Panama City

sky-scrapers, terrazas and a canal

The flight to Panama City routes through Los Angeles, takes half a day and all night, and even with our business class seats, it is tiring.

Are we getting too old for this kind of ordeal? Maybe, but a deep-seated curiosity about the world drives our appetite for travel. Panama is country #55 for me, more or less the same for Craig.

Panama is a particular curiosity in that it links the two continents of the western hemisphere, forming a land bridge between North and South America. The canal, of course, disrupts the isthmus, and is another reason to seek out this part of the world.

We are staying in the old part of the city, called Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site. It is a combination of crumbling, run-down, under construction and newly renovated. A real mish-mash. The historic district of Panama City, the area was completed and settled in 1673, following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panama Viejo, in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates led by the famed buccaneer Henry Morgan.

Since construction of the canal in the early 20th century a new modern city has grown to the east. Ranked 4th in North America for the sheer number of skyscrapers (behind NYC, Chicago and TO) Panama City is often referred to as the Miami of Latin America. Although the skyline is impressive, Panama City’s population is only around a million.

The Central Hotel is in the heart of Casco Viejo, on the main square, across from the Panama Cathedral. The rooftop pool provides great views of the old and the modern city. In fact we spend a lot of down time at rooftop bars, restaurants and the hotel pool. At 9 degrees latitude and sea level altitude, it is hot and humid. The rooftop breezes lure us out of the stifling heat.

Travel to Spanish speaking countries is always an opportunity to add to our vocabulary. In Panama city the new word is “terraza”. Rooftop. Oh yeah!

Descended from Spanish Europeans, West Indies indigenous, African slaves and Panamanian indigenous, most modern Panamanians are mestizo (a mix). A few indigenous tribes have survived this blending of DNA and we see some of them on the streets selling their crafts. They are the Kuna of the Caribbean coastal lands called Kuna Yala.

Unlike other Latin American countries, the Catholic church seems to play less of a role here. We see more rooftop bars than churches!

A day on the Panama canal has our heads spinning with fantastical numbers: more than 200,000 workers died constructing the canal, 900,000 ships to date have traversed it, the most expensive toll, paid by a Norwegian cruise ship, is $375,000. I cannot recall the number for the volume of earth moved to create the canal (something like 30 million tons) but it would apparently fill enough railcars to circle the earth several times.

Two locks on the Caribbean/Atlantic side lift ships up and down to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 85 ft above sea level. Three locks on the Pacific side do the same thing.

A modern engineering feat, the canal took 33 years to complete. France began work on the canal in 1881, but stopped due to engineering problems and the high worker mortality rate (malaria, dengue & yellow fever, mudslides). The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914.

The canal shortcut greatly reduces the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southern tip of South America or the Cape of Good Hope route around the southern tip of Africa. It is said that world trade was dramatically affected by the canal. “The land cut, the world united” is a frequently seen slogan.

Canadian architect Frank Gehry married a Panamanian woman and subsequently “gifted” Panama with a design for a museum that cost many millions to construct. The design is meant to mimic Panama’s role in western hemisphere bio-geology. It looks like a colourful scrap heap to us. Inside the museum are exhibits illustrating the biodiversity of Panama.

The Gehry design is expected to attract tourists and help grow Panama’s cultural attractions. It is still a relative tourism back-water, attracting far fewer visitors than its neighbour to the north, Costa Rica. We do, however, see one very famous tourista. Goldie Hawn, wandering the alleys of Casco Viejo. Sorry… no photo. I lack the nerve for that kind of fandom!

We spend six days in Panama City and we do our best to like it, but apart from the canal, the impressive sky line, and our neighbourhood, especially the terrazas, we don’t find a lot to like. The city is criss-crossed with myriad 4 and 6 lane through-fares, traffic is heavy, there is little in the way of a cafe culture, art or street-level shopping. There is lots of construction, making walking a challenge, few street signs, making navigating almost impossible, and did I mention the heat? And the humidity? In a word “meh!”

On the plus side, a jazz evening at the bar of the American Trade Hotel, yoga at Casco Yoga studio, a run along the sea for Craig, leisurely strolls through our ‘hood and numerous other small pleasures make our week here more enjoyable than it might otherwise sound. And the passionfruit mojitos are addictive. Oh, and the street cats. They are plentiful, friendly and fed. All told, we’re giving Panama City a 7/10.


  1. Jan MacLellan says:

    Well. Think I will erase this from my bucket list. Although it looks rather peaceful, despite the reported many-laned traffic. Are you back? If not, stay away awhile longer — we’re getting our world-famous 3 or 4 days of snow.

  2. Agree on the lack of cultural enticements in PC. It is a ‘Money Laundry’ city built on off shore banking and the canal. We stayed 3 days and that was enough time to marvel at the skyline, explore the canal, wander Old Town and grab the ferry to Contadora Island. Hopefully you can discover some of the roads less travelled, enjoy the cool air of Bogette , feed celery to the numerous Iguana on Iguana Island, rent a bike in Boca, enjoy the birds of Pedasi and not get lost on the volcanic trails. PS: there is a definite lack of highway signs so hopefully you have GPS or don’t mind being lost. Look forward to your onward journey.

  3. Hmmm, your commentary is not what I expected. I think I thought more modern and quite advanced which seems to be there too. I guess we will have to go to check it out but we are forewarned. The photos are great! 6,000 a year died constructing the canal over 33 years. Horrific! Not sure I like the Gehry museum. I’m glad he didn’t put it in Vancouver. Did you go in?
    Thanks for the photo-treat!

  4. Beautiful photos as always, and interesting commentary. You did think that six days was going to be too much, but it looks like you made the best of it – although I still think you would have enjoyed a day in parque metropolitano!

    • Not sure it was the length of time, in fact, we enjoyed being leisurely. It wasn’t awful, just not a favourite place.

  5. Stevan Puharich says:

    I’m pretty sure “The Antisocial “ barbers are the same ones that were afraid to cut Lisa’s hair. Happy travels.

  6. Larry and Bev says:

    Reading this in Oaxaca city in Mexico strikes a huge contrast between these two Spanish speaking cities. We are enjoying the deliciously cool but sunny climate, the wonderful colonial architecture (not a high rise in sight ) and the marvellous café culture. Rooftop terraces abound and the cuisine is varied and inspired. Love your posts but after this one we would much rather be here.

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