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General

Panama offers a wide variety of tourist attractions, including excellent shopping. Its position as a crossing point between the Atlantic and the Pacific has naturally made it a major commercial route. Panama City’s Central Avenue, Colón’s Front Street and the newer shopping sectors around the hotels, and Tocumen’s duty free stores have grown because of this trade.

The Fiestas in the various cities are all worth attending, particularly the one at Panama City during the Carnival. This is held on the four days before Ash Wednesday. Others are held to celebrate local patron saints. Las Balserías, a Ngöbé-Bugle Indian celebration held in Chiriquí Province every February, includes feasts and a contest in which the young men toss Balsa logs at one another; those who emerge unscathed may choose their partners.

Panama City

The capital is a curious blend of old Spain, modern America and the bazaar atmosphere of the East. In the old part of the city with its narrow, cobble-stoned streets and colonial buildings, most of the interesting sights are to be found. These include the Plaza de Francia, the Court of Justice Building, the Paseo de las Bóvedas along the massive stone wall, San José Church with its magnificent golden Baroque altar and the Santo Domingo Church, next to which is the Museum of Colonial Religious Art. The old historic city with the Salón Bolivar is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Overlooking the bay is the President’s Palace, the most impressive building in the city; further along the waterfront is the colourful public market. The most interesting museum in town is the Museum of the Panamanian Man north of the market and near the shopping centres. A worthwhile excursion from the city is a visit to Panama Viejo and its ruins including the square tower of the old cathedral, 6km (4 miles) away. This is the original Panama City which – like Fort San Lorenzo – was sacked and looted in 1671 by Henry Morgan, the celebrated Welsh buccaneer who helped to undermine Spanish control of their colonies.

An interesting excursion can be made to an easily accessible strip of rainforest within nearby Soberanía National Park (40km/25 miles north of the city), particularly renowned for its many bird species.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal, to the west of the city, is 80km (50 miles) long and, as Panama’s main tourist attraction, it naturally draws many visitors; recommended is a train or bus ride alongside or a boat trip on the Canal itself; the scenery is beautiful, and the mechanics of the Canal equally fascinating. There is a new Panama Canal Museum in the Casco Viejo area. The Canal was opened in 1914, and an average transit takes eight hours to complete. On December 31 1999, Panama took over full control of the canal from the USA. Some 50km (30 miles) northwest of the capital lies Barro Colorado, the largest island in Gatun Lake, a manmade stretch of water created during the construction of the Panama Canal (and one of the world’s largest artificial lakes). The island is a biological reserve managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and reputed to be one of the world’s leading natural tropical laboratories. Day trips to the island from Panama City take visitors to the small town of Gamboa from where special tours (either on foot or by boat) can be arranged.

Balboa

A rather Americanised suburb between the Canal quays and Ancón Hill. One hour’s launch ride away is the island of Taboga, where fine beaches and quality hotels abound. The main method of transport is by water taxi, known locally as panga. A longer trip by launch is necessary to get to the Pearl Islands, which are visited mainly by sea-anglers.

Bocas del Toro

The Bocas del Toro province, in the Panama Caribbean, includes an archipelago (of the same name) consisting of seven large islands and hundreds of smaller ones. Many of the islands lie in the Laguna de Chiriqui, which is particularly popular with diving enthusiasts. Parts of the province are located in two national parks: the International Friendship Park, administered jointly by Panama and Costa Rica; and the Bastimientos Island Marine Park, a marine nature reserve located on one of the islands. Small planes from Panama City arrive daily at the town of Bocas del Toro and, although the area currently remains fairly undeveloped (with limited accommodation available), it is being targeted for major tourist development.

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