We arrived at Omar Torrijos airport via American Airlines early in the afternoon. We purchased our required tourist cards (3 balboas, as US dollars are called in Panama) at the airport, then caught a taxi for the 18 mile ride to our downtown hotel. The ride in the battered, un-airconditioned car was rather expensive (30 balboas), but the driver spoke English and was very friendly. We arrived at the hotel and checked in. While my dad was checking in I bought a guidebook in the hotel lobby and read up on the history of Panama City. The original city was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Davila, known as Pedrarias the Cruel, because of his eradication of all but three of the local Indian tribes during his tenure in Panama. Davila used the city as a place to store Incan gold before it was shipped to Spain. The original city was sacked and burned in 1671 by a group of buccaneers led by Henry Morgan. The city was rebuilt within a year, this time on a peninsula 18 miles away and surrounded by a strong wall. This old Spanish city is now the in the middle downtown Panama City.
Panama City is an international melting pot and its eating choices range from American fast food to excellent internationall cuisine. Eager to begin our sightseeing, we grabbed lunch at a nearby McDonald's after checking in then caught a bus. The buses in Panama are a tourist attraction in themselves. They are brightly painted, hung with fringe, and have constantly blaring Salsa and Caracas music playing. They are cheap (50 cents a ride). but are very crowded. After asking several drivers "Donde va este autobus?" we finally found one going to the Plaza Independencia. This plaza is the main square of the colonial town and is bordered on one side by a cathedral with twin mother of pearl towers that took 108 years to complete. On two other sides it is bordered by the Archbishop's Palace, now a university and the Central Post Office. While in the old part of Panama City we also visited the Iglesia de San Jose and saw the Golden Aaltar. This altar was in the original Panama City and was saved from Henry Morgan's pirates by a monk who painted it black to disguise it. When we finished touring we returned to our hotel and then ate dinner at El Pez de Ora, one of the city' famous seafood restaurants.
We woke early and headed out for a morning of shopping at the Mercado Publico. I bought some jewelry and some small wooden figurines as souvenirs, but when I asked "Donde esta los sombreros de Panama?", the vendor told me Panama hats were made in Ecuador. The hat most commonly worn in Panama is the "pita", a narrow brimmed straw hat with black and white stripes. The most important phrases to remember when shopping in Panama are " Cuanto cuesta esta?" and " Acceptas tarjetas de credita?" After shopping we had Chinese food in one of the local restaurants.
After eating we went to visit Panama's most famous attraction, the Panama Canal. The Canal was completed in 1914, and is considered one of the greatest engineering feats in the world. We took a shuttle from our hotel to the canal and then went on a 90 minute train ride all the way across the isthmus along the canal. The railroad we were traveling on was built in 1855 to transport '49ers who were on their way to the California gold rush and was the first "trans-continental" rail link. At one of the train stations we got off and walked to the Miraflores Locks, sat on bleachers, and watched the ships go through the canal. After our tour of the Panama Canal we returned to our hotel to get ready for a night of dinner and theater. We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant then went to the Teatro National for a performance of the Folkloric Ballet. The Folkloric Ballet features native folk dances and costumes and was very entertaining.
We rented a car and left Panama City headed southwest along the Pan American Highway. First we visited the Parque Natural Metropolitana, a zoo on the outskirts of Panama with monkeys, deer, sloths, and iguanas. We then drove toward El Valle, about 75 miles away. El Valle is located in the center of a dormant volcano. There we saw hot springs, botanical gardens (with square trees which scientists have been unable to explain!), and golden frogs found nowhere else on earth. We continued down the highway passing through the towns of Penonome, the geographic center of Panama, and Nata, on of the oldest towns in Latin America. The Interior of Panama is mostly farmland and grazing land for cattle. We even saw some cowboys! At night we arrived at Baquette, a village on the side of the dormant Baru Volcano, where we spent the night.
We began our day by visiting Volcan Baru National Park and taking a short hike to see the beautiful plants and birds. The volcano is the highest point in Panama at 3475 meters. After our hike we ate lunch and then drove to Chiriqui Grande where we dropped off our car. We then caught a ferry to Bocas del Toro where we visited Bastimentos National Park. The park has pristine white sand beaches where sea turtles nest. The coral reefs off the coast are home to more than 200 species of tropical fish. While there we also got to visit caves containing the largest population of fruit eating bats in the world! Later we went snorkeling of the coast of Almirante Island where we spent the night.