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.
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.
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
We took the Panama City Railroad from Panama City to Colon, there are only two trains per day Monday-Friday, one at 7:15am from Panama City to Colon and the return at 5:15pm from Colon back to Panama City. The ride takes about an hour, the one way ticket was $25. Get there early for a good seat, there's one domed observation car which filled up pretty quickly. The cars are quite nice, wood paneled, carpeted, with a bar and snack service. There's also an outdoor observation platform.
The train runs along the Panama Canal passing through rainforest, alongside the Panama Canal’s locks, through the Gaillard Cut and over Lake Gatun. If you keep your eyes open, you might spot some wildlife, we saw several crocodiles and a monkey.
Once you arrive in Colon, if you haven't already arranged for a guide, there should be some taxi drivers waiting at the platform. One couple we talked to on the train hired one of these guides and were getting a tour of Portobelo at the same time we were there.
Miraflores is one of the best places to check out the Panama Canal. It's very close to Panama City, and it has a visitors center which includes a museum, gift shop, and restaurant, and a great dual platform viewing area so that you can either watch the ships go through the locks from the rooftop area or from ground level.
You can watch the boats pass for free, but will need to buy a ticket to do other stuff like go through the museum and whatnot. The tickets weren't that expensive, somewhere between $7-$10 per person I believe. We got it and enjoyed the museum so I'd say it's worth it.
Try to get a spot on the roof early, because it can get packed and be tough to see once a big ship starts to come through since no one usually leaves once they've taken a spot.
Just a couple of kilometers north of the cit y center is the Parque Natural Metropolitano, where for a mere $2 one can stroll along several kilometers of marked trails in the hills above the city. The park is easily reached by taxi for about $4.. One of the tralis leads to a ridge top from which one has a nice view of the city. There are rumored to be monkeys and many bird species in the park, but I saw nothing more than a few undistinguished birds and some turtles in the pond. I'm no birder, though, so perhaps something I viewed as undistinguished was, in fact, a rare sighting. My failure to see wildlife might have resulted from a very poor decision on my part to visit the park in the early afternoon, when it is very hot. I'd recommend instead visiting in the early morning (the park opens at 6:00 AM) or evening, when the animals, which clearly have more sense than I, are said to be more active and visible. Note: For experienced hikers, the times on the trails are ridiculously overstated. Even if you take it slow, they take little more than half the estimated times.
The botanical Garden Summit is 10 kilometers past Miraflores Locks on Gamboa Road and was founded in 1923 with the intention of introducing tropical plants of other countries to Panama. During World War II it was used for the training of soldiers to survive in the forest. In 1957 it was transformed to a park and zoo. In 1971 it resumed its botanical research function by the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Finally it was returned to Panama in 1979 and it is now a recreational, educational and conservation center visited both by Panamanians and tourists.You can reach this by public bus and combine it with your visit to the canal. The place is very pleasant and attracts a lot of locals especially on weekends who come here with their children to have a respite from the heat of the city. There are about 15 millions of trees and plants and a small zoo. Among the animals you can see are tigers, tapirs, anteaters, ocelots, monkeys, wildcats, crocodiles, macaws, and the most important, the national bird of the country, the Agila Arpia, a kind of eagle which is in extinction.
When I was there visitors were allowed to paint the wooden benches to their liking so I could see whole families eagerly engaged in the task .
Camping is permitted for 5$ per tent, but you should call well ahead.
The Gamboa bus stops outside the gate.
Open every day from 9:00 to 5:00 every day all year around. Admission 1$ for tourists.
The National Institute of Culture is the agency responsible for preservation in Casco Viejo and running the museums in the rest of the city. This Main headquarters has a small exhibit of local artists
This magnificent building is adjacent to the Palacio de Gobernia and also faces Plaza Bolivar. It was designed by an Italian architect --- Genaro Ruggieri. The said building was inaugurated in October 1, 1908 and currently has a seating capacity for 853 persons.
As a daughter of Jamaican parents, although it wasn't my direct history, I'm sure an ambitious uncle of mine must have been part of the making of the Panama Canal.
This was a MUST SEE spot for me.
This quaint museum stood out in an area close to Casco Viejob and Perejil. It is filled with history from Spice Bun to hard work on the canal.
Mostly in Spanish but in any language you can feel the presence of something special here. I have never been to museum sole focusing in on West Indian heritage. So I was not only excited but proud of its existence.
Photos of West Indian wedding in Panama, furniture that feels like you are in a Jamaican house and information about the hard work that took place to build Panama's mainstay - the Panama Canal. Blood sweat and tears can be smelled here.