Panama is a long stretch of land that covers the central and Southern part of America. The Panama Canal is the only passage that links trade and business between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Most people work on the canal or in the west, farming the rich soil of the highland valleys and the Atlantic lowlands. Steaming swamps and jungles cover the region lying to the east side of the canal.
Explore and discover the top ten not to be missed places in Panama.
Panama Canal (Panama City)
The partial transit through the Panama Canal is an experience not to be missed. See one of the engineering marvels of the past century and the ships that run smoothly as they carry boatloads of merchandise, grain, or passengers. The Panama Canal is a great work of mankind especially if you analyze it in the context of the time in which it was built. It seems impossible that a technology is not so advanced during those times to build a project of this magnitude, plus the scenery is beautiful and the facilities are well maintained with all the requirements that a tourist needs. The Panama Canal is at least 15 minutes drive away from the capital.
The adjacent museum opens at 9:30 am and there is a 10 minute 3D film screening showing the history of how the Panama Canal was constructed. Follow it up with a visit to the tourist center (Miraflores Locks Visitor Center), a huge building with a beautiful view of the locks and a portion of the channel. Spend enough time to look around and observe how big the canal is. The locks and the trains that guide the ships through the canal are something that you really should not miss. See the passage of high vessels from a raised terrace and from here you will have an idea how the locks operate like clockwork on an ordinary busy day.
The Old City (Casco Viejo)
As a contrast to the skyscrapers that fills the view in the capital city, a visit to the Old City/ Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage site is highly recommended. Although it looks worn out all around, the efforts for the restoration of recent years are not to be overlooked. Some of the squares and streets of houses are very charming and the skyscrapers in the background are an impressive difference. The old town is well signposted and with a guidebook in hand it is relatively easy to discover. It is located on a headland in the Bay of Panama. This is historically the second largest city in Panama and so many historical monuments can be found in the area, especially churches because Panama is a major city that was discovered in the late 15th century at a time when all religious orders were represented.
The Cathedral of the Old Panama is one of the largest churches on the continent. But there is also the Place of France, which was built in memory of the pioneers of the construction of the Canal. Other places of interest are; the Bolivar Square in memory of the unification to America, the Presidential Palace, and the great Canal Museum. It takes a two-hour walk in the neighborhood to absorb all the attraction within the Old City. There are also several small restaurants in the area, local craft stores, and souvenir shops. The district has a charm of its own which consists mainly of the contrast between well-preserved or recently renovated buildings and many decaying buildings in which only the walls remain standing.
Panama Canal Railway
It is an old railway that runs through the side of the Panama Canal and travels one hour from Panama to Colon City. The Panama Canal can be seen much in the traveling direction, which makes it possible to see the channel in almost all its extensions. There is in fact a carriage bay window that is beyond the normal windows and provides a better view of the attraction. There is only one train for forward and one for the return.
It is advisable to buy your ticket in advance. It ensures an amazing experience to meet the Panama Canal and see how a railway created in 1913 still works as precise and efficient up to the modern times. The Panama Canal Railway is the best option to reach more than 80 kilometers of the most beautiful landscapes located along the Caribbean coast.
Panama Inter-Oceanic Canal Museum
This place is one that you can not miss. The story of the construction of the channel is well told, the animations are fantastic, there is a butterfly collection, aquariums and of course the simulator. For only 8 dollars you have an entry to the premises of the channel including the view of the boats in full operation. The projection of 3D cinema is very interesting (with passes in Spanish, French, German and English alternative). You can learn the history of the canal from the two failed attempts of the French to do so until the current channel by the Americans that was finished almost 100 years ago.
There are models, prints, photographs and best of all, a simulator where it seems you are on the bridge of a large freighter doing maneuvers on the channel. Visitors are enticed to try the almost realistic drive to the world famous canal. The entire museum is a journey through the history of engineering which embodied the idea of a few brave men who managed to make this marvelous feat and opened Panama to the world of progress and the possibility of a great commercial and cultural exchange with other countries.
The Boquete Tree Trek is the best way to explore the highest peak in Panama. The journey begins with registering at the office in the city center. Then, you get a ride in an open top jeep that drives through a steep and bumpy road of the mountain. It leads to a resort place where you are provided with equipment needed for the traverse/hike of the peak. Further into the jungle, there is a beautiful path and a platform that goes rapidly downhill. The first tropical rainforest trees will be completed very quickly one after the other. With the long lines it goes ahead slowly and you can switch between a short rest on the decks and enjoy the wonderful view of the city down below.
The platforms are sometimes very shaky and you can see between the boards down – for people with a fear of heights it is certainly not great. The tour can be arranged by a highly professional team of tour guides. The entire trail covers the forest, the shallow mountain river and the isolated waterfalls. See the beautiful view of the coffee plantations in Boquete as well as be blessed with the opportunity of meeting the Quetzal (colored bird) deep within the jungle.
The Bocas Del Toro province is completely exotic and the tour of the Parque Nacional Marina Isla Bastimentos completes the whole Panama experience. The Bastimentos is a calm and relaxing beach where there are not necessarily many inhabitants and where you can see little red frogs. You can rent a boat/ water taxi that can tour you all around the Isla Bastimentos. The trip includes a journey into a cave along the coast that can be reached after passing through a beautiful beach and narrow channels with lush vegetation in between screams of the monkeys and the thick mangrove areas. The boat docks along the coastal side and after a twenty minute walk, the cave appears into view.
Explore the top of the entrance where there is a huge colony of bats, hanging on walls and fluttering its way into the dark cave. The spectacular thing that awaits every eager visitor is the river inside the cave. It has a steady stream of flowing cold water as the depth grows deeper the further it is explored. There are stretches where the water comes up to the throat and even a few where you have to immerse yourself in order to overcome the obstacles represented by the upper rocks of the cave. The scenery around the cave is fabulous, a vast expanse of green where you will also discover a waterfall and a small atoll.
David (Chiriqui Province)
The Parque Cervantes serves as a key to the beautiful little town named David. Rebuilt and fully modernized, the central park of the city is definitely a symbol of it and this park, which is relatively new provides a sense of peace and comfort for visitors and locals who want to relax for a while, people watching, listening to music or just eat or drink something of what they offer in the surrounding area. It is a nice, safe and clean park with free public internet and close to the nearby hotels, resorts, shops, etc. The city is easy to walk and the beach weather is kind.
It has a large central fountain lined with pretty ornamental plants that serves as the landmark and perfect meeting spot for friends and families and a great place to hang around and observe the Panamanian way of life.
El Valle de Anton
The Aprovaca (The Orchid Nursery and Conservation Center) is the ideal place to see and admire different kinds of 100 endemic orchids and exotic plants that can only be seen in Panama. If you are into plants and ornamental, tropical, medicinal and spices, this place will keep you entertained. The comprehensive botanical park is best appreciated along with an English speaking guide who knows all the kinds of plant species that are in the center. Group visits are often organized by volunteers from the staff of Aprovaca.
They have a resettlement program of orchids in their natural environment and the center contributes to the preservation of many species. The volunteers also educate the local population on how to maintain endemic species of orchids in their environment. It is a place not to be missed during a visit to Valle de Anton. Don’t forget to check out the smallest variety of orchid that can only be seen through a magnifying glass. Even if the center is rather small the orchid and plant collection is huge and well maintained.
Gatun Locks (Colon)
In Panama there are three locks (Gatun, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel) that are spread across 3 different sections of the canal from the city to the port of Colon (about 20 to 30 minutes drive from the free zone). If you go into town there is one that suits you around but if you go to Columbus, you can also find and visit another airlock.
All three locks are situated along the famous narrow canal where huge commercial and cruise ships passes by. There is a designated raised platform in Gatun Locks where you can watch the entire process of ships entering and exiting the airlock ports. Admire the locks and the passage of a “shipping giant” in a show that is breathtaking but worth the wait. There is a small souvenir shop and bathrooms, a comfortable gazebo, benches and shade for seating and relaxing. It is a marvel of engineering and a place worth visiting.
Fort San Lorenzo
A visit to the historic Fort San Lorenzo is a mandatory stop before reaching the Portobello district. Explore the ruins of an old military fortress that was built in 1597 to protect the coast from pirate attacks and colonizers. Observe the unmatched view of how the Chagres River binds to the Caribbean, it is simply stunning. Fort San Lorenzo evokes golden eras in the history of Panama, the beauty of the Caribbean Sea, and the small town that stands immediately next to the ancient customs of the colony, followed by the Church where they worship the Christ of Portobelo or Nazarene.
The whole atmosphere is lovely, but the guns need a little more care. The road is in fair condition for all vehicles. The place is clean but need more signs and proper labels on every bunker ruins. It has a spectacular view to the horizon and retains a touch or ambiance that at some point it must have been a battlefield. There are no tour guides available but only a national guard is present to collect an entrance fee for the upkeep of the fort.