Panama City is a sleek metropolis that curls impressively around a wide bay facing the Pacific ocean, thriving on its role as one of the world's great trading gateways: Latin America's Hong Kong or Singapore, with sprawling poorer areas to match. One in every three Panamanians lives in Panama City.
Panama Canal and the Bridge of the Americas
The west of Panama City presses against the Panama Canal itself, where the spectacular Bridge of the Americas brings the Panamerican Highway from the rest of Central and North America to docks that busily load and unload freight for the Canal.
Panama la Vieja - the earliest Panama
Towards the eastern outskirts of Panama City lie the ruins of the original city, Panama la Vieja, where the riches of the Incan empire first arrived by ship from Peru and were carried by the 'royal road' to the Caribbean for onward shipment to the Spanish court-until, that is, the city was comprehensively sacked in 1671 by the Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan. After this onslaught Panama City was rebuilt at Casco Viejo, quite near the mouth of today's Canal, this time surrounded by a high stone wall and moat.
Casco Viejo - colonial Panama City
Thus protected, Casco Viejo flourished unscathed for centuries, with wonderful colonial buildings in Spanish, French, and Italian styles crowding narrow streets and small plazas that echo its contemporary, old Havana. Like Havana, the ravages of time have taken their toll since Casco Vieja's heyday, but major restorations are under way and the area has received UNESCO World Heritage status.
Panama City's Metropolitan Natural Park
All great cities must have a great park, and Panama City's outshines all-comers. Its Metropolitan Natural Park brings the tropical forest to within 10 min of the heart of downtown, with well-maintained trails, 250 species of bird, and wildlife such as iguanas, tortoises, sloth and anteater, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, from whose canopy crane you can survey life in the tree-tops.