Panama City, Panama, is more than home to the famous Panama Canal. While the canal is the top tourist attraction in the city, missing out on the other treasures this country has would be a great loss.
According to a report from the Ministry of Economy and Finance, tourism grew 21.4% in the first quarter of 2012, suggesting that people are recognizing the rich culture of Panama.
Although Costa Rica has overshadowed Panama as a tourist destination, Panama's history, diversity, and cosmopolitan flare are finally getting the attention they deserve.
To experience one of Panama's most alluring attractions, start with a trip to Casco Viejo. You can spend several hours walking the narrow streets, rich will historic buildings, plazas, and monuments to people who contributed much to Panama's history. Besides the points of interest listed below, the city has a variety of bars and restaurants to relax as you absorb the history.
To begin, Casco Viejo is Spanish for 'Old Town.' This historic area replaced the original city, Panama Viejo, on January 21, 1673. The governor set the city ablaze in 1671 before the infamous pirate Henry Morgan attacked the city. Panama Viejo was originally founded on August 15, 1519. When the city was rebuilt, it wasdecidee that it should be moved to the peninusla, where it now stands, because it would be buffered by the sea and extensive, protective walls.
It's best to see the town by foot, although some people do hire drivers. The streets are narrow, so viewing the buildings and monuments is limited in a vehicle. The city's architecture alone is fascinating, for architectural enthusiasts as well as novices.
Among the noteworthy places to see are:
1. The Presidential Palace, or Palacio de las Garzas, is the official residence of the President of Panama, and also contains his offices. Herons strut about the palace grounds and are visible behind the iron gate at the palace entrance. The presence of the Heron have earned the palace its other name, Heron Palace.
2. Inglesia de San Jose, or San Jose Church is one of four churches that, according to my experienced, Panamanian taxi driver and tour guide, Jose Gonzales, is connected to the other three churches by underground tunnels.The church houses the famous and spectacular 'golden altar,' whose doors are opened for one day, every year, on January 1. It's the day when the contents are removed from the 'cabinet' and displayed for public viewing. Legend has it that the altar, the only thing that remained after the 'notorious' pirate Morgan attacked the city, was 'spared' because a priest painted the altar black to disguise it.
3. The Flat Arch, at the ruins of the Church of the Convenant of Santo Domingo, is important because it was considered an 'impossible' architectural feat. Many people thought a beam or plank concealed inside the arch was responsible for its shape. However, after a fire destroyed the church in 1756, and it was being dismantled, that claim proved false when no such support was found. The church was never rebuilt. According to historical reports, the fact that arch stood for so long without collapsing, proved that Panama was outside the earthquake zone – a major concern when discussions about constructing a lock-type canal first took place.
4. Teatro Nacional, or National Theater, was an unexpected surprise, since I previously never read reference to the theater prior to my visit. Originally opened in 1905, the theater fell into disrepair until it was refurbished, at two separate times - in 1970 and 2000 – before it finally opened in 2004. While it was not open when I visited Casco Viejo, it reportedly has an amazing mural on its ceiling, depicting muses and people who have been an important part of Panama's history. The paintings were done by one of Panama's renowned artists, Roberto Lewis. The building, described as 'neo-baroque' style, is a treat for any architectural enthusiast. One of the bronze medallion, affixed to the front of the building, is an image of William Shakespeare. (It was difficult to find information about specific performances at the theater, but the following website invites inquiries about upcoming events: www.cascoviejo.org, or call 507-262-3525. Teatro Nacional is a venue for music, dance, and theater, and reportedly has amazing acoustics. (Note: According to many local Panamanians, Casco Viejo is not deemed 'safe' after dark, so be cautious.)
5. The Panama Canal Museum contains objects and information about the planning, construction and current operation of the Panama Canal, an 'engineering feat' that continues to intrigue people from around the world. But be aware that the text is in Spanish. No doubt, however, you'll still be able to enjoy the pictures and artifacts on view. (Supposedly English-speaking guides are available on certain days, and are available for city tours.)Check out: www.cascoAntiguo.gob.pa
There's a lot to see around this intriguing national treasure, so I recommend making Casco Viejo a full-day excursion. A taxi from downtown Panama City should cost less than $5.