Most people, when they think of Panama, come up with Panama hats (although these well-known hats are really made in Ecuador) and, of course, they associate the country with the Panama Canal, a modern-day marvel connecting the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean on Panama's narrow isthmus (the Canal was constructed in the early 20th century by the U.S, and turned over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999).
Most cruise ships call at Colon and Cristobal on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal and at these port cities, other than shopping for local handicrafts and souvenirs, the main draw is the Panama Canal.
Now under an expansion project that will create wider locks for today's bigger ships (the project is slated for completion in 2014), the Canal is a must for any visitor to Panama. Some cruise ships do a partial crossing of the Canal, sailing into Gatun Lake and returning back to the Caribbean; others do a full transit -- which typically takes eight to 10 hours -- and others simply stop at Colon or Cristobal and passengers are able to take full-day optional shore excursions to see the Canal and/or visit Panama City (a typical tour combining both and including lunch usually takes approximately 10 hours).
A lock-type canal, it is approximately 80 kilometers long with three two-way series of locks that function as "water elevators," lifting ships 26 meters to the level of Gatun Lake and then lower them to the level of the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the isthmus. Nearly 200 million liters of fresh water are poured into the locks to get one ship across -- the water comes from Gatun Lake and, after the crossing, gets emptied into the ocean. Ships sail under their own power through the canal, but in the locks electric locomotives ("mules") on either side of the locks pull them by means of ropes.
Panama City is another must-see for visitors to Panama. Its old city (referred to as "Casco Antiguo" or "Panama la Vieja") is a UNESCO World heritage site with the remains of the first Spanish city founded on the Pacific of the Americas by Pedro Arias de Avila on Aug. 15, 1519. This old city served as a departure point for expeditions to conquer Peru in 1532 and a stopping point for Spanish flotillas loaded with gold and silver from Peru bound for Spain during colonial times. Later on, the city served as an important stop on commercial routes of the Americas.
The old city is home to a variety of architectural styles including Colonial, Neo-Classical, Art Deco, French and Caribbean on 800 houses and churches like San Jose Church with a solid gold altar. Here too the visitor finds historic plazas, like the Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903 and where the Metropolitan Cathedral, with its two bell towers in Neo-Classical style, is found. Interesting museums in the old city include the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, site of the headquarters for the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal in 1881 and the headquarters for the U.S. canal effort. The museum is considered to be the best example of French architecture in the old city.
Other points of interest include the Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace) in Spanish and Moorish styles; the pretty Plaza Bolívar with its monument to South American liberator Simon Bolívar; the Palacio Bolívar with its Salón Bolívar, the hall where in 1826 Bolívar organized a congress to discuss the possible unification of Colombia, Mexico and Central America. Next to the Palacio Bolívar is a historic church, the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís, one of the original structures of the old city, almost destroyed by fire and restored in 1998. Yet another point of interest in the old city is the Teatro Nacional, Avenida Catedral B, 2nd, dating back from the early 20th century and offering theater, concerts and ballet.
Yet another must-see in the old city is the Plaza de Francia (originally the Plaza de Armas, the city's most important square), with a monument to the French failed attempt to build a canal and sellers of refreshing snow cones flavored with tropical fruits, and the nearby Paseo Esteban Huertas, an esplanade adorned with bougainvilleas and located over Las Bovedas (old dungeons converted to shops near the old wall that protected the city). From here visitors can see the bridge, Puente de las Americas, and ships awaiting their turn to finish crossing the Panama Canal.
From various points in the old city, visitors are able to see the skyline of modern Panama City with its highrises next to the Pacific.
Other points of interest in Panama include the Archipiélago de las Perlas (Pearls Archipelago) with its small islands with beautiful beaches with emerald-colored waters in the Pacific; the Parque Nacional Volcan Baru, site of the only volcano in the country and hiking trails in the province of Chiriquí; and the San Blas islands, home of the Kuna Indians (sometimes visited by cruise ships). The Kuna are known for their "molas" (embroidery work with figures of animals and other subjects in brilliant colors).
Not-to-be-missed local flavors include the "sancocho," the national dish -- a hearty stew usually made with chicken, avocado, yucca, plantains, corn and seasonings. Other popular dishes include ceviche and coconut rice.
Among the cruise lines that visit Colon are Carnival, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean; lines stopping at Cristobal Pier include Celebrity, MSC, Princess and Royal Caribbean. Lines visiting Panama's San Blas Islands include Holland America and Silversea.
IF YOU GO -- For more information, visit www.visitpanama.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun