Cruising the Panama Canal

By:  Carina Forster – Intern from Austria

The way to the dock itself already hosts one of the city‘s panoramic highlights: the Causeway, a road which is literally on the ocean, surrounded by water on both sides. Locals as well as tourists come here for jogging, biking or taking a walk while enjoying the stunning view of the skyline.

After a short bus ride leading through traditional canal villages and dense jungle forests you finally get to see what is considered one of mankind’s greatest ingenieuric feeds: the Panama Canal.

Starting with a nice and calm river cruise through canal landscapes, our little ship eventually reached the first lock. I heard in advance that ships are risen up to a total of 26 meters above sea level to cross the Gatun lake, but I just could not believe my eyes when I saw the sudden end of water behind the lock, making it look like our boat was on the edge of a cliff. I could not believe how incredibly high our vessel was, compared to the water level after the lock where we were about to go. And every year, 14.000 ships of several tons are lifted up and down this height, just by gravity! The technology behind this is amazingly simple, I actually could have thought of it myself, with a river dam-building experience of several years as a child. However, this simple technique is efficiently working like this since 100 years already, making the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of modern world. Together with two other passenger ships and a huge mountain of cargo ship transporting 6000 cars, we were slowly sinking down, making testimony of this amazing technology and the incredible force of human kind.

Ending this epic cruise, reaching the Pacific Ocean, you enter a scene where cargo ships are peacefully resting in the bay at dawn, surrounded by gulls fishing for their dinner in front of the Skyline.

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Do you know Casco Antiguo?

Also known as Colonial Panama, Casco Antiguo is the historic center of the capital.  It is a charming district of narrow streets overlooked by flower-bedecked balconies of two or three-story houses.  At its tip lies the French Plaza, a monument to the French builders of the Panama Canal, and the French Embassy.  On the walkway around the monument, visitors have a fine view of the Amador Causeway, the Biodiversity Museum, the Bridge of the Americans and the skyscraper skyline of Panama City to the east.  A plaque on the walkway commemorates the firing of cannon shots to drive away a Colombian warship and consolidate Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903.  To one side of the monument is an old Spanish structure called Las Bovedas, now home to an art gallery and French restaurant.

Strolling about this 337-year-old neighborhood, enjoy both history and contemporary local culture- every corner has something of historical significance or local color. Another attraction is the sweeping ocean views of Panama Bay’s modern skyscraper skyline by day and night, the Amador Causeway islands and the ship-busy entrance to the Panama Canal.”

“Panamanian sounds and smells that fill the Casco Viejo air are part of that local color. Street peddlers cry out ‘bollo‘ as they sell soft corn wrapped up in corn leaves, a Panamanian favorite. At Panama’s “White House” the presidential honor guard’s cheerful cadence perform early morning calisthenics, local kids play basketball in a community court, Kuna Indians sell colorful molas in the Plazas as lovers stroll hand in hand catching glimpses of the distant Canal, old-timers settle on park benches as their grandchildren play soccer around groups of passing tourists. The best way to experience Casco Viejo is to stay in a hotel in one of the beautifully restored buildings. This is the place to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the ocean free from Panama City’s sprawl and traffic, yet the business district is a short 10 minutes away.”

Some excellent museums, art craft shops, galleries, and boutiques are found in Casco Viejo, including the Canal Museum, which traces Panama’s history as the route connecting Atlantic and Pacific from pre-Hispanic to modern times.  Next door is the old cathedral that is under major renovation, with gleaming spires inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  Neary is a small museum dedicated to religious art found in the old Santo Domingo monastery, where visitors will also see the famous Flat Arch, which reportedly helped convince engineers that Panama was earthquake safe country.  You can also walk towards the San Jose Cathedral or the beautiful Golden Altar, intricately carved of wood and gilded with gold.  Another building that you should not miss is the Presidential Palace, which can be toured on Sundays.

If you visit Casco Antiguo at night is totally a different vibe, full of cafes, bars, and excellent restaurants.  Don´t miss the opportunity to discover more about Panama’s history and book a biking or walking tour to Casco Viejo with one of our history expert guides.