On the early morning of 20 April 2012 at a mild temperature of 26 degrees C the Coral Princess anchored at Fuerte Aamador just after a 9-hour journey through the massive system of locks of the Panama Canal.
Because Fuerte Amador, a man-made peninsula extending out into the Pacific Ocean, is an anchorage port we have to transfer to the shore via ship’s tender.
With our comfortable air-conditioned transportation our guided tour enroute to Panama Viejo begins as we drive along the one-mile Amador Causeway that connects four small islands of Flamenco, Perico, Culebra, and Naos. Along the causeway are shops and restaurants centered around a marina that provides a panoramic vista of the city’s impressive skyline.
A diverse multicultural metropolis of almost 1.3 million and the most cosmopolitan in Central America, Panama City is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Panama. According to International Living magazine, Panama City ranks as one of the top places for retirement in the world. In 2003 the city was chosen as the “American Capital of Culture”.
Founded on 15 August 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Davila the city was burned and destroyed by a band of pirates under buccaneer Henry Morgan. The site of the devastated city, the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast of America, is now known as “Panama Viejo” (Old Panama) referred to interchangeably as Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo or San Felipe. Still in ruins, the historic quarter has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 2003.
Quite evident in the many structures of the old city is the architectural richness from Spanish colonial buildings to French and Antillean townhouses that reflect the cultural diversity of the country. Attesting to the country’s past are the ruins of the churches, colonial palaces, bridges, and military edifices.
On foot we explore the narrow streets amidst canopy of flowers hanging from balcony windows. In Panama City most of the residential streets either have no names or three different ones although residents, commonly referred to as “capitalinos”, have post office boxes called “apartados”. We notice that many of the key buidlings we see have small plaques with descriptive information on them.
Strolling by the area’s walkway of the French Plaza provides us with a view of the Amador Causeway, The Bridge of the Americas (a road bridge completed in 1962 which spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal) and the skycrapers of the modern Panama City.
At the Cathedral Square (also known as Plaza de la Independencia) we admire the Metropolitan Cathedral’s gleaming spires inlaid with mother-of-pearls. Built from ca. 1614 to 1626, the cathedral has two side chapels that give the church a cross-like shape. One of the greatest treasures of Panama is the famous golden altar (Altar de Oro) of the Church of San Jose. The massive baroque altar is made of carved mahogany and covered in gold flake.
We continue walking through the quaint streets and see the beautiful “El Palacio de las Garzas” (the President’s House) with its Moorish patio and fountain.
Last in our must-see list is a visit to the “Teatro Nacional” built in neo-classical style of opulent baroque architecture complete with giant chandelier, gilded scarlet red balconies and magnificent ceiling frescoes. Opened in 1908, it has been restored and revitalised and now is the venue for music, ballet, opera, and art/cultural performances.
At the end of the day we toast the city with a “raspador” (a cone of ice shavings with a dash of fruit flavour and milk).
Interesting Trivia – Panama is the largest international banking centre next to Switzerland. Wearing shorts or flip/flops is not permitted in some banks. The Panama hat is not made in Panama at all. They’re imported from Ecuador!