Panama City has an important location on the narrow isthmus between Central and South America. Its position is strongly linked to both its history and its modern-day prosperity. Panama City today is modern and stylish, but with a slow-paced Central American vibe.
Panama’s Old City, Casco Viejo, was actually the second Spanish settlement in Panama City. The original Spanish colonial town, built in the 1500s, was burned down during an attack by renowned pirate, Captain Morgan. Casco Viejo was established 12 km away on a small cape in 1673. Casco Viejo is therefore around 150 years younger than first settlement in Panama and 100 years younger than nearby Cartagena, Colombia. The difference between Cartagena and Casco Viejo today is that Panama’s Old Town has only been partially restored. Although our pictures don’t show it, about half of the buildings in Casco Viejo are either under restoration or require restoration. The ones that have been renovated though are in fabulous shape. Their pastel painted walls, pretty balconies and decorated windows are a reminder of what this town looked like 250 years ago.
The large churches in Casco Viejo are beautiful stone buildings with ornate interiors. The glittery golden alter at the front of Iglesia de San Jose has an interesting history. The legend says that when Panama City was under attack by Captain Morgan, a priest hid mounds of gold in the Pacific Ocean. Only when Captain Morgan left, was the priest able to retrieve the gold. He used this gold to create an ornate alter in the new church in Casco Viejo.
Panama is a very modern city located on the Bay of Panama in the Pacific Ocean. Many of its tall skyscrapers have ultramodern designs that add interest to the downtown area. There is a lovely park with a walking path along the Pacific shore. From here if you look toward the city you see the tall skyline of these modern buildings in front of the ocean. One direction faces the modern city, but round the corner and you see the old colonial buildings of Casco Viejo. It’s an interesting contrast.
The tides are very dramatic in Panama City. It’s interesting to see the city from the same spot during both low and high tides to see the striking difference. Fishing boats go from resting on the muddy beaches to floating in the deep harbour waters.
The Panama Canal
One of the most famous landmarks in Panama is the canal. We thought it would simply be a few boats going down a canal. Actually, that’s all it is, but it was one of the most fascinating places we visited. The canal allows boats to cross Central America from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and vice versa. The passage involved 3 sets of locks, several artificial lakes and is spread over 80 km (50 miles). We went to Miraflores Locks where there are two stages spread over 1.7 km and an elevation difference of 16m (54ft) from one end to the other. It was very impressive watching the large cargo ships be skillfully led into narrow channels by 4 small locomotives and stop under control just behind small sailboats and ferries.
To make up for the 16 m difference in height from one side of the locks to the other, the water level in each stage is either raised or lowered to match the level of the next stage. As soon as all boats were inside the stage, the large gates opened and water poured out. We watched as the boats slowly disappeared, as if they were sinking, as their water levels lowered. Then the locks opened, and all we saw was the tips of the boats pass by. In the next stage, they are at the same height as the water in the bay. It doesn’t seem unusual until you look back and see the water level in the first stage.
Once through the lock, the gates closed and water bubbled up, refilling the canal for the next boats in line. The locks operate in one direction for half of the day, and then in the other direction for the other half. It was fascinating to see the water level differences between the inside and outside of the locks. As well as the difference between the two canals in front of us since they were at different stages of letting boats pass through.
We met a man who used to work at the canal. He told us there is a tunnel underneath the canals so workers can get from one side to the other. He also said that his job was to clean out the large filters at the bottom of the canal. Sometimes large fish get caught in the filters and die in the canal.
An hour outside of Panama is the ex-pat community of Coronado. We wanted to check out this neighbourhood to see what ex-pat living entails. We knew it was a gated community, but we expected to find a community with restaurants and convenience stores. Instead what we found was long streets with tall walls and gates preventing anyone from seeing in. We were able to get access to the beach so we did have a better look at the area. From the beach we could see many tall condo buildings and large private beach homes. There were wonderful views along the coast, but it didn’t have a community feel. We’ll have to keep looking.
Tips for visiting Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal
Miraflores Locks are the closest locks to Panama City so are very popular but offer a great view of the locks in action.
Getting to Miraflores Locks
By bus – Take the metro to Albrook Mall, then cross the shopping mall to the bus terminal. Catch the bus with a sign for ‘Miraflores’. They let you off at the front door of the observatory. Do the reverse to return to the city.
By taxi – From Casco Viejo a taxi will cost $5 USD for a one-way trip. You will spend at least one hour, so don’t have the taxi wait. There are many taxis available to take you back.
Tours – There are many tours offered in the city, but you don’t need a tour, it’s very easy to do on your own.
Miraflores Locks are open every day from 8 am – 6 pm. Tickets are sold until 5:15 pm. The boats go one way in the morning and the opposite in the afternoon. On most days there are no boats in the locks between approximately 10 am and 2 pm because they are switching the locks from one direction to the other. This time will vary a little each day. We arrived at 1:45 and had to stand in a long line to purchase tickets. By the time we got to the front of the line and bought our tickets, the four floors of Miraflores were crowded. We thought we wouldn’t see anything, but after the first boats went through (1 hour), most people left. We had a perfect view of the second boats, so it actually helped us to wait in line. Either arrive very early, or arrive 45 – 60 minutes after the first boat is scheduled. That way the tour buses have left and crowds are thinner.
Coming Next: Finding Paradise in San Blas Islands
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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