Stretched along the waterfront of the Panama Bay, downtown Panama City is filled with steel and glass skyscrapers - many in unconventional shapes. Mixed into the towering landscape are glitzy shopping centers, upscale eateries and casinos. Like any cosmopolitan city, traffic jams and taxi drivers with a death wish fill the crowded roadways. Welcome to Central America's own version of Miami Panama City!
Recently, I spent a few days in this vibrant city with some of my New York City girlfriends. We're accustomed to the traffic jams, noise and towering landscape so the chaos was nothing new. But, beyond the chaos we found some of the true treasures of the city, the surrounding rainforests and, of course, the Panama Canal.
Old Panama fell victim to the swashbuckling pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 who reduced the city to ruins. But Panama was rebuilt at the southern tip of a rocky peninsula now known as Casco Viejo. Today Casco Viejo is the city's historic district. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the district is a fascinating blend of restored Spanish Colonial architecture and crumbling pastel facades. Historic cathedrals dominate the plazas, souvenir shops sell a little bit of everything, musicians entertain and artists capture the scene along the cobbled streets. With a variety of bars and restaurants, Casco Viejo is also the place to go for nightlife. Catch one of the best views of the downtown Panama skyline from the walks along the waterfront.
The Panama Canal
Admittedly, I don't understand engineering in any form. But even a non-engineering mind has to appreciate the marvel that is the Panama Canal. There are several ways to experience the canal. Explore its history at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center museum. Watch the massive ships as they pass through the locks from the center's open-air observation deck. Or do what we did - pass through the locks on a partial transit. Panama Marine Adventures offers narrated boat tours that cruise through the historic canal on a transit from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. I will never understand how it works, but it was still a thrill to experience the rising and lowering of the water levels as we traversed the country from ocean to ocean.
Segway Tour in the Gamboa Rainforest
Sure you can hike through the rainforest but a Segway can take you further faster, plus it's just a lot of fun. Besides, picking up speed on a Segway will provide a tiny breeze to offset the intense heat and humidity of the rainforest. Our guide, Octavio, drove us out of the city into the surrounding wilderness for a rainforest tour by Segway. The adventure began with a bit of training before we rolled away.
Our tour took us through the Gamboa community originally built to house the canal workers. From there we cruised alongside the Panama Canal and ultimately down Pipeline Road into the rainforest. As we rolled along howler monkeys grunted in the distance and butterflies in various shades of blue fluttered around us. A short hike and a climb to the top of an observation tower in the center of the rainforest provided tree top views of the surrounding forest.
Embera Indian Village
Just an hour outside of Panama City, we entered the world of the Embera Indians. Originally from the Darien region of Panama, the Embera Indian tribe migrated from their ancestral home to the banks of the Chagres River in the 1950s. Although the tribe has adopted some modern ways of life, they continue to hold onto their rich cultural traditions. The tribe is known for its beautiful handicrafts, decorated traditional clothing and body painting. Today they share their traditions with visitors as a way to boost their economic structure while keeping their cultural lifestyle alive.
We were greeted on the banks of the Chagres River where we boarded a dugout canoe (thankfully motorized) to ride upriver for a swim in the natural waterfalls. We hiked, climbed across boulders, swam and then boarded the canoe again to spend the afternoon at the Embera village. With the assistance of an interpreter, the chief shared stories of Embera customs and traditions and answered questions about village life. We dined on a scrumptious lunch of tilapia caught fresh from the river below served with grilled plantains - all cooked over an open flame. Afterwards we shopped for handicrafts, had temporary tattoos painted on our arms and danced with members of the tribe. It was an amazing afternoon and my favorite experience of the trip.
Have you been to Panama? What was your favorite experience?
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