I spent a weekend in Panama with my lovely fiancee and got a chance to see my father for the first time in years, we had a blast! This was my third trip, but the first time I’ve gotten to get all touristy, as my previous journeys were for business, and quite quick. I took some notes on the city for anyone else who happens to be traveling there, I hope they help you out.
First, the highlight of the trip:
Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
The causeway is amazing! It has the best food, the best views, fresh seabreezes, a tour bus that dives into the ocean and will take you across the Bay of Panama to Panama City.
The causeway has multiple marinas, with dozens of shops and restaurants, and you can watch giant ships enter and exit the Canal from afar.
On the causeway itself, you can rent a wide variety of vehicles, powered and pedaled to explore the causeway. Some of the options include: rollerblades, bicycles, electric scooters, motorcycles, and even 2, and 4 person bicycles like this one!
We tried a few restaurants on the causeway, and the best we found was El Muelle on Flamenco Island.
This outdoor restaurant sits overhanging the water in a marina, so you can watch the pleasure boats and water taxis running around.
El Muelle is a great place to grab lunch while on the causeway, and I most recommend the ‘Bandeja de Mariscos’ — a giant seafood platter that fed all 5 of us for $25!
Absolutely delicious, this plate had about a kilo of fried fish, as well as langostinas (like a cross between giant shrimp and baby lobsters) mussels, clams, shrimp, french fries, and more. It’s the 4th item on their menu – I can’t recommend it more.
We cut out after an early dinner (it’s exhausting pedaling these bike/car hybrids for miles in the afternoon sun) but there is a very wide variety of restaurants, bars, discos, etc. if you’re looking to stay after sunset for nightlife on the causeway.
Our second favorite place was Casco Viejo (which means Old Helmet in Spanish).
After Henry Morgan sacked Old Panama City, the city decided to move to the more easily defensible location where Casco Viejo now stands.
This area has the most interesting historical sites, however on our recent visit, approximately 60% of the area was under construction and so navigating the area was a bit difficult.
Apparently the area is undergoing a massive renovation, which has the upside that the tourist experience will be quite the sparkling gem in a year or two, however apparently one side effect has been to send the area’s poorer residents into the streets or north into the ghettos of El Cuchillo (which is best avoided by tourists, with nothing to see anyway.)
Some highlights of this area are:
Plaza de Independencia
This marks the spot where the founding fathers (statues of whom line the square) decided to declare their independence from Colombia in 1903. Here you will find the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, which took over a hundred years to complete, and features towers inlaid with pearls from the nearby Pearl Islands.
Museo de Canal Interoceanico
Located in the Plaza de Independencia, this is where you will find the REAL story of the Panama Canal.
While much less overwhelming than the hypermedia displays found in Miraflores, the Museo de Canal Interoceanico features an honest and unabashed look at the canal’s long and troubled past, including the failed French expeditions and the tens of thousands of slaves or near-slaves who perished from yellow fever and construction accidents.
But the most interesting part of the offering is the very detailed accounts of the uprisings by university students in Panama, who literally risked (and many lost, as the US Army gunned down hundreds of the protestors, and then blocked off the roads leading to the hospitals so they could not be saved) their lives over the course of several decades for the cause of independence and the return of the canal to Panama’s care.
It took 3 US presidents’ terms to resolve the matter, ending on September 7, 1977 when Jimmy Carter signed all authority to the Panama Canal back to Panama as part of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.
Other places of interest in Casco Viejo
The Church of the Golden Altar, unsurprisingly, has a massive golden altar. It’s claim to fame is that when Henry Morgan and the pirates came to sack Panama, the priest painted it black, saving the golden relic from the swashbuckling horde. The French Plaza on the farthest point of Casco Viejo commemorates the failed efforts of the French to build the Canal the first time around. Some other statues and historic monuments may be found in Plaza Boliviar, Plaza Herrera, The Flat Arch, and The Presidential Palace are all good spots to get your picture taken and learn a bit about Panama City’s history.
Before leaving Casco Viejo, we recommend stopping by Super Gourmet, an excellent NY-Style (or as close as you’ll come in Central America) Deli which serves up excellent salads and sandwiches. They also offer imported chips, cookies, locally-made gourmet chocolate goods, and more.