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"First time visiting Panama?'' asks my Panamanian co-passenger during flight to Panama City. Acknowledging my nod as yes, he suggests I explore the Panama Canal first before diving into any other touristy attractions.
Anyone who has cast their eyes on the world map knows about Panama Canal - it's perhaps the planet's most-hyped oceanic shortcut, linking the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans by cutting through the continental divide. Built over a century ago, it revolutionised shipping and changed the nation's fortunes. Exceptional engineering accomplishment has earned this waterway a ``wonder'' status, which Panamanians regard as a matter of great national pride.
So it's nothing unusual to receive such friendly advice from locals when setting foot on their land for the first time.
Miguel, my tour guide, deviates from this routine and takes me first to ``Biomuseo'', a unique kind of museum which looks at Panama's geographical heritage.
A big takeaway from the museum is understanding the importance of the Panama Canal in the maritime world as various displays clearly describe how onerous it was to sail around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.
I capture my first glimpse of the canal from a palm-tree lined avenue edging the museum.
My next stop is Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre, where I position myself at the viewing balcony to be part of an awe-inspiring spectacle.
``Many come to our city only to see from here the movement of ships from one side [of the world] to the other,'' Miguel comments. Within a period of 30 minutes, I have watched Italian and Norwegian vessels go through a two-lane locking system
All ships need to negotiate two more locks, Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side and Gatun towards the Atlantic, to complete the 80km transition of the canal.
The idea of this navigational shortcut was first conceived in the 16th century by Spanish King Carlos V, but nothing happened until the French builders of the Suez Canal started construction in 1880.
After struggling in a difficult terrain for many years, they passed the baton to an Americans team, which completed the canal in 1914. Through various diplomatic treaties, the United States held on to the ownership and operations of the canal until the end of 1999, when jurisdiction of the waterway was handed over to Panama.
Since then, revenue from the passage of ships has made Panama an economically robust and dynamic country, leading to a
Interestingly, the city hasn't discarded what it had earlier, preserving the remnants of the old city as a valuable treasure.
The best is Casa Antigua, a Unesco World Heritage-listed seafront promontory, which rivals the canal as a tourist attraction.
Built by Spanish conquistadors in 1673 after the notorious Welsh privateer, landowner and, later, Lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, Sir Henry Morgan, sacked and plundered their 150-year-old settlement on the other side of the bay, Casa Antigua is tightly packed with Spanish-styled buildings - churches, convents, public edifices and noble mansions - that flank the surrounding cobblestone streets. Some of the buildings are in crumbling condition, but many have been well restored.
Casa Antigua is perhaps the finest venue to appreciate Panama's past and present, its contrasts, challenges and opportunities for the future.
Sandip Hor is an Australian freelance writer.