At the crossing point between the Atlantic and Pacific, Panama City promises a lot of surprises for its tourists. Given that the city is a major commercial hub, various cultures continue to blend to form a unique, global destination. At the same time, Panama puts up a different side of its story at the UNSECO listed ruins of Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo. These ruins bear testimony to the troubled times when the city was ransacked by pirates. Panama also boasts of one of the richest coverage of rainforests, surrounding the illustrious Panama Canal that is home to an infinite number of rare species of flora and fauna. As one explores, the fortune unfolds at the several sights, restaurants, outdoor activities and shopping centres in and around Casco Viejo and Panama Canal.
The Panama Viejo ruins are the oldest European settlement in the Pacific Coast of Americas, destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671. The old Panama City and former capital of Panama, Panama Viejo still holds many secrets visible in the cathedrals, residences and the bell tower. Once a royal city that served as an important base for various expeditions in Peru, Panama suffered a major setback when it was repeatedly sacked by pirates in the 17th century. The Spanish moved the city to a new area in Casco Viejo to defend the city from further attacks. Together with the Historic District, the Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo is listed as a UNSECO World Heritage site for its exceptional colonial architecture and the important role it served in linking the Americas with Europe.
There are a number of impressive ruins of a cathedral, churches, water installations, town hall and private houses that showcase the lifestyle and human values of the then existing inhabitants.
Photo Credit: GFDL/Editorpana
The Old City (Casco Viejo)
Following the destruction of Panama Viejo in 1671 by pirates, the Spanish rebuilt the city in an area they thought was easier to defend from the arriving ships. Situated at a higher altitude and surrounded by humungous walls to protect it from invaders, the new area was now called El Casco Viejo (The Old Helmet). The new town (the ‘ Historic District’) born in 1673, flowers with a plethora of restored ruins, reflecting the magnificence of the bygone times. The narrow, cobbled streets see a good number of nightlife spots and restaurants housed in the beautifully restored Spanish Colonial architecture. The 337-year-old neighbourhood of El Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1997, making it one of the most fascinating colonial cities in the world.
Main sights and things to see in Casco Viejo are the San Jose church, French Park, Las Bovedas, Panama Canal Museum, El Palacio de las Garzas, Church and the Convent of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks Visitors Center)
Visit one of the incredible marvels in engineering - The Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center, which hands over an important key into the history and various operations of the canal. Visitors are able to get a good view of the transiting vessels through the locks as well as learn more about the building of the canal through interactive exhibits. Another way to explore Panama Bay is to take a mini-cruise day trip on the Panama Canal in a fully air-conditioned, large beautiful vessel.
Photo Credit: GFDL/Haakon S. Krohn
Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway)
The Amador Causeway is a breakwater designed to protect the entrance of the Panama Canal and connects the mainland of Panama with four small islands - Flamenco, Perico, Culebra and Naos. Built from leftover rocks from the construction of the Panama Canal, the walkway is an ideal site to engage in some stimulating activities with separate paths for bicycling and jogging. A variety of restaurants dot the causeway, presenting close views of the Panama Canal and the ocean. Avid photographers should visit the causeway to capture award-winning photographic views of the Panama City Skyline, Panama Canal, Bridge of the Americas, Balboa Yacht Club and Panama Bay. The main vantage point of Calzada de Amador is the Marine Exhibition Center (Centro de Exhibitions Marinas) on Flamenco Island.
Parque Nacional Soberanía (Soberania National Park)
The Soberania National Park located on the banks of the Panama Canal is an abode of the varied birds and animals, native to the zone. Located 45 minutes from Panama City, the tropical forest is well known as a bird-watching observation site due to the 400+ bird species dwelling here. The Rainforest Discovery Centre situated inside the park consists of an observation tower from where tourists will be able to detect rare species of plants and animals including white-faced capuchin monkeys and green iguanas.
Iglesia de San José (San José church)
The famous sight at Iglesia de San José (San José church) is the Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), the only thing salvaged when Henry Morgan sacked Panama City. As the legend goes, a priest successfully strived to save the altar by painting it black. The priest even convinced Morgan that the altar had been stolen by another pirate and he should donate to replace it. Years later, the altar was restored to its present, beautiful state which is made from carved mahogany and decorated with gold leaf.
Address: Avenida A y, Calle 8a Oeste, Panamá, Panama.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Editorpana
Bridge of the Americas and Centennial Bridge
The Bridge of the Americas and the Centennial Bridge are the two major bridges crossing over the Panama Canal, connecting the North and South American mainland and marking the entrance of the Pacific Ocean in the Canal. The Bridge of the Americas built by the United States at a cost of $20 million was the only Pan American highway until the second one - Centennial Bridge was constructed in 2004 to deviate the traffic on the earlier bridge.
Parque Natural Metropolitano (Metropolitan Natural Park)
Metropolitan Natural Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano) is the only rainforest in the world within the city limits of the metropolitan capital. Located in the Ancon district, 10-15 minutes away from downtown Panama City, the 636 acres of the park is home to many species of native flora and fauna offering a stupendous variety of reptiles, mammals, butterflies and birds. There are several walking trails and observation points from where tourists are able to admire the islands of Panama and the great diversity of the rich vegetation. The park offers facilities for cultural and outdoor activities, environmental education, scientific investigation, etc.
Address: Avenue Juan Pablo II final, Panama City, Panama.