Panama City is the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. The city has been the regional hub of trade and immigration mainly because of the Panama Canal which is one of the most important shipping routes in the world linking the North Atlantic Ocean with the North Pacific Ocean via the Caribbean Sea. Even prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, Panama City was an important stopover point where most of the gold and silver that Spain took from the Americas passed through. We stayed at Grace Panama Hotel in the newer part of Panama City about a 10 minute drive from Casco Viejo, the old colonial town, for our short visit.
The Panama Canal opened in 1914 and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean by a 77km waterway. There are a total of 6 sets of locks lifting ships up to the artificial Gatun Lake, 26 meters above sea level, and then lowering the ships back down on the other side. This is one of the greatest engineering feats in history and eliminated the lengthy and often dangerous journey around the tip of South America. The easiest way to see the locks in operation is a visit to the Miraflores Locks located just outside Panama City. There is an interactive museum and several viewing platforms to observe the ships come and go through the lock gates. Some of the ships are so wide that there is only a few inches separating them from the concrete sides of the locks, while others are small enough that more than one can fit at a time. Avoid visiting Miraflores between 11am to 2pm because the ships are changing directions and you won’t see any ships in the locks. The last morning Northbound ship clears the Miraflores locks by 11am and the first Southbound ship arrives around 2pm. There are also boat tours on the Panama Canal either doing the Full (ocean to ocean taking 10-11 hours) or Partial Transit (just the Pacific side locks taking about 5-6 hours). We did the Partial Transit tour where we boarded the boat in the marina at Amador Causeway and sailed under the Bridge of the Americas which links North America with South America towards the Miraflores Locks. From the Pacific Ocean, we ascended 18 meters thru the Miraflores Locks to reach the artificial Miraflores Lake. We then ascended another 9 meters up thru the Pedro Miguel Locks to reach Gatun Lake. It is an interesting experience to feel the ascent of the boat between the locks. It actually surprised me how fast the ascent was considering it seems to take forever to fill a bath tub. The ascent of 9 meters took just about 8 minutes! After reaching Gatun Lake, we navigated to Gamboa, en route passing underneath the Centenario Bridge that crosses the Panama Canal, where we disembarked and were transported by car back to Amador Causeway.
Other than the Panama Canal, two other highlights of Panama City are Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo. Panama Viejo was the first city of Panama built by the Spanish in 1519. It was attacked frequently by pirates and subsequently destroyed in 1671. Today, only some ruins remain with most of it buried under a poor residential neighborhood.
In 1673, a new city was built on the opposite side of the bay and is known today as Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo. It is here where the Republic of Panama was born. Casco Viejo is a UNESCO Site and has an interesting mix of colonial, Caribbean, French, and Art Deco architecture. Its cobblestone streets lead to numerous boutique hotels, restaurants that spill onto the sidewalks, and small shops and galleries making it the hippest neighborhood in Panama City. However, the Casco Viejo area used to be a no-go zone with the area controlled by gangs. The area is slowly being gentrified but still more than half of the buildings seem to be dilapidated and occupied by squatters or totally abandoned. Overall Casco Viejo exudes the charm of Old Havana. Most of the main monuments here in Panama City are located in Casco Viejo, such as Salon Bolivar, the National Theater, Las Bovedas, and Plaza de Francia.
We had a short and wonderful visit here in Panama City before heading onto Havana, Cuba. Stayed tuned!