This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)
There is much to marvel at
Panama is a country rich in history, culture and biodiversity. Its many museums reflect the nation’s multifaceted nature. The majority of them fall under jurisdiction of Panama’s National Institute of Culture (INAC), whose director, Mariana Núñez de Haugland, actively promotes all expressions of Panamanian identity.
There is much to marvel at, from the miracles of evolution at the Museum of Biodiversity and the pre-Colombian artifacts in the Reina Torres de Araúz Museum in Panama City to the mysterious archaeological site of El Caño in Coclé.
Museum of Biodiversity
Amador Causeway, Panama City
The Museum of Biodiversity, in Amador, extravagantly designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 2014. A park with panoramic views of the ships at the Pacific entrance to the Canal features endemic plants while within the iconic building multimedia exhibitions tell the story of the isthmus of Panama over the eons. The “Biomuseo” (as it is known in Spanish) has quickly become one of the country’s most visited destinations. It demonstrates the unique role the isthmus has played since it rose out of the sea forming a land bridge across the continent and dividing the oceans, creating a land of immense diversity of plant species, birds and mammals.
Reina Torres de Araúz Anthropological Museum
Ave. Juan Pablo 11, Llanos de Curundu, Panama City
Containing over 15,000 pieces of gold, ceramic, stone and other ethnic exhibits, this museum also hosts special exhibitions, workshops seminars and congresses. The Gold Room (Salon de Oro) is an impressive feature of the main hall which also houses exhibits of the ancient Barriles culture of indigenous people in the province of Chiriqui.
The museum occupies a modern four-storey building and is a monument to the pre-Columbian history of Panama which ranges from the first inhabitants of the isthmus more than 10,000 years ago up to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.
Ave. 6, Central, Plaza Catedral, San Felipe (Old Town), Panama City
Housed in the original Municipal Palace built in 1910, the Historical Museum shows the three periods of the country’s history: the colonial ( 1501 – 1821), the departmental (1821 – 1903) when Panama was part of Colombia, and the republican period (1903 – present day).
Natural Science Museum
Ave. Cuba and Calles 29 and 30, Bella Vista, Panama City
You can take an ecological tour in the city at this museum. Many exhibits stress the importance of protection of Panama’s natural resources and endangered species. The Harpy Eagle, Panama’s National bird is there along with the beautiful Quetzal and Guacamaya. Reptiles, too, from boas to the spectacular Green Iguana. Amphibians include the rare Golden Frogs. Of the insect world, the gorgeous “Royal Blue” butterfly, common in all the rainforests, is the star.
Calle 21 and Ave. Justo Arosemena, Calidonia, Panama City
This museum, which celebrates the part played by West Indians of African descent in the construction of the Panama Canal and their subsequent contribution to the culture of Panama, is housed in a quaint wooden building built in 1909 by a group of Barbadian canal workers who held religious meetings there.
Plaza Bolívar, San Felipe (OldQuarter), Panamá City
In this former Franciscan convent, the Bolivarian Congress was held in 1826, called by the South American “liberator” Simón Bolívar and attended by representatives of Gran Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Central America and observers from Great Britain and the Low Countries. The museum celebrates the ambition of Bolívar to form a confederation of states which were then Spanish colonies.
Ricardo J Alfaro Museum
Calle 44 and Calle Colombia, Bella Vista, Panama City
Celebrating the life and work of a celebrated Panamanian, Dr. Ricardo J. Alfaro with archives and memorabilia.
Portobello Customs House Museum
Portobello, Provincial de Colon
The restored Customs House in the former fortified town of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast is now a museum. Portobelo is famous for its fairs in the days of the Spanish conquest when galleons would arrive with European goods from Spain and load up with gold and silver from Peru destined for the coffers of the Spanish king. The impressive Renaissance-style building was constructed between 1630 and 1634. Apart from a number of artifacts from the period, the museum offers a small theatre where a video showing the route of the galleons and their precious cargo and the importance of the port which once attracted the bellicose attentions of the British privateer, Sir Francis Drake who is believed to have been buried in the bay.
José Domingo de Obaldía Museum
Ave. 8 Este, David, Chiriqui
Celebrating the life of the lawyer and politician, a native son of the province, this museum is located in the former Obaldía family home, of historic and architectural interest for its Spanish style. The museum deals with the pre-Columbian and colonial eras including a salon devoted to religious art. Another salon recreates the lifestyle and social character of the old Obaldía family, with original furniture and memorabilia.
Contemporary Art Museum
Art connoisseurs can sample the country’s burgeoning talent at the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC).
Panama Canal Museum
Cathedral Plaza, Casco Antiguo, Panama City
This is a non-profit, public museum devoted to the history of the construction of the Panama Canal in its various stages, including the first French construction attempt, the later construction by the United States and the eventual transfer to Panamanian control. The current building dates from 1874 and served originally as the headquarters of both the French and U.S. companies engaged in the construction of the canal. More information at MuseoDelCanal.com
Museums of the interior provinces
The provinces of The Azuero Peninsula, including Coclé and Veraguas in the central part of the country, were the first areas to be colonized after the Spanish Conquest and it is here that much of the history and folklore of the isthmus resides. A number of small museums are scattered throughout these provinces.
The city of Chitré, the capital of the province of Herrera, is now home to the first privately managed museum in the Azuero Peninsula. Inaugurated last September, the Cubitá Museum is located at the Boutique Resort & Spa of the same name.
Located in the San Antonio district, the museum is actually a group of houses typical of the “interior” as these provinces are collectively called. Precolombian Panama is represented with an unequalled collection of “huacas”, the ceramic art of the ancient people. Many pieces from Coclé are to be found in exhibits at the universities of Harvard and Pennsylvania.
Salt and Sugar Museum
Museo Regional Stella Sierra
At Aguadulce, Coclé, the name speaks for itself — the economic base of the area.
El Caño Archaeological Park
In the district of Natá in the province of Coclé, this park was first discovered in 1926 by a North American, Hyatt Verrill, who was commissioned to excavate it by the Heye Foundation which shipped to the Indian American Museum in New York a valuable collection of stone columns with carved heads and megaliths.
El Caño is believed to have been a ceremonial religious and burial site which flourished around 800 BC. In recent years several groups of tombs have been excavated and can be viewed by visitors. A museum at the park contains many of the gold and ceramic relics found in the tombs.
At Chitré, the capital of the province of Herrera, this is the largest museum of the region and covers a broad spectrum, including the “Ecological Corner” demonstrating the geography, flora and fauna. Rural life and customs are well represented, with everything from trapiches (wooden sugar cane presses) to musical instruments and costumes and masks for religious festivals.
Nationality Museum of the Heroic Villa de Los Santos
It was at Villa de Los Santos on November 10, 1821 that the first cry for independence from Spain was made. The town’s museum celebrates this event and much more, including exhibits concerning the fighting between Spanish settlers and Indian tribes —- swords, lances, rifles and pistols of the conquistadores and stone axes and arrowheads, slings and spears of the indigenous warriors.
Manuel Zárate Museum
At Guararé, Los Santos province, home of the famous Mejorana folklore festival, the Manuel F. Zárate Museum, housed in a tiny, typical colonial-style adobe dwelling, celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the region, exhibiting the most ancient polleras in the country as well as musical costumes and devil masks used in the Corpus Christi and other religious celebrations.
Belisario Porras Museum
This museum at Las Tablas is dedicated to one of Panama’s most famous presidents, Dr. Belisario Porras who served three terms, 1912 to 1916, 1918 to 1920 and 1920 to 1924. It was a period of significant growth for the young republic, finding its feet after independence from Colombia in 1903. Many major projects were completed under the stewardship of Dr. Porras including the Chiriqui Railroad, the National Highway, the National Archive and the Santo Tomás Hospital, the plazas and monuments to Balboa and France and the Exposición neighborhood.
Another museum is the Pausilipo Museum, also in the Las Tablas district. El Pausilipo is the name of his country estate.