Take Your Pick
Ancon Hill, Panama
Statue on Ancon Hill
Best View - Jutting 654 feet above Panama City is the steep and nearly undeveloped Ancon Hill. Ancon Hill offers a wonderful panoramic of Panama City's vibrant urban center, the historic Miraflores Locks, and the cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Of course that's if the weather cooperates. The day this monkey ran to the top of the hill it was a little hazy, so I took a photo of Amelia Denis de Icaza's statue. She was a poet (1836-1911) who helped inspire the nationalistic movement which eventually led to the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977.
Balboa Ancon, Panama
Pacific to Atlantic in an Hour
Panama Canal Railway - Stretching 48 miles across the Isthmus of Panama (from Panama City to Colon) is the Panama Canal Railway. The railway is the most expensive in terms of dollars and human lives ever built, costing 8 million dollars in 1850 and over 12,000 lives. The original purpose of the railway was to facilitate the California Gold Rush. The route cuts through lush tropical rainforests, past the three Panama Canal Locks (Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun) and along the slender causeways in Gatun Lake. A passenger train leaves daily from Panama City in the morning and returns that evening. And at $25 each way, it is an inexpensive way to see the full glory of the Panama Canal.
Clayton, Panama
Panama's Biggest Tourist Attraction
Miraflores Locks - The Miraflores Locks are the most accessible of the three locks (just a 15 minute drive from Panama City) and are probably the most tourist friendly with a multi-level observation deck, theater, restaurant museum and gift store. This helps make the Miraflores Locks the biggest tourist attraction in Panama. There are two ways to enjoy the locks; watch from the outside terrace or take a one day cruise aboard the Pacific Queen (dates and times are limited). Both are worth the money. Ships are schedule 6:00 AM to 3:15 PM to run from the Pacific towards the Atlantic. And from 3:45 PM to 11:00 PM from the Atlantic towards the Pacfic. It's a free-for-all any other time. You cannot go to Panama without seeing the Panama Canal, so be sure to stop here!!
Clayton, Panama
Panama Canal Museums
Museums - Designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Panama Canal is an impressive structure. To learn about this 51 mile man-made wonder, stop by one or both of the Panama Canal Museums. The larger of the two is located in Casco Viejo and resides in the original 1874 headquarters of both the French and U.S. companies engaged in the construction of the canal. There are hundreds of photos and you will be amazed by the ingenuity of the construction. The other museum is inside the Miraflores Visitor Center, and since you are going there anyway, it is worth the entry price.
Gatun, Panama
Monkeying Around at the Gatun Locks
Gatun Locks - Located on the Atlantic side of Panama, about an hour north of Panama City are the impressive Gatun Locks. These locks are the largest of the three (Miraflores, San Pedro Miguel and Gatun) and stretch for nearly a mile. Ships are lifted 85 feet by a gravity flow system (there are no electrical pumps) that fill water chambers with over 100,000 cubic yards of water in less than 10 minutes. The ships are then pulled through the locks by mules - small trains that run along the canal - and sent on their way. Construction of the Gatun Locks began on August 24, 1909 and the first ship was pulled through on September 26, 1913, but construction continues to this day.
Isla Flamenco, Panama
Great Fun Day or Night
Amador Causeway - Connecting the four tiny islands of Naos, Culebra, Perico and Flamenco is the two mile long Amador Causeway. The Causeway was built with rock that was removed during the construction of the Panama Canal and serves as a breakwater and must-see travel spot. It's one of the best locations in Panama to bike, run, sightsee, dine and club hop. It is also a jumping off location to the islands of Contadora and Tobago - via ferry. During the day the Causeway has a nice tranquil feel to it, with sailboats bobbing on the cool blue Pacific waters. But weekend nights it is a zoo of humanity, with Panamanians partying like crazy sock monkeys.
Nueva Gorgona, Panama
Beaches of Panama
Beaches of Panama - An hour or so south of Panama City, along the Pacific Coast, are dozens of beautiful beaches including Playa Bonita, Punta Chame, Playa Gorgona, Playa Coronado, Rio Mar, Santa Clara and Playa Blanca. The oldest, most visited and best developed of these is Playa Coronado with a long stretch of ocean front sand to sink your toes in. On the other hand, if you're trying to escape the crowds and are looking for the whitest sand in Panama, head a little further south to Santa Clara. This largely undeveloped beach is a great escape from the bustle of the city.
Panama City, Panama
Panama City Skyline
Panama City - Nicknamed "Little Miami" for its over 300 white high-rise ocean-side buildings and decadent party atmosphere, Panama City is certainly the pounding heart of Panama. Over 1.3 million people call this city home and it is the largest population center in the country. Panama City offers a variety of activities and sights including the Panama Canal, museums, historical districts, casinos, fine restaurants and dance clubs. The city is a great place to visit, but navigating through it by car is nearly impossible without GPS and extremely difficult with it. One day it took me nearly 30 minutes to circle a single block. Craziness!!
Panama City, Panama
Hats Everywhere
Panama Hat - With a name like the "Panama Hat" you would expect these small brimmed straw hats to have originated in Panama. Nope, Ecuador actually (located a few hundred miles to Panama's south). Ecuador has been producing the Panama Hat since the 1600s, but it only has a small sales market (unless you're a travel monkey, who goes to Ecuador)? On the other hand a lot of people traveled through the Isthmus of Panama and now travel through the Panama Canal. So the Ecuadorians packed up their hats and brought them to Panama. I'll admit, I love girls in hats.
Panama City, Panama
Kuna and Molas
Molas - The Kuna people are indigenous to Panama with a population of about 60,000 scattered throughout the country. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in 1501, the Kuna migrated away from the Spaniards in an effort to retain their own culture. And again in the early 20th century the Kuna fought the government (and won) the right to keep their autonomy. Today you will mostly see Kuna women selling molas, which are brightly colored hand-stitched cloth squares used for dresses and artwork. When purchasing molas, be sure to use your best haggling skills because these ladies are tough. The picture you see cost me $2 (down from $5) and I'm a cute sock monkey.
Panama Viejo, Panama
Captain Henry Morgan Attacks!!
Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion - Founded in 1519 and the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast, Panama Viejo (old Panama) is the former capital of Panama and a current World Heritage Site. After its founding and through fires, pirate attacks and even an earthquake the city managed to expand to nearly 10,000 residents. Then on January 28, 1671 Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) and 1,400 men attacked the city, which at the time was considered the richest of Spain's settlements. Morgan and his men successfully defeated the Spanish and burned down the city, but left nearly empty-handed. The city's treasure had already been moved out to sea. Today amongst the ruins is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.
Portobelo, Panama
Festival of the Black Christ
Festival of the Black Christ - A small white church in the middle of town (Iglesia de San Felipe) holds a life-sized figure of El Cristo Negro or the Black Christ. How or when the statue arrived in Portobelo is unknown, but many theories abound. It is believed that the effigy was carved in Spain and was transported by a boat part of the way, then somehow washed ashore in the mid 1600s. Since then, many miracles have been attributed to the Black Christ, including miraculously sparing the small town from the plague and helping visitors win the lottery (of course lottery tickets are sold near the doorsteps). The Festival of the Black Christ, held every 21st of October, attracts visitors from all over the country, with many walking to the church from Panama City (70 miles away).
Portobelo, Panama
Castillo Santiago de la Gloria
Portobelo Ruins - Roughly 20 miles east of Colon is the sleepy town of Portobelo with a population of around 3,000. The name "Puerto Bello" meaning "beautiful port" was given to the harbor by Christopher Columbus in 1502 when he and a group of his vessels sought shelter here during a storm. Through the years Portobelo has been attacked by dozens of pirates including Henry Morgan who in 1668 plundered the town for a fortnight. Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, the Portoblo Ruins seen today were built in 1753. Another fort, Fort San Lorenzo is located just a few miles west of Colon and shares some of the same misery doled out by Captain Morgan