Few cities in Latin America can match the diversity and cosmopolitanism of PANAMA CITY: polyglot and postmodern before its time, its atmosphere is, surprisingly, more similar to the mighty trading cities of Asia than to anywhere else in the region. The city has always thrived on commerce; its unique position on the world’s trade routes and the economic opportunity this presents has attracted immigrants and businesses from all over the globe. With nearly a third of the country’s population living in the urbanized corridor between Panama City and Colón, the capital’s metropolitan melting pot is a study in contrasts.
Standing on a small peninsula at the southwest end of the Bay of Panama, the old city centre of Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) is the most picturesque and historically interesting part of Panama City and houses many of its most important buildings and several museums. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, it is gradually being restored to its former glory after decades of neglect. For views of the modern city and ships waiting to cross the canal, head for the bougainvillea-shaded Paseo Las Bóvedas, running some 400m along the top of the old city’s defensive wall between the Plaza de Francia and the corner of Calle 1 and Avenida A.
To the west, the Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) marks the entrance to the canal and the former Canal Zone, comprised of the causeway and the town of Balboa, which retains a distinctly North American character. East along the bay from the old city centre, the pulsing and chaotic commercial heart of the capital lies in the neighbouring districts of Bella Vista, El Cangrejo and Punta Paitilla, where the majority of banks, hotels, restaurants, shops and luxurious private residences can be found. Further east again, amid sprawling suburban slums, stand the ruins of Panamá Viejo, the first European city on the Pacific coast of the Americas
Casco Viejo and El Cangrejo are joined by Avenida Central, the city’s main thoroughfare. Running north of the old centre, its name changes to Via España as it continues through the downtown districts of Calidonia and La Exposición and the residential neighbourhood of Bella Vista. Isles of tranquillity far from the frenetic squalor of the city include Isla Taboga, the “Island of Flowers”, some 20km off the coast; the islets of the Amador Causeway alongside the Pacific entrance to the canal; and the Parque Natural Metropolitano, an island of tropical rainforest within the capital. Panama City is also a good base for day-trips to the canal and the Caribbean coast as far as Portobelo.