Panama City, Panama – Back in Panama City we decided to splurge and stay at a fancy boutique hotel for our last few days, but since we got back a day early we had to stay in a hostel for one night before moving into our sweet digs. We had six nights booked at the Casa Antigua hotel in Casco Viejo, which was super cool. We had a studio apartment with a kitchen and living room and a balcony and a rooftop terrace with a view of the street below and the downtown skyline. We were really torn between staying in our sweet room and checking out the city which we were also excited about. Thankfully, we had six days so we had time to see the city’s sights at a relaxing pace and get some downtime in our room as well.
After our “Friends breakfast” each morning we’d hit the town. We took a taxi to the Causeway and rented bikes and cruised down the 2k road that connects four islands to the mainland and offers great views of the canal, ships, the Panama bridge and the city. We had lunch there at a decent Middle Eastern place on the water and visited an interesting, but rundown, Marine Museum.
From our hotel we could walk down a waterside promenade from Casco Viejo to downtown. We walked down it one afternoon and enjoyed the cool sea breeze along with tons of Panamanian couples and families also out for a stroll. We ended up on Casa Uruguay in the downtown Bella Vista distinct. We had actually debated between staying in Bella Vista and Casco Viejo, and after seeing Casa Uruguay we realized we’d made the right choice. The area was sketchy and besides expensive clubs and restaurants there wasn’t much going on. We did have a really good dinner there and then got the heck out.
We spent one morning visiting the really old city, Panama Viejo (not to be confused with the newer “old city”, Casco Viejo). Panama Viejo is the original location of the Colonial Panama City founded in 1519, and is the first European settlement along the Pacific. Henry Morgan, along with 1200 other pirates, plundered and destroyed the city in 1671. Unfortunately, the remains of the ruined city were used as building materials until the they were protected in 1976. So, there isn’t much left to look at, but we still got a sense of what it was like with the help of the Lonely Planet and a lot of imagination. There are also some good views from the restored church bell tower. From the ruins we took a taxi to the mall for lunch and walked then back to Casco Viejo from there.
We were excited to discover that there is a train running from Panama City to Colón. We wanted to visit the San Lorenzo Fort near Colón so we made a day trip out of the train and fort. We rode in a dome car along the Panama Canal for about an hour. We saw some of the canal and some of the route was through the jungle where we spotted toucans in the trees. The ride gave us a good idea of the length of the canal, which is 50 miles.
We knew that getting to the fort from the train station could be expensive – there is no public transportation there, so our only option would be a taxi. We hopped that we would be able to negotiate a good price or hook up with some other people and share the cost. We got talking to a Dutch couple on the train that wanted to visit the nearby Gatun Locks and the four of us decided to split the cost of a taxi to both the locks and the fort. We ended up with private driver – not a taxi driver – who agreed to take us to the fort and the locks for as much time as we wanted. The price worked out to $25 per person, which is much cheaper than the $80 – $90 fare we could have paid just to visit the fort.
We stopped at the Gatun Locks first. We hadn’t planned on visiting them because we were intending on going to the Miraflores Locks on another day, but we were so glad we ended up there. We were absolutely amazed by the Gatun Locks. We ended up spending a couple hours there – much longer than our driver expected, I’m sure.
There are three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. They raise ships entering from the Pacific or Caribbean Oceans 85 feet to the height of Gatun Lake and then lower the ships back to sea level on the other side. A very informative guide narrated the process and provided a ton of information about the logistics and history of the canal as we watched huge container ships pass through.
The Gatun Locks are a set of three locks that each raise or lower ships 28.3 feet. It was spectacular watching the water fill in and drain out of the locks while lifting and lowering these massive ships. We watched several ships go through, including a car carrier that was the largest sized ship that could pass through – there was two feet of space on each side between the ship and the lock’s wall.
After we tore ourselves away from the lock we drove to the San Lorenzo Fort. It’s actually on the property of the old US base, Fort Sherman, which we had to drive through to get there. The buildings in Fort Sherman were all in disrepair. Our driver thinks that once the US left, some locals came through and took all they could from the buildings. Part of road was washed out due to a landslide and we had to get out of the car and walk the detour because the driver couldn’t get the car over the bumpy dirt road detour with us in it.
Turns out that San Lorenzo Fort is kind of underwhelming. We were glad that we had gone to Gatun Lock as well, because I’m not sure the fort alone would have been worth the trip and the money. It’s still neat, right on the water and there are some interesting ruins we climbed around and some cool cannons – and more monkeys howling in the distance. Maybe it was just that after watching ships in the canal for hours it was hard to be impressed. After about an hour at the fort our driver drove us all to the bus station in Colón and we took a bus from Colón to Panama City for the second time.
We spent the next day taking it easy in Casco Viejo to explore some more of the area. We visited the very informative Panama Canal museum and learned more about the canal that amazed us the day before. We also checked out a couple churches, one of which, the Inglesia de San Jose, had the original alter saved from the sacking of Panama Viejo.
The next day we headed out the the Canal again, this time to the nearby Miraflores Locks on the Pacific entrance to the canal. In addition to a viewing platform where we could watch the ships move through two sets of locks, there is a museum and an informative movie. At this point we had learned more about the Panama Canal than we ever knew was possible.
That night we had our last dinner at a fancy place in Casco Viejo called Tantalo. It was a bittersweet evening. We were both very sad about leaving Panama City and our hotel and that our adventures were over. We were happy to be heading home to see our friends and family and to sleep in our own beds and enjoy a nice, cool Bay Area Summer.
The next morning we took a taxi to the airport and flew home.