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.
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.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Panama City’s historic quarter is known as the Casco Viejo (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).
IGLESIA DE SAN JOSÉ (SAINT JOSEPH’S CHURCH)
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.
PALACIO DE LAS GARZAS (PALACIO PRESIDENTIAL)
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) at least two weeks ahead of time. Tours are given Tuesday through Thursday.
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.
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.
MUSEO DE LA BIODIVERSIDAD (MUSEUM OF BIODIVERSITY)
The triangle of land where the Causeway begins is the site of the eye-catching Museo de la Biodiversidad. Also called the “BioMuseo,” the museum was designed by the American architect Frank O. Gehry, famous for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the pavilion at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Gehry’s colorful, jutting architecture is a big part of the attraction; inside you’ll find exhibits on the remarkable biodiversity of Panama’s forests and oceans, as well as the isthmus’s role as a biological bridge between North and South America. Large-screen videos and life-size animal sculptures make dramatic visual statements, and plans call for a small inside aquarium to display marine life. The admission price is a bit steep considering the modest size of the museum, but it’s still a noteworthy attraction, and the grounds offer lovely views of the canal entrance and the city skyline.
CENTRO DE EXHIBICIONES MARINAS PUNTA CULEBRA (MARINE EXHIBITION CENTER)
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 at the end of the rocky point.
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.
PARQUE NATURAL METROPOLITANO (METROPOLITAN NATURAL PARK)
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 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.
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).
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.
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 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.
PLAYA KOBBE (PLAYA BONITA)
With a long beach on a cove of calm water backed by tropical forest, Playa Kobbe is a lovely spot. It’s the closest beach to Panama City, less than 20 minutes from downtown. Since Kobbe Beach lies on the other side of the Canal, the water there is considerably cleaner than near Panama City, but it may at times still be tinged with oil from the area’s abundant ships, so it is not always ideal for swimming or snorkeling.