Checking Out Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal

April 7, 2017:

Wednesday night (April 5th) we arrived in Panama City, Panama, with our good friends, Shawn and Sylvia Ashley.  We are staying in the old colonial part of the city, which is known as Casco Viejo.  This is the third time Jim and I have visited here in the last 5 years. Each time we return, I am astounded at how much has changed (I.e., has been restored) here!  The first time we came, about 1/3 of the old town was restored, 1/3 was in the process of restoration, and the remaining third was inhabited by squatters in totally decaying colonial buildings.

Now, however, the restored portion occupies almost twice as many blocks, there are very few squatters left, and restoration construction is going on like crazy al oust everywhere. There are now quite a few options of places to stay, and many more restaurants, bars and nicer shops. We found our lodgings through Airbnb this time, and are staying in what is kind of a mini hotel called La Isabella Suites.  It is only four apartments, complete with kitchen, 2 bedrooms and baths (with modern facilities) and great air conditioning!  It also has a really nice communal interior courtyard where we have enjoyed drinking Cuba Libres with Shawn and Sylvia!

Our first night we got in just before 10, which gave us just enough time to grab some groceries for the morning, and then we had dinner at a great local restaurant just around the corner from us called Tantalo.

Yesterday, we allowed ourselves to sleep in, and then we gave Shawn and Sylvia a brief walking tour of Casco Viejo, which was built in 1673, after captain Henry Morgan sacked the original old city of Panama  (called Panama Vieja) in 1671, which is located about11 miles away. The old city was established after the Spanish explorer, Balboa, discovered the Pacific Ocean there in 1519.

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Plaza de Francia

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Since our first visit, the Panamanians have built a huge elevated causeway that encircles Casco Viejo. From the point at the end of Casco Viejo, you can see the entire skyline of Panama City which encircles two bays with gleaming, modern skyscrapers. It is very impressive, and quite the contrast to the colonial era architecture. You can also see the Amador Causeway which goes out to three local islands. In effect, the Amador Causeway creates a breakwater for the entrance to the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. On the Causeway, you can also see the brightly colored eclectic roofline of the Biomuseo, which was designed by Frank Gehry.

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For our first day here, we scheduled a tour guide to show us the high points of old and new Panama City. Our first stop was at the Amador Causeway.  Although we didn’t have time to see the Biomuseo, we were able to see the Bridge of the Americas over the entrance to the Canal.

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Bridge of the Americas

From there we drove through the newer financial center of downtown, and gained an appreciation of the really horrendous traffic challenges in this city!

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Our final stop was at the museum complex housing covering Panama Vieja. Our guide, Mayra (from Easy Travel Panama), did a great job of highlighting the key inflection points in Panamá’s history. Then we walked over to the ruins of Panamá Vieja. The museum had some pretty good reproductions od old maps, showing the layout of the city. Interestingly, although the city was a very key commercial center, providing for the transshipment of gold and silver from South America, it was also a very vibrant religious center, with monasteries and convents for virtually all of the major Catholic orders.

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We climbed to the top of the bell tower for the ruins of the cathedral. The views are great from here, offering the whole modern skyline and also, of Casco Viejo.  We walked a bit further among the ruins, and admired the bright red blooming poinciana trees. Then it was time to challenge the traffic back across town.

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We enjoyed happy hour out in our courtyard and then it was time for a real treat! We had scored reservations for dinner at Dondejose, which is currently the No. 1 ranked restaurant in Panamá City. It also happened to be just 2 blocks from our apartment! Dondejose features a 12 course tasting menu which showcases the best of Panamanian cuisine, modernized to fully use all the local and fresh ingredients. We all agreed that it had earned its super-star status!

This morning, our guide Mayra ocicked us up early so we could go explore the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone. When the U.S. finished the Canal in 1914, they were granted a five mile wide swath of land on either side of the canal for its entire length to use for canal administration purposes. The U.S. built housing, military bases, office buildings, shops, schools and many other facilities to serve their forces stationed in Panamá. When the U.S. turned over ownership of the canal back to Panamá back in 1999, they also turned over all the land and buildings in the Canal Zone. The Panamanian government auctioned off many of the homes and land to Panamanians and U.S. citizens who decided to stay in Panama. Our tour started off with a meandering drive through some of the residential areas, where the homes are lovely examples of colonial architecture which have been lovingly restored and maintained.

Our next stop was at the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, which is located at the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Canal.  We were very fortunate that just as we arrived, a huge cruise ship entered the locks, and we were able to go directly to the viewing area to watch the ship pass through the locks.

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You might think that a canal which was completed over 100 years ago had lost some of its interest to newer engineering marvels, but this is not the case. The Miraflores Visitors’ Center is crammed full every day, and many of the visitors appeared to be Panamanian families viewing this marvel!  Once again, Mayra was able to significantly add to the impact of the museum after we watched the cruise ship pass.  Jim and Had visited this museum once before, but it appeared that the Canal authority has continued to invest in the educational mission of the Visitors’ Center, because many of the exhibits appeared new, and covered topics not covered in our previous visit. Shawn and Sylvia seemed as impressed as we are by this world-class operation.

After we left the Visitors’ Center, we took a turn onto what is known as the Pipeline Road, which takes you immediately into the rain forest which flanks both side of the canal.  We proceeded to hike into the jungle in hopes of seeing some of the amazing flora and fauna which continues to exist right here next to civilization.  Although we saw some interesting bird species, I had hoped to see some of the other wildlife such as sloths and monkeys which are also plentiful here. We could hear some monkeys i the trees nearby (particularly, howler monkeys which kind of sound like leopards roaring). However, it was midday by this time, and Mayra told us we’d have better luck next time if we planned to visit either at dawn or dusk when the animals are feeding. Note to self: remember this!

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We did go to the Discovery Center in the park and hiked up to the top of an observation tower there, as we hoped to have some views of  Gatún Lake. Although there was a view, I think there is a better view offered from the observation tower at Soberania Park nearby.  Nonetheless, the highlight of the Discovery Center is that there are many different breeds of hummingbirds present at a viewing station where food for them is kept. Oh, wow! What beautiful birds!

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Panama City-168Panama City-170Finally, we stopped at the Gamboa Rainforest Hotel to take a boat tour out onto Gatún Lake to visit Monkey Island and hopefully see some monkeys. After our hike in the forest and climb up the observation tower, we were very happy to be out on the lake letting the breeze dry us off!

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Once again, we saw numerous interesting bird species, a small caiman (like an alligator), and a turtle, but the monkey laughed at us from the underbrush and refused to come out.  We also heard some toucans, but were not able to get a clear view of them. It was a little disappointing, but as happy hour was near, we were eager to return to Casco Viejo!

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Our last night there was celebrated at yet another restaurant within a couple of blocks of our home base. This one was a Peruvian restaurant called Nazca 21, and it offered some really excellent ceviche, as well as other dishes. Then we enjoyed cocktails on the rooftop bar at Tantalo, and watched the weekend come alive in Casco Viejo. Stay tuned, because tomorrow our cruise begins as we sail out of Colón on the Caribbean side of the Panamá Canal.


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