Panama City April 2017

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.

DSCF2700The boat taking us on our Panama Canal Partial Transit

DSCF2708Basic boat with indoor and outdoor seating.  They serve you a simple breakfast and lunch with unlimited sodas and bottled water.

DSCF2718Approaching the Bridge of the Americas which links North America with South America.

DSCF2721Bridge of the Americas

DSCF2734Entering the first of the Miraflores Locks


DSCF2748Inside the Miraflores Locks with the visitor center on the right.

DSCF2770Miraflores Visitor Center



DSCF2765The ascent of 9 meters in just 8 minutes.

DSCF2777Heading into Gatun Lake

DSCF2716En route we passed by the BioMuseo which opened in 2014 and is designed by Frank Gehry.  The museum, located on Amador Causeway, is an explosion of color with the theme being Panama’s biodiversity and its influence on global biodiversity.

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.

DSCF2885The few remains at Panama Viejo which is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific side of the Americas.

DSCF2887The Cathedral with a three-story bell tower which also served as the watchtower for the city.


DSCF2906View from the top of the bell tower of the Cathedral.


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.

DSCF2795View of the skyscrapers of modern Panama from historic Casco Viejo.

DSCF2789Casco Viejo by night

DSCF2801Snow cone vendors in the many squares of Casco Viejo.

DSCF2802Street stalls selling souvenirs line the Esteban Huertas Promenade.

DSCF2804Stroll along Esteban Huertas Promenade to see the stark contrast between the modern skyscrapers in downtown Panama City and historic Casco Viejo.

DSCF2811Steps leading down from Esteban Huertas Promenade to French Plaza.


DSCF2812Plaza de Francia or French Plaza is a beautiful plaza with stone tablets and statues dedicated to the workers who died building the Panama Canal.


DSCF2834Iglesia de Santo Domingo has encountered numerous fires and only ruins of the original church remains today.  Arco Chato, the flat stone arch, that survived all the fires, was at the time a marvel because it, being quite long and not very arching, seemed to defy gravity.  This arch was supposedly a key factor influencing the decision whether to build a canal in Panama or Nicaragua.  It was decided that the arch’s longevity meant there was little earthquake activity and made Panama a safer place to build the canal.

DSCF2837Iglesia de San Jose is one of the most famous churches in Casco Viejo with a beautiful baroque golden altar.  Legend has it that when pirate Henry Morgan raided Panama Viejo, a priest had the altar painted black to hide it from being looted.

DSCF2842Plaza Herrera with the American Trade Hotel in the back.




DSCF2854Iglesia de la Merced, built in 1680, was transferred, stone by stone, from Panama Viejo to its present location in Casco Viejo.


DSCF2876Iglesia de San Francisco

DSCF2877Iglesia de San Francisco

DSCF2873Plaza Bolivar

DSCF2874Palacio Bolivar, now the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, was built on the grounds of a former Franciscan monastery.  Inside is the Salon Bolivar which is where the 1826 congress to discuss the unification of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America took place.

We had a short and wonderful visit here in Panama City before heading onto Havana, Cuba.  Stayed tuned!


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