Pointing clients past the canal

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NEW YORK -- When the Panama Tourism Institute invites visitors to explore beyond the canal, its promotional efforts point clients to consider the country's trio of cultural cornerstones: history, folklore and traditions.

No visitor should skip Panama City and its Old Panama district, the original settlement plundered by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Remaining are ruins ranging from the old city hall to a slave market.

The city was then moved to the Casco Viejo district, where its mix of Spanish, French and early American styles earned this quarter a spot on the Unesco World Heritage Site list.

Above, a view of Panama City's Casco Viejo colonial district, which is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Highlights in the colonial center are many, and any walking tour should include stops at the baroque San Jose Church, Cathedral Square and the Las Bovedas promenade, where boutiques and restaurants are tucked into dungeons beneath San Felipe's ramparts.

For Panamanian culture, clients should include a visit to the Anthropological Museum, whose exhibits highlight pre-Columbian artifacts and life on the isthmus prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.

Beyond the capital lies Portobelo, lined with several 16th century forts that once defended the Caribbean coast from pirates. Closest to town, and perhaps the most complete of the fortified remains, is Fort San Jeronimo.

Located 65 miles from Panama City and 30 miles from Colon, Portobelo is known for the San Felipe Church and its famous statue of Christ; pilgrims come from all over for the grand processions held Oct. 21.

Located in an undiscovered corner of the country southwest from Panama City is the peninsula of Azuero. Settled by the Spanish in the 16th century, the region still is a repository of colonial traditions, fine crafts and festivals.

Chitre is the region's largest town, a convenient base from which to go explore Sarigua National Park and the Humboldt Ecological Station at Playa El Aguillito (a center for bird-watching); the village of La Arena, a leading pottery center; the historic town of Parita; and the hat center of Ocu.

The peninsula is known for its artisans, making such specialties as polleras (the lacy, ruffled dresses that now are a national costume), masks, ceramics and woven hats.

This also is the region for festivals. Many towns have annual carnivals four days before Ash Wednesday. The most picturesque is held in Las Tablas, in the southern part of the peninsula.

For more information, contact the Panama Tourism Institute at (800) 231-0568 or visit www.ipat.gob.pa.

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