The quickest way to observe Panama City’s past, present and future is to stand in the Plaza de Francia and slowly do a 360-degree turn. In that rotation, you will see the Old City, the financial district’s modern skyline, the 5,425-foot wide Bridge of the Americas and the Panama Canal. Then, check out the plaza’s obelisks, plaques and statues that commemorate the
Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina, but the canal gives it big stature. Next year, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the canal’s opening. Panama City is gussying itself up for the birthday bash with new infrastructure, construction and hotels, landscaping, plus the expansion of the canal.
A new set of locks will accommodate larger ships. The canal, a 48-mile journey between the Atlantic (via the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific oceans takes eight to ten hours. The trip costs $100,000-$425,000 per vessel - prepaid and cash only.
Watch the ships navigate the waterway at Panama Canal’s Visitor’s Center, or better yet, have lunch at the Miraflores Restaurant. While eating from the restaurant’s bountiful buffet, look down and see the boats being attached by rope to train engines. They enter the lock. The gates close. Depending on the boat’s direction, the water level either rises or falls. Chugging away like “The Little Engine That Could,” the trains tow the ship through the lock.
The canal may be almost 100 years old, but Casco Viejo, North America’s oldest colonial city, has been around since 1519. The pirate Henry Morgan, plundered it in 1671. It is now in restoration mode and destined to be Panama City’s new “in” place. Restaurants, shops, trendy hotels and nightclubs are springing up. Walk down its narrow streets and see people and flowers hanging over the lovely, old wrought iron balconies. The area resembles the New Orleans French Quarter. The facade of the Old Cathedral, built before Morgan came, still stands.
After Morgan left Panama, the Old City moved closer to the water. The French, Spanish and American architecture is a mix between the old and the new. The Church of San Jose was originally constructed between 1671 and 1677, and accented with delicate woodcarving. The altar is gilded in solid gold, but was painted black at one time to hide it from pirates. Admire the architecture of the Teatro Nacional, patterned after Milan’s La Scala and the whitewashed Instituto Nacional de Cultura in the Plaza de Francia - once the city’s main courthouse.
To see Panama City’s colorful, modern side, wander over to the city’s financial district. Uniquely designed structures reach for the sky. The Trump Ocean Club building looks like a sailboat, and the Revolution Tower resembles a giant green screw.
Markets and More
The markets of the indigenous Kuna Indians are even more vibrant. Kuna ladies often wear gold earrings and nose rings, red headscarves and brightly colored blouses with molas -large patches appliqued designs such as birds and animals. Molas can be purchased separately. Framed, they make a lovely wall decoration. The markets brim with pottery, dolls, purses and other souvenirs. One market has a dragon-like mask. Such masks were once used by the Spanish to scare the natives into becoming Catholic. It is still part of special Kuna ceremonies.
Not too dissimilar from Kuna Indians are the Embera Panama Puru Tribe. Many live close to Panama City in Chagres National Park. Dressed in colorful beaded skirts and “X-shaped” beads on their chest, men take visitors in a motorized dugout canoe on the
Visitors depart the canoe to walk. Up and down a muddy path over rocks, along the river and across the river to La Bonita Cascada (beautiful waterfall). The water pounds down the side of a 40-foot hill. Onlookers wade in the water or sit on the rocks alongside the falls.
Then back into the canoe for a visit to Embera Village. In the community hut, natives serve fried plantains and fried tilapia on palm leafs, plus tasty bananas, watermelon and pineapple. After lunch, the women -- dressed in colorful skirts, bra tops with jingling ornaments and Polynesian-styled flowered headdresses-dance to pipes and drums. Visiting the Embera Tribe is a fun way to spend the day, a pleasant contrast from the nearby, bustling Panama City.
Come to celebrate the canal’s birthday and explore the city and surrounding areas. Even tourists who have visited Panama in the past are surprised at how the city has its eye on the future.
Copa Airlines flies direct to Panama City from Chicago, Miami, New York City (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Washington, D.C. (Dulles), Orlando, Chicago (O’Hare) and Las Vegas. Direct flights from Boston start in April.
For more information, visit www.visitpanama.com