Sights

The principal districts of interest to vistors include El Cangrejo, Campo Alegre, Paitilla, and Coco del Mar, where the international banks, luxury hotels and restaurants are located. Calidonia, Bella Vista and Perejil are bustling with commerce, traffic, and mid-price hotels.

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (the 'Old Compound' or San Felipe), which occupies the narrow peninsula east of Calle 11, is an unusual combination of beautifully restored public buildings, churches, plazas, monuments and museums alongside inner-city decay which, after decades of neglect, is now gradually being gentrified. Several budget hotels are found here, some very badly run-down but not without their faded glory. Created in 1673 after the sacking of old Panama, Casco Viejo is a treasure trove of architectural delights, some restored, others in a desperate state of repair, but most demanding a gentle meander through the shady streets. In 1992 local authorities began reviving some of the area's past glory by painting the post-colonial houses in soft pastels and their decorations and beautiful wrought-iron railings in relief. New shops and restaurants are moving into restored buildings in an attempt to make Casco Viejo a tourist attraction.

At the walled tip of the peninsula is the picturesque
Plaza de Francia
, with its bright red poinciana trees and obelisk topped by a cockerel (symbol of the Gallic nation), which has a document with 5000 signatures buried beneath it. Twelve large narrative plaques and many statues recall the French Canal's construction history and personalities; the work of Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay in establishing the cause of yellow fever is commemorated on one tablet. Facing the plaza is the French Embassy, housed in a pleasant early 20th-century building; it stubbornly refused to relocate during the years when the neighbourhood declined and is now one of the main focus points in the area's renaissance. Built flush under the old seawalls around the plaza are
Las Bóvedas
(The Vaults), the thick-walled colonial dungeons where prisoners in tiny barred cells were immersed up to their necks during high tides. Nine 'vaults' were restored by the Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT) in 1982 and converted into an art gallery -
Galería Las Bóvedas
, - and handicraft centre. The French restaurant
Las Bóvedas
occupies another two 'vaults' next to the former Palacio de Justicia, partly burned during 'Operation Just Cause' and now housing the
Instituto Nacional
de Cultura
(INC), with an interesting mural by Esteban Palomino on the ground floor.

Steps lead up from the Plaza de Francia to the
Paseo de las Bóvedas
promenade along the top of the defensive walls surrounding the peninsula on three sides. This is a popular place for an evening stroll; it is ablaze with bougainvillea and affords good views of the Bahía de Panamá, the Serranía de Majé on the Panama/Darién provincial border (on a clear day), Calzada Amador (known during the Canal Zone era as the Causeway) and the islands beyond.

Two blocks northwest of the Plaza (Avenida A and Calle 3) are the restored ruins of the impressive
Church and Convent of Santo Domingo
(1673, later destroyed by fires in 1737 and 1756), both with paired columns and brick inlaying on their façades. The famous 15-m-long flat arch,
Arco Chato
, which formed the base of the choir, was built entirely of bricks and mortar with no internal support. When the great debate as to where the Canal should be built was going on in the United States Congress, a Nicaraguan postage stamp showing a volcano, with all its implications of earthquakes, and the stability of this arch - a supposed proof of no earthquakes - are said to have played a large part in determining the choice in Panama's favour. A chapel on the site has been converted into the interesting
Museo de Arte Colonial Religioso
,
whose treasures include a precious Golden Altar, a delicate snail staircase, silver relics and wooden sculptures from Lima and Mexico, 19th-century engravings of the city, and the skeleton of a woman found during excavation of the church.

Not far from Santo Domingo, across Avenida Central, the neoclassical
Teatro Nacional
, with 850-seat capacity, opened in 1908 with Verdi's
Aida
being performed in what was then considered the state of the art in acoustics. French-influenced sculptures and friezes enliven the façade, while Roberto Lewis' paintings depicting the birth of the nation adorn the theatre's dome. The ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, who married a member of the prominent Arias family and was a long-time resident of Panama until her death in 1991, danced at the theatre's re-inauguration in 1974.

Diagonally opposite the Teatro Nacional (Avenida B and Calle 3) is the peaceful
Plaza Bolívar
, with a statue of the liberator Simón Bolívar, draped in robes, standing below a large condor surrounded by plaques of his deeds. Around the square are the former
Hotel Colombia
, the
Church of San Felipe Neri
, and many 19th-century houses still displaying roofs of red-clay tiles bearing the stamp 'Marseilles 1880'. On the east side stand
San Francisco Church
, colonial but 'modified' in 1917 and modernized in 1983, and the
San Francisco Convent
(1678), the largest of all the religious buildings, which was restored by Peruvian architect Leonardo Villanueva. The Bolivarian Congress of June 1826, at which Bolívar proposed a United States of South America, was also held in the Chapter Room of the Convent, now known as the
Salón Bolívar
, and the 1904 Constitution was also drafted here. This northern wing was dedicated as the
Instituto Bolívar
in 1956; its wood panelling, embossed leather benches and paintings (restored in part by the government of Ecuador) may be viewed with an authorized guide from the Bolivarian Society. The adjacent Colegio Bolívar, built on a pier over the water, is due to become the new Cancillería (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Another long block west of Plaza Bolívar, and one block north on the seafront (Avenida Eloy Alfaro) between Calles 5 y 6, is the
Palacio Presidencial
, the most impressive building in the city, built as an opulent residence in 1673 for successive colonial auditors and governors, enlarged and restored under President Belisario Porras in 1922.

A few blocks west, Avenida Alfaro curves north around the waterfront to the colourful
Central Market
, Mercado San Felipe and the
Muelle Fiscal
wharf where coastal vessels anchor and small cargo boats leave for Darién and sometimes Colombia. Two blocks further north, where Avenida Alfaro meets Avenida Balboa by the pier, is the modern
Mercado de Mariscos
(fish and seafood market), where fishermen land their catch.

Returning to Casco Viejo, two blocks south of the Palacio Presidencial is the heart of the old town, the
Plaza Catedral
or
Independencia
, with busts of the Republic's founders, and surrounding public buildings. On the west is the
cathedral
(1688-1794, refurbished in 1999), with its twin towers, domes, classical façade encrusted with mother-of-pearl and three of the tower bells brought from the Old Panama Cathedral. To the right of the main altar is a subterranean passage that leads to other
conventos
and the sea. On the southwest corner with Calle 7 is the neoclassical
Palacio Municipal
(City Hall), on the first floor of which is the
Museo de Historia de Panamá
, which covers the nation's history since European landfall, and includes highlights of the treaty between Panama and the USA which led to the construction of the Canal. The former post office next door, originally built in 1875 as the
Grand Hotel
(“the largest edifice of that kind between San Francisco and Cape Horn” according to a contemporary newspaper), is the city's best example of French architecture. It became de Lesseps' headquarters during Canal excavations in the 1880s and was sold back to Panama in 1912. It has been entirely gutted and converted into the
Museo del Canal Interoceánico
, www.museodelcanal.com
. It has an interesting and comprehensive history of Panama - mainly the central provinces - as shaped by its pass route. Recommended.

The east side of the Plaza is dominated by the former
Archbishop's Palace
. Later occupied by a university, this was a shelter for runaway kids and then spent a period as the
Central Hotel
(1884), once the most luxurious in Central America. The interior featured a palm garden, restaurants, barber shop, 100 rooms with private baths and a wooden staircase imported from New York, and it was the centre of Panama's social life for decades. Today it is decrepit and may, in time, benefit from the creeping regeneration of the old city.

There are a number of other interesting religious structures within two or three blocks of the cathedral, but the most-visited is the
Church of San José
, with its famous Altar de Oro, a massive baroque altar carved from mahogany and, according to common belief, veneered with gold. This was one of the few treasures saved from Henry Morgan's attack on Old Panama in 1671 and legend records different versions of how it was concealed from the buccaneers: whitewashed by the priest, or even covered in mud by nuns.

A block to the south on Calle 9 is the run-down
Plaza Herrera
. French influence is evident in the windows and flower-filled cast-iron balconies of the green and pale pink houses and
pensiones
. Behind Plaza Herrera are the ruins of the
Tiger's Hand Bulwark
, where the defensive wall ended and the landward-side moat began. The strongpoint held a 50-man military post and 13 cannon; it was demolished in 1856 as the town expanded but restored in 1983. Portions of the moat can still be detected.

Avenida Central and Calidonia

From Calle 10 heading north, Avenida Central, Panama City's main commercial street, enters the 'mainland', curves northwest then sweeps northeast running almost parallel with the shore through the whole town. En route its name changes to Vía España - although signs reading 'Avenida Central España' exist in parts - on its course northeast to Tocumen Airport. At its crossing with Calle B, close to Casco Viejo, is the small
Plaza Santa Ana
with a colonial church (1764), a favourite place for political meetings; the plaza has many restaurants and is a good place to catch buses to all parts of the city. Nearby, running towards the Central Market between Avenida Central and Calle B (officially known as Carrera de Chiriquí), is an exotic, narrow alley called
Salsipuedes
- 'Get out if you can' - where crowded stalls sell everything from fruit to old books and medicinal plants. Over 75% of the street's residents in 1892 were Chinese merchants, but the city's Chinatown (
Barrio Chino
) is now largely confined to nearby Calle Juan Mendoza and adjacent Calle B with a typical Chinese archway at the entrance; good Chinese restaurants and general shops.

The next section of Avenida Central is a pedestrian precinct called
La Peatonal
, with trees and decorations, modern department stores and wandering street vendors.
Plaza 5 de Mayo
, at Calle 22 Este, is another busy bus stop from which buses leave for the Canal. In the centre of the Plaza is an obelisk honouring the firemen who died in a gunpowder magazine explosion on the site in May 1914. The
Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz
. It has five salons (partly looted during 'Operation Just Cause') exhibiting Panamanian history, anthropology and archaeology, rare collection of pre-Columbian gold objects and ceramics (Profesora Torres de Araúz, a renowned anthropologist and founder of the museum, died in 1982). It was renovated in 1999 and hosts occasional performances. One block east of Plaza 5 de Mayo is the
Museo Afro-Antillano
, which features an illustrated history of Panama's West Indian community and their work on the Canal. There's a small library.

Ancón

Ancón curves round the hill of the same name north and east and merges into Panama City. It has picturesque views of the palm-fringed shore. Take care on Ancón Hill, as robberies sometimes occur. The following
walk
takes in the sights of Ancón: walk to the top of the hill in the morning for views of the city, Balboa and the Canal (toilets and water fountain at the top - you may have to climb part of the radio tower to see anything); the entrance is on Avenida de
los Mártires (formerly Avenida de Julio and briefly Avenida Presidente Kennedy). From Avenida de los Mártires take a clockwise route around the hill, bearing right on to Balboa Road (Avenida Estado de Jamaica), you will soon come upon the
Kuna Artesans
market on your left where the Kuna sell their multicolored
molas
. Further on down and to the left is the
Mercado Artesanal
where a wider variety of handicrafts, woven baskets from the Wounaan-Embera people, and Ecuadorian sweaters can be found. You will come upon
Chase Manhattan
and
Citibank
shortly after passing the Mercado Artesanal. The post office and a café follow. Then walk down the Prado lined with royal palms to the
Goethals Memorial
, in honour of the engineer George Washington Goethals, behind the building of the Canal. The steps lead to the administration building to see the restored murals of the Construction of the Canal. Follow Heights Road until it becomes Gorgas Road where you will pass the headquarters of the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
, www.stri.org
, an English-language scientific research library where applications to visit Barro Colorado Island are made. The café/bookshop sells environmental books and nature guides, including national park maps.

A little further, among trees and flowers, is the former
Gorgas Army Community Hospital
. Named after William Crawford Gorgas, the physician who is credited with clearing the Canal Zone of the more malignant tropical diseases before construction began in the beginning of the 20th century. Gorgas Road leads back to Avenida de los Mártires, but look out for the sign to the
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo.
Housed in a former Masonic Lodge (1936), the permanent collection of national and international modern paintings and sculptures has special exhibitions from time to time, with marquetry, silkscreen and engraving workshops, and a library of contemporary visual art open to students. At the foot of Ancón Hill the
Instituto Nacional
stands on the four-lane Avenida de los Mártires. At
Mi Pueblito
, you'll find nostalgic replicas of three different villages: one colonial from the Central Provinces, one Afro-Antillian and one indigenous. It's on a busy road so best to take a taxi. To continue further west into Balboa .

La Exposición

East of Plaza 5 de Mayo, along the oceanside Avenida Balboa (a popular stretch for jogging), on a semi-circular promontory jutting out into the water by Calle 34, is a great monument to
Vasco Núñez de Balboa
, who stands sword aloft as he did when he strode into the Pacific on 15 September 1513. The 1924 statue stands on a white marble globe poised on the shoulders of a supporting group representing the so-called 'four races of Man'. To the east is
Parque Anayansi
, a pleasant shady park, popular with local couples and flocks of parrots in the late afternoon.

Two more pleasant plazas, Porras and Arias, can be found west of Hospital Santo Tomás across Avenida 3 Sur (Justo Arosemena). This central part of the city is known as La Exposición because of the international exhibition held here in 1916 to celebrate the building of the Canal. There are two museums nearby:
Museo de Ciencias
Naturales
,
which has good sections on geology, palaeontology, entomology and marine biology, and
Museo Casa del Banco Nacional
,
which, although not widely known, is worth a visit. It contains a large numismatic and stamp collection and a history of banking from the 19th century, old postal and telephone items and historic photos.

Further east, as Avenida Balboa begins to curve around the other end of the Bay of Panama to Punta Paitilla, is
Bella Vista
, once a very pleasant residential district and site of many hotels in our B and C ranges. It includes the neighbourhood of
Perejil
('parsley'), originally called Perry Hill. Bordering this on the north, where Vía España passes the Iglesia del Carmen, is
El Cangrejo
('the crab') apartment and restaurant district, with many upmarket stores and boutiques.
The University City is on the Transisthmian Highway.
Opposite the campus is the Social Security Hospital. All these areas are evidence of Panama City's sensational growth since the post-war economic boom and the spread of the centre eastwards; the attractive residential suburb of Punta Paitilla was an empty hill where hunting was practised as recently as the 1960s.

The 265-ha
Parque Natural Metropolitano
, has a mirador (150 m) with a great view over the city and a glimpse of the Canal, as well as two interpretive walking trails from which
tití
monkeys, agoutis, coatis, white-tailed deer, sloths, turtles and up to 200 species of bird may be glimpsed (go early morning for best viewing); green iguanas sun themselves on every available branch. To get there, take the bus marked 'Tumba Muerto', from Avenida Central, and ask to be dropped at the Depósito. The park is signposted from here, otherwise make for the crane and the tree-covered hill. The
Smithsonian Institute
has installed a unique construction crane for studying the little- known fauna in the canopy of this remnant of tropical semi-deciduous lowland forest, which can be visited while walking the paths of the Metropolitan Park. Researchers and students wishing to use the crane need to apply through the Smithsonian Institute. The
visitor centre
, runs guided one-hour tours and holds regular slide shows. No ANAM permit is required; it's a recommended, easy excursion.

Parque Municipal and Botanical Summit Gardens
, has a small zoo in the gardens with most of the animals found in Panama. The cages are reported to be a bit small. There is a harpy eagle at the zoo providing an opportunity to see and appreciate the size of these incredible birds. There is also information on their conservation in the small visitor centre.

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
Products in this Region

Central America Handbook

The Central America isthmus is home to exuberant swathes of rainforest and a tapestry of cultures....

Costa Rica, Nicaragua & Panama Handbook

The shifting landscapes in these three southern-most countries in Central America reflect the...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!
Read more...