Run by the country of Columbia, this former bank turned museum is located in Plaza Francia in the San Felipe section of the city. Though small, the museum is packed with information regarding how emeralds are formed, mined and turned into jewelry. The tour guide was sweet and enthusiastic and spoke several different languages. I’ll admit that we only stopped in because it was free and you can use the restroom, but we did stay for the tour, browsed the adjacent shop and found the whole experience enjoyable. I thought it was worth the time just to be able to get a look at the former bank vault (now a life size diorama of a mine) with its heavy massive door. Overall it’s a great place to cool down and use the bathroom if needed.
We never did any of the prescribed tourist activities at the Gamboa Rainforest and Resort. We had some time to loaf and so we wanted to see what the big deal was all about. The resort’s lobby and grounds were impressive and the view of the rainforest was stunning. It was so eye pleasing that we decided to enjoy it further by eating lunch at the resort’s Corotu restaurant. Our sandwiches were excellent and it was surprisingly affordable for a touristy location. After lunch we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds then lounged in the lobby watching the eclectic mix of international guests buzzing about. It was a great inexpensive way to spend a lazy afternoon. Just watch out if you are driving to Gamboa from the city. There is a bridge, that was originally built for a train and only one car going one way can fit on it at a time, so proceed with caution and be prepared to wait your turn.
SUMMIT BOTANICAL GARDENS AND ZOO
Perhaps we were just visiting at a bad time of year, or maybe my garden expectations are very high, but we found The Summit Gardens and Zoo to be a bit….lacking. There wasn’t much in bloom so we mostly walked along scalding hot paths viewing various trees and bamboo. I can imagine that during the right time of year it is beautiful. The main draw is the Harpy Eagle exhibit. It is the national bird of Panama and in danger of becoming extinct. The Zoo has an entire conservation program and the eagles were pretty grand looking up close. I didn’t know anything about Harpy eagles before I went, so I did learn something. The other large zoo exhibit involved tapirs, which was okay. There was also an area with various cages that contained some sad looking animals. We did enjoy grabbing a couple of sodas and a shady piece of wall and watching the capuchin monkeys engage in all kinds of shenanigans. For only a dollar per person it’s a nice cheap activity but I would probably place it somewhere near the bottom of your to do list.
THE TOP OF ANCON HILL
This former military base turned scenic look out is a must for shutter bugs. It may take a bit of patience to get to the top of the hill as there is only one very narrow road that serves as both the entrance and the exit. Men standing at both the top and the bottom of the hill communicate via walkie- talkie and will let you know when it is safe to enter the road with your car. Walking up the hill is also an option, but that didn’t seem very fun as it is UP hill, but you may like the challenge. The breezes at the top are delightful and the panoramic views of the city are outstanding. You can take sweeping pictures of every section of Panama City from San Felipe to the Centro, to the canal. Although we didn’t do it, I imagine it would be a nice place to have a picnic lunch so you could enjoy the views all the more. There were benches and tables and bathroom facilities and it is free.
PLAZA FRANCIA SEA WALL WALK WITH RASPADOS
One of our most memorable afternoons was spent strolling along San Felipe’s sea wall enjoying our raspados. The raspados vender walked around Plaza Francia every afternoon. We approached him and asked him for dos raspados and he quickly went to work shaving ice into two medium sized cups. He then asked us what flavor we wanted. I chose passion fruit and it was very rewarding to find that the juice he poured over the ice was actual fresh squeezed juice and not some chemical sugary fake syrup that vaguely tastes like it used to be a fruit. The vender then took a sports drink bottle and drizzled something white and milky on top of the ice. I thought that this could have been cream, but I’m still not one hundred percent sure. Finally he picked up a water bottle that expelled a liquid that was yellowy orange. I still have no idea what that was, but the combination was intoxicating and it tasted better than any popsicle or snow cone ever could. It was hard to believe that they were only twenty-five cents apiece and if I had discovered the delights of raspados earlier, I might have tried a different flavor every day. We took our treats and strolled along the sea wall, savoring the luxury of unhurried time. Canoodling couples exchanged eskimo kisses under the flower draped arbor. Local women spread out hand sewn mola blankets that were almost, if not more beautiful than the wares they laid upon them. The whole experience was idealistically sublime.
We stumbled upon this tourist trap as we were taking a morning stroll around Ancon Hill. I already knew from reading lots of forums, that it was a complete tourist trap, but since we were there we decided to see just how bad it was. True to what I had researched it was indeed a bunch of souvenir shops built around what was supposed to be a replica of an authentic turn of the century town. Although free, it is a definite skip unless you need to stock up on some hand carved frogs or canal snow globes. There was only one other visitor there who was an expat from the United States who had recently moved to Panama after living the past several years in Costa Rica. As we are aspiring expats, we did have fun talking with her and picking her brain about the finer details of relocating to a Latin American Country.
INTEROCEANIC CANAL MUSEUM
Being self-professed museum nerds, this museum was one of the highlights of our visit. More than just a museum about the canal, the exhibits here covered everything from pre-Columbian pottery to Manuel Noriega. We easily spent almost an entire day wandering from floor to floor, room to room soaking in all the history and culture of Panama. We were surprised to find a Japanese tea ceremony being conducted on the bottom level. Friendly staff gave us bitter tasting tea along with little origami cups filled with sweets to go with the tea. They had some other Japanese culture exhibits and somehow at the time we found it funny to be learning about Japan while in Panama. The museum is well laid out and the exhibits are presented beautifully, and the only negative I can think of is that the plaques and information for the exhibits are written in Spanish only. Since I read Spanish better than I speak Spanish, I didn’t find this to be a problem, but if you know absolutely no Spanish, you may not find the exhibits as interesting. Even if you aren’t museum nerds, for only two dollars this museum located in Plaza Francia is worth a look.
*Just one extra side note. Much like the whole Casco Viejo verses San Felipe ordeal, the same applies to Plaza de la Independencia verse Plaza Francia. All of the tourist information in books and online called it Plaza de la Independencia but locals still call it Plaza Francia, taxi drivers included.