Panamá City is the oldest city founded by the Spanish conquistadors in Central America. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few days and there’s so much to do that a week is probably a better idea! History buffs will be as happy here as nature lovers, and there are beaches, islands and the jungle just a short distance away.
Nothing whatsoever to do with Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky franchise, Balboa is a very common name to see and hear in Panama. It is the name of the local currency, although US dollars are more common and they are exchanged one-for-one which makes life easy. It’s also the name of the local beer which we preferred – a tasty ruby ale and far cheaper than any imported brands of questionable quality. So why does this name have such a major part in Panamanian life? Well, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, (born 1475, Badajoz, Extremadura – died 1519, Acla, near Darién, Panama) was the conquistador who was head of the first Spanish settlement in Panama. His rival for power seized control and had him beheaded! Life in Darién then proved too hot and sticky so they relocated the city to a better position on the Pacific coast.
Probably the most famous thing in Panama is the canal. We learned an awful lot about it at the Miraflores Visitor Centre. Despite the museum part being closed (although there is no reduction in price) it was a worthwhile day out as we got to see a cargo ship going through the canal locks, and the IMAX film narrated by Morgan Freeman was fantastic in all its 3D glory. Did you know that those first conquistadors actually proposed constructing a waterway to link the two oceans? Centuries later the French tried and failed (a poor plan and bad luck with malaria and yellow fever) before the Americans finally succeeded. The canal opened its lock gates in 1914, a feat rather lost in history because of the First World War. What we didn’t know was that the canal is mostly a lake. Lake Gatun was created on the central plateau and either side of it three locks take ships up and down from the ocean to the lake.
The original site of Panama City is a few miles away from the modern day metropolis. Luckily, it’s only a few dollars in a taxi and Uber has made the process of getting around the city even easier. The metro and bus systems don’t really go to the archaeological site which is a shame. From the entrance of Panama Viejo, you can take the transport provided to the ruins and the visitor centre. It’s only just over a kilometre though so we decided to walk. The reward is the frequent sight of blue iguanas by the side of the road and close up views of both black (grey-headed) and turkey (red-headed) vultures. It’s easy to get a sense of the city as you wander through ruined buildings, and from the top of the tower you get a great view over the whole area. The contrast with the nearby skyscrapers is quite incredible.
The old heart of the city is a fascinating place. We took the metro to 5 de Mayo where graffiti about the US invasion in 1989 had us scrabbling around on Google to learn more! Operation Just Cause had one aim – to remove General Noriega from power. It succeeded but not without the loss of at least 516 Panamanian lives, almost half of them civilians. The colours in the old city are incredible and there are some wonderful views back towards the modern city. There are some beautiful murals too but try to take note of how far off the beaten path you stray to see them. We never felt threatened but it was obvious at times we were in streets that see few tourists. As you wander around you can learn a lot about the history of Panama from its independence from Spain under the guidance of Simon Bolivar all the way to the engineers who brought the dream of a canal to life and the scientists who helped overcome yellow fever. Don’t be afraid of the vultures. They certainly are not afraid of you. Maybe you’d like to buy a panama hat while you’re there, but bear in mind the authentic ones are actually made in Ecuador!
The Amador Causeway is today a long strip of land connecting the mainland to several islands. We took an Uber out to the Biomuseo and walked the 6km remaining to the end where the cruise terminal is located. The colourful museum was designed by none other than Frank Gehry who was also the architect behind the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It was a hot and sticky walk but the rewards were great with views back up the canal to the Bridge of the Americas and a multitude of birds in the sky. The brown pelicans and frigate birds were amazing to watch. The cruise terminal is now the location of the Panamá tourist sign at the top of this post. A shame it was relocate from along the causeway but I guess too many rich cruise passengers were missing out on their selfie!
Gamboa is only 35km from Panamá City but it might as well be on another planet. This was really what we can to the country to see. An easy walk up the so-called Pipeline Road took us into the heart of the jungle where a visitors’ centre provides a tower to climb to the top of the trees to rub shoulders with howler monkeys, and a hummingbird feeding station back at ground level. We also did a great boat trip across Lake Gatun to the series of islands inhabited by monkeys – howlers, capuchin and tamarind. We were lucky to see all three species as they are surprisingly shy!
Panamá City is not exactly cheap and even basic food came at a higher price than you would find in most parts of Spain. Flights there with Iberia were not too badly priced. Accommodation is probably on a par with Spain though, and we aided our jet-lag recovery with a few nights in the Tryp Wyndham before heading to the Grand International to ease the budget a little. In Gamboa we used Air B&B and our hostess Miriam was such a lovely lady. It was a very sad moment when the time came to say our goodbyes! As I’ve already mentioned, Uber was great for getting around and the metro system is good but has a very limited route. Eating out isn’t cheap at all, and there is far too much fried food for our liking. Luckily fruit is cheap and available all over the place. Papaya and melon with muesli and yoghurt is very much our preference compared to the Panamanian breakfast of fried empanadas, friend bananas, fried sausages and anything else fried they decide to add to it!
If this has got you wanting more on Central America, you can read all thirteen of our blog entries for the trip to Panama and Costa Rica on Travelblog.org.