Panama City is culturally rich and vibrant and is definitely one to put on your exploration radar. My visit began with two days to explore this charming Central American city. The much-awaited warmth of the sun greeted me, as I stepped out of the car upon arrival at the American Trade Hotel, which is located in the Casco Veijo region (this is the very hip and happening, yet historical, part of the city). The hotel is an elegantly restored landmark building which stands front and center on the town square. The balconied rooms overlook a mini-park area on one side, and on the other side stands Iglesia De La Merced Cathedral, which dates back to the 1600’s. The American Trade Hotel is bright and fresh with an open-air restaurant, and Spanish inspired rooms which include classic subway tiled bathrooms. I particularly loved the rooftop pool, where you could hear the sounds of the church bells ringing upon the hour.
I found that Casco Veija is best explored by foot, here you can see the colorful neighborhoods with their displays of street art amidst a background of skyscrapers. This region is lively and lived in, and includes many open markets, small shops, and restaurants.
Most notably are the beautiful churches, a favorite of mine was Iglesia San Jose, which displays a solid gold altar.
The Presidential Palace and Opera House are worth a visit! The Teatro Nacional houses frescoes throughout the theatre done by Panama’s celebrated painter, Roberto Lewis. Everywhere I looked I saw varying degrees of old world architectural influences, as well as glimpses of a modern city reminiscent of the Spanish colonial era. Many were restored beautifully, and others a work in progress.
A day trip to the engineering marvel, the Panama Canal, is a must. My visit to the Miraflores Locks (one of 3 locks) is only 15 minutes from the city, and I saw first-hand how the canal operates. I thought that watching the ships pass through was really a sight! From the cruise ships to major cargo ships, they all follow a very sophisticated procedure. Interestingly enough, a typical trip that took 28 days for a ship, now takes five days with the use of the Canal. The museum there tells the fascinating story of the building of the canal and the amazing history of how this changed the world trade experience.
Another fascinating day trip was a visit to the Embera Village. After a 40 minute ride in a dugout canoe along the Chagres River in one of the most beautiful settings (rainforest of the Chagres National Park), I arrived at the village of the indigenous tribe known as the Embera people.
Stepping off the boat and walking up the hillside, I was enthusiastically greeted with a warm welcome. The day started off with the Chief Elder’s granddaughter providing an overview of their history, customs, and daily life activities.
After a lunch of tilapia and plantains wrapped in a banana leaf and fresh fruits, a group of the younger tribe members performed a traditional dance and music display. I also received a tattoo on my arm which is done with jagua, a natural dye. Since it was larger than I expected, I’m relieved to say it faded in a few days! After an interesting day learning about the Embera people and their village, I left for the journey back on the river.
I found the dining options in Panama extremely varied and include many international cuisine restaurants. I enjoyed wonderful Panamanian fare such as Tostones, which is fried vegetables with a sweet sauce, or Carimanolas, which are pastries filled with cheese, ground meat, or chicken. Finally, I capped off one of my evenings with a great visit to Danilo’s Jazz Club, where the raw energy pulsates throughout the room. This club is right next to the American Trade Hotel and is a popular spot with the locals. My favorite drink was their classic pina colada!
Panama City is a blend of the old world, displayed with revitalized vibrancy. This makes for a great pre-or post-cruise option, or for a stay before or after a visit to one of the Panamanian beach destinations. Frontiers would be more than pleased to assist you with planning a unique and interesting visit!