Panama City has a host of history, culture and architecture but it’s the canal, that joins the atlantic with the pacific, that holds pride of place

"You will discover Panama’s geographical heritage here,” my guide Miguel tells me as we set foot inside ‘Biomuseo’, one of Panama City’s major attractions. Housed in a fancy colourful building, designed by world renowned architect Frank Gehry, this museum of a different kind tells amazing stories of geology, life on earth and its ecosystems. Most importantly, it explains how the isthmus, connecting North and South America, emerged from the sea, millions of years ago as a result of tectonic forces inside our planet.

This isthmus is Central America, and Panama nestles towards its southern end.

The tour of the museum is pretty educational. The displays in eight themed galleries not only educates me of nature’s magical powers, but also inspires me to dig into the historical and cultural background of Panama, which has played a strong role, initially, in the exchange of biological species, between two large land masses on either side of the isthmus, and, later, in the historical, cultural and economic growth of the region.

The museum is located at the tip of a palm tree-lined, seafront avenue that offers sweeping views of the city’s ultramodern high rise skyline and parts of the vintage old quarter telling everyone, that Panama City offers a mix of modernity and antiquity.

To best understand the evolution of this contrast, Miguel escorts me to a place called Panama Viejo. “Panama began its journey from here,” he says as we enter an expansive green area, dotted with ruins of several buildings. From Miguel, I come to know that, in 1519, Spanish conquistadors established a settlement here, which soon became a wealthy cross-road for trade and commerce. Unfortunately, in 1671, notorious Welsh bandit Henry Morgan sacked and plundered this conurbation to ruins, which we browse to get an appreciation of a vibrant past from almost five centuries ago.

However, Panama’s development didn’t halt there. The conquistadors soon moved to a nearby, easily defendable rocky promontory, from where the nation blossomed into a regional stronghold.

Obviously, Miguel makes that site our next stop.

Called Casco Antiguo locally, its grid patterned fabric is stitched with squares surrounded by stony streets, which are lined with architecturally smart buildings churches, convents, public edifices and noble mansions some in crumbling condition, but many restored to match past glory. The line-up displays different ages and styles from Spanish colonial to American neoclassical. The series of colourful townhouses with wrought iron railings around balconies decorated with potted plants remind me of Havana’s La Habana Vieja and Bogota’s La Candelaria precincts. All of them have a similar historical trajectory.

While wandering there, I get the unique feeling of both tradition and transition. The neighbourhood is small, but quite a showpiece of contrast. I notice both grandness and penury, side by side. I observe well-dressed men and women walking past squatters on streets and notice the latest flat-screen televisions adorning living rooms of shanty houses. While admiring the restoration of an old building, I feel sad to walk past a beautiful church in complete ruins. Fortunately, rebuilding is in process. Sounds of jackhammers cracking, scaffoldings on buildings and numerous construction sites provide the evidence. The national President’s office is in this locality too, so he comprehends everything himself and knows what’s needed to be done to preserve a treasured past.

As most Panama City visitors hang out here, the neighbourhood is dotted with hotels, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, museums, art galleries and boutique shops, which sell everything that Panama is famous for, like hats. However, utter surprise greets me when I find out these head covers are actually made in Ecuador.

Besides heritage, leftovers of the colonists and some pre-Colombian legacies, what truly belongs to Panama today is the famous canal which connects the two oceans the Pacific and Atlantic. The Americans, who administered and operated the 80km waterway since its opening over a century ago, passed on the ownership to Panama on 31 December 1999. This historic switchover changed the fate of the nation. The revenue earned annually has added to the landscape’s infrastructure and established a strong business environment in the metropolis, marked by the presence of many of the world’s leading banks, trading houses, financial institutions and even shipping companies.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Panama City and Panama Canal are synonymous. “Many come to our city only to see this seaway,” says Miguel, when we visit the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre to see the actual crusade of ships through a two lane locking system comprising of mechanically-operated gates. Their opening and closing acts as water elevators to raise and lower vessels to match ocean levels they are heading towards.

The museum inside the visitor centre is a great place to know more about the canal’s history. The idea of reducing seafaring time between two oceans by building a water channel through the continental divide was first conceived in the 16th century by Spanish King Carlos V, but nothing happened until the French builders of Suez Canal started construction in 1880. Unfortunately, after struggling in a difficult terrain, they passed the baton to the Americans who completed in 1914. Today, the canal connects 144 routes, reaching 1,700 ports in 160 countries placing Panama as one of the world’s major transportation hubs. An engineering marvel of the modern times, this oceanic shortcut makes Miguel and other Panamanians very proud. They don’t mind Ecuadorians making Panama hats, so long as the Panama Canal stays with them.