(Delta Optimist) It’s been long overlooked as a tourism destination, but Panama City is one of Central America’s most exquisite gems. With its mixture of ancient history, indigenous culture and tropical jungle, the city’s attractions are diverse and fascinating. Give yourself at least two days to absorb the thrum of Latin American magic, feel the pulse of the jungle and walk the historic corridors of Casco Viejo. There’s a good chance you’ll be longing for more.
The Panama Canal is the city’s top attraction and the country’s main source of wealth, generating in excess of $2 billion a year. To understand the relevance and history of this engineering marvel, head to the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center. Here you’ll learn how the French began work on the project in 1882 and threw up their hands in despair within a few short years, by which time they’d lost 22,000 to malaria and yellow fever. The U.S. built the canal between 1903 and 1914, reaping the financial benefits for 85 years until control was handed to Panama in 1999. Today 14,000 ships from 160 countries use this oceanic route, making Panama City the main logistics hub for the continent and the wealthiest city in Central America. As each one passes through, a whopping 197 million liters of fresh water is released into the ocean.
For one of the best views of the Canal, head to Soberania National Park, an hour from the city and home to the Gamboa Rainforest. We boarded an air tram that lifted us soundlessly into the still, upper canopies of the jungle. Shaded by the leafy trunks of ancient trees, we passed cone-shaped nests of Aztec ants attached to tree trunks, watched as blue morphin butterflies flitted by and heard the ghostly yowl of howler monkeys. From the peak of an aerial viewing tower, the 80-kilometer canal spread before us, massive freighters making their eight-hour journey across its passage. Later we boarded a boat tour of the Gatun Lake, zooming into some of its narrow channels to watch tamarind monkeys dance between the branches and perfectly camouflaged sloths hang nonchalantly in the trees. This tropical reserve is super accessible, rich in wildlife and delivers a close-up glimpse at Panama’s resplendent natural wealth.
The Embera Quera, one of Panama’s indigenous groups, is a cultural world away from the smog and traffic of the city’s thoroughfares. To meet them we drove a short distance from the city and boarded a dugout canoe on the banks of the Gatun River. We ventured 25 minutes upstream to the village, which is home to 24 families. They fish tilapia from the river, grow mango, papaya and plantains in the fertile orange soil and supplement their livelihood with visits by curious travelers. One of the community’s shamans, Alipio Ajeto, walked us through the jungle, pointing out an indigenous version of Viagra and natural remedies for diabetes and diarrhea. Beneath the thatch-roofed communal hut we ate a lunch of tilapia and fried plantain, entertained by the antics of Tony, the Embera Quera’s pet toucan.
There’s a stark transition between the new, well-heeled Panama, with its tall, contemporary hotels, casinos and expansive malls, and the old. In Casco Viejo, the old city, we peeked inside Iglesia de San Jose to marvel at a massive altar flaked with gold that stretches 25 feet high. It’s the only thing that was saved in 1671 when the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and destroyed the city, burning it to the ground and making off with the loot. Local legend has it that a Jesuit priest painted the altar black to disguise it, and then told Morgan the original altar had been stolen by a different pirate. Today supplicants still pray at the altar, four centuries after it was built.
The small quarter of Casco Viejo teems with charming, historic passageways, ancient buildings and old plazas. Gentrification is well underway and once dilapidated ruins have been transformed into boutiques, gelato shops, galleries and restaurants. The area buzzes with vibrant energy day and night, a symbol of the juxtapositions that Panama seamlessly maintains: the ancient and the contemporary, the jungle with the city and traditional culture steeped in centuries with the influence of modern life.