Panama is a small nation with a capital that offers an astounding cross-section of cultural and historic experience: from the colonial legacy of its old quarter to a newly energized modern city, to the legacy and continued expansion of the Canal to the easily accessible countryside just beyond. While all these different routes to exploring within and beyond this vibrant city depends on a visitor’s own interests and time, some of these options to experience past and present certainly belong on any must-do list.
The Modern Capital – Energetic, Relaxed, Innovative
Many leisure travelers arriving into Panama stay over in the capital first, while business travelers also find it useful to stay on for leisure exploration and activity. The financial district is home to ever-expanding hotel accommodation along with a range of museums, activities and international annual events. To handle the growth, the city is already well-positioned with a range of event facilities, notable among these and at the city center facing the ocean is the state-of-the-art Atlapa Convention Center, with extensive exhibit space and meeting facilities for up to 5,000 visitors. The Center’s theater is also host to a wide variety of cultural events over the course of the year. In recent times, the main Tocumen International airport has undergone major expansion and there are plans to add more terminal structure – all to accommodate the growing number of international air carriers desiring routes to Panama from points beyond the Americas.
Also reflecting the increase in leisure interests is the broad range of annual events that nowadays fill the urban calendar. In 2013, the city hosted a world-class outdoor multi-sports event around the capital and its waterfront with its first-time hosting of the Ironman Panama – which promises to become a favorite for athletic-minded travelers who are open to multi-sport in a tropical urban landscape. Anything sports-oriented – from indoor to outdoor events – is now well within the ability of this city to host and stage: witness also the Challenger Visit Panama Cup 2013, only the second All Tennis Pro event to be held in the country. In the cultural arena, the city has become a favored destination also for lovers of music, food and the arts – the Panama Jazz Festival, for instance, has become an event drawing jazz lovers and artists from across the continent and beyond for several days each January.
The Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) – History Amidst Renewal
A distinctive colonial neighborhood with a monuments, museums, churches and historic buildings that date back to the early Spanish presence, the Casco Viejo has seen a resurgence in recent decades thanks to its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Observing how the old and new have come together in a transformed life can be done by taking a walking tour around the avenues and squares of this quarter. It retains its distinct character in large part due to being situated on a peninsula adjacent but apart from the modern capital, and along with being home to a fascinating assortment of historic and cultural landmarks, this is also a place to indulge in some fine dining, entertainment and even base yourself at one of its restored boutique hotels.
Along with crowded streets, Casco Viejo is experiencing wide renovation, so doing any exploration on foot here is the most efficient way to move between points of interest. An ideal point from which to begin any visit is near the southern end of the district along the promenade of the Paseo Las Bovedas (Promenade of the Vaults). This secure location was a significant reason in moving Panama’s capital here in 1673 after the original Old City was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. That fortified aspect is visible as you stroll this broad walkway curving above a massive stone defensive wall. The military origins of this elevated promenade are softened by the presence of the occasional rambling bougainvillea and small stands of native Kuna handcrafts. Also found here is the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Institute of Culture; Plaza de Francia) – which houses an art gallery on its upper floor.
A series of main avenues you will quickly find on any map of the district will also take you along some of the main squares noteworthy for their historic churches, museums or other colonial era legacy. At the very heart of the Casco, for instance, it seems appropriate to come across the Plaza de Independencia (Independence Square), commemorating Panama’s declaration of independence from Colombia in 1903. Also memorialized nearby at the Parque Bolivar is that central figure of Latin American independence. The revolutionary icon met in a school building on one side of this square in 1826 while trying to unite the former Spanish colonies into a Greater Colombia. Then, west of the Iglesia de San Jose is the Parque Herrera (Avenida A), where much of the daily activity comes from the diligent street vendors selling anything from lottery tickets to Kuna native indian crafts. Savor the historic and the contemporary during a day or two of navigating your way through this vibrant and engaging quarter of preserved, restored and renewed structures that come together with boutique hotels and small fine restaurants featuring cuisine from Panama and beyond.
Countryside and Canal – Natural and Man-Made Dimensions
Also well worth viewing for its significance in Panama’s past and future is the Panama Canal itself, just a short drive from the capital. This phenomenon of engineering and human determination can best be observed at the Miraflores locks, where the Canal’s locks mechanism and the quiet but majestic passing of gigantic vessels are on display from the terraces of the multi-story Miraflores Visitors Center. Even here, the continuing surge into the future is visible – as the Canal is being widened to accommodate larger vessels and a higher volume of traffic through its waterway.
Finally, and only a little further in distance to explore for a day, take a journey into the lives of the Embera Indian tribe, one of the seven living Indian cultures of the country. Their authentic village is located near the base of the Chagres River which you can navigate enroute in dugout canoes with expert tour operators such as Rainforest Adventures by Panama Excursions, who not only took us into this timeless side of a small nation but also to other high points within or close to Panama City including the Casco Viejo, the ruins of old Panama City (Panama Vieja) and the Panama Canal. Today’s Embera Indians maintain much of their traditional way of life on their lands along the Chagre, including growing their own agricultural produce and creating the artisanal crafts for which they are renowned throughout the region.
Visit Panama – Official website of the Republic of Panama; comprehensive portal on travel, events and other essential information, at www.visitpanama.com