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The classification of Casco Viejo as an UNESCO world heritage site, often attributed to the general richness of colonial architecture, is in fact largely based upon a more recent and political piece of history. The Salón Bolívar was the site of the 1826 Congreso Anfictiónico organized by Simón Bolívar to discuss the unification of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America into a single political entity. Bolívar himself was not able to attend, but the meeting of Latin American leaders was a critical formative event. The Salón is now entirely enclosed by glass for protection inside the 1920s-era Palacio Bolívar, which significantly also houses the offices of the Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Relations. Visitors can view the beautiful tiled courtyard inside the completely restored structure. Call ahead for details regarding timings.
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.
The presidential palace in the oldest existing neighborhood of Panama City, with its neoclassical architecture and unsurpassed views directly over the Bay of Panama, is popularly known for its pets. In the early 20th century, President Belisario started the tradition of keeping pet herons and egrets in the Moorish interior courtyard of the Spanish colonial mansion. The same president commissioned the 1922 renovation of the 1673 building, originally built for the Spanish crown, to its current appearance. It was put to good use in the interim as the Royal Customs House in the 18th century and a government house in the 19th century, and the President now resides upstairs with the executive offices on the ground floor. Expect to show identification at either end of the guarded street if you'd like to walk past the front of the building because the beautiful birds in their Palacio require very tight security.
A magical ambiance of color and creativity welcomes customers into Karavan through a doorway framed by bright ribbons and bold ornaments. The gallery showcases unique works of art, from bowls and other small trinkets to large paintings or mosaics appropriate to hang as a focal point for an imaginatively decorated room. In addition, multimedia works of art incorporating painting, mosaic, and even sculpture demonstrate an evolution of collage techniques, and free-standing carvings and sculptures speckle the floor space. Once inside, the gallery is most reminiscent of a little garden, blooming with fanciful works of art.
For a tranquil stroll that will take your breath away, direct your steps towards the Paseo General Esteban Huertas at the southern end of Casco Viejo. A few steps lead up onto this breezy walkway, covered by trellises holding flowering vines over the broad promenade. From 1944 to 1946 the paseo was laid out atop the colonial-era Chiriquí bastion, a particularly well-preserved part of the old city wall. The location was doubtless chosen for the same reasons it's so remarkable today: primarily, for the unobstructed view across the Bay of Panama to the proud gathering of skyscrapers downtown. Bougainvillea climbs the trellis that arches over the promenade to provide partial shade and clusters of bright gorgeous blossoms, and a smattering of artisans set up their crafts along the sidelines for tourists to peruse and carry home.
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.
A dazzling spread of sparkling jewels draw visitors to the Museo de la Esmeralda, across the street from the lovely Plaza de la Catedral in Casco Viejo. Beautiful emeralds shine out in their polished and unpolished forms and are even displayed as crystals appropriate for special exhibitions. A large portion of the space is devoted to jewelry which is available for purchase, and each customer receives a gift of an emerald. Entrance to the jewelry store and museum is free of charge.
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.
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.
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.