In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa led an expedition across the isthmus of Panama, and became the first European to set eyes upon the Pacific Ocean in the process (from the American side at least). He immediately claimed the ocean and all lands that it touched for the Spanish crown. Balboa went on to become governor of the region. Six years later he was beheaded by his arch enemy, Pedro Arias de Ávila, on charges of treason. Pedro Arias de Ávila, who had already usurped Balboa’s role as governor, founded Panama City later that year (1519).
Panama City soon became the place from which to launch your expedition of the New World. Gold and silver began flowing through the city. Pirates followed.
In 1671 Welsh pirate Henry Morgan raided the city with an army of 1400 men at his back. The city was burnt to the ground, and had to be abandoned.
The ruins of the original city, now known as Panama Viejo (a UNESCO World Heritage site), sit forlornly on their little promontory on Panama Bay. Surrounded by mangroves and mud flats, isolated form the modern city, the ruins are a quiet, sombre place.
Remember to take insect repellant when you visit; the mosquitos are fierce.
Casco Viejo, Panama City
Founded in 1673 on a small, easily defended peninsula on Panama Bay, the new city, now known as Casco Viejo, flourished for a good many decades. But the sacking of Portobelo by the British in 1739, marked the end of the glory days for wealthy port cities in the New World. Much of Panama City fell to ruin.
Nowadays Casco Viejo is a mix of derelict, centuries-old churches, elegantly restored hotels and theatres, posh bars and restaurants, empty shells of formerly grand structures, vacant lots that reek of urine, and a smorgasbord of half-restored buildings of unknown future use.
It’s an interesting and appealing streetscape, but at the time of my visit (April 2016), the streets were hauntingly empty, apart from the occasional excessively loud group of American tourists. Gone is the hustle and bustle, gone is the street life, gone is the character and charm of the city.
In its stead: a soulless tourist trap.
El Malecón, Panama City
A broad swathe of grass incised by a wide, curving walkway that runs between Avenida Balboa and the water’s edge. On a Sunday afternoon El Malecón is thick with picnicking kin, kids on roller blades, families on 4-seater bikes, ice-cream vendors, and canoodling couples.
Mercado de Mariscos, Panama City
At the southern end of El Malecón lies the Mercado de Mariscos (fish market), which includes a busy outdoor dining area selling all kinds of food from the sea. Shrimp cocktails are the order of the day, dispensed to passersby in small cardboard cups.
Those wanting a more substantial meal will be tempted by the variety of fish the restaurants list on their menus: red snapper, tuna, swordfish. Lower your expectations. The restaurants are unlikely to have any of the fish they advertise, and your dream of a big red snapper fillet will need to be replaced with that of a whole small corvina (a fish similar to a sea trout).
The corvina will be fried in a cajun-seasoned batter, and you’re guaranteed to pick the bones clean.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Conceived of as far back as 1534, in the early 20th Century the dream of a waterway crossing of the isthmus of Panama became a reality. In 1914 the Panama Canal opened, saving the ships that passed through its locks a 12,000 kilometre trip around Cape Horn.
Watching container ships pass through a canal doesn’t sound exciting. But the careful, precise movement of these immense ships, and the steady outpouring of the vast quantities of water required to run the locks, is unexpectedly captivating.
They are the industrial/engineering equivalent of Niagara Falls.
Parque National Metropolitano (Metropolitan National Park), Panama City
A large, lush tropical forest in the centre of the Panama City. Get there early in the morning and you might see sloths, monkeys, agoutis, and coatis.
Get there at midday, as I did, and you’ll just see a couple birds and lizards. You’ll also have to climb to the lookout in the sticky heat of the day. Great view though.
Bridge of the Americas, Panama City
The Bridge of the Americas is one of three bridges that connect the North American and South American continents. Without these bridges the continents would slowly drift apart. 😉
Biomuseo, Panama City
The physical structure of the Panama Biomuseo is more famous than the exhibitions on biodiversity it contains. The musuem was designed by starchitect Frank Gehry (Gehry’s wife is from Panama; he donated the design).
A 45 min boat trip brings you to Isla Taboga, also known as the Island of Flowers. Tourists are dropped off at the fishing village of San Pedro, close to several sandy beaches.
The beach on the northern end of town, which looks idyllic from the ferry, consists of a light dusting of sand on top of a protruding layer of crushed brick and concrete (to combat an erosion issue I am guessing). An abundance of litter makes this beach a little less pleasant than the locals would have you believe.
There is a second, smaller beach on the southern side of the ferry terminal. It looks pretty, has nice sand coverage, and minimal litter. Running onto the back of the beach, however, are a number of household pipes discharging sewage. Swim at your own peril.
The beaches aren’t so nice, but it’s a pretty island, with a cute fishing village, and San Pedro Church is supposedly the second oldest church in the Americas.
Modern Panama City
Panama City has a skyline unlike any other in Central America. And its economy is still underpinned by the engineering marvel that helped put the country on the map: the Panama Canal.
Practical information and how to reach Panama City:
Panama City has an international airport with regular flights to cities throughout Central America, South America, and North America. More transport info here.
More on Panama:
More on Central America: