Explore Panama City with Artisan Luxury Travel
Founded nearly five centuries ago, Panama city is steeped in history, yet much of it is remarkably modern. The baroque facades of the city's old quarter appear frozen in time, while the area around Punta Paitilla (Paitilla Point) is positively vaulting into the 21st century, with gleaming skyscrapers towering over the waterfront. Panama City is home to races, religions, and cultures from around the world. Whereas the high-rises of Punta Paitilla and the Area Bancária (banking district) create a skyline more impressive than that of Miami (really!), the brick streets and balconies of the Casco Viejo evoke the French Quarter of New Orleans. The tree-lined boulevards of Balboa are a mixture of early-20th-century American architecture and exuberant tropical vegetation. The islands reached by the nearby Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway) are full of bars and restaurants and a marina.
The city's proximity to tropical nature is astounding, with significant patches of forest protected within city limits on Cerro Ancón (Ancón Hill) and in Parque Metropolitano, and the national parks of Camino de Cruces and Soberanía just to the northwest of town. You could spend a morning hiking through the rain forest of the Parque Metropolitano to see parrots and toucans, then watch pelicans dive into the sea while sipping a sunset drink at one of Amador Causeway's restaurants. There are plenty of spots in and around the city to view massive ships moving in and out of the Panama Canal.
An array of restaurants, an abundance of shops and handicraft markets, and a vibrant nightlife scene round out Panama City's charm. Panama City can also serve as a base for a bunch of day trips, including Panama Canal transit tours, a boat ride to Isla Taboga or Isla Contadora, a trip on the Panama Canal Railway, a day exploring the colonial fortresses, beaches, and coral reefs of Portobelo, or hikes through various rain-forest reserves. Included in Panama City's colorful contrasts are many of the unfortunate aspects of urban life in the developing world. It has its fair share of slums, including several around must-see Casco Viejo. Traffic is often downright terrible, and the ocean along its coast is very polluted. Crime is a problem in some neighborhoods. Be careful where you walk around alone, especially at night. The city as a whole is quite safe, especially the downtown area, where you'll find bustling hotels, restaurants, and bars.
EXPLORE PANAMA CITY
Just south of Balboa is the former U.S. military base of Amador, a relatively empty area that is connected to three islands by a breakwater called the Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway). The Causeway was constructed as a breakwater from the trainloads of rock and earth removed while digging the canal. Years later, a road was paved atop it, which is now lined with a sidewalk and palm trees. It stretches almost 3 km (2 miles) into the Pacific Ocean to connect the mainland to three islands: Isla Naos, Isla Perico, and Isla Flamenco, which hold strip malls, dozens of bars and restaurants, and a couple marinas. Those islands are a popular destination for people who want to escape the heat and traffic jams, and enjoy the views of the surrounding sea, massive ships passing through the adjacent canal, and the city’s modern skyline.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN CALZADA-AMADOR
The second island on the causeway, Isla Perico, holds a long strip mall, called Brisas de Amador, that has an array of restaurants and bars, most of which have terraces that face the canal's Pacific entrance, so you can watch the ships passing.
The Amador Causeway ends at Isla Flamenco, which has two shopping centers and an assortment of restaurants. The Flamenco Marina is a popular mooring spot for yachts and fishing boats; it's the disembarkation point for cruise-ship passengers, most of whom board tour buses. Several restaurants and bars overlook the marina, which also has a great view of the city's skyline, making it a popular destination night and day.
CENTRO DE EXHIBICIONES MARINAS PUNTA CULEBRA
Though it doesn't compare to the aquariums of other major cities, the Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas is worth a stop. It was created by the scientists and educators at the STRI and is located on a lovely, undeveloped point with examples of several ecosystems: beach, mangrove forest, rocky coast, and tropical forest. A series of signs leads visitors on a self-guided tour. There are several small tanks with fish and sea turtles, as well as pools with sea stars, sea cucumbers, and other marine creatures that kids can handle. The spyglasses are great for watching ships on the adjacent canal. Be sure to visit the lookout on the end of the rocky point.
Panama City's historic quarter is known as the Casco Viejo (pronounced CAS-coh Bee-EH-hoh; also called the Casco Antiguo, which translates as "old shell"). It's spread over a small point in the city's southeast corner, where timeless streets and plazas are complemented by views of a modern skyline and the Bahía de Panamá. The Casco Viejo's narrow brick streets, wrought-iron balconies, and intricate cornices evoke visions of Panama's glorious history as a major trade center. A stroll here offers opportunities to admire a beautiful mix of Spanish colonial, neoclassical, and art nouveau architecture. And though many of its buildings are in a lamentable state of neglect, and some of the neighborhood is poor, it is nevertheless a lively and colorful place, where soccer balls bounce off the walls of 300-year-old churches and radios blare Latin music, even as trendy restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels welcome an increasingly stylish clientele. Movie fans may spot a few places used as settings for the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace—Panama stood in for both Bolivia and Haiti in the movie, with the shell-like remnants of the Club Unión used for a party scene, and the National Institute of Culture serving as a fictional hotel in Bolivia (Daniel Craig actually stayed in the Casco Antiguo during shooting).
POINTS OF INTEREST IN CASCO-VIEJO
A small plaza surrounded by 19th-century architecture, this is one of Casco Viejo's most pleasant spots, especially at night, when people gather at its various cafés for drinks and dinner, and street musicians perform for tips. It's centered around a monument to the Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar, the "Liberator of Latin America," with decorative friezes marking events of his life and an Andean condor perched above him. In 1926 Bolívar organized a meeting of independence with leaders from all over Latin America in the Franciscan monastery in front of the plaza, which, in the end, he was unable to attend. The original San Francisco Church was destroyed by fire in the 18th century and restored twice in the 20th century. At this writing, the church was closed for yet another round of renovations, and was to reopen to the public in 2016 (open hours had not yet been announced). The former monastery is now occupied by a Catholic school. Across the plaza from it, on the corner of Avenida B and Calle 4, is the smaller church, Iglesia de San Felipe de Neri, which was recently restored and is open daily. The Hotel Colombia, across the street from it, was one of the country's best when it opened its doors in 1937, but it fell into neglect during the late 20th century until it was renovated in the 1990s and converted to luxury apartments.
Built between 1688 and 1796, Panama City's stately cathedral is one of Casco Viejo's most impressive structures. The interior is vast, but rather bleak, but for the marble altar, made in 1884, beautiful stained glass, and a few religious paintings. The stone facade, flanked by painted bell towers, is quite lovely, with its many niches filled with small statues. The bell towers are decorated with mother-of-pearl from the Pearl Islands, and the bells in the left tower were salvaged from the city's first cathedral, in Panamá Viejo.
The interior of this theater is truly posh, with ceiling murals, gold balconies, and glittering chandeliers—a little bit of Europe in the heart of old Panama City. After serving as a convent and, later, an army barracks, the building was remodeled by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri in 1908. Paintings inside by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis depict Panama's history via Greek mythology. Check the local papers, or call to find out if the national symphony orchestra, or another group, is playing while you're in town, as attending a concert is the best way to experience the building.
The city council now meets on the second floor of this neoclasisical white building, but it was originally built, in 1910, as the seat of the country's legislature (which grew too large for it and moved to its current home on Plaza Cinco de Mayo). It replaced a colonial palace that had stood at the same spot for nearly three centuries. On the ground floor is the tiny Museo de la Historia de Panamá, which traces the country's history from the explorations of Christopher Columbus to the present day. The history museum is a disappointment, but it's worth stepping inside to have a look at the building's interior.
The hall in which Simón Bolívar's 1926 meeting of independence took place, next to the Iglesia de San Francisco, holds a small museum.
The old city's main square is also known as Plaza Mayor, or Plaza de la Independencia, since the country's independence from both Spain and Colombia were celebrated here. Busts of Panama's founding fathers are scattered around the plaza, at the center of which is a large gazebo. The plaza is surrounded by historic buildings such as the Palacio Municipal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, and the Hotel Central, which once held the city's best accommodations and is slowly being renovated. Plaza Catedral is shaded by some large tabebuia trees, which are ablaze with pink blossoms in January and February. The plaza is the site of ocassional craft fairs, weekend concerts, and other events.
This large plaza a block off Avenida Central is surrounded by some lovely old buildings, several of which have been renovated or are in the process of renovation. The largest building on the square is home to the stylish American Trade Hotel, which has a lobby bar, restaurant, and jazz club, as well as outdoor dining and imbibing on the square some evenings. At the center of the plaza is a statue of local hero General Tomás Herrera, looking rather regal on horseback. Herrera fought in South America's wars for independence from Spain and later led Panama's first attempt to gain independence from Colombia, in 1840. Half a block west of it stands the last remaining chunk of the ancient wall that once enclosed Casco Viejo, called the Baluarte de la Mano de Tigre (Tiger's Hand Bulwark), beyond which the neighborhood grows somewhat sketchy. A company called Fortaleza Tours, which operates out of the American Trade Hotel, offers walking tours through the poorer blocks where gangs once ruled the streets; the fact that former gang members lead the tours lends even more authenticity to the experience.
MUSEO DEL CANAL INTEROCEÁNICO
Once the only museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico has been put to shame by the visitors' center at Miraflores Locks. The museum is packed with artifacts, paintings, photographs, and videos about the Panama Canal, with most information posted in English and Spanish, although you may want to spend $5 for a recorded tour in English. Though the building was constructed in 1875 to be the Gran Hotel, it soon became the offices of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, the French company that made the first attempt to dig a canal in Panama. After that effort went bust, the building became government property, and before being converted to a museum in the 1990s it was the central post office.
IGLESIA DE SAN JOSÉ
This church is an exact replica of the temple of the same name in Panamá Viejo. It is the sanctuary of the country's famous golden altar, the most valuable object to survive pirate Henry Morgan's razing of the old city. According to legend, a wily priest painted the altar with mud to discourage its theft. Not only did Morgan refrain from pilfering it, but the priest even managed to extract a donation from the pirate. The ornate baroque altar is made of carved mahogany covered with gold leaf. It is the only real attraction of the small church, though it does have several other wooden altars and a couple of lovely stained-glass windows.
PLAZA DE FRANCIA
Designed by Leonardo de Villanueva, this attractive plaza on the southeastern corner of the Casco Viejo peninsula is dedicated to the French effort to build the canal, and the thousands who perished in the process. An obelisk towers over the monument at the end of the plaza, where a dozen marble plaques recount the arduous task. Busts of Ferdinand de Lesseps and his lieutenants gaze across the plaza at the French Embassy—the large baby-blue building to the north of it. Next to them is a bust of Dr. Carlos Finlay, a Cuban physician who later discovered that yellow fever, which killed thousands during the French effort, originated from a mosquito bite—information that prompted the American campaign to eradicate mosquitoes from the area before they began digging. The plaza itself is a pleasant spot shaded by poinciana trees, which carry bright-orange blossoms from May to July. At the front of the plaza is a statue of Pablo Arosemena, one of Panama's founding fathers and one of its first presidents. The plaza covers part of a small peninsula that served as a bastion for the walled city's defense during its early years. The former dungeons of Las Bóvedas line the plaza's eastern edge, and next door stands a large white building that was once the city's main courthouse but now houses the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Culture Institute).
Exploring Casco Viejo's narrow streets can be a hot and exhausting affair, which makes the gourmet ice-cream shop of Gran Clement an almost obligatory stop. Located in the ground floor of a restored mansion one block west of the Policía de Turismo station, the shop serves a wide assortment of ice creams including ginger, coconut, passion fruit, and mango. Gran Clement is also open at night, and until 9:30 pm on weekends.
PASEO ESTEBAN HUERTAS
This promenade built atop the old city's outer wall is named for one of Panama's independence leaders. It stretches around the eastern edge of the point at Casco Viejo's southern tip. From the Paseo you can admire views of the Bay of Panama, the Amador Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas, the tenements of El Chorrillo, and ships awaiting passage through the canal. As it passes behind the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, the Paseo is shaded by a bougainvillea canopy where Kuna women sell handicrafts and couples cuddle on the benches. Bougainvillea arches frame the modern skyline across the bay, creating a nice photo op: the new city viewed from the old city.
A catastrophic fire ruined this 17th-century church and Dominican monastery centuries ago. What's left at the entrance is the Arco Chato, or flat arch, a relatively precarious structure that served as proof that the country was not subject to earthquakes, tipping the scales in favor of Panama over Nicaragua for the construction of the transoceanic canal. The arch finally collapsed in 2003, without the help of an earthquake, but the city fathers considered it such an important landmark that they had it rebuilt.
PALACIO DE LAS GARZAS
The neoclassical lines of the stunning, white presidential palace stand out against the Casco Viejo's skyline. Originally built in the 17th century by an official of the Spanish crown, the palace was a customs house for a while, and passed through various mutations before being renovated to its current shape in 1922, under the administration of Belisario Porras. President Porras also started the tradition of keeping pet herons, or egrets, in the fountain of the building's front courtyard, which led to its popular name: "Palace of the Herons." Because the building houses the president's offices and is surrounded by ministries, security is tight in the area, though nothing compared to the White House. During the day the guards may let you peek into the palace's Moorish foyer at its avian inhabitants, but to get inside you'll need to reserve a free tour by email (email@example.com) at least two weeks ahead of time. Tours are given Tuesday through Thursday.
The arched chambers in the wall on the eastern side of Plaza Francia, which originally formed part of the city's battlements, served various purposes during the colonial era, from storage chambers to dungeons. Dating from the late 1600s, when the city was relocated to what is now Casco Viejo, the Bóvedas were abandoned for centuries. In the 1980s the Panama Tourist Board initiated the renovation of the cells, two of which are used by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura for ocassional art exhibits. Three cells hold a French restaurant called Las Bóvedas, which hosts live music on some evenings and also has tables on the plaza where you can enjoy drinks in the afternoon or evening.
For the better part of the 20th century, the area to the west of Casco Viejo held the border between the American Canal Zone and Panama City proper, and it continues to be an area of stark contrasts. Busy Avenida de Los Mártires (which separates the neighborhoods of El Chorrillo and Santa Ana from Cerro Ancón [Ancón Hill]) was once lined with a chain-link fence; it was named for Panamanian students killed during demonstrations against American control of the zone in 1964. To the west of that busy avenue, which leads to the Bridge of the Americas and the other side of the canal, rises the stately buildings of the former Canal Zone, whereas the area to the east of it is dominated by slums. Aside from Casco Viejo, and the pedestrian mall on Avenida Central south of Plaza Cinco de Mayo, the areas to the east of that avenue should be avoided. The eastern side of Cerro Ancón holds the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Modern Art) and the tourist village of Mi Pueblito. The western slope of Cerro Ancón holds the stately Edificio de la Administración del Canal (Panama Canal Administration Building), which overlooks the lawns, trees, and buildings of Balboa from a ridge.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN CERRO-ANCON-AND-BALBOA
Three blocks northeast of Plaza Cinco de Mayo, in the midst of a rough neighborhood, stands a simple wooden museum dedicated to the tens of thousands of West Indian workers who supplied the bulk of the labor for the canal's construction. The West Indians, mostly Barbadians and Jamaicans, did the toughest, most dangerous jobs, but were paid in silver, while the Americans were paid in gold. A disproportionate number of them died during canal construction; the survivors and their descendents have made important contributions to Panamanian culture. The museum has period furniture and historic photos. You'll want to take a taxi here; consider asking the taxi to wait for you while you visit the museum.
CERRO ANCÓN SUMMIT
The rain forest that covers most of Cerro Ancón is a remarkably vibrant natural oasis in the midst of the city. The best area to see wildlife is on the road to the Cerro Ancón Summit, which is topped by radio towers and a giant Panamanian flag. The road ascends the hill's western slope from the luxuriant residential neighborhood of Quarry Heights, above Balboa. There is also a trail into the forest behind the offices of ANCON, Panama's biggest environmental group. If the gate at the end of Quarry Heights is locked, it should take 20-30 minutes to hike to the summit. It is best done early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when you are likely to see animals such as the abundant agoutis (large rodents), keel-billed toucan, and Geoffrey's tamarind—Panama's smallest simian. If you have a taxi drop you off at the trailhead (ask the driver to take you to the "Oficinas de ANCON" in Quarry Heights), you can hike down the other side of the hill to Mi Pueblito, where you should be able to flag a cab.
EDIFICIO DE LA ADMINISTRACIÓN DEL CANAL
Well worth a stop is this impressive structure set atop a ridge with a dramatic view of Balboa and the canal—a site chosen by the canal's chief engineer, George W. Goethals. The building, designed by New York architect Austin W. Lord, was inaugurated in 1914, one month before the SS Ancon became the first ship to navigate the canal. Since it holds the offices of the people in charge of running the canal, most of the building is off-limits to tourists, but you can enter its lovely rotunda and admire the historic murals of the canal's construction. The murals were painted by William B. Van Ingen, who also created murals for the U.S. Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Mint. They're quite dramatic, and capture the monumental nature of the canal's construction in a style that is part Norman Rockwell, part Frederic Edwin Church. The rotunda also houses busts of the three canal visionaries: Spain's King Carlos V, who first pondered the possibility in the 16th century; the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who led the first attempt to dig it; and President Theodore Roosevelt, who launched the successful construction effort. The doors at the back of the rotunda are locked, but if you walk around the building you'll be treated to a view of the neat lawns and tree-lined boulevards of Balboa.
PLAZA CINCO DE MAYO
A tiny expanse on the north end of the Avenida Central pedestrian mall, this plaza has several notable landmarks nearby. To the northeast of the plaza stands a large brown building that was once a train station and later housed the country's anthropological museum, until it was moved to a new space near Parque Metropolitano. Just behind it on Avenida 4 Sur is a small handicraft market called the Mercado de Buhonería that few people visit, so you can score some good deals there. On the other side of Avenida Central, behind a large monument, is the Palacio Legislativo (Legislative Palace), Panama's Congress, which opens to the public for some legislative sessions, but is hardly worth the visit. The areas to the north and east of the Plaza should be avoided. Plan to arrive at and leave Plaza Cinco de Mayo in a taxi or bus.
SMITHSONIAN TROPICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Spread over a ridge on the north side of Cerro Ancón and lined by trees, the home office of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), known as the Earl S. Tupper Center, has offices, meeting halls, a large library, a bookstore, and a café. A branch of the Washington, D.C.–based Smithsonian Institution, the STRI has half a dozen research stations in Panama, the most famous of which is on Barro Colorado Island. The institute also coordinates scientific studies in various other tropical countries. All reservations for tours to Barro Colorado Island are done online, but you can visit the Tupper Center to browse the library and shop at the bookstore, which has an excellent selection of natural history titles, as well as souvenirs.
The heart of the former Canal Zone is quite a switch from the rest of Panama City, with its wide tree-shaded lawns and stately old buildings. It sometimes feels like a bit of a ghost town, especially after you spend time on the busy streets of Panama City proper, but it's a peaceful area with lots of greenery. You may spot toucans, or agoutis (large jungle rodents) on the slopes of Ancon Hill, or near the Panama Canal Administration Building. The Friday's restaurant next to the Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal has a front-row view of the canal and Bridge of the Americas.
DOWNTOWN PANAMA CITY
The area northeast of the old city, stretching from the neighborhoods of El Cangrejo to Punta Paitilla, is where you'll find most of the city's office towers, banks, hotels, restaurants, and shops. As Panama City's economy grew and diversified during the 20th century, those who had money abandoned Casco Viejo and built homes in new neighborhoods to the northeast; apartment buildings and office towers soon followed. Many of Panama City's best hotels and restaurants are clustered in El Cangrejo and the Area Bancária (Financial District), which flank busy Via España. Calle 50, another of the city's main arteries, defines the southern edge of the Area Bancária. A few blocks southeast of Calle 50 is Avenida Balboa, another of the city's major thoroughfares, which curves along the coast between the Casco Viejo and Punta Paitilla and is lined by the parks and waterfront promenade of La Cinta Costera. Between Calle 50 and Avenida Balboa you'll find the neighborhoods of Bella Vista and Marbella, which hold an interesting mix of apartment towers, aging mansions, shops, and government offices. Just to the east of Marbella is Punta Paitilla, a small point packed with skyscrapers and a few hotels.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN DOWNTOWN PANAMA CITY
LA CINTA COSTERA
The busy waterfront boulevard Avenida Balboa and the linear park running alongside it are lined with palm trees and graced with great views of the Bay of Panama and Casco Viejo. The sidewalk that runs along the bay and the park wedged between the avenue lanes is a popular strolling and jogging route. To the west of the Miramar towers and the Yacht Club is a small park with a monument to Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who, after trudging through the rain forests of the Darién in 1501, became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. That gleaming white Monumento a Balboa is topped by a steel sculpture of the conquistador gazing out at the Pacific. The statue was a gift to the Panamanian people from Spain's King Alfonso XIII in 1924. Walking is best to the east of the Monumento, since it passes some rough neighborhoods to the west—although the newer area near the fish market and entrance to Casco Viejo has become popular for walking, relaxing, and outdoor exercising (there's an open-air workout area). Unfortunately, a stroll along the waterfront may be punctuated by wiffs of Panama City's raw sewage, which pours into the bay from a series of pipes just off the Cinta Costera, and is especially noxious at low tide. The government is building the city's long-overdue sewage system, but it will take years to complete.
Narrow streets shaded by leafy tropical trees make the city's financial district a pleasant area to explore, though the trees are being cut to make room for more skyscrapers. Together with El Cangrejo, which lies across Vía España from it, the Area Bancária holds a critical mass of hotels and restaurants. You'll find two of the city's highest concentrations of bars and restaurants in El Cangrejo and the area around Calle 48 (Calle Uruguay), between Calle 50 (Nicanor de Obarrio) and Avenida Balboa.
Crumbling ruins are all that's left of Panamá Viejo (sometimes called Panamá la Vieja), the country's first major Spanish settlement, which was destroyed by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Panamá Viejo was founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedroarias Dávila. Built on the site of an indigenous village that had existed for centuries, the city soon became a busy colonial outpost. Expeditions to explore the Pacific coast of South America left from here. When Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire, the copious gold and silver he stole arrived in Panamá Viejo, where it was loaded onto mules and taken across the isthmus to Spain-bound ships. For the next 150 years Panamá Viejo was a vital link between Spain and the gold and silver mines of South America. Year after year, ships came and went; mule trains carried precious metals to Panama's Caribbean coast and returned with Spanish goods bound for the southern colonies. The city's merchants, royal envoys, and priests accumulated enough gold to make a pirate drool. At the time of Morgan's attack, Panamá Viejo had a handful of convents and churches, one hospital, markets, and luxurious mansions. The fires started during the pirate attack reduced much of the city to ashes within days. The paucity of the remaining ruins is not due entirely to the pirates' looting and burning: the Spanish colonists spent years dismantling buildings after they decided to rebuild their city in the neighborhood now known as Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo, on the peninsula to the southwest, which was deemed easier to defend against attack. The Spanish carried everything that could be moved to the new city, including the stone blocks that are today the walls of the city's current cathedral and the facade of the Iglesia de la Merced. Panamá Viejo is part of all city tours, which can be a good way to visit the site, if you get a knowledgeable guide. There are also sometimes guides at the Plaza Mayor who provide free information in Spanish. The collections of walls that you'll pass between the Visitor Center and Plaza Mayor are all that remain of several convents, the bishop's palace, and San Juan de Dios Hospital. Plaza Mayor is approximately 1 km (½ mile) from the visitor center, so you may want to drive or take a cab. Try to visit this site before 11:00 am or after 3:00 pm.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN PANAMA VIEJO
CENTRO DE VISITANTES
Start your visit to Panamá Viejo at the Centro de Visitantes—a large building on the right as you enter Panamá Viejo on Vía Cincuentenaria. From ATLAPA, that street heads inland for 2 km (1 mile) through a residential neighborhood before arriving at the ruins, which are on the coast. Once you see the ocean again, look for the two-story visitor center on your right. It holds a large museum that chronicles the site's evolution from an indigenous village to one of the wealthiest cities in the Western Hemisphere. Works on display include indigenous pottery made centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, relics of the colonial era, and a model of what the city looked like shortly before Morgan's attack. Keep that model in mind as you explore the site, since you need a good dose of imagination to evoke the city that was once home to between 7,000 and 10,000 people from the rubble that remains of it.
PARQUE NATURAL METROPOLITANO MIRAFLORES AND SUMMIT
The area to the north of Balboa, which was also part of the American Canal Zone, has undergone considerable development since being handed over. The former U.S. Army airfield of Albrook is now Panama City's domestic airport, Aeropuerto Marcos A. Gelabert (often called simply Albrook airport); next to that are the massive Albrook Mall and the city's bustling bus terminal, the Terminal de Transporte Terrestre, called "Terminal de Buses" by locals. To the northeast of Albrook is a large swath of rain forest protected within Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is home to more than 200 bird species. To the northwest, the former army base of Clayton is now called Ciudad del Saber, or City of Knowledge; many of its buildings are occupied by international organizations and the area is also home to the Holiday Inn Panama Canal. Across the road is the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the canal, the EsclUSAs de Miraflores (Miraflores Locks), an area that is much more visitor-friendly than it was when the canal was U.S. property. The Panamanian administration built a state-of-the-art visitor center, with a museum and observation decks, making it one of Panama City’s top attractions. From there the road follows the canal northwest through the rain forest of Soberanía National Park to the small canal port and community of Gamboa, on the shore of Gatun Lake.
Follow the road north from the locks through the forest of Camino de Cruces National Park to the former American enclave of Summit, which holds Panama City’s only golf course, a botanical garden and zoo, and one of the city's best hotels.
POINTS OF INTEREST
ESCLUSAS DE MIRAFLORES
The four-story visitor center next to these double locks provides a front-row view of massive ships passing through the lock chambers. It also houses an excellent museum about the canal's history, engineering, daily operations, and environmental demands. Because most of the canal lies at 85 feet above sea level, each ship that passes through has to be raised to that level with three locks as they enter it, and brought back to sea level with three locks on the other end. Miraflores has two levels of locks, which move vessels between Pacific sea level and Miraflores Lake, a man-made stretch of water between Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks. Due to the proximity to Panama City, these locks have long been the preferred place to visit the canal, but the visitor center has made it even more popular.
There are observation decks on the ground and fourth floors of the massive cement building, from which you can watch vessels move through the locks, as a bilingual narrator explains the process and provides information about each ship, including the toll they paid to use the canal. The museum contains an excellent combination of historic relics, photographs, videos, models, and even a simulator of a ship passing through the locks. There is also a gift shop and a snack bar (the second-floor restaurant was closed for renovations as of press time). While the canal is busier at night, the largest ships pass during the day. You can call at 9 am the day before your visit to ask what time the largest ships are due through the locks.
PARQUE NATURAL METROPOLITANO
A mere 20-minute drive from downtown, this 655-acre expanse of protected wilderness is a remarkably convenient place to experience the flora and fauna of Panama's tropical rain forest. It's home to 227 bird species ranging from migrant Baltimore orioles to keel-billed toucans. Five well-marked trails, covering a total of about 4.8 km (3 miles), range from a climb to the park's highest point to a fairly flat loop. On any given morning of hiking you may spot such spectacular birds as a gray-headed chachalaca, a collared aracari, or a mealy parrot. The park is also home to 45 mammal species, so keep an eye out for dark brown agoutis (large jungle rodents). Keep your ears perked for tamarins, tiny monkeys that sound like birds.
There's a visitor center near the southern end of the park, next to El Roble and Los Caobas trails, where the nonprofit organization that administers the park collects the admission fee and sells cold drinks, snacks, and nature books. This is the best place to begin your exploration of the park, since you can purchase a map that shows the trails. Call two days ahead to reserve an English-speaking guide ($25).
Across the street from the visitor center is a shorter loop called Sendero Los Momótides. The Mono Titi and La Cieneguita trails head into the forest from the road about 1 km (½ mile) north of the visitor center and connect to each other to form a loop through the park's most precipitous terrain. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has a construction crane in the middle of the forest near the Mono Titi trail that is used to study life in the forest canopy, which is where the greatest diversity of flora and fauna is found. El Roble connects with La Cieneguita, so you can hike the northern loop and then continue through the forest to the visitor center; the total distance of that hike is 3½ km (2¼ miles).
Be sure to bring water, insect repellent, and binoculars, and be careful where you put your feet and hands, since the park does have poisonous snakes, biting insects, and spiny plants.
MUSEO ANTROPOLÓGICO REINA TORRES DE ARAÚZ
After decades of being on display in a former railway station, the government's collection of pre-Columbian artifacts is now housed in a larger facility with more than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, not far from the Parque Natural Metropolitano visitor center. The museum is named for Panama's pioneering anthropologist, Reina Torres de Araúz, who first opened this and a half-dozen other museums in the country. The facility has a rather impressive collection of more than 15,000 pieces of jewelry, ceramics, stone, and other prehispanic artifacts.
BAHA'I HOUSE OF WORSHIP
Perched atop a forested hill 11 km (7 miles) north of the city is Baha'i House of Worship, one of the world's seven Baha'i temples (an eighth is under construction in Santiago de Chile). The Baha'i believe that all the world's religions are separate manifestations of a single religious process, which culminated with the appearance of their founder, Bahà'u'llàh, who preached about a new global society. Most Baha'i temples are in Asia. Panama's temple is simple but also quite lovely, with a white dome surrounded by tropical foliage (it resembles a giant egg). It was designed by the British architect Peter Tillotson. It is open to everyone for prayer, meditation, and subdued exploring. Men should wear long pants, and women long pants or long skirts.
PARQUE MUNICIPAL SUMMIT
About 13 miles northwest of Balboa, this large garden and zoo is surrounded by rain forest. Started in 1923 as a U.S. government project to reproduce tropical plants with economic potential, it evolved into a botanical garden and a zoo in the 1960s. The gardens and surrounding forest hold thousands of species, but the focus is on about 150 species of ornamental, fruit, and hardwood trees from around the world that were once raised here. These range from coffee and cinnamon to the more unusual candle tree and cannonball tree. The zoo is home to 40 native animal species, most of them in cages that are depressingly small, though a few have decent quarters. Stars include jaguars, ocelots, all six of the country's monkey species, several macaw species, and the harpy eagle, Panama's national bird. A neat thing about Summit is that most of the animals exhibited in the zoo are also found in the surrounding forest, so you may spot parrots, toucans, and agoutis on the grounds.
The pastoral Cementerio Francés sits on the left side of the road just before Summit and serves as a testament to the human toll once taken by grand construction projects. Hundreds of crosses line a hill in this pretty cemetery and mark the resting place of a fraction of the 20,000 workers who died during France's brief attempt to construct a canal across the isthmus.