Text and photos: Javier Pinzón
The world’s largest cities all have their own iconic defining landscapes. These panoramas are synonymous with the cities, sometimes even to those who have never visited. The Brooklyn Bridge frames the skyscrapers of New York, the Pink House in Buenos Aires presides over Avenida de Mayo looking toward the Congress building, and Christ the Redeemer extends arms toward the sea in Rio de Janeiro…
Panama is typically identified with the waters of the Canal flowing into the Pacific Ocean under the Bridge of the Americas, and the best place to appreciate the view is undoubtedly the Causeway, or Amador Causeway.
More than a century ago, during the construction of the Panama Canal —a waterway that links the oceans and separates the continents— the United States Army, then in charge of the works, decided to build a small road to link three natural islands that were providentially lined up at the entrance to the canal: Naos, Perico, and Flamenco. The idea was to create a breakwater that would calm the sea where ships entered the Canal and prevent sedimentation.
This road became a 3.7-mile long avenue that took five years to build. All the material used to build the road was extracted during the construction of the Panama Canal, which yielded more than one million cubic yards of solid rock. When the Canal opened in 1914, this narrow sea road opened too. As the road was put to varying uses over the years, it evolved in tandem with national events and the Canal Zone.
During the two World Wars, the U.S. Army, which governed the 553 square miles of land bordering the Inter-Oceanic waterway known as the Canal Zone, built a complex of fortifications on these islands to protect the Canal entrance. Bunkers and arms depots were hidden under the tropical jungle covering the islands. Years later, after the Torrijos-Carter treaties were signed in 1978, these lands were gradually returned to Panama and dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega established a military base very near the U.S. base, which was still in operation at the time.
The military eras ended with the fall of Noriega in 1989 and the return of the Canal to Panama in 1999, after which the Causeway was abandoned. Trees grew wild, mangoes littered the streets, and agoutis, deer, and ants claimed the old houses. What was left of the jungle soon shrouded the buildings. But this death was merely a pause on the Causeway’s road to rebirth, this time as a manifestation of peace, progress, and harmony. In the early 21st century, Panamanians began to discover the area and it became a place for Sunday family outings, where people could watch the sunset, snow cone in hand.
This Sunday destination, renamed Amador Causeway, grew in popularity as hotels, marinas, restaurants, and bike rental sites flourished. Wartime bunkers were repurposed as restaurants, shops, and even educational institutions. The Amador Causeway attracted so many visitors and so many slow-moving cars filled with people admiring the city and the sea that part of the road collapsed.
A century of growth had overwhelmed both the Panama Canal and its breakwater. In an era of much larger ships and many more visitors to Amador, Panama decided to enlarge both the Canal and its breakwater. The Amador Causeway re-opened this year with four lanes, parking, lookout points, and recreational areas. It is, above all, a pleasant urban space tailor-made for enjoying the sea breeze in the company of family and appreciating the best views of the city, the horizon, and the colors of the sunset.
The best way to enjoy the Calzada is to rent a bicycle for one – or more. Make sure to stop on Perico Island for a wood-fired pizza or at a Flamenco Island restaurant for another treat. In addition to zipping down the 3.7 mile-road that links the islands, leave time for a visit to two places that will increase your appreciation of this place where the waters blend and the continents separate: the Biodiversity Museum and the Smithsonian Institute Marine Exhibition Center.
The Biomuseum, located at the entrance to the Amador Causeway and the Panama Canal, pays tribute to Panama’s unique geographic location; it is here that the continents joined, splitting the ocean some 3.5 million years ago. This museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, considers Panama the Bridge of Life and tells the story of the land animals that crossed from North to South America and vice versa when the Panamanian Isthmus joined the continents. Its exhibits also explain how this geological change affected the climate and biodiversity worldwide.
Punta Culebra Marine Exhibition Center
This is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Nature Center. Here, young and old can see —and touch— the differences between the two Panamanian coasts, appreciating the large animals and nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific Ocean and the coral reefs, colorful fish, and crystalline waters of the Caribbean. Visitors can also see stretches of the sandy beaches and rocky coastlines of the Pacific and portions of the forests that used to cover these islands.