Gulf and Canal Zone
Geographically one of the smallest areas in Panama, the Gulf of Panama and Canal Zone pack in some of the country’s most storied settings, including Panama City and the Panama Canal. These areas are must-sees for visitors to the country, as they combine the old with the new and offer up the most cosmopolitan commodities the country has to offer.
The Best of Gulf and Canal Zone
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most impressive engineering feats. The canal extends 80 kilometers from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean to Colón on the Caribbean Sea. It’s built at one of the lowest and narrowest points in Panama, and runs right through the Continental Divide. More than 14,000 ships pass through the canal annually, carrying some 300 million tons of cargo. As such, the Panama Canal is one of the largest generators of income for Panama—in 2011, the canal generated $800 million, some two percent of the country’s GDP.
Aside from the city and canal, travelers can visit historic ruins along the Caribbean coast or go hiking in fabulous outdoor areas, including Barro Colorado, one of the world’s most famous biological reserves. The Archpiliélago de las Perlas, an archipelago of nearly ninety islands in the Gulf of Panama, is a quick fifteen-minute flight from the city. With lovely beaches and a tranquilo tempo, these islands are a great place to relax.
Most travelers will fly into and out of Panama City. Outdoorsy types may be tempted to rush off into Panama’s forests and mountains, but it would be a shame to not spend at least a little time in this city. It has a rich history of commerce and conquest, with towering skyscrapers located just miles from Spanish ruins. Visitors can stroll through Casco Viejo, a charming neighborhood with cobblestone streets and chic cafés, or visit Old Panama (La Vieja Panamá), where the ruins of the first Spanish settlement still stand. There is excellent people watching along popular walking streets (most notably Avenida Central), and there are a solid number of international restaurants to try.
The city’s nightlife has also experienced a boom in the past few years, and there are good bars and clubs for travelers to visit. Ships can be seen harbored in the bay just outside the city, waiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal. Two of the three sets of locks are along the Pacific side of the canal and just a short trip away. The Miraflores Locks are the most accessible and best set up for visitors. Here you can watch massive ships being raised and lowered into the canal, and stroll through a four-story museum.
Want a more close-up look at the canal? Sign up for a transit and go through two of the locks on a passenger boat. The Panama Canal also protects one of the world’s most important biological reserves, Barro Colorado Island. Barro Colorado has been protected since 1923 and is administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This relatively small island contains an overwhelming amount of flora and fauna, including more species of trees than are found in all of Europe. Visits here give travelers a chance to learn about the island and its scientific value, which is sizeable. Another great place to explore the outdoors is Parque Nacional Soberanía, which is close to Gamboa. This accessible tropical forest has well-maintained trails and some of the best birding in the country.
Keep heading north and you’ll soon reach the Caribbean coast of Panama. Visitors to this part of the country can hit up some of the area’s main sites, including the Gatún Locks, Gatún Dam, and Fuerte San Lorenzo. These sites are relatively close to one another and can be seen within an afternoon. The locks and dam provide further insight into the canal, while Fuerte San Lorenzo is a lesson in history. The ruins of this fort are the remnants of a fort built by the British in 1768, but forts have been being built, destroyed, and rebuilt here since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, Fuerte San Lorenzo sits along the edge of a cliff and has expansive views of the Caribbean coast.
On the other side of the country, in the Gulf of Panama, is the Archpiliélago de las Perlas. Made up of some ninety named islands and more than 130 unnamed islets, this archipelago is a fine place to relax in an unadorned setting. The archipelago’s most developed island, Contadora, is small and laidback. It has charming beaches and healthy coral reefs offshore. The diving is especially good, as there are scores of large fish, manta rays, and white-tipped reef sharks. The other islands in the archipelago are remote and largely undeveloped, but provide wonderful places to visit for the day.