Exploring the Beauty and Rich History of Panama City

Travel Features Panama
Exploring the Beauty and Rich History of Panama City

My dad’s draft number was 9. When your draft number is 9 during the Vietnam War, you know you’re going to serve somewhere. Fortunately he was stationed in Panama, guarding the canal from any possible sabotage or disruption. He always spoke of the country with fond memories so when I had the chance to go, I jumped on it.

I went expecting jungles and undeveloped land, and while that is a part of Panama, Panama City is a modern metropolis.

If I could compare it to something, I would say it reminded me of South Florida, with tall white skyscrapers right by the ocean waves. The JW Marriott where I stayed for part of my trip is one of these modern buildings overlooking the water. I spent as much time as I could enjoying the view from one of the two infinity pools. It felt like staying at a resort that happened to be in the middle of town. The hotel itself has 3 restaurants, but the building is a larger development with condos and several other restaurants, so there is no reason to leave the hotel if you don’t want to.

Of course, you will want to because there are so many things to experience. Casco Viejo—literally, Old Town Panama City—dates back to 1673, after an even earlier city was intentionally destroyed before a pirate attack; thankfully it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site today, filled with history and popular with modern tourists. 

There is obvious Spanish influence, which I expected, but what I didn’t expect was how much of an influence the French had on the area. They were the first country to attempt creating a canal. When they gave up, President Theodore Roosevelt moved in and the canal became a reality. The Canal Museum is well worth the visit to understand how this engineering marvel came to be. It helps us today understand what had to take place to make this gateway to the world. 

I also spent time at the W Panama which was artsy and hip, literally: they hosted an art show and party the night I arrived. Local Panamanian food was served at stations and different kinds of traditional music played, all while celebrating a local artist.

The highlight of this stay, however, was the Panamanian Dress experience. I love a costume, so this was made for me. I was transformed with heavy eye makeup and a hairdo that was slicked back with gel. Then I was dressed in several layers of skirts, donned pink slippers, and put on a traditional blue and white top. Once my clothes were on, they started adding the jewelry; it was heavy and gold plated, but that was nothing compared to the weight added to my head. Gold and turquoise combs were carefully placed on top of my head like a crown, and then beaded picks were placed all over my hair. Then I was treated to a photoshoot. I am rarely invited to an activity that is so distinctly feminine, and of course I loved every minute of that time.

Later I made my way to the Panama Canal which is located in the Canal Zone, which was administered by the United States until December 31, 1999. Americans who lived and worked in the Canal Zone were known as “Zonians.” The barracks and guard stations are still there, but now there is a university in the zone. The Miraflores Locks has a visitor center and viewing station, but it was easy to imagine my Dad as a 19 year old kid, standing at those guard stations, or walking through the Zone with his new friends. 

After visiting Panama, it’s easy to see why my dad liked living there as a young man, with its vibrant culture and beautiful scenery. I think he would have appreciated it today, how it still honors and maintains its history, but with all the conveniences of a modern city right nearby. Like so many UNESCO World Heritage sites, the echoes of the past are bright and clear in Panama City, and finding my dad among them made it all so much more powerful.

Keri Lumm is a professional chatterbox who loves watching TV & movies, reading about pop culture, and gawking at any craziness on the internet. You can follow Keri on Twitter.

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