Panama City


March 12th - 15th, 2020 
Dec 30th, 2022 - Jan 4th, 2023

This is a somewhat unusual blog post, as it covers a trip in two parts with almost three years and a global pandemic between them. I arrived in Panama City for the first time on March 12th, 2020, near the end of my six week trip through Central America. Back then I had planned to spend a couple of weeks in Panama, but at that stage it already seemed doubtful, whether that was going to be possible. This was right during those days, when the entire world started to shut down, due to the rapidly spreading New Corona Virus. I did manage to fit in one day of sightseeing in the city and a great day-tour visiting the canal, but by March 14th all of Europe started to close its borders to the outside world, and many flights were being cancelled. That’s when I acted quickly and booked a flight to Germany leaving the following day. It turned out, I was lucky and probably managed to get on one of the last flights out of Panama. It was an epic trip of 33 hours via Mexico City and Paris, but I did eventually get back to my parents in Germany, just in time to go into lockdown for the next couple of months. No one could have imagined at that time, that this pandemic would last more than three years and would change lives across the world as much as it has. And so it wasn't until Dec 30th, 2022, that I finally had a chance to return to Panama City and to continue my trip that was interrupted so abruptly three years earlier. Thus, the photos in this blog are a mixture of photos from March 2020 and January 2023.

Flying into Panama City in 2020, on a direct flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, I had this fantastic view of the city from the plane. You can clearly make out the skyscrapers of the modern city in the center, and the two peninsulas of Casco Viejo and Amador in the background on the right.

Europeans and Americans can enter Panama without a visa, and by the end of 2022 Panama had scrapped all Covid entry restrictions. There is however one important travel restriction, which I had learned about the hard way a couple of years earlier. If you arrive in Panama from Brazil, you need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination, and an electronic scanned version of your vaccination certificate is not sufficient. I first tried to visit Panama in 2019, but was not allowed on the plane in Rio de Janeiro with only an electronic copy of my vaccination pass. Little did we know then that two years later, having proof of vaccinations would become a normal part of travelling almost anywhere.

I started my sightseeing in the colonial part of the city, called Casco Viejo, which is built on a small peninsula jotting out into the Pacific ocean. Since the modern city of Panama was built a short distance away from it, the old city center remains nearly perfectly preserved. The streets are all laid out in a grid, lined by beautiful colonial buildings, and the views walking around this part of the city probably haven't changed much in the last 200 years.

Among the main sights in the city is the imposing Catedral Metropolitana, the largest Catholic church in the city, with its gleaming white baroque bell towers. Although construction of the building began in 1688, it was only consecrated in 1796.

The nearby Iglesia de San José is particularly notable for its beautiful 17th century golden altar. The altar was originally located in Panama Viejo, and it is the only major relic that was salvaged after Henry Morgan sacked the city.

The small tree lined Plaza de Bolivar is one of beautiful city squares, surrounded by colonial buildings and lots of bars and restaurants. In the center of the square is a memorial to Simón Bolivar, the liberator, with the bell tower of the Iglesia de San Francisco De Asis in the background. Following the independence from Spain, Panama was part of Gran Colombia for almost a century, before it became an independent country in 1903.

Also overlooking the Plaza de Bolivar is the National Theatre and the beautiful yellow building, which houses Panama's foreign ministry.

The only ruins to be found in Casco Viejo are those of Arco Chato, a former Dominican monastery, which was built in 1678 but destroyed by a fire in the 18th century.

The modern part of Panama city is located to the north-east of the colonial city center. The gleaming high-rises along the water front make the city look more like Miami or Singapore, than something you'd expect to see in Central America.

In the business district you can also find some funky modern architecture, like the stunning spiral structure of the F&F Tower, which is locally know as El Tornillo ("The Screw").

On my second trip in 2023, I had a stark reminder of the fact that I was in the tropics, when in the afternoon this spectacular and intense thunderstorm suddenly rolled in without much warning.

A safe and easy way to get around Panama City is Uber. Uber cars are plentiful and very cheap. A 20 minute drive across the city typically costs you around 3 Dollars. (Panama uses the US Dollar as its official currency, but you do often get Panamanian coins as change, when you pay cash.)

The Panama Canal and Portobelo Fort
Back in 2020 I had a full-day tour booked through Viator to visit the Canal and the colonial era fortifications on the Caribbean Coast. The mood among the tour group was a bit subdued, since everyone was wondering how much longer they would be able to stay and how to get back home. The guides had already told us that this would be the last trip they could run, as everything was going to be shut down here in Panama too. But I did not let this stop me from enjoying this fascinating tour. The trip started with a boat trip through parts of the Panama Canal, which was absolutely beautiful. It seemed like we were just cruising on a quiet and remote jungle lake, if it weren't for the giant containerships coming through every now an then.

Although discussed and planned since the 16th century, the first serious effort to construct a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans was attempted by France in 1881, but soon thereafter abandoned. The United States took over the project in 1904, and managed to open the waterway to traffic only 10 years later, despite enormous engineering challenges. The US retained control of the canal and an eight kilometer zone on either side until 1999, when the government of Panama officially took ownership and the responsibility for operating it.

Our boat trip took us into Lake Gatun, where we stopped at the famous monkey island. This used to be a small hill on the main land, but it became an island when the surrounding area was flooded. Several groups of monkeys of different species got stranded on the island, but have thrived there ever since. However, there is not enough food for them to survive, so they are being fed regularly. As a result, they have no fear of humans. They jumped from the trees and swarmed the boat as soon as we got close enough. You don't even have to give them the food, they are quite capable of helping themselves.

After the boat trip on the canal we drove north to the Caribbean Coast of Panama. Along the way we came across a couple of sloths hanging high up in the trees.

Portobelo was an important port, through which the Spanish transported silver and gold from the mines of South America to Spain. The port therefore was a prime target for pirates and other nations, which lead to the construction of extensive fortifications. Built first in the early 17th century, the fortifications along Panama's Caribbean Coast, known as Portobelo-San Lorenzo, where given UNESCO world heritage status in 1980, the very first monument in the country to receive this honor.

The fort was rebuilt multiple times after being repeatedly attacked and destroyed by pirates, privateers, and foreign navies. The present structure dates back to the 18th century and is a prime example of Spanish military architecture from that period.

We spent some time exploring the impressive fortifications, with its numerous canons still pointed at the river, and had a lovely picnic lunch by the water.

The nearby town of San Felipe de Portobelo was founded in 1597.

We ended the trip with a tour of the Agua Clara Locks, which are the Caribbean entrance to the canal. It was fascinating to watch these giant container ships slowly being pushed by tug boats into the narrow channel and then have the locks close behind them. Ships have to be lifted by 26 meters through a series of locks to reach the height of Lake Gatun in the center of the waterway. The whole route from ocean to ocean is 82 kilometers, and the full trip to cross the canal takes around 10 to 12 hours. But that is very quick, compared to the 3 to 5 week journey around the treacherous waters of Cape Horn.

There is a visitor center at the locks, with an interesting exhibition, that tells you all about the history and the technology of the canal. The drive back to the city took us across the 3 kilometer long Atlantic Bridge, which was completed in 2019, seen here in the background.

This was the only tour I could do in 2020, as I had to leave the day after to get back to Europe before the world went into lock-down.

Panama Viejo
One site I was not able to see in 2020, because it was already closed due to the pandemic, was Panama Viejo, which are the ruins of the first and oldest part of the city. Panama Viejo is located a bit outside the modern city. The first city here was founded in 1519, by the conquistador Pedro Arias Dávila, which made it the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast. It also became an important staging and transit point for Spain's conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. However, the city was burned down and completely destroyed in 1671, when the infamous privateer Henry Morgan attacked and looted the city with 1,400 men. Rather than rebuild from the ruins, a new city was constructed 2 years later on a peninsula about 8 kilometers to the west, which is today's Casco Viejo. The ruins of Panama Viejo together with the historic city of Castro Viejo have been given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003.

The most prominent structure still standing is the bell tower of the old cathedral. You can climb to the top of the tower on a staircase inside for some nice views of the ruins and the modern city in the background.

These are the remains of Concepción, which was the nuns' convent. There were also lots of large iguanas hanging out among the ruins and walls enjoying the warm sun.

Panama is a beautiful, interesting, safe and, I think, somewhat underrated country to visit. There is definitely a lot more to see and explore than I was able to do in the time I had there, but I hope to be back there soon. After finishing the four days of my second trip in 2023, I continued on to Colombia.

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