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A legend of human struggle, a marvel of economics and a daily triumph of engineering, the Panama Canal is a captivating story, as well as an awe-inspiring system to watch at work. The tale of the effort to connect two oceans began in 1539, when the first Spanish team studied the feasibility of such a project, and in 1880, the French began actually attempting the construction. After several workers perished during the course of construction, the canal was abandoned until the United States bought control of the zone in 1903. After completion in 1914, it stretched 48 miles (77 kilometers) between the coasts, and today about 13,000 ships representing 5% of global maritime trade pass through the canal each year. Ships around the world are built to fit smoothly through the three locks that function like enormous steps over the isthmus, and pay a fee according to weight to make the 8- to 10-hour transit. The record for the heaviest ship to pass through the canal is frequently redefined, but the smallest fee was paid in 1928, when Richard Halliburton swam through for PAB0.36.
Panama City was the oldest capital in all the Americas, founded in 1519, and prosperous until a pirate force led by Henry Morgan sacked the settlement in 1671, setting fire to the remains before leaving. Afterwards, survivors moved to the present-day location of Casco Viejo to recover and rebuild, and the development that sprawled outwards didn't reach the Panamá Viejo area again until about 1950. The ruins were declared a protected site in 1976, and have been developed as an idyllic walking ground marked by informative signs printed in English and Spanish. Colonial structures in various states of renovation are linked by paths running through lawns and under shade trees, so that the area feels like a tranquil park. This rustic and ruinous ensemble shelters myriad ramshackle edifices - like the still-soaring Panama Cathedral, Casa de los Genoveses and the crumbling Convent of Conception - which whisper tales and secrets of the city’s foregone times. Duly designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this timeworn expanse is one of the most priceless historic treasures of Panama.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 and preserved by UNESCO, Casco Viejo is Panama's appealing rustic and ancient district. Replete with old-style architecture and traditional edifices, the district is home to several cathedrals, churches and government buildings. Many of these sprawling structures serve as homes. The cultural hub is a thriving center which draws crowds from all over the world. The Geisha coffee, a trademark of Panama, is popular for its exquisite taste. Numerous items for sale can be found in the district. These include the famous molas. Spanish Colonists established Casco Viejo in 1673, and since then, the infrastructure has been refurbished to accommodate restaurants, shops, museums as well as residential areas. Though quite a few buildings are still reminiscent of the ravages of time, most structures in the district have been carefully rebuilt and revamped. Tour guides are available to narrate the history of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is also well-known for its exciting nightlife, replete with energetic and bright nightclubs.
A truly beautiful wall standing along one of the charming streets of Casco Viejo, sprouting a few weeds from the uneven top of its brickwork, is the surviving façade of the colonial Convento de Santo Domingo. The 17th-century church and monastery were burnt to the ground twice and not rebuilt after 1756, so that little was preserved through the centuries except the front of the building and an archway within it. Known as the Arco Chato, this brick arch eventually became pivotal to development in Panama. Its survival despite a remarkably precarious construction proved to engineers that an interoceanic canal built in Panama would not be destroyed by earthquakes; the rest is history.
Originally called the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, the Bridge of the Americas is located in Balboa. It spans the length across the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The bridge was designed by Sverdrup & Parcel and its construction was completed in 1962. It was inaugurated in 2004, and its presence lead to an easy flow of traffic between the north and south Americas. Built in the cantilever design, the bridge consists of a wide arch which runs over it. It stands 384 feet (117 meters) above mean sea level, with its total height being 5425 feet (1654 meters). Only ships adhering to these height restrictions are allowed to pass under it. The main reason for the construction of the bridge was the need to have a structure which would make it easier to cross the canal. Today, it not only connects the north and the south, but is also a significant part of the Pan-American Highway. Cars, bicycles and pedestrians make use of the bridge which attracts quite the traffic as a result of its location.
The construction of the Panama Canal demanded a whole lot more than just digging a really long trench—the engineering required manipulation of an entire geographical system. To calm the ocean waves around the Pacific entrance to the Canal, a colossal breakwater was constructed, that reaches out to the sea, connecting three islands along the way. After its construction in the early 20th century, Fort Grant was established here in 1913, and the area was militarized and fortified by the United States during the World Wars. It was entirely off-limits to Panamanians until 1999, when the zone was finally officially returned to Panama. A road and sidewalk running along the top of this breakwater are the thoroughfares of the Amador Causeway, a great stretch of road for walking, jogging, biking, and especially for the phenomenal views over the Bay of Panama to the city beyond. Because of the heat on the un-shaded road, daytime activity is mostly confined to a few restaurants that make the most of the panorama, along with sightings of boats and brown pelicans, and a smattering of scintillating resorts. Come evening, a bevy of restaurants that double as nightlife spots open on each of the three islands that make up the Calzada. A teeming hive of activities, this waterside avenue hosts a range of attractions including the Centro Artesanal Market, the futuristic Biomuseo and the Punta Culebra Nature Center - which chronicles Panama’s natural heritage - and many others.
The passion of the curators at the Museo de Arte Contemporeano is visible in the straightforward, respectful presentation of the art hanging on the gallery walls and the occasional sculpture piece. Most of the 500 works in the permanent collection were created by Latin American artists, and Panamanian artists are naturally represented especially well. Based on an ambitious idea hatched in the 1960s, the Contemporary Art Museum opened in 1983 and has been deeply involved in community and school-age education even though it is privately owned. Film screenings sometimes are held here as well, and whenever you visit, be sure to ask a few questions. a personal guided tour might be forthcoming! A donation is requested for adults to enter the museum, with discounts for seniors, youth, and students. Special exhibits cost slightly more.
Permeated with a dazzling viridescence, this park is where time halts and nature outdoes its own self. Sliced by the meandering Chagres River, this 48,000-acre (19424.91 hectare) rainforest reserve spectacularly brims with both native and migrant birds — over hundreds of species have been spotted on just the Pipeline Road trail — and mammals including jaguars, ocelots, howler and capuchin monkeys, anteaters, coatis and agouti, among many others. Tourists are often thrilled to see toucans and leafcutter ants, and the incredible flora playing host to all these animals includes kapok trees, strangler figs, and liana vines. Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of the park is that this wilderness is situated only a few miles northwest of ultra-urban Panama City, running along the eastern edge of the Canal, and has only been a national park since the land was handed over to the Panamanian government in 1999. Its sylvan terrain interspersed with a nexus of winding trails, the park is especially enlivened by the cries of fascinating birds including hummingbirds, crowned woodnymphs, motmots, togons, parrots and more. The very embodiment of Panamanian wilderness, the enchanting Soberania National Park is one of the most prized natural possessions of the country.
One of the most astounding challenges that engineers of the Panama Canal faced was an apparently simple fact: land is higher than sea level! To literally overcome this obstacle, three sets of locks or esclusas were constructed to lift and lower ships of incredible sizes to make the inter-oceanic passage. The Miraflores Locks are located at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, lifting ships in two enormous steps, and are the best equipped to handle curious visitors. Just a fifteen-minute drive from downtown, the locks work their colossal, technological magic under the watchful eyes of everyone who climbs to the observation deck in the Visitor's Center. This Center contains four floors of exhibits and displays, many of them interactive, as well as a theater, a gift shop, and a restaurant.
Nestled in Panama City, Biomuseo deftly chronicles the natural, cultural and ecological heritage of the country. The labor of love of eminent architect Frank Gehry, the museum boasts a futuristic facade, while the main building has an equally innovative and distinctive design, which is billed to be the only one of its kind in Latin America. Here, a wide arsenal of buildings, galleries, exhibits and artifacts together, illustrate some of the country’s most pressing aspects including its dynamic biodiversity, the evolution of the Pacific and the Caribbean, the country’s cultural and communal legacy, as well as the importance of the Isthmus of Panama, which has been an integral catalyst in carving out the landscape of the country. A wonderland for science aficionados and nature lovers alike, this elaborate museum is educational and inspirational in equal amounts. Its frontage enlivened by splashes of solid blues, yellows and reds, the cutting-edge Biomuseo is one of the major tourist draws, and contemporary landmarks of the city.