Around Panama City

Panamá Viejo

www.panamaviejo.org.

A recommended short trip is to the ruins of Panamá Viejo, 6.5 km northeast along the coast. A wander among the ruins still gives an idea of the site's former glory, although many of the structures have been worn by time, fungus and the sea. The narrow
King's Bridge
(1620) at the north end of the town's limits is a good starting point; it marked the beginning of the three trails across the isthmus and took seven years to build. Walking south brings you to the
Convento de San José
, where the Golden Altar originally stood ; it was spared by the great fire that swept the town during Morgan's attack (which side started the fire is still debated). Several blocks further south is the main plaza, where the square stone tower of the
cathedral
(1535-1580) is a prominent feature. In the immediate vicinity are the Cabildo, with imposing arches and columns, the remnants of
Convento de Santo Domingo
, the
Bishop's Residence
, and the
Slave Market
(or House of the Genovese), whose gaol-like structure was the hub of the American slave trade. There were about 4000 African slaves in 1610, valued at about 300 pesos apiece. Beyond the plazas to the south, on a rocky eminence overlooking the bay, stand the
Royal Houses
, the administrative stronghold including the
Quartermaster's House
, the
Court
and
Chancellery
, the
Real Audiencia
and the
Governor's Residence
.

Further west along the Pacific strand are the dungeons, kitchens and meat market (now almost obliterated by the sea); a store and refreshment stands cluster here on the south side of the plaza, and handicrafts from the Darién are sold along the beach. Across Calle de la Carrera stands another great complex of religious convents:
La Concepción
(1598) and the
Compañía de Jesús
(1621). These too were outside the area destroyed by the 1671 fire but are today little more than rubble. Only a wall remains of the Franciscan
Hospital de San Juan de Dios
, once a huge structure encompassing wards, courtyards and a church. Another block west can be seen part of the
Convento de San Francisco
and its gardens, facing the rocky beach. About 100 m west is the beautiful
Convento de La
Merced
, where Pizarro, Almagro and their men attended Mass on the morning they sailed on their final and momentous expedition to Peru. Decades later Morgan stored his plunder here until it could be counted, divided up and sent back to the Atlantic side. At the western limit of Panamá Viejo stands
La Navidad
Fort
(1658). Its purpose was merely to defend the
Matadero (Slaughterhouse) Bridge
across the Río Agarroba but its 50-man garrison and half-dozen cannon were no match for the determined force of privateers; it is also known as Morgan's Bridge because it was here that the attack began.

There is a
visitor centre
, with exhibitions in Spanish, as well as maps, pictures and models of how Panama's first city would have looked. There are also opportunities for students to volunteer in future excavations (check www.panamaviejo.org). By the ruins is
Museo de Panamá Viejo
.
.

The whole area (unfenced) is attractively landscaped, with plenty of benches to rest on, and floodlit at night. Late afternoon when the sun is low is an especially nice time to visit, although at least two hours should be allowed to appreciate the site fully. The main ruins are patrolled by police and reasonably safe.
Dame Margot Fonteyn
, the ballerina, is buried alongside her husband Roberto Arias Guardia in the Jardín de la Paz cemetery behind Panamá Viejo. IPAT organizes free folklore events and local dance displays on Saturdays in the dry season (
verano
), which are worth seeing. The tourist office in Panama City has a list of programmes and can supply professional guides if required.

Balboa

The town and docks of Balboa are just over 3 km west of Panama City and stand attractively between the Canal quays and Ancón Hill. It has been described as efficient, planned and sterilized - a typical American answer to the wilfulness and riot of the tropics.

The Canal administration building (with fine murals on the ground floor) and a few other official residences are on Balboa Heights. At the foot of the Heights is the town of Balboa, with a small park, a reflecting pool and marble shaft commemorating Goethals, as well as a long palm-flanked parkway known as the Prado. At its eastern end is a theatre, a service centre building, post office and bank.

Fuerte Amador

Before the Puente de las Américas crosses the Panama Canal, the long peninsula of Fuerte Amador stretches into the Pacific, formerly the HQ of the Panamanian Defence Force, seized by US forces in 1989 and returned to Panama in 1994. Beyond Fuerte Amador are the formerly fortified islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco, linked by the 4-km causeway (
Calzada Amador
) built of rubble excavated from the Canal. There are many interesting buildings in this area bearing the marks of the conflict, and some attractive lawns and parkland. The Calzada has been extensively developed over recent years. As you enter the Causeway you pass the Figali Convention Centre, built and inaugurated in 2003 for the Miss Universe competition and centennial celebrations. The Figali Centre now hosts major music and sports events. It has fine views of the Puente de las Américas and the ships lined up to enter the Canal. There are small charges for entry and for swimming at Solidaridad beach on
Naos
(crowded at weekends and the water is polluted - not recommended). There is a small marine park with local marine life on show. At Punta Culebra on Naos is the
Marine Exhibition Center
 (of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), with interesting aquaria and exhibitions on marine fauna. As the road reaches
Isla Perico
, there is a block of restaurants, bars and some shops underneath what is set to be an apartment-style hotel. A 'mega resort' is in process at Naos Harbour - a 300 room hotel, 114 room apartment-hotel, casino, shops, condos and new beach, and there is a proposal for a cable car to the Causeway descending from the top of Ancón Hill.
Flamenco
, the last of the islands, is the headquarters for the National Maritime Service and home to the Flamenco Yacht Club, a large duty-free store and a pristine mall of boutiques, expensive souvenir shops and lively range of restaurants, bars and clubs. Most popular between Wednesday and Saturday nights.

The
Bridge of Life Biodiversity Museum
, www.biomuseopanama.org
, currently being developed on the Causeway, is designed by architect Frank Gehry with botanical gardens designed by New York specialist Edwina von Gal. Labelled a learning centre and 'hub of an interchange of nature, culture, the economy and life' the museum is an impressive and modern testament to Panama's location as a major ecological crossroads.

Taboga Island

There are launch services to Taboga Island, about 20 km offshore. The island is a favourite year-round resort, produces delicious pineapples and mangoes and has one of the oldest churches in the Western hemisphere. There are other good places to swim around the island, but its south side is rocky and sharks visit regularly.

The trip out to Taboga is very interesting, passing the naval installations at the Pacific end of the Canal, the great bridge linking the Americas, tuna boats and shrimp fishers in for supplies, visiting yachts from all over the world at what remains of the Balboa Yacht Club, and the Calzada Amador. Part of the route follows the channel of the Canal, with its busy traffic. Taboga itself, with a promontory rising to 488 m, is carpeted with flowers at certain times of year. There are few cars in the meandering, helter-skelter streets, and just one footpath as a road. All items are expensive on the island, so make sure you bring plenty of cash as there is no bank.

Pearl Islands

A longer trip, 75 km southwest by launch, takes you to the Pearl Islands, visited mostly by sea anglers for the Pacific mackerel, red snapper, corvina, sailfish, marlin and the other species that abound in these waters. High mountains rise from the sea, and there is a little fishing village on a shelf of land at the water's edge. There was much pearl fishing in colonial days.
Contadora
, one of the smallest Pearl Islands (three-hour boat trip), has become quite famous since its name became associated with a Central American peace initiative. It was also where the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Rezá Pahlaví, was exiled, in a house called Puntalara, after the Iranian Revolution. Contadora is popular with Canadian, Spanish and Italian holidaymakers and is becoming crowded, built-up and consequently is not as peaceful as it once was. Lack of drinking water is now harming the tourist development. There are beautiful beaches with crystal-clear water, good skin-diving and sailing, and lots of sharks.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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