Eight Cool Things to Do in Panama City
Panama City is pretty much defined by the Canal, an engineering feat that's been in operation since the early 1900s. But I opted to search out the city's other treasures, which ended up satisfying my need for cultural and nature-focused delights. Here are eight cool things to do in Panama City, aside from transiting the Canal.
1. Amador Causeway
Better yet: my Panamanian paradise isn't far from downtown. I'm determined to rent a bicycle and cycle the flat paved path that accompanies this three-some-mile roadway that juts into the Panama Bay.
I have my choice of three bike rental shops and choose Bikes and More that's set at the beginning of the causeway, which is really a breakwater the U.S. created as a way to protect the Canal and the ships waiting to enter it.
Pedaling along, I find joggers, bladers, walkers and other cyclists sharing the path where tall street lanterns light the way at night when this venue transforms into a popular nightspot. No wonder, considering the Causeway connecting four petite islands has plenty in the way of restaurants and cafes as well as clubs and bars.
But even during the day, I have some difficult decisions to make: take in the views of the anchored sailboats and immense container ships waiting to enter the Canal; munch on ice cream sold at a roadside shop; stop for a sea bass lunch in one of the waterside eateries; or simply pedal along and enjoy the breezes.
2. Metropolitan Natural Park
The air is dense with chirps, peeps, buzzes and squawks and a multitude of other bird sounds. Among the five trails that wander through this 700-acre wilderness, I first tackle the Los Caobos path with its towering mahogany trees for which the trail is named. Yellow warblers, barn swallows and Baltimore orioles are some of the species that can be seen or heard along this trail. (The park sits along a key bird migratory path on the way to North America.)
Though I know it's past sunrise, some parts of the trail are so dense with foliage that it seems like night has fallen again. At the trail's 240-foot highpoint, a window suddenly opens in the forest revealing a surprise: the Panama City skyline.
My proximity to the city is even more apparent when the sounds of traffic break into my consciousness as I meander towards the El Roble trail with its small tree farm and arboretum growing bonsai. I spot an agouti racing across the path that borders a small pond with turtles. I have the trails to myself until two mountain bikers, hoping to get in some miles before heading to work, zoom past.
All the activity doesn't disturb a miniscule brown frog that hops beside my feet. But the trail soon ends, after a mere 50 minutes. There are longer and hillier trails, including the popular Cienaguita Trail leading to Mono Titi Road that offers even better views of the city from its viewpoint.
3. Museum of Contemporary Art
But, as an aficianado of contemporary art, I'm glad I didn't pass up this museum, which is said to hold the best collection of works by Panamanian artists. Their current exhibit, Women in Art, displays photos, watercolors, oils and sculpture works by and about women.
The low-slung building at the foot of Ancon Hill is surprisingly spacious with several rooms exhibiting works not just by Panamanian but also a few Guatemalan, Colombian and Chilean artists. Probably the most surreal work is "Maternity of the Cosmos" by Colombia Gloria de Arellano.
In this piece, a woman's swirling hair is indistinguishable from the roots penetrating underground where the woman almost resembles a potato. A sculpture by Chilean Ernesto Ortiz reveals a volumptuous woman whose hair resembles a mushroom. (Curiously, I gravitate to images of hair that resemble biological objects.)
4. Cerro Ancon
But to access the section of the asphalt that threads to the top at this early hour when cars are not allowed, first I crawl through a hole in a barbed wire fence. I'm immediately confronted with a wild landscape of lush foliage, strung with vines and dappled with brilliant-colored blossoms. Even at this early hour, I'm not alone.
A jogger passes me, as does a mountain biker who struggles with his gears. Behind me, a couple of bird watchers are hoping for sighting of parrots and parakeets. In this woodsy nature preserve, I spy a sloth and an acouti. It's only 30 minutes to the 660-foot summit and along the way, I pass several boldly-painted benches emblazoned with such green mottos as respira profunda (breathe deeply) and embraza un arbol (grab or hug a tree).
On the roadside are signs displaying passages from "Al Cerro Ancon," Amelia Denis de Icaza's poem dedicated to this picturesque hill. All the effort pays off at the top where I find the best panoramic views of the city, the entrance to the Canal, the Miraflores Locks, and the Bridge of the America that's part of the Pan American Highway.
5. Cinta Costera
With nowhere to rent a bike nearby, instead of cycling, I walk for forty minutes along the path that I share with families pushing strollers, couples strolling hand in hand, and older folk wielding umbrellas against the intense sun's rays beating down on the asphalt. Plenty of junk food temptations await as vendors sell sausages, candied apples, flavored ices and more.
I bypass all of these distractions and continue on my workout, gazing into the distance where the giant Panamanian flag flutters high above the city atop Cerro Ancon.
6. Mi Pueblito
Three mini villages strung along a spacious property snuggled at the foot of Cerro Ancon represent a cross section of Panama's cultures. First, I wander into a picturesque central square rimmed by replicas of 19th century colonial building, including a whitewashed church and a telegraph building complete with an old switchboard.
I examine the elaborately stitched garb displayed in a compact museum devoted to the pollala, Panama's traditional dress that's worn for various festivities. In another village, brightly hued wood frame houses that encircle a gazebo are the type imagined to be the dwellings of the West Indians who labored on the Canal.
Since I arrive just as the property opens, I sit alone in the sun and enjoy the calm. Later, I meander around this plaza and find a series of thatched huts -- some quite spacious -- that represent those of the native Indians of Panama's San Blas Islands.
This section of Mi Pueblito is perhaps the most authentic where I watch the indigenous people craft and sell an array of handicrafts, such as molas, a traditional blouse, as well as animals carved from tagua nuts. The Indians do actually use these abodes, including one for ceremonial nose and ear piercings and another for tribal meetings.
7. Panama Viejo
The original Panama City from the 16th century stands in tatters, thanks to the siege on the city led by pirate, Henry Morgan in 1671. But the stone ruins lie on a fine patch of land surrounded by water -- oh, so scenic, but obviously not easy to defend -- that I delight in exploring.
But it's easy to spend too much time indoors in their museum that's chock full of artifacts, which set the tone for examining the ruins. Some of my favorite findings are a bone flute carved in the shape of a human playing a flute, and a ceramic whistle shaped like a bird. Masses of riches from South America once made their way to Spain via this once thriving city.
But there's evidence of goods transported in the other direction too, like decorative glazed ceramic dishes and bowls. Once I pry myself away from the myriad displays, I walk part of the almost 60-acre landscape to check out the ruined archways, walls, foundations and remains of churches, convents and houses.
Rising some 70 feet high, a solitary tower with clinging vines is much of what remains of the cathedral. I climb the wooden stairs to the top, stopping along the way to gaze out through the arched portals piercing each level that reveal an increasingly absorbing view of the Canal and downtown Panama City that's dabbled with sky-reaching buildings.
8. Casco Viejo
Once surrounded by walls to protect the elite, the city would relegate the lower classes and slaves to the area outside the fortifications. I ride a taxi through the decrepit dark alleys now netting the lower reaches of Casco Viejo after countless people warned me against walking through this crime-ridden barrio.
But surprisingly, the ominous shadows soon give way to leafy plazas. Sure, there are scores of dilapidated three-story tenements with balconies hung with laundry. But this just lends to the quaint charm of the warren of narrow lanes with convent ruins and restored Colonial structures.
This UNESCO World Heritage site has been seeing quite a bit of renovation lately, making the neighborhood a bohemian day and night hang out. I grab a scoop of ginger ice cream at Granclement, an artisanal shop.
Then I wander to an eclectic array of stores: Café Per Due serving more than a dozen types of memorable pizzas and flavorful espressos; Diablo Rosso selling funky t-shirts; and Las Bovedas, a former dungeon turned stylish eatery with French-inflected seafood.
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