Paseo las Bóvedas and Plaza de Francia
Around the southern point, on top of the defensive wall built by the Spaniards, is the Paseo las Bóvedas, a walkway lined with souvenir sellers at some stretches. Towards one side you can see the skyscrapers of Panama City and to the other side, in a distance, the ships lining up to enter the canal.
Below Paseo las Bóvedas is Plaza de Francia, a quiet and nice square. Here you can see the monument erected over the 22000 workers who died during the French attempt to build the canal. Most of them died of yellow fever and malaria.
Cinta Costera is the coastal strip along the Bay of Panama, constructed for recreation. There are several green areas, playgrounds for children and basketball courts, and there are bicycle lanes and roads for pedestrians and joggers.
Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial and Arco Chato
Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial is housed in a small chapel next to the ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo. The museum only consists of one exhibition room (the old chapel) where there are religious paintings (most of them from the 17th century), bells and other religious artifacts.
I visited in the morning and there were no other visitors there, and I was also the first visitor of the day. The museum is open between 8 and 16 on Tuesday – Saturday.
Admission was free.
After visiting the museums I went to have a look at the ruins of Santo Domingo and the famous arch.
The church and convent of Santo Domingo was built in the 17th century. The Arco Chato (Flat Arch), a long and quite straight arch, used to support a choir. The church was burnt down in 1737 and then in 1756. After that it was abandoned and only the arch and façade remained. However the original arch was destroyed in 2003 and has been rebuilt since then.
It is said that the US decided to build the canal through Panama, and not Nicaragua, because the intact arch showed that it was not common with strong earthquakes here.
- Religious Travel
- Historical Travel
Iglesia de San José
Iglesia de San José gets a lot of visitors who come here to see the famous Golden Altar (Altar de Oro), a baroque altar saved from Panama Viejo when everything else was robbed or destroyed at the attack of Henry Morgan in1671.
It is said that a priest painted the altar black to disguise it, and then he told Henry Morgan that the golden Altar had been stolen. The story also tells that the priest convinced Morgan to make a donation.
The Golden Altar is made of mahogany that has been beautifully carved and then covered with gold leaf.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
- Religious Travel
La Catedral, or Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, is situated at the northwestern side of Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo. The cathedral was constructed between 1688 and 1796. It has two white bell towers with a stone façade in between, a façade with several small statues in niches.
The cathedral was often closed when I passed by, but once I went inside. There is not a lot of decorations inside, but there are some religious paintings, stained glass windows and a marble altar.
I think that the cathedral looked quite run down.
- Religious Travel
- Historical Travel
The old part of Panama City is UNESCO Patrimony of the humankind, including this beautiful Catedral Metropolitana. It was built in 1668, during the Spanish colonial period. It is the building that I most loved in Panama.
- Adventure Travel
- Budget Travel
This plaza contains the remnants of the original city wall on the farthest most tip of Casco Viejo. It provides a fantastic spot to watch the modern city or to watch the ships lined up for entry into the canal.
Down below, the walls are monuments to the men instrumental in building the canal.
- Historical Travel
We set aside Sunday to visit Casco Viejo, the old part of the city. I printed a walking tour from Frommers to use as our guide, the area isn't huge but if you stop at the art market, poke around in the shops or Panama Canal Museum, the visit can take several hours.
The Frommer's walking tour starts at the Plaza de la Independencia where you'll find the Catedral Metropolitana and the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (Panama Canal museum). From there you can walk by the Presidential Palace, stop by the Plaza Bolivar, see the National Theater, have a snow cone at the Plaza de Francis, see the Bridge of the Americas from the walkway along the old defensive walls. The tour wraps up at the Iglesia de San Jose with it baroque golden altar, when we drove by earlier in the day it was open but by the time we walked back it was closed.
We did stop by the Museo del Canal Interoceanico for about 1/2 hour, all of the diplays were written only in Spanish and while I can read some basic Spanish, we should have sprung for the English headsets. Admission was $2, I think it was an extra $5 for the headsets.
We poked into a few shops and I ended up buying another woven plate here, less than the one I purchased at the Embera Village. Don't be afraid to ask if the price is negotiable, I'm guessing there is a lot of profit built into the prices.
Daytrip-Jungle Land Panama
A definite must do excursion in Panama! They picked us up at our hotel in Panama City and took us to Lake Gatun, a manmade lake that was created to assist in the building of the Panama Canal. We hopped on a boat and went through the lake and part of the Panama Canal, made a stop at monkey island to feed the monkeys before heading to Captain Carl's houseboat on the lake where we were served a local lunch and visited with some of the local animals that the Captain keeps to entertain his guests. From there we had the choice to kayak to a waterfall or go fishing, we went to the waterfall. The most entertaining part of the excursion was the woman who thought that wedge shoes were appropriate footwear for a trip to the jungle. We had about 20-25 people on our trip, most were from an employee bonding trip so it might be that we just picked a crowded day.
Captain Carl is a character, a little light on facts but entertaining. I was particularly amused at his declaration that the US started WWI, not to mention WWII! And this coming from an American!
Bring water shoes, bathing suit (you can change at the houseboat), hat that stays on when riding on a motorboat, sunscreen. The cost per person was $95 including pickup from Panama City, $80 without transportation. The only additional money you might need is for beer which is extra, soft drinks and water are included with lunch. Payment is required in advance via credit card.
You can even stay overnight on Captain Carl's houseboat, we ran into a group of Canadians who had stayed there that said it was really cool being there at night. It seems a bit pricey but it's a unique experience.
Portobelo was a bit of a disappointment, perhaps it would have been a little more interesting if we had a real guide but really there isn't much left. The Spanish fort which lines the bay here dates to the 17th and 18th centuries. The fort that we walked around, San Geronimo fortress, was built in 1664, the 3rd fortification that completed the defense of the bay. The fort was conquered by pirate Henry Morgan in 1668 and by Admiral Edward Vernon in 1739.
The Customs House was used to store the riches traded between Spain and the Americas, offices on the lower level and living quarters for the authorities on the upper level. It was destroyed in the 1882 earthquake, the restoration was completed in 1998. There's a small museum in the Customs House, you can watch a short video about it's history.
There are so many trips that include monkey island but none of the tour descriptions actually said what it was. As far as I can tell no one gets off the boat at Monkey Island, instead guides will pull their boats up to the island laden with peanuts and other appealing monkey snacks and the monkeys will hop on the boat and take the food right out of your hands. There are supposedly four different species of monkey, capuchin, howler, Geoffroy's tamarin, and grey-bellied nocturnal monkeys. I know we saw some capuchin and at least one howler but I don't recall seeing the other two. Monkey Island is located in Lake Gatun, our stop here was only about 10 minutes as part of the Jungle Land Panama tour.
We headed over to the Amador Causeway on Sunday afternoon after visiting Casco Viejo and before heading to the airport for our flight back. The Causeway connects three islands to the mainland. There are a lot of restaurants but I hadn't read up on them so we asked our taxi driver where to go and he brought us to the popular Lenos Y Carbon. If you have more than a couple of hours to spend here, you might think about renting a bicycle for a ride up and down the Causeway.
There's a nice view of Panama City and the Bridge of the Americas from the Causeway.
Panama is not really a beach vacation kind of place, Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country, Colon is on the Caribbean side but almost everyone says you don't even want to visit Colon. The guidebooks suggest that the good beaches are on islands I read the reviews of the few all inclusive resorts in the area and none of them looked promising so I settled for taking a daytrip to the Caribbean side.
Isla Grande is east of Portobelo, we drove there and then took one of the waiting boats for a 5 minute ride to the island. You can visit the island and sit on the beach for no cost but if you want access to the toilets, tables, chairs, kayaks and paddleboats, the hotel will charge you $3 to use all of it. The beach is nicer on that side, it's not like the spectacular beaches you will find in Mexico or Jamaica but it is a nice relaxing place to visit for an afternoon.
The hotel has a restaurant with some standard beach hut fare, we got fried chicken and a fried pork chop and it was fine.
When you are ready to go back, you're supposed to go back with the guy who took you but ours didn't show up at the appointed time so we went back with another boat. Of course, our original driver showed up to collect his fare which we had given to the other driver. We told them to work it out.
Daytrip-Portobelo and Isla Grande
I had tried, unsuccessfully, to book a tour of Portobelo and Isla Grande before I left home but none of the tour guides were available for this particular tour on our free day so we waited until we got to Panama City and booked it through our hotel. They suggested taking the Panama City Railway from Panama City to Colon so we did that and had our driver pick us up at the station in Colon. From there we went to Portobelo to see the old port and then to Isla Grande where we took a 5 minute boat ride to the island where we spent the day at the beach.
We thought we had hired a guide for the day but he was really more of a driver who left us to our own devices. We ran into a couple and their family who had arranged the same trip through Barefoot Panama, their guide toured with them and accompanied them to the island. The guide said that it was a custom tour so if you find a good tour guide on line, ask them if they can coordinate a custom tour. We talked to their guide at length and would definitely hire him to do a custom tour for us if we go back.
The whole day ended us being fairly expensive, per person it was $163-$125 for the guide, $25 for the train, $5 for the museum at Portobelo, $5 for the boat ride, $3 to use the beach plus lunch. This was on par with most of the prepackaged tours I looked at, however, their tours appear to include a guide, not just a driver.
Another highly recommended day in Panama! We had a private tour with Garceth who is an Embera Indian who lived in the jungle until he was 17. He picked us up at our hotel and took us to the Rio Chagres where we boarded a canoe carved from a cashew tree ferried by a member of the Embera tribe decked out in a loin cloth. Garceth takes his clients out to the third village of Embera, the furthest on the river. Along the way, keep your eyes open, we saw a hawk narrowly miss having a Jesus lizard for lunch, he fell from the sky and ran on top of the water to safety. Further on the river we saw a crocodile slink back into the river, lots of birds and butterflies. We made a stop along the way to hike to a lovely tranquil waterfall, that is before the Italians arrived, and had a swim in the cool water.
The village itself probably hosts a group every day in season, on our day there were 2 or 3 groups besides our group of two. The day consisted of demonstrations of crafts and dance, lunch made by the Embera women, a chance to shop and wander the village.
Since there were just two of us it was $120 per person, if the group had been larger it would have been $100 per person. There are many companies that visit the Embera or other Indian tribes, some visit the closer two villages, another guide says he takes visitors to see the Kuna.
Bring water shoes for the hike to the waterfall, wear your swim suit or wear it under your clothes, wear sunscreen and a hat and pack bug spray. Other guides brought beverages, ours did not but he did offer to stop at a grocery store so we could pick some up. If you want to buy Embera crafts, you'll want to buy them here, they will be less expensive since you cut out the middle man. Bring cash, they can't process credit cards in the jungle.
For more photos see the travelogue below
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