Panama City - December 2008

Our airline connections on Copa Airlines took us through Panama so it was an easy decision to take a long stop over there to see the canal and other parts of Panama City. We only had two days, so getting out of the city was not really an option. We didn't know what else was there besides the canal but we figured if we could find enough things to do in Cleveland, then we certainly should be able to in Panama City, "the gateway to Latin America."

The only thing any of us knew about the panama canal was that it was the narrowest part between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and that there were locks to raise and lower ships. That was our first stop so we arranged a private tour with our hotel concierge

There are three sets of locks that ships have to cross. The Miraflores locks are the closest ones to the city (30 minutes) and that is where the visitor center, museum and observation decks are.

The museum describes everything about the canal from the initial planning to the current expansion. One of Elliot's favorite exhibits was the simulator where you can pilot a freighter ship through the locks. It is very realistic to the point where you can feel the ship moving and rocking From the 4th floor observation deck you can get a great view of the locks as well as the countryside.
There is always a backlog of ships waiting to transverse the locks but you still have to wait for them to get there and get hooked onto the trains (aka mules) that help to keep the ship centered in the narrow canal. That only seems to happen every few hours. This ship has about a 15" clearance on each side.

How do you keep a 4 year old interested in waiting around another 30 minutes for a ship to come through the canal? You explain to him that the toy factory in China just sent a shipment of toy cars destined for Target in NJ and we need to look for the container that has them. We showed him the one that said China Shipping and told him that was the one with the toy cars in it. It worked!

Once the ship was in the lock there were a lot of things to keep Elliot's interest.

We were interested in finding what Panamanian food was since neither of us has ever seen nor heard of a Panamanian restaurant. The reason why is that there is not really a defined cuisine. Panamanians we talked to said there were some typical pan-Latin dishes such as Sancocho, aroz con pollo and rice &beans. We were referred to El Trapiche which they said was a typical Panamanian restaurant. The food was simple, cheap and good. We sampled Ropa Vieja, Arroz con pollo and a local grilled fish in addition to some Panamanian beers.

The other main attraction in Panama City is the Casco Viejo which is the original Panama City. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the Inglesia San Francisco de Asis but not before warning us of the "dangerous parts" that we should not walk through. To be honest, the "dangerous parts" did not look that bad but there was nothing particularly interesting that we would want to walk there anyway. One of our seat mates on the return flight reported peeking into a doorway where she heard loud music, chatting with a few people and then being grabbed by a police officer who said that she was walking into a drug den and to get out of the area. Maybe our cab driver was right about those areas.

The interior was typical of the beautiful cathedrals of Latin America.

The rest of the "old city" is.... old. Most of the buildings are in ruins. They are minimally interesting from an architectural perspective but we really did not see anything enchanting in this part of Panama City.
To be fair, there are some buildings that are under renovation and some that have completed restoration which are great examples of colonial architecture. Above is a former hotel that has been gutted and excevated.

The only reason that we can see any interest in walking around this part of the city is that you can get a great view of the new and modern skyline. It is perplexing to us how a city that has tremendous development of luxury condos and income of billions of dollars from the canal can have such a dilapidated historical center. Maybe things will look a lot different 10 years from now or possibly we are not understanding it's appeal. If someone reading this is able to explain it we would love to discuss.

We had a good time in Panama City and enjoyed the canal and it's history but we both felt that the rest of the city was about as interesting as Atlantic City, NJ. A nice facade of glitz but mostly an empty shell. As a stop over on the way to someplace else you will find this a good destination for 24-36 hours.


Shue said...


I loves all your travel stories and Elliot is such a cute guy!
You are most welcome to visit Malaysia in April and I'm sure you'll have fun discovering my country next.

Take care.


Unknown said...

I lived in panama for almost a year and my wife is panamanian, and the main reason is.... Noriega, and the second reason is after Noriega the government official's were corrupt
(not taking care of the interstate system, taking bribes, & the police were also VERY corrupt) there is more drugs in panama now than when Noriega and the american military where present. Now having said that the current president of panama , owns a supermarket chain super 99 and he doesn't care about the money and the fame that comes with being a president he makes 1$ per year for being the president. He is trying to restore Panama Viejo, and Barraza ( the place where all the building's are falling apart.) and they are fixing the interstate system. Panama will be different in 10 years if the government is not corrupt again!