3 Reasons You Should Go to Panama (Besides the Canal)

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The skyline of Panama City as seen from Casco Viejo (Photos: Eric Rogell)

Mention “Panama” and the first thing most people think of is the canal. The second thing is David Lee Roth screaming/singing Paaanamaaaaa! in the 1984 Van Halen song. And that’s about it… unless you get a history buff who knows a little bit about pirate lore.

But Panama is much more than a canal and a song title, (which was really about a car, but that’s another story). I recently had a chance to spend some time in Panama and see the country with several tour guides, and Fritz Hanselman, an archeologist who discovered a shipwreck off the coast believed to be part of Captain Henry Morgan’s lost fleet. (That post is coming soon, stay tuned.)

What I found is Panama is a booming city with soaring skyscrapers towering for miles along its coastline. It’s also rich with history and archelology, and was critical in the battles between Spain and England along the Spanish Main. And when it comes to outdoor adventure, Panama’s got it, from lush tropical rain forests, to mountains, to miles of ocean. So here are 3 pretty good reasons to hop on a plane for the short flight to Panama City:

1. History

Famed “privateer” (or pirate, depending on which side you talk to), Captain Henry Morgan made his name taking several impenetrable Spanish forts, Panama City, and a lot of booty along the way. Besides becoming the namesake for a popular rum, Captain Morgan left his mark all over the country.

The ruins in Panama Viejo are the result of Captain Henry Morgan's raid on the capital city

In Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, the country’s original capital, you can see the ruins of forts, towers, churches and other buildings from when the city was burned to the ground after Morgan took it. (Accounts vary as to who actually burned the city, some claim it was Morgan, others claim the people of Panama burned it so Morgan couldn’t loot it.)

The lookout tower in Panama Viejo. You can see the cutout for the circular staircase used to get to the top

Head to Colon and check out Fort San Lorenzo, Spanish stronghold thought to be completely impenetrable. Until Morgan and his men arrived in the bay. The fort protected the Chagres River, an early, natural Panama canal, and Morgan needed this to get to Panama City. The fort is in ruin now, but provides an incredible view of the Caribbean, and the spot where Morgan wrecked his ships as he came towards the fort.

The ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, thought impenetrable until Captain Morgan took it
The view of the waters where incoming ships had to pass. On the right, where the surf is breaking, is where Morgan lost 5 ships.

A short ride away in famed Portobello, you can stand in the ruins of the fort that guarded the bay, the same bay said to contain the lead coffin of Francis Drake. Morgan and his men sacked this city too, and if you climb the 400+ feet up the hill to the lookout fort, you can see what the soldiers of Portobello saw as his ships rolled into port. (And while you’re there, head over to Captain Jack’s for a cold Balboa beer.)

The fort at Portobello. It is believed the lead coffin of Francis Drake is in these waters
Climb the stairs cut into the hill to the hill-top lookout and you can see the entire Portobello bay
Portobello is also home to the famous Black Jesus. On Oct 21, Panamanians from all over the world make the pilgrimage back home for the celebration

2. Outdoors

Panama has miles and miles of coastline, and the fishing is incredible. If you want to pay the toll through the Canal (and spend the 8-10 hours it takes to get through), you can fish on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea in the same weekend.

Panama has miles of coastline and great fishing
The view at the Gamboa Resort. You can see the morning mist rising from the rain forest

Covered with rain forests and mountains, you can also hike, zip line and climb. A great place to start is the Gamboa Resort. Located near the Canal about 30 minutes from Panama City, you can mix outdoor adventure, and still have a resort room to come back to. And the property itself is home to a huge variety of wildlife.

It is not uncommon to see monkeys in the streets...
... or crocs in the waters

3. Panama City

When you’re done exploring the wild outdoors and historic ruins of pirate battles, Panama City offers luxury hotels, shopping, great restaurants and more. With more being added seemingly daily. When I was there, there was a tower going up on either side of my hotel, and my hotel was only opened 8 or 9 months ago.

Panama City has an ever changing skyline

Head over to Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter, and you can see the government buildings, including the Presidential Palace (the Panamanian White House), walk through narrow streets with old buildings on one side, and brand new construction on the other. You can also have dinner at a number of great gourmet restaurants, or just grab a beer at one of the many bars that dot the city. And you don’t have to worry about exchange rates or not having the right currency — Panama uses the US dollar.

In Casco Viejo (The Old Quarter) you can see buildings from Panama's colorful history
Casco Viejo has a number of great bars and restaurants, old and new.
Old US school buses get refurbished, and repainted, to become "Red Devils," buses that careen through the city streets for the fare of 25 cents.
When you're done exploring, you can relax in one of Panama's many resorts, like the Trump Ocean Club Hotel

With something for everyone, Panama should definitely be on your short list of vacation spots.

For more, follow me @thebachelorguy.