December 23, 2003
First stop was as an overview of the city from the top of curvy Cerro Ancon, a short jaunt up from Tammy's guest house. A dense forest of towering mangroves opened to an expansive view of skyscrapers, Pacific Ocean and Panama Canal through foggy mist.
The blend of Spanish and French architecture in charming Casco Viejo became a World Heritage site status in 1997. Protected from the Pacific by an 18 ft. seawall, the district within this rocky peninsula has a romantic feel. Ornate churches, classy jazz clubs, museums and rows of pastel homes with plants cascading over iron balconies line cobblestone streets. Tammy drove us to the southernmost point near Las Bovedas, and suggested we walk along the seawall.
In daylight, various districts in the city skyline were identifiable. We walked past artists painting landscapes and paused at a French monument honoring Canal workers who perished from malaria and yellow fever before those diseases were eradicated in Panama.
Traffic was congested in the narrow streets as we wound our way to Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Nowhere to pull over, Tammy simply stopped, ignoring honking taxis and cars waiting for us to get out. The flatness of this unsupported arch supposedly influenced French engineers to build the Canal in Panama instead of neighboring countries, its intactness testament to the absence of earthquakes for the last 200 years.
Inside Iglesia de San Jose was the incredibly bright Golden Altar, the only treasure from the original city that escaped the ransacking hands of Henry Morgan. To hide its value from the notorious pirate, a quick thinking priest had painted this massive two-story structure black. Sure I was familiar with the story, but what I wanted to know–staring at the intricate surface–was just how the paint came off. And who got assigned that laborious duty.
We parked the car at Plaze de la Independencia a park-like plaza where Panama declared her independence from Colombia in 1903. We walked past the Cathedral (1688) and National Police enroute to Palacio do las Garzas, where herons wander freely inside this presidential palace overlooking the sea. The guard ignored us as we peeked through iron gates and spotted three white herons roaming marble floors near a fountain.
Leaving Casco Viejo, we sped through the cotton-candy projects of El Chorrillo, took a scenic driving tour of Amador Causeway, before weaving through the business district en route to Panama la Vieja far east of town.
All that's left of Panama's original city–thanks to Morgan's razing in 1671–is a ruin of the cathedral's tower and bishop's house. It looked intriguing, but there was no time to explore. Traffic getting here was lengthy compared to other parts of the tour. Perhaps time would've been better spent walking around either Amador or here.
From journal Panama City