Travelers arriving at Tocumen International Airport, just outside of Panama City, Panama, will soon realize just how influential the United States of America is to this Central American country, even after the handoff of the storied canal in 1999. Panama’s official paper currency is U.S. Dollars, and its coinage, called Balboas, is interchangeable with American coins because they come in the same denominations and sizes as American loose change; and thus, those globe trekkers who come to this Central American country with American money will be able to forego those pesky exchange and transaction fees. But more importantly, Panama City offers some of the best sightseeing and cultural experiences at prices that won’t break any budget. Here are some must-sees:
Avenue Central Marketplace
If you want a true Panamanian shopping experience, come to this market, whose south half is exclusively for pedestrians, beginning at the Plaza Cinco de Mayo. This cultural mecca will deluge your senses in a breathtaking way! North of the plaza, the marketplace continues, but shoppers must share the streets with automobile congestion. The frugal buyer can find almost any kind of durable goods, food, and internet/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 and an esoteric statue of Mahatma Gandhi, put up in 1969 to promote Indian culture in Panama.
From here, you will see the Pacific gateway to the great canal. The 354 foot-high, 5,007 foot-long Bridge of the Americas looms west of the Causeway and connects eastern and western Panama. From the bridge’s public lookout station, visitors can take in awesome panoramas of the Pacific Ocean. Amador Causeway is made up of a continuous road and a man-made walkway that connects three islands which jut out into the ocean. Isla Naos is where the tourist-accessible Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research resides (http://www.stri.org). Continuing on, you will also come to the petite Isla Perico, before finally embarking upon Isla Flamenco, where a marina and shopping plaza are located.
Panama la Vieja
This is the original location of Panama City, established in 1519. It’s the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific side. The ruins are about three miles east of downtown Panama City. In 1671, English pirate Henry Morgan invaded and destroyed this settlement. It was never rebuilt. Many walls of former dwellings remain intact here, including the facade of the Cathedral tower, which looms grandly over the other ruins. Admission charges are nominal. A cab ride from downtown can run a couple of dollars, or you can take a public bus marked “Panama Viejo” for around 50 cents.
This is the Old Quarter of the city, located a couple miles south of downtown. It was built in 1673, after the original city was laid to waste by Henry Morgan’s gang two years earlier. The famed National Cathedral resides here. The plaza in front of the church is where Panama declared independence from Columbia in 1903. The Panama Canal Museum and the legendary Golden Altar, located in the Iglesia San Jose (St. Joseph’s Church), are located in Casco Viejo. The altar had been spared pillaging in 1671 by Henry Morgan because it was painted black, making its value undetectable to Morgan and his raiders.
An Affordable Daytrip Sampler from Panama City
Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks: 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. Here is where a four story visitors’ center and viewing areas are located to see cargo, cruise, and pleasure vessels being lowered and raised on the locks. For passage through the canal, it can cost a yacht $500 or a large cruise ship over $225,000 to go through the canal. This toll must be paid 48 hours in advance. No credit is allowed. Depending upon your age, nationality and student status, there is an admission charge to enter the visitors’ center of up to $8.00. The website is http://www.pancanal.com .
Portobello: This former treasure holding center for the Spanish Empire is on the Caribbean side of the country. The former Customs House is intact and Gray Vultures ominously guard its abandoned, but well preserved forts, including Fort San Jeronimo. Every October 21, the Black Christ religious celebration takes place here. It’s about a two hour drive or bus ride (which will cost a few dollars) from Panama City’s Albrook Bus Terminal.
ElValle: Seventy-five miles west of the city, the 2.5 hour bus ride/drive to this tropical rainforest paradise via winding and ascending roads is worth the trip alone. A potluck of brightly-colored foliage and plant life dominates this region. El Valle contains ancient petroglyphs, square trees, a waterfall called “El Macho”, and some Golden Frogs. These sites can be accessed for small admission fees. The fare by bus is nominal, again, a few dollars, from Panama City’s Albrook terminal.
One of the best hotel deals in town is the comfy but inexpensive Hotel Venecia, decorated in the spirit of the legendary city of Venice, Italy. It’s just south of downtown on Ave. Peru entre calle 36-37; Phone: 507-227-5252 or 227-7881; website: http://hotelvenecia.cjb.net .
The city’s public transport is made up of souped-up school buses with unique exterior decorations called Diablos Rojos. They run continuously and cost 50 cents or less per ride. A more informative article on Diablos Rojos can be found at Associated Content’s link:
Taxis are plentiful and easy to hail, with most rides ranging from a couple to a few dollars in the city.
All the major car rental agencies like Hertz (www.hertz.com), Budget (www.budget.com), and Dollar (www.dollar.com), do business in Panama City for those who want to explore the city’s sites and take day trips out of town on their own.