PANAMA CITY, Panama - Known for its famed waterway, Panama's capital boasts more than just a spot to watch the ships cross through the engineering marvel.
Visitors can chose between a swim in the Pacific or the Caribbean, hear tales of pirates looting the city's original site, find bargain shopping, sample tropical fruits and try their luck at the horse races in Panama City.
OUTDOORS: Head to the Amador Causeway and snap photos of Panama's downtown or the Bridge of the Americas, where traffic crosses over while ships cruise through the canal. Once part of the off-limits Canal Zone guarded by the U.S. military, the Causeway has become a favorite of locals and tourists. The thin strip surrounded by the ocean houses duty free shops, restaurants, hotels and dance clubs. Construction signs and sites make it evident that there's more on the way. Kiosks sell hammocks, guayaberas, hats and molas, brightly-colored fabrics with elaborate, hand-sewn designs of the Kuna Indian tribe.
By day, 20-somethings and families catch the cool of the ocean breeze while biking, in-line skating, or jogging along the Causeway. It's a strenuous and humid walk, so renting multi-seat bikes at the stretch's entrance works best.
For a day of diving, snorkeling and other water sports, head for Taboga Island, on the Pacific coast. Ferries bound for Isla Taboga leave from a Balboa pier and the Causeway each morning and return in the late afternoon.
MUSEUMS: Check out any of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's stations. Visit one of the island sites, such as the Barro Colorado Field Research Station, for a boat ride across the canal's Gatun Lake and a chance to see a half-dozen native monkey species in their natural setting.
At the Marine Exhibition Center in Punta Culebra, view sloths, pelicans and other tropical forest-dwellers along with an unfettered view of the ships crossing and the rhythmic pounding of waves crashing on jagged rocks. Both kids and adults will be mesmerized watching the crab-eating shark and hearing the boas slithering in the dry forest walk within the park.
CUSINE: For breakfast, sip a frothy cafe con leche, made with locally-grown coffee beans, or cinnamon tea. Beer connoisseurs should look for local brews Soberana, Balboa and Atlas, which have a light taste that's thirst-quenching in the sticky climate.
Pencas offers a view of the ocean and authentic Panamanian cuisine, which is inexpensive even at many upscale eateries. On the restaurant's menu are mini-tamales wrapped in plantain leaves, pesada de nance (a cereal-textured fruit dessert with bits of white cheese), dorado en salsa de coco (fish in coconut sauce) and ojaldas (a fried bread). On Wednesday nights, Pencas features a troupe of foot-shuffling folk dancers and a live band complete with accordion. As the show wraps up, dancers and some of the servers extend their hands for a dance with audience members. When I told our waiter that I didn't know the steps, he turned to my mom and asked "Does the lady dance?"
HISTORY: History buffs should explore the remnants of Panama's colonial past to learn about its history in the quest for riches in the Americas. Just a taxicab away from most points in the capital city is Panama la Vieja. In 1671, Panama la Vieja was sacked by pirates, led by Sir Henry Morgan. Red-brick streets, a cathedral spire and crumbling walls, arches and buildings of the Spanish settlement era remain.
Guided tours telling of the colony's former grandeur and demise are available.
Some miles away is the Casco Viejo, an old colonial neighborhood with narrow streets and pastel-colored buildings in the midst of renovation. Its architecture resembles New Orleans' French Quarter.
Just like locals have for centuries, watch the sunset from the Paseo de las Bovedas, a sea walk along an old Spanish military fort that served as a prison. Other sites include the Catedral Metropolitana, El Teatro Nacional and the unguarded Church of the Golden Altar. Several restaurants and cafes also dot the neighborhood.
GAMBLING: Place a bet on the horse races at the Hipodromo Presidente Jose A. Remon on a Thursday afternoon and mingle with locals and visitors. The horseracing park also opens weekends and holidays.
More than a half-dozen other casinos also offer all night games of chance in Panama. Among the favorite spots is the casino at the Hotel Panama.
NIGHTLIFE: Hit the Causeway or the city's financial district for some dancing, dining and drinking.
ELSEWHERE: Panama City also connects travelers by plane, bus or boat to other provinces. You can spot large green plantain leaves and dozens of noni plants heading out of the capital city. If you roll down the car windows while driving through heavily forested areas, you might hear the monkeys shrieking.
- The province of Colon is where gold and silver from the Americas passed before being transported to Europe. Explore the cannons and the lush green Spanish fortress in Portobelo.
- Bocas del Toro offers scuba diving and national parks for trekking.
- Baru volcano is Panama's highest point at 11,408 feet. Close by is the alpine town of Boquete, in the province of Chiriqui.
If You Go...
PANAMA TOURISM INSTITUTE: http://www.visitpanama.com or (011) (507) 226-7000.
SMITHSONIAN TROPICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE MARINE EXHIBITION CENTER: http://www.stri.org. Adults, $2; retirees, $1; children, 50 cents.
PENCAS RESTAURANT: Amador Causeway, (011) (507) 211-3671.
HIPODROMO PRESIDENTE JOSE A. REMON RACING PARK: http://www.hipodromo.com/general or (011) (507) 217-6060.
SAFETY: Panama is relatively safe, but be aware and don't venture into some neighborhoods at night. The country has a special police force to help tourists.
DRIVING: Driving within the city can be erratic and some areas have few traffic signs or lights.
TAXIS: Taxis looking for a fare usually honk. Wave to flag them down and settle on price before taking trips.
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