• Adam

Panama City, Panama: Hub of the Americas

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

I headed to Panama for a few days of exploring just before the new year. It was hot and humid, which was no surprise given how close Panama is to the Equator.

I flew into Panama City and took a bus into the city. (It required a short walk to the main road, and as I did not have a prepaid card, paid someone the fare who was nice enough to tap his card for me.) I was surprised how big and modern Panama City was and how many high-rise buildings they had. I've never been to Dubai but that's what it reminded me of! Apart from the endless skyscrapers, the city has an underground Metro and a paved bike trail along the waterfront (and, oddly, around the old "Casco Viejo" neighborhood).

"Dubai of the Americas"? - as seen from the bike trail Traditional vs. Modern

The colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo with the modern Panama City in the background. Taken from the bike trail which is a bridge that surrounds the entire Casco Viejo district!

Clearly, Panama's location at the center of the Western Hemisphere made its mark.

I also found it fascinating that Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. They have their

own coins for $1, 50 cents, 25 cents, etc. but they use US dollar bills and do not have a currency of their own.

Here I was given $2.75 in change: the 2-tone coins are each US$1, the large silver coin is US$0.50, and an ordinary US quarter

Shortly after arriving I took a stroll along the waterfront and ended up renting a bicycle not far from Casco Viejo. I then rode all the way out to the end of the Amador Causeway which leads to a couple islands. It started pouring rain and I took refuge in the canopy of a building that turned out to be the "Latin American Parliament" - which is like a United Nations for Latin America that I had no idea existed.

This road also paralleled the famous Panama Canal - and dozens of ships could be seen exiting the canal or waiting their turn to enter. I tried riding my bike over the Bridge of the Americas - despite the traffic - until a policeman directing traffic yelled at me and told me to come back

when it wasn't so busy.

At night I visited the old Casco Viejo neighborhood. As one would expect of an old settlement, it is compact with narrow streets and colonial architecture.

Casco Viejo, by day and by night

In the morning I headed to the Metropolitan Natural Park - it is a jungle yet located right inside of the city limits! I saw coatis and agoutis as I walked along the path to a high point with a view of the city. But my eyes were peeled for the elusive but legendary Three Toed Sloth. Sadly, one of the paths was closed and I had to walk back out the way I came in - all the while hoping to find the slow moving creature casually hanging from a vine. All hope seemed lost until I saw a group of Swedish tourists on a bird-watching tour with their guide's camera on a tripod pointing up high in the jungle's canopy. I asked what they were looking at and they invited me to take a

look - atop the trees at least 100 feet above the ground was a male sloth! I had to take a picture through the camera since it was so far away, but I felt satisfied having seen one before I left the park.

Panama City Skyline as seen from inside the jungle

After leaving the park, I traveled by car a short distance to Panama's most famous landmark - the Panama Canal. More specifically, I went to the Miraflores Locks, which are the locks closest to the city and also has a visitor's center. It was not cheap - at $20, this visit was probably the single most expensive thing I did in Panama - so a cheaper option would have been to rent a car and visit the locks and visitor center on the Atlantic side - but at least Miraflores had an extensive exhibition explaining the history and engineering required to build the canal. It also had an observation deck. When I was there, a small cruise ship and some pleasure craft were passing through. Because the center of the canal (cut through the Continental Divide) is 85 feet above sea level, a series of locks must raise ships to pass through the canal before lowering them again. And before you decide to take your boat through the canal - bear in mind that the cheapest toll is $850 and increases to $100,000+ for the biggest container ships!

Waiting for the lock to fill... ...and ready to move on to the next one!

The middle of the day does not see ship traffic because the locks are one-way for 12 hours a day and then they have to wait for ships to pass through before changing directions. Unfortunately, I only saw a few boats pass through and no large container ships, but it was still fascinating to see. Between the observation and the museum I probably spent 2 hours there.

Elsewhere I enjoyed what is a modern and charming city, including the trendy nightlife in Via Argentina and delicious microbrews.

A vending machine that squeezes oranges! Bad English sign at the bus station

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