Episode 176 – A Tale of Three Cities


January 25, 2022. 90°F/32°C

Having twice toured modern Panama City by bus, today we were excited to explore on foot with a knowledgeable guide, and as an added bonus enjoy a delicious lunch at one of Panama’s local restaurants. What a difference it makes getting to walk through the ruins of the old city (Casco Viejo), along the promenades and squares of the Colonial City (Casco Antiguo), and see Panama City’s skyline without a bus window as a constant barrier.

We started our tour at the site of the original Panama City, founded in 1519, which was completely destroyed by pirates led by the notorious Henry Morgan in 1671. AARGH. Interestingly, it was not the fires set by Morgan and his crew that turned the city into the ruins we see now, but rather that fact that afterwards the building stones were scavenged to build the defensive wall for the relocated city 5 miles to the southwest.

You can see modern Panama City behind the ruins of the original.

Legend has it that when Morgan arrived in Panama City, he headed straight to the church to steal the gold altar (actually carved mahogany heavily gilded with gold flake), but the priests had been forewarned, so they camouflaged the altar with clay. When Morgan demanded to be shown the gold altar, the priests lamented the fact that they had hoped to be able to create one, but so far had only been able to design it in wood and clay. The legend further claims that the priests then asked the pirate for a donation!!

The actual gold altar survived and was moved to the Church of San José in the new colonial Panama City.

Whether or not the legend is true, it is a fact that Morgan set fire to the city (likely out of spite when the riches and bounty he expected to find there failed to materialize).

Top left: ruins of the original cathedral. Bottom left: the new cathedral.
Top right: detail of the mother-of-pearl decoration on the cathedral spires. Bottom right: detail of the disciples’ statues, with Our Lady of Antigua at the top.

The new cathedral, officially named the Metropolitan Archcathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua built between 1688 and 1796, while not home to the gold altar, boasts one of the most ornate altars we’ve seen in the Western Hemisphere. The exterior was restored in 2016 in honour of a papal visit. Several of the solid gold candelabra are as tall as I am, and the statuary shimmers with gold.

Top: the cathedral altar. Second: the gold-embellished statue of Mary.
Third: Five-foot tall solid gold candlesticks.
Bottom: depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in shimmering gold.

On Easter Sunday in Panama, large wooden floats showing depictions of the Passion of Christ are carried through the streets. This huge float (below) on wheels can be moved out of the cathedral through purpose-built wooden doors on either side of the main entrance.

Construction in Colonial Panama City is a blend of Spanish, Italian, French, and North American influences, creating a truly interesting city.

Top left: the President’s residence (a,though he doesn’t actually live there) in Spanish style. Top right: French influences in ornate ironwork (think New Orleans). Bottom left: American style in a bank building. Bottom right: Italianate design.

By contrast, the most interesting elements of modern Panama City are the skyscrapers (a designation reserved for buildings more than 50 stories tall) and unique bank and office towers. There are currently 59 buildings here that qualify, the tallest of which is the JWMarriott Panama at 284m/933ft tall. Unlike other Central American countries, Panama’s unique narrow S shape means it does not have earthquakes or hurricanes, so structures can literally reach for the sky.

Two of the most noticeable buildings in the skyline are the “sail” (left) and the “corkscrew” (right)

After 2 hours of walking in the 90° heat, we were all ready for a nice lunch in air-conditioning…. but first we had to climb the 4 narrow flights of stairs to reach Lazotea’s beautiful rooftop restaurant. Lunch was worth the climb: a fresh salad with mozzarella, grilled oranges, smoked beets and sliced almonds in a balsamic reduction; followed by beef “hump” slow-cooked for 72 hours to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, served with braised mushrooms, bacon, caramelized shallots, baby carrot, spinach and red wine sauce; fettuccine with braised mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil; and a vanilla mille feuille with vanilla pastry cream, blueberries , and vanilla bean ice cream (no idea what I did with that picture – I know I took it, so I’m blaming my iPhone for eating my dessert).

After we got back from our tour (and took our second showers of the day), we discovered that the ship’s Wintergarden, which usually hosts high tea, had been transformed into a speakeasy, serving craft cocktails from a bar tended by Viking’s award-winning “Flairtender”, Emrah, who juggles bottles and pours drinks mid-air. He’s a show not to be missed!

Clearly after all that we needed more food, and enjoyed another amazing meal and outstanding service in the main restaurant. In each photo, Ted’s dinner is on the left and mine is on the right.

Appetizers. L: Traditional chicken empanada in a delicate crust, served with fresh tomato salsa and sweet pepper slivers. R: Roasted eggplant soup with coconut, lemongrass and shredded crab. The soup had a lovely silky texture, and comforting flavour – unlike anything I expected from eggplant.
Mains. L: Bourbon BBQ glazed spareribs and baked potato.
R: Roast lamb lollipops with tamarind sauce, potato mash, and tempura fried eggplant and zucchini.
Dessert. L: Lemon tart with French meringue and lemon zest, garnished with raspberry mousse kisses. R: Pistachio raspberry “roucher”. The pistachio glaze, pistachio infused whipped cream, and white chocolate and pistachio disks covered a 3-layer raspberry sponge and vanilla ganache torte.
Ab-so-lute-ly delicious.

The evening’s entertainment was a wonderful multi-instrumentalist born in the Ukraine and raised in Toronto. (Yay Canada!). Dennis Daye blew us away with his musicianship, at several points in his show playing the trumpet and the piano AT THE SAME TIME! My favourite number was his medley of tunes from Fiddler On The Roof played on accordion.

In the bottom right photo he’s playing an ocarina. Just wow.

Tomorrow we head into the first of 6 sea days en route to Santiago Chile. Wish me calm seas!


  1. Hope your sea days go well. It sounds like you are having a marvellous time, too. It’s lovely to be re-assured that you are well – and safe.
    And your lamb lollipops looked marvellous!!! Oh, yum…

    Liked by 1 person

  2.  Jan. 26. – 14 degrees. Aaarrrgggghhhh Envy part is over.

    Couldn’t believe the beautiful lifelike statues! All the gilt is magnificent but I was struck by the statues. So impressed with ALL the pictures – thank you!

    I love travelling with you. I salivate a lot. Much love



  3. I was surprised to learn of Panama’s skyscrapers & of the beautiful architecture throughout the city.I would be interested in hearing about their culture & socioeconomic status. I was drooling at your lunch description. What a feast!


    • I wish we’d learned more about the economics, but were told that the city is where the rich and foreigners live, and workers all come from the suburbs daily – hence the crazy traffic jams twice a day! Our guide also briefly mentioned the challenges the country faces with being used to launder drug money, but it’s not just drug lords – remember The Panama Papers scandal a couple of years ago? We actually ate lunch at that same restaurant in December 2019 – it has maintained its high standards!


  4. Another lovely day – great photos and descriptions.

    I remember seeing the Panama City skyline several years ago from another cruise line’s ship and was amazed at the number of skyscrapers.

    Wishing you calm seas for the next 6 days!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It sounds like a wonderful day. I do hope your days at sea are calm but full of relaxing time and blue skies. Thank you so much for doing this, it makes me feel like I wish I was going on my World Cruise now instead of Dec 2023.


  6. As always I am really enjoying your blog! Thanks for your vivid descriptions and pictures of the buildings of Panama City. Architectural styles is a particular interest of mine. Also food, so I appreciate your sharing those too even though they make me very jealous.


  7. We sure enjoy your blog, so interesting and so well written. Wish we were with you, but keeping busy here with a move down the road and sale of our condo! I love the way you two squeeze every ounce of goodness out of your cruise. An inspiration!


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