Panama City – Surrounds
Around Panama City there are some highly recommended sights to visit.
If you drive north from Panama City, Gamboa is a good place to stop. The small town was created by the Americans at the beginning of the 20th century to house the workers of the canal construction. Over the years, the forests and wetlands of this region have developed an extraordinary biodiversity, especially in bird life. Thus, the Audobon Society’s annual “Christmas Bird Counts” consistently report world records.
A perfect place for bird watching is the Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) leading into Soberanía National Park, originally a supply road for the maintenance of the oil pipeline that gave the area its name. The road begins at the northern edge of town. This is also the site of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, which opened a few years ago. On its eastern edge is the massive Gamboa Rainforest Resort, whose facilities include a small zoo, an orchid collection and a butterfly garden. The restaurant on the riverbank near the hotel’s marina is a good place to take a break, if necessary. From the observation tower of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Hotel you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view over the Río Chagres.
Fuerte San Lorenzo
The fortification at the mouth of the Río Chagres can be reached by first following the road to Colón (Carretera Transístmica), then following the signs to the Gatún Locks and finally crossing them at their northern end. Then continue in the direction of the former Fort Sherman. The last unpaved stretch to the fort passes through a beautiful forest landscape. In 1980, San Lorenzo, together with Portobelo further east, was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Both are considered outstanding examples of military architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries and once served to protect the transatlantic trade routes of the Spanish crown from pirates. Nevertheless, in 1671 pirates led by Henry Morgan succeeded in forcing the fort’s garrison to surrender by firing burning arrows over the walls, causing the ammunition stocks inside to explode. Today, it is not the fort’s structural remains but rather its location above the mouth of the Rio Chagres that make Fuerte San Lorenzo well worth a visit. A few years ago, the area surrounding the fort was declared a nature reserve, and the local communities are involved in its expansion and development.
Today’s visitors to Portobelo require a great deal of imagination to envision that they have arrived at what was once the most important port of the Spanish colonial empire. Peru’s gold and the treasures of the Orient were once shipped on the backs of mules from Panama City via the Camino Real to Portobelo, from where they were shipped to Europe. In the opposite direction, fully loaded Spanish galleons called at Portobelo to offer their goods at its legendary ferias, huge barter markets that supplied the entire trade of the American Pacific coast with European goods. Portobelo was correspondingly attractive to pirates, who launched regular attacks on the port fortress. Today’s Portobelo is a strange mixture of three historic fortifications, a picturesque Caribbean bay, and a less than attractive town. Its landmarks include the Iglesia de San Felipe church with its black statue of Christ, which is ceremoniously carried through town every year on October 21 during the “Festival del Cristo Negro.” According to legend, the figure came to Portobelo in the 17th century aboard a Spanish ship, from where it was to be transported on to Cartagena in Colombia. But every time the captain wanted to sail, storms forced him to turn back, until he finally decided to leave the statue behind in Portobelo. Another colonial building worth seeing is the “Real Aduana”, the former royal customs house, whose officials made sure that the Spanish crown received its share. After multiple destructions by pirate attacks and earthquakes, it was largely rebuilt as recently as 1998. Among Portobello’s historic fortifications, the 17th century Fuerte San Jerónimo, located in what is now the center of town, is the largest and most impressive. More recent is the Batería Santiago, located at the left entrance to the town. Across the bay, surrounded by forest, sits the Fuerte San Fernando. Fishermen take visitors there or to beaches in the bay.