The tour of Panama City takes in the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, Panama Viejo and Casco Antiguo. The tour begins with a visit to the impressive Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is arguably one of the 20th century's most important engineering feats and runs between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for approximately 80 km. You have time to explore the new visitors' centre which documents the history of the canal from the first attempts by the French through to the US completion of the project in 1914. The Americans controlled the canal until 31st December 1999 when it was handed over to Panama.
At the Miraflores Locks you will also have the opportunity to observe the locks functioning as giant cargo ships are raised and lowered in them just metres in front of you. From here you head for Panama Viejo on the eastern edge of modern Panama City, the first city founded in the isthmus by Pedro Arias de Avila (otherwise known as Pedrarias) in 1519 at the beginning of colonisation. Today the only remnants are those left by pirate Henry Morgan, who ransacked and destroyed the city in 1671.
The city is undergoing renovation following years of neglect particularly during the reign of General Noriega but you are able to get a scale of the site. You visit the nearby Panama La Vieja Visitor Centre, which has scale models of the town before its destruction and many artefacts discovered during its uncovering.
Finally, you visit the second colonial city of Panama, Casco Antiguo (or San Felipe), which was built in 1673. This old city centre has plenty of charm and a diverse selection of museums, colonial churches and 19th century mansions all painted in an array of different colours. Casco Antiguo is home to the presidential palace and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Here you will see the French Plaza, which is dedicated to the 22,000 Francophone workers who lost their lives to yellow fever during the early construction of the canal.
You also visit the San José church, home of the famous Golden Altar which was saved from the clutches of Henry Morgan by being painted black by local churchmen. Local legend has it that when questioned of its whereabouts, a local priest convinced Morgan that earlier pirates had made off with the altar and even convinced the privateer to donate money for a new one. Morgan reportedly quoted the clergyman as being "more of a pirate than he was!" Although Casco Antiguo is a poor neighbourhood, the area is slowly being restored and regenerated.