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Panama City’s Attractions

Casco Viejo in Panama City
The Old Quarter in Panama City known as "Casco Viejo."

When travelers arrive at Tocumen International Airport they soon realize just how important the U.S. is to this Central American country, even after its handoff of the Panama Canal in 1999. Panama’s official paper currency is U.S. dollars, and its coins, called “balboas,” are interchangeable with American coins. So globetrekkers who come to Panama with American money can forego those pesky exchange and transaction fees. More importantly, Panama City offers some of the best sight-seeing and cultural bargains in the hemisphere. Here are some of my favorites:

Avenue Central Marketplace: For a true Panamanian shopping experience, come to this cultural mecca, whose south half, beginning at the Plaza Cinco de Mayo, is exclusively for pedestrians. The frugal buyer can find almost any kind of durable goods, food, and Internet or long-distance access along this multi-block stretch, where a steady soundtrack of energetic salsa music emanates from the shops. From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, you are only a block away from the old Panama Canal Railway Station.

Avenue Central Marketplace in Panama City
A newspaper delivery man carries his stack on the Avenue Central Marketplace in Panama City.

Amador Causeway: From here you see the Pacific gateway to the Panama Canal: the 354-feet-high, 5,000 feet-long Bridge of the Americas that connects eastern and western Panama. From the bridge’s public lookout station, you’ll witness awe-inspiring views of the Pacific Ocean. The Amador Causeway connects three islands. On Isla Naos is the tourist-accessible Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research (www.stri.org). Continuing on, you come to the little Isla Perico before finally reaching Isla Flamenco, with a marina and shopping plaza.

Panama la Vieja: the original location of Panama City, established in 1519, is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific side. In 1671 the pirate Henry Morgan destroyed the settlement and it was never rebuilt. The facade of the cathedral tower looms grandly over the other ruins. A cab ride from downtown can cost a few dollars, or you can take a public bus marked “Panama Viejo” for around 50 cents.

Casco Viejo: The Old Quarter of Panama City, located a couple of miles south of downtown, was built in 1673, after the original city was laid to waste by Henry Morgan’s gang. The famed National Cathedral and its plaza is where Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903. The Panama Canal Museum and the legendary Golden Altar (found in the Iglesia San Jose), are located in Casco Viejo.

Affordable Daytrips from Panama City: Across the street from Plaza Cinco De Mayo you can take a SACA bus for around 50 cents (at the Summit/Pariso gate) or a several-dollar cab ride to the Miraflores Locks, about a half-hour away. The 4-story visitors’ center and viewing areas allow you to see cargo, cruise, and pleasure vessels being lowered and raised on the locks. The website is www.pancanal.com.

At Portobello, the former treasure-holding center for the Spanish Empire, the former customs house is intact and gray vultures ominously guard its abandoned but well-preserved forts. It’s about a 2-hour drive or bus ride (costing a few dollars each way) from Panama City’s Albrook Bus Terminal. The 2.5-hour 75-mile bus ride to El Valle, a tropical rainforest paradise, is worth the trip alone. El Valle contains ancient petroglyphs, a waterfall called “El Macho,” and some golden frogs. The bus fare is also few dollars each way from Panama City’s Albrook terminal.

Fort San Jeronimo in Portobello
The grounds of the abandoned Fort San Jeronimo, in Portobello.

El Valle rainforest in Panama
The tropical rainforest of El Valle.

For More Info

Some of the best information for your trip to Panama City and the rest of the country can be found at www.panamainfo.com. My favorite hotel in Panama City is the comfy but inexpensive Hotel Venecia, just south of downtown on Ave. Peru entre Calle 36-37; Tel. 011-507-227-5252 or 227-7881; hotelvenecia.cjb.net or see www.panamahotels.com.

Panama City’s public souped-up school buses with unique exterior decorations run continuously and cost 50 cents and under per ride. Taxis are plentiful and easy to hail, with fares generally running a few dollars.