red-bricks layered streets are something that will catch your eyes as soon as you come to this place. Even if you don’t do or see anything in particular, just taking a stroll in the streets of Casco Viejo is mind-blowing. Although we didn’t sit down in any restaurants here, I can imagine lunch or dinner in this old part of Panama City would be something everyone will enjoy.
We first came to the main square, known as Plaza de la Independencia or Plaza Mayor or Plaza de la Catedral. Few important museums lines up surrounding this square while the Catedral Metropolitana’s grand façade looms over the entire plaza. Inside the cathedral is simple but its old and elegant look decorated with beautiful stained-glass windows are very noticeable.
We walked some more to go to La Historica Iglesia de la Merced. This old church is squeezed between somewhat newer buildings. It is a small church, but its classy façade, gorgeous altar decorative statues, and ornaments make this place a real jewel from old Panamanian time. From there we crossed Plaza Herrera with a statue of General Tomas Herrera on his horse, is a small park to sit down and relax.
Iglesia de San Jose is another church that we visited in Casco Viejo with nice stained-glass windows, decorative ornaments, paintings, and statues. While walking around, we saw some old ruins here and there, out of which “La Compania” is probably one of the best preserved and prominent spots. Plaza Francia is another small square with an obelisk with rooster on top. Check out the line of outdoor souvenir shops by the Pacific…they are reasonably priced hand-crafts that you can take back home as memories. Our last stop in Casco Viejo was San Francisco Cathedral. We didn’t go inside this brand new cathedral. But we did spend some time in front of it in Plaza Simon Bolivar which is trimmed with cafes and pleasant 19th century buildings.
Teatro Nacional or National Theater in Casco Viejo is an eminent building that was designed in 1905 by an Italian architecture. The Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum is also located in Casco Viejo. Although we didn’t visit this museum, it would be an ideal place to learn about the history of Panama, its people, and the Panama Canal. The old building that houses this museum is from 1875 and is closely linked to the Canal’s past.
3) AMADOR CAUSEWAY: After Casco Viejo’s charms, we picked up some lunch from Burger King and started driving towards Amador Causeway. It’s a long road with lovely views that was built to connect three islands. It starts from mainland Amador and stretches to Naos, Perico, and Flamenco islands. This is another great example of modern engineering other than the famous Panama Canal. At the end of the road, we stopped in Flamenco Island, at the very top of the causeway near the bay. From here you can see the skyscrapers from Panama City and of course the beautiful blue water. Puentas de las Amercas is somewhat a touristic place with few shops and restaurants. Our girls sat down on rocks and had their burgers and drinks while enjoying the calm summer breeze from the bay.
4) MIRAFLORES LOCK: After spending less than an hour in Flamenco Island, we set off to the absolute must-see place in Panama…the Panama Canal. You just can’t leave Panama City without visiting the miracle Miraflores Lock, one of the locks of Panama Canal. It is one of the engineering wonders of the world, even today. Situated on the east side of the Miraflores Lock, the CVM is the perfect place to witness how the Panama Canal operates. We stood on its large balconies and watched the gates open and close as vessels begun or ended their transits. Hundreds of other tourists joined in these balconies to witness this in action. You will see how the water level rises or falls in different segments as the big boats pass thru the canal.
Four exhibition halls, organized by topic, are the heart of the Miraflores Visitor Center. These halls, a 3D movie, and other attractions portray the story of this waterway, the importance of water as a fountain of life, how the Panama Canal works, and its role in world commerce. It’s modern and informative exhibitions give history of the canal construction, challenges the engineer faced, like fighting against yellow fever and malaria, to build this engineering marvel of the world.
45,000 workers from many countries, like Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, Armenia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Columbia, Panama, and workers from many countries contributed to this effort. They managed to understand each other, start families, make fortunes, and exalt the country. Finally, the Panama Canal was officially inaugurated in August 15, 1914 which connected Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The tour of Miraflores Lock includes a movie and four exhibition halls and takes at least an hour. Fee is $15 per adult, $10 for ages 6 – 12, and free for children below 6 years old. Admission tickets are sold until 4:15 pm and the visiting center is open daily from 9 to 4:30 pm.
5) IGLESIA de la CARMEN: This was our last stop of the day and it was very close to our hotel, Hyatt Place. With its magnificent white exterior and two Gothic towers, Iglesia de la Carmen stands boldly in the heart of Panama City. The building itself looks very new. Inside the church is absolutely stunning with its stained-glass windows and gorgeously vibrant main altar. What a nice end to our tour…