Escape Confines Of Panama Canal

They stay on ships cruising the Panama Canal, a grand sluice carved from the narrow isthmus more than 100 years ago that remains one of the greatest engineering marvels in the world. It's a daylong trip with vistas of rain forests, lakes and three sets of gigantic locks. Then the ships exit on the Pacific or Caribbean sides and move along



The Panama Canal transit is a stirring and unforgettable experience. But I'm an advocate for a different Panama experience, an urban one. A trip to Panama City, the nation's capital, yields a rich package of history, horticulture and high life all within its metropolitan limits. The variety of that package makes a trip to the city a great four-day getaway, an opportunity to see a lot including the Panama Canal in very little time because of the convenience and accessibility of its major attractions.



You'll want to spend at least an hour at Panama Viejo (Old Panama), more if you stop at the visitors center, which has a small but interesting time line of Panamanian culture with artifacts and a scale model of what the village looked like in its 16th century heyday.

Today, the ruins of the early European settlement, which was burned by pirates in 1671, are spread over several grassy acres shaded by old trees. Admission is charged only for a fenced central area that was once the village's heart, centered on what remains of a three-story tower and cathedral. A new stair allows visitors to climb to the tower's top and view the village layout. Information boards dot the site, explaining in Spanish and English what each building was. The parking area has shops targeting tourists. Some of the crafts are better than others. I always stop at a stand offering a whole coconut, top chopped off and stuck with a straw for a cool drink of coconut milk.



This is my favorite part of Panama City, the neighborhood where I lived for three months in an apartment on the top floor of a restored 19th century house. It's truly pedestrian-friendly with narrow streets, flower-filled balconies and pocket gardens and old-world charm. It was established in 1673 by survivors of the original settlement who moved several miles west on a more defensible rocky promontory jutting into the bay. It's also called by its first name, San Felipe, and Casco Antiguo. Casco Viejo has the highest concentration of historic buildings in Panama and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997 by UNESCO, so you'll see many examples of painstaking renovation completed or in progress.

Almost nothing of its 17th century roots remain, victims of fires and modernization. Most of the architecture dates from the 19th century and is a mix of Spanish and French colonial since it was then that the French arrived to begin their ill-fated attempt to build a canal.

Casco Viejo is a compact area, less than a square mile, easily walked in an hour. That and a meal from some fine restaurants in the neighborhood could easily make it a half-day trip.

Your hotel can probably match you with a tour guide. During the day, taxis are easy to flag for a ride back to town.

If you go solo, get a map marked with major landmarks:

The Plaza Independencia is the official heart of Panama City where national holidays are recognized by parades, processions and speeches. It was there that Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903 in a bloodless coup supported by the United States, which was by then into its own canal project and wanted greater autonomy with it. Fronting the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the largest in Central America with two bell towers encrusted in mother-of-pearl. On another side is a small Panama Canal Museum housed in a lovely neoclassical building that was once the French's canal headquarters.

The presidential palace, called the Palacio de las Garzas, is one block away on the waterfront, and is so named because of the African herons that reside there and do their stately strut several times a day. It's the office rather than the residence of the president, and its accessibility to tourists that is startling to those used to the high-level security surrounding government buildings here. You can walk past guards right up to the entrance though you might be asked to stand aside if the president happens to be coming or going in a small caravan of SUVs.
The Plaza Bolivar is a lovely small plaza with more restored buildings, now government offices with ground floors usually open to the public, and the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the area's oldest buildings. Farther along is the National Theater, built in the early 20th century. For a small admission charge, you may look around its baroque interior with frescos by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis.

The grandest area is the Plaza de Francia, named to honor the valiant French effort to build a canal, which was abandoned in the late 19th century after millions of dollars and thousands of lives lost. Today the vaults house a wonderful restaurant and jazz club (Las Bovedas, meaning vaults, of course). Street vendors in the plaza sell shaved ice cones laced with fruit juice and condensed milk. They're good, trust me.

On the edge of Casco Viejo is Plaza Herrera, where you'll see lots of locals gather for midday chats.

Casco Viejo has gotten a recent, glamorous frisson when it was used as a backdrop for the new James Bond movie, "Quantum of Solace," due out in November. When you visit, be aware that, despite its renovations and popularity, Casco Viejo is still home to some of the city's poorest residents. Take care where you wander and do not walk alone at night.