By Joebert Opulencia
DAY 01 – 23MAR – JFK/PANAMA CITY
Aboard Delta’s 737-800 (uffff) was lucky to be upgraded to First. After a five (5) hour flight, safely arrived in Panama City.
Immigration and Customs were smooth and the ride to the hotel Sheraton Grand was cheap, $12.
One of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Central America, Panama City is both vibrant metropolis and gateway to tropical escapes. Many worlds coexist here. Welcoming all, Panama is a regional hub of trade and immigration. The resulting cultural cocktail mix leads to a diverse melange of lifestyles and customs.
It’s bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
Panama City boasts a skyline of skyscrapers, modern office buildings, condo complexes and hotels of shining glass and steel, with world-class views of the Bay of Panama. Its a major international commerce and banking hub, home to nearly 80 of the world’s largest banks, scores of international non-profits, and giant multi-nationals such as Federal Express, Dell, 3M, and many more.
Panama doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being the most exciting destination in Central America. However, after taking some time to explore this Central American city I began to realize the city has a lot to offer. Panama City was our first stop in Panama and we were excited to explore our first destination in Central America.
Follow me as I attend the 2022 Expo Turismo Internacional Panama, and as I travel around the “city that will never leave you”.
DAY 02 – 24MARCH
EXPO TOURISMO INTERNACIONAL PANAMA 2022
JW MARRIOTT (FORMERLY THE TRUMP TOWER)
A night to remember. From flowers, to food, to wine, and to good friends. It was a great way to start and welcome all participants to the 2022 EXPO.
THE VENUE, THE PANAVIER. Located at the 66th floor of the JW Marriott, the highest restaurant in Panama City. Exquisite views of the ocean and the city, it was the perfect venue for this occasion
Let’s start with the flower decor … it was all over the place. Some of the most exotic and prized flowering plants in Panama are the Hotlips, Heliconia and the Poor Man’s Umbrella. Over 10,000 species of native plants and flowers.
Wine, food, good friends, and the beautiful people.
We were privileged to meet the Minister of Tourism and General Administrator of the Panama Tourism Authority, Hon Ivan Eskildsenas, well as the General Manager of JW Marriott Hotel Panama, Demetrio Maduro.
Wine kept on coming and no shortage of food … they even had lechon (roasted pig), sirloin steak, and broiled fish. The cheese table was a hit, and the fish ceviche was to die for (kilawin – have been craving for it).
DAY 03 – 25MARCH
On its 11th version of the event, EXPO TURISMO INTERNACIONAL PANAMA 2022, just concluded. March 25 with a unique opportunity for this central American country to reopen its borders for international tourism.
The Expo also gave me the opportunity to meet the President of SKAL International, Burcin Turkkan, who is originally from Turkey.
The Expo brought together more than 100 sellers and 150 international buyers.
As of today, Monday, March 28, 2022, the requirement for mask-wearing in Panama is lifted, if people can maintain a one-meter distance between each other.
Panama is the home of COPA Airlines, a Star Alliance Airline that has been connecting North America, the Caribbean, Central, South America, and also Europe and the rest of the world. COPA made Panama an aviation hub and made Panama easily accessible to the Amerikas for business and tourism.
The strategic geographical location of this city State, home of the strategic and formerly US-controlled Panama Canal, is the ideal place not only for international meetings, but also position Panama as the central destination for the Americas and beyond. There is not only a lot of history, specifically with the United States, but there is culture, nature, food and of course beaches.
The Panama Tourism Board summarizes this potential perfectly by saying: Where Northern and Southern worlds connect, old and new worlds coexist, and cosmopolitan landscapes live in harmony with wild, untamed rainforests.
A country for those who seek beyond expectations, that dares you to see more. Taste more. Connect more. Feel more. A place for those who long more stimulation, connection, and transformation. Panama is not the destination, but the journey to discover more of what truly matters.
Make more lasting memories through an explosion of inspiration and purpose. And let the spirit of Panama unlock a sense of belonging.
Buyers were treated to a four night stay for them to explore the city.
DAY 4 – 26MARCH
THE PANAMA CANAL TOUR ABOARD THE PACIFIC QUEEN
The Pacific Queen, previously Hansaline, was built in Norway in 1970 and it was completely renovated in 1989. She was trading in Germany doing day cruises from Kollum Denmark to Flensburgh Germany in the Baltic Sea until June of 2003. The Pacific Queen was brought to Panama on July of 2003 and operations began in October 2003 doing Panama Canal transits.
The tour started at Flamenco Marina. We boarded the Pacific Queen and set sail towards the entrance of Panama Canal on the Pacific Ocean. Took a moment to admire the Bay of Panama and Panama City’s splendorous skyline before you pass under the Bridge of the Americas.
The Panama Canal partial transit tour began with the Pacific Queen entering the Miraflores Locks where the vessel is raised 18 meters above sea level in two distinct steps. We then entered the Miraflores Lake, which is a small artificial body of fresh water that separates Miraflores from Pedro Miguel Locks. Next, the Pacific Queen entered the Pedro Miguel Locks, which is the second set of locks on the Pacific side, and here the vessel is raised 9 meters in one step. After exiting the Pedro Miguel Locks, we were able to view the new Centennial Bridge which crosses over the Canal.
We then entered the south end of the Gailard Cut where the Chagres River flows into the Canal. The Gailard Cut (also known as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble a snake) is one of the main points of interest for visitors because it was carved through the Continental Divide and this section of the Canal is full of history and geological value. The Pacific Queen traveled the Cut’s 13.7 kilometers on the way to Gamboa Dredging Division. As we transited the Cut, we were able to appreciate the continuous maintenance that this area requires, because it is very susceptible to landslides.
We disembarked at the Gamboa Dredging Division where we boarded the bus for a hour and a half ride back to our hotel
DAY 05 – 27MARCH
TOUR OF THE OLD TOWN – CASCO VIEJO
Two years after the original Panama City settlement, Panama Viejo, burned down and was abandoned. It was resettled at what is now known as Casco Viejo (also called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe).
As of 1997, Casco Viejo is a World Heritage Site which preserves the beautiful buildings of the “Old Quarter” and it is one of the top tourist attractions in Panama City.
Casco Viejo is best explored on a self-guided walking tour … so join me together with my friends, Elizabeth and Warren, as we explore the following sites of Panama’s Old Town – Casco Viejo
PLAZA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA
On this plaza on November 3, 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.
Bordering the plaza to the west is Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) or “Cathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua” with its grey ashlar-stone facade and white neoclassical bell towers on either side. It is the episcopal see of the Archdiocese of Panama. Construction started in 1688 and it was finally consecrated in 1796. Go inside to take a look at the stained glass windows, the rest of the interior is very plain.
Bordering the plaza to the south is Museo del Canal Interoceánico. This neoclassical building was originally built as the Gran Hotel in 1875. The French converted it into the Canal Headquarters in 1881 and later it was used as offices for the US Canal Commission. In 1997, it was refurbished and reopened as the Canal Museum, which is considered to be one of the best museums in Panama City.
Hotel Central on the east side of the plaza was built in 1874 used to be among the most luxurious hotels in the Americas. The hotel is has historic French architecture and a beautiful lobby. On the main level is a stunning wooden winding staircase with a lovely atrium.
PALACIO DE LAS GARZAS (PRESIDENTIAL PALACE)
Built in 1673, Palacio de Las Garzas became the “White House” of Panama, where Panama’s president officially resides, in 1885. Unlike the White House in Washington, DC, some Panamanian presidents have chosen to live elsewhere in the city. Back in the 17th century, the building served as a residence of the Spanish governor. The most significant renovation took place in 1922, when a courtyard, a “Moorish” room, and two new towers were added. In 1934 an elevator was added so that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt could get to his bed chambers during his stay.
PLAZA BOLÍVAR – After a devastating fire, this block was converted into Plaza de San Francisco in 1756. In 1883, the plaza was renamed Plaza Bolivar after Simon Bolívar, the hero of independence from Spain
BOLIVAR PALACE (Palacio Bolivar)
Built on the grounds of a former Franciscan monastery that was destroyed by fire, Bolivar Palace is home to Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. Panama’s first constitution was approved here. There is a statue of Simon Bolívar in the center of the plaza.
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís (Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi) is located right next to the Palacio. Even though it is one of the original buildings in Casco Viejo, it was almost completely destroyed by fires in 1737 and 1756. It was rebuilt only to be abandoned in the 19th century. It was completely remodeled in 1918 and underwent some additional renovations over the years. The most recent restoration was in 2016.
Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, which lies south west of the plaza, was built from 1684 to 1688 and that makes it one of the first churches in Casco Viejo. It has sustained fire damage multiple times but was always rebuilt. This church is known for its simplicity and, a little hidden in the back, its large nativity scene. It is said that, when the church was last restored in 2014, it was donated by a local who had built this amazing piece of art.
TEATRO NACIONAL (NATIONAL THEATER)
In 1904, it was ordered that a National Theater of Panama was to be built. Construction started in 1905 on the land of the old Concepción Monastery (which were converted to military barracks in 1862) and finished in 1908. The grand opening was in the same year with a presentation of Verdi’s Aida. The theater was designed by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri.
Built in 1756 by wealthy merchant Capt. Pablo Gongora, this is the best preserved Spanish colonial home in Casco Viejo. The building belongs to Panama City since 1995 and was renovated in 1999 preserving much of the original building and woodwork. The Casa is home to the Casa de la Cultura y del Artista Panameño, which is a cultural center for local artists.
PLAZA DE FRANCIA
The Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) and the elevated walkway on top of las bóvedas (the vaults, originally a Spanish dungeon and later a jail, storehouse, and offices) are one of the highlights of Casco Viejo. With statues and stone tablets, it celebrates the story of approx. 22,000 French construction workers from France, Martinique and Guadeloupe who passed away during construction of the Panama Canal. On the elevated walkway, you will see street vendors selling local art and you can see the Clinta Costera, the highway that encircles Casco Viejo and, in the distance, the Bridge of the Americas and the ships that are waiting for their turn to enter the canal.
IGLESIA DE SANTO DOMINGO
Built in 1678, the church was damaged by several fires. After the 1781 fire, it was abandoned and has survived as a ruin. The unusual supporting brick arch (Arco Chato), which is almost flat and therefore almost not an arch is what attracts tourists these days. Its claim to fame, however, is that when US debated if Panama or Nicaragua would be the better place to build the canal, the gravity-defying arch may have tipped the scale in favor to Panama, as it was seen as proof that very little seismic activity was present in Panama. Arco Chato is 35 ft high and spanning 49 ft. Unfortunately, it fell in 2003, but was rebuilt.
IGLESIA DE SAN JOSÉ
Iglesia de San José with its gorgeous baroque golden altar (Altar de Oro) is probably the most famous church in Casco Viejo. The story that you may hear that a priest painted the altar black to hide from pirate Henry Morgan when he and his gang raided Panama Viejo is not true, because the altar was dated to the 18th century. The altar was carved from mahogany and covered in golden leaf.
This plaza is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera, who was able to achieve independence from Colombia. Originally, this was a residential area which was abandoned after a fire in 1781. It was then used for celebrations and bullfights until bullfighting was outlawed in 1928. Afterwards, this place became Plaza Herrera.
For the walk we did, we treated ourselves with Chinese Food at Panama’s Chinatown (Kwang Chow Restaurant).
DAY 06 – 28MARCH – HOMEWARD BOUNG
Thanks DELTA for the roundtrip upgrade.
To Jamie Rios of BELLA GROUP HOLDINGS, thank you for the sumptuous dinner we had at your restaurant. Looking forward to working with you in the future.
To the Organizers of EXPO TURISMO INTERNACIONAL 2022 PANAMA, muchos gracias.