This post provided by Jennifer Anderson – check out her bio here!
PANAMA CITY, DAY 1 – THE PANAMA CANAL & CASCO VIEJO
There’s no doubt about it, Panama City is cool. It’s on the cusp, yet to be discovered like a talented understudy. One day it’ll be the next broadway star, but for now it’s patiently waiting. I would suggest to run, not walk, to Panama City – you’ll be just as surprised as I was. The time is now, while the city is not crowded with tourists or cruise ship day-trippers. Instead, it is alive with the energy of revitalization and discovery.
Taylor Mac said in his one-man show, “Comparison is Violence” but for the purpose of giving you a vivid image, please allow me to indulge. Panama City has been compared to Miami, Charleston, Mexico City and the French Quarter of New Orleans, but it is still uniquely it’s own. Forbes magazine calls it “Monaco with bananas.” Are you intrigued yet?
It was a quick (under 4 four hour) direct flight from Atlanta. I arrived by 9 pm local time and was at my hotel in the financial district by 9:45 pm. It is best to arrange for a driver to pick you up from the airport as the airport taxi service is quite complicated. While most of the city was still open and buzzing with nightlife, I went to bed for an early rise the next morning.
That morning consisted of a Panama Canal and City tour with a local driver/guide. We began in the financial district and concluded in Casco, the old town of Panama City. The trip started with a beautiful drive up to Ancon Hill, a lush, green area with toucans flying about. The views from the top, with the Panama Canal on one side and the city on the other, were simply breathtaking. Since we arrived right at the 8 AM opening, the experience was peaceful and enjoyable, the perfect serene beginning before seeing the action begin – the Panama Canal in action, to be specific.
I have to admit, I had no idea why people would want to put the Panama Canal on their bucket list. It just seemed sort of lackluster, like it was missing the pizzazz of other sought-after attractions. When I think of my own bucket list, I think of a visit to the pyramids or an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. The Panama Canal just didn’t make the cut.
However, after seeing the Panama Canal firsthand, I now understand why it is list-worthy. For starters, you must first educate yourself on the history and the significance of the canal (as I type this I hear my kids saying, “Thanks for the clue, Nancy Drew”). I highly recommend watching the PBS special, American Experience, The Panama Canal to understand the engineering, history and geography behind the site. Otherwise, you might get bored watching very slow moving cargo ships stop, wait for the lock to fill with water, gates to open and so on.
The visitors center at the Miraflores Locks (one of the three locks that form part of the Panama Canal) has a viewing platform to observe the passing cargo ships from all over the world. Here you can marvel at how the locks function and the mechanics behind the Panama Canal. This is where the Atlantic connects to the Pacific and where North and South America divide. Standing at this specific spot, sort of like standing on the equator, is fascinating! After spending some time on the viewing platform watching the genius engineering in motion, a visit to the adjoining museum is a definite must.
Our next stop was to the BioMuseo, the only building in Latin America designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao). The museum, which is over 10 years in the making, highlights Panama’s biodiversity under the leadership of the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Panama.
We concluded our tour in Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter), also known as the historic district of Panama City or simply Casco, by the residents. Casco, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1997, is located just outside the city on a peninsula overlooking the Pacific entrance to the canal. The neighborhood is undergoing a tremendous revitalization and renovation. You can literally feel the excitement when walking through the narrow and charming cobblestone streets. It’s impossible not to wonder how these various stages of disrepair, renovation and finished restoration can exist in such harmony.
Casco is an eclectic mix of everything from upscale stores and cafés to local street vendors and markets, all woven together in between historical sites and dilapidated structures. It’s small in size and easy to navigate on foot from one end to the other in a matter of minutes.
PANAMA CITY, DAY 2 – WILDLIFE, REFORM & CUISINE
The next morning we took a half-day Panama Canal wildlife safari to experience the canal from the other side.
Our bilingual guide, a highly educated biologist who was extremely passionate about the environment, took us on a boat ride through the canal. We wove through the channels of small islands to view exotic plants, trees, birds and animals (iguanas, turtles, sloths and monkeys) in their natural habitat.
We then took a guided rainforest hike in the Soberania National Park, where we saw even more wildlife, and completed our tour with a visit to a local butterfly garden. It was all magical, especially with an early morning start.
Throughout the rest of our stay, we found ourselves returning to the Casco for shopping, touring and dining. Cabs are easy to come by and typically have a flat rate of $5 within the city. By chance, we were lucky enough to meet KC Hardin, New York corporate lawyer turned full-time Panama resident, real estate developer and community leader. After taking a tour of the American Trade Hotel that his company developed, in walks “Mr. KC” a man who ahotellife.com hails as, “The rainmaker behind the revitalization of Panama City’s old quarter”.
He is co-founder and president of Conservatorio, a company dedicated to the restoration of the Casco, taking a socially responsible approach to their work when developing historic hotels, condominiums, affordable housing and social projects. Hardin’s pledge to “help the four gangs in Panama City, Panama demobilize and integrate into society in the next two years” (aspenactionforum.org) is in full swing. Shortly after meeting him, we went on a tour led by former gang members who have been reformed with the help of Mr. KC’s foundation.
As a visitor to Casco Viejo, you can support KC Hardin’s visionary work and be a part the amazing transformation taking place here. You don’t have to be a developer or a city official to realize the power of a single individual and the impact one can have on so many.
Interested in planning your own trip to Panama City? Contact our expert, Jennifer Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org / 404-270-0775