Almost a month ago, I had to take a ‘forced holiday’ so to speak. My Colombian volunteer visa expired and I had to travel abroad so I can come back with a tourist visa (ah, things I do for Colombia!). It turned out 3 days on a different climate was exactly what I needed at the time. It’s amazing how great, great energy, awesome people and, of course, the ocean can help making big decisions.
Now, here’s what made me fall for Panamá City in 3 days:
Cerro Ancón (Ancón Hill)
The highest natural point in Panama City overlooks the city from a 199 meters height. A piece of jungle in the city, it is home to a variety of flora and fauna. I haven’t had the pleasure to see any special birds, sloths and other animals out and about, but that was because I waved at hikers and runners and their dogs from the car, which I must admit it almost made feel a bit lazy. Almost. I got my view of the city and some cool photos from two different lookout points on top of the hill. I gotta tell you it’s unbelievable to look around surrounded by jungle and then look down at this completely modern city.
Canal de Panamá – Miraflores Visitor Center
This is one of the three locks in the canal and the most visited one. There’s another one under construction, reason to come back if it can be visited, wink wink.
For $15 you get access to the visitor center from where you can see large ships passing trough the lock. If you go in the morning or afternoon, that is. As exciting as it is at the beginning, it gets reeeally boring along the way, but it’s definitely worth watching it once in your life. When that’s over, the first floor of the building hosts a gift shop you’ll most probably get out of broke. Don’t get fooled, there are plenty of other places in the city for gift shopping! There’s also a really nice museum with audio and visual displays. You can also watch a short film in 3D (English or Spanish) about how Panamá got the canal back from the US. Some $15 well spent I say!
Casco Viejo/Casco Antiguo
The second most visited place in Panama after the Canal was settled in 1673 following the destruction of the original Panamá city, Panama Viejo (explored in Day 3, scroll down for the story), by Pirate Henry Morgan. Designated a World Heritage Site, today it preserves the first institutions and buildings of the modern city of Panama.
One of them is the Panama Canal Museum that originally served as the headquarters of both the French and U.S. companies engaged in the construction of the canal. It highlights the entire history of the Panama Canal construction, from the first French construction attempt, the later construction by the United States, and the eventual transfer to Panamanian control.
It currently hosts important historical documents and artifacts and you’d definitely need quite some hours to see all the interactive exhibits, but you’ll gain a thorough understanding of why the canal is arguably the physical center of all world trade.
The San José Church has a particular controversial story dating from back in the days. It is said that a priest had the golden altar painted black to hide it from pirate Henry Morgan and his looters when they raided Panama Viejo, where the altar was located initially. Specialists date the altar’s stylistic details in the 18th century so they doubt the legend, but the work of art is worth a stop nevertheless.
From there on, I stumbled on plenty of stop-and-stare museums and small squares.
Note to self: the Emeralds Museum is now a restaurant, since the original museum was relocated in Colombia. You’re welcome for the tip, you can now avoid the awkward conversation that I with the waiters.
When you get tired try the restaurants in the area, and don’t get fooled by their outside appearance, the menus are pretty affordable and delicious in general.
All in all, the area is a delightful place to stroll around and crunch on various local sweets and treats. I enjoyed a delicious coconut ice cream in shell and yes, it took me a while to finish it, for the connoisseurs.
I ended my day partying with friends I met since my arrival in the city, and we did it the Panamanian style – by giving a fake name at the club entrance. Apparently there are Facebook groups that publish lists with names you must mention to get in. I don’t remember my name for the night, but I do remember the lady who used the same name as me going in before I did. Pardon me, I wasn’t familiar with this method for getting in clubs. For me, being short and some-say-cute works every time. And guess what, it worked in that club too, even if I wasn’t on the list!
As I expected – being used with Colombian bars and clubs – we danced our souls out on various genres under the same roof. From salsa and reggaeton to electronic and rock. No surprise there!
Day 2 – Beach time!
I didn’t make it to Bocas del Toro or San Blas archipelago unfortunately, but that’s another reason for going back there soon! I did go to a nice little beach a couple of hours away from the city, on the Pacific coast though. You’d say the unbreathable air would keep me in the water, but ain’t nothing out there that would force me learn how to swim, no sir! Not in the ocean, at least.
I asked for a nice tan and I got a sunburn because well, Murphy. I don’t think there’s any SPF level out there that can keep you away from that sun. I somehow managed to not look like a crab though, so I returned to Colombia with a nice Panamanian touch. I am in the middle of a tanning race after all! And I seem to win, of course.
Ended the day by the pool with some friends we met on the beach, Panamanians are as friendly as Colombians. And as good looking, sure :).
I spent the last afternoon in Panama City with a friend, wandering together around Casco Viejo again (it’s addictive!) and….the original capital of the city: Panamá Viejo.
Panamá Viejo is not to be mistaken for Casco Viejo (detailed in Day 1). The former capital of the state, Panamá Viejo was the first Spanish settlement in the city. In 1671 it was burnt down by pirate Henry Morgan and after being abandoned, the capital was moved to its present-day location – Casco Viejo. Both Panamá Viejo and Casco Viejo are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
This is yet another place that displays the contrast between old and new. It’s impossible to walk through the ruins of the old Panama capital and not notice the skyscrapers around.
There’s also a visitor center right before entering the ruins area, but it was closed when I got there so I went shopping in the handicraft market beside the visitor center instead. Beware of the indigenous pottery and artifacts from colonial times, they will definitely empty your wallets!
As I realized that in the first day I missed some key attractions in Casco Viejo, I went back to catch up. And boy, it was a good decision, because I discovered Peruvian food might be the only one that could make me eat healthy!
I found it in Ego café urbano, a restaurant with an Italian and Peruvian menu. No, I have no idea how did they get to this mix either. I honestly don’t remember the name of what we had in our plates, but it looked food porn-ish. Like this I mean:
Then we crossed the street to Bolivar Palace, now home to the Ministry of Foreign Relations offices. The good thing is they let you in and once you’re there, boy, you’ll feel small. And I’m not saying it because I’m short, because I’m not, my height is just cute, remember? The place was built on the grounds of a former Franciscan monastery that succumbed to various fires. You can actually see some ruins in the courtyard inside, among the building’s lovely architecture and tile work.
Ok, this is not a museum, but it might as well be one for its exhibit of oh-the-most-delicious-flavours-and-frostings-ever. Once you mix 2 frozen yogurt flavours, that’s when the party begins! Honestly, I’m not capable to put this party into words so I’ll just leave you with the photos.
The prices are by weight, but that didn’t stop me getting carried away by the toppings so I ended up with a $12 cup of joy.
Ok, I admit tasting some of my friend’s mix. Fine, I stole half of it! But how do you stay away from this?
My friend finally got me out of there and drove me to the airport, where I arrived juuuuuust in time for my flight. I insist on not developing a talent of losing planes. Let’s stick to only losing trains and buses, Ioana!
Final thoughts – It won me over.
Panama City is oh-so-small. I don’t know if it’s because I wondered around the city mostly by car, but it seemed to me every time we’d turn left or right we’d be in the same place in just a couple of minutes. Even so, there are still a lot of places left to visit.
I spent three amazing days with wonderful people in a great city. Even if it was literally breath taking (too hot weather!!), I would go back there in a heartbeat. Rewind, please!