The province of Panama might be the most populated region in the country, but that doesn’t detract from its intimacy. Visitors often find that there is a unique ability to make Panama as big or as small as one wants it to be, knowing that as they traverse through vast tracts of virgin jungle or soak in the beachside sun they are never more than an hour away from the comforts of the capital – Panama City.
Situated in the immediate center of the country, Panama City is in all possibility Central America’s most attractive capital city. Within its Casco Viejo (Old Town) there exists the predictable legacy of Spanish and American colonial charm, but it is the unexpected interruption of French and neo-classical architecture that justifies its UNESCO World Heritage Status. The many parallels drawn to the New Orleans French Quarter are leftover from the country’s attempt at building the Panama Canal in 1881 and have contributed a special quality that other Latin American colonial towns simply lack. But Panama City is so much more than its historic 16th-century Panama Viejo and 17th-century Casco Viejo neighborhood legacies. It is also an exciting and remarkably safe epicenter—a modern skyscraper city combining easy cosmopolitan living with culture-infused vivacity.
Of course, the true tour de force of Panama City is the Panama Canal, a stunning testament to mankind’s ingenuity and international camaraderie. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the Panama Canal represents approximately five-percent of the world’s trade activities and grants passage to some 13 or 14 thousand vessels each year. One could spend hours at its locks simply watching cruise ships and freighters making the narrow 50-mile journey from Pacific to Caribbean, flanked on both sides by some of the most studied virgin tropical rainforests on the planet. The pre-expansion Canal boasts three sets of double locks, with the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and the Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side. Traveling from one end to the other, one can witness the remarkable influence the Panama Canal has had over the past century, from the once-prominent-now-abandoned port village of Chagres and its UNESCO protected Fort San Lorenzo, to the new widening and construction efforts currently underway on two new locks, a $5.25 billion project with an expected 2016 completion deadline. There has truly never been a better time to visit the Panama Canal than now.