I left Panama City kicking and screaming — in just eight days, the metropolis had joined a lofty list of my favorite urban centers around the globe. And I’ve taken on spreading the word about this newly cherished destination as something of a personal cause.
Far too many tourists only stay in Panama City long enough to cast a glance on the canal before hightailing it to more exotic destinations elsewhere. Don’t make the same mistake! Give Panama City the time it deserves and don’t dare leave without….
1. Laying Eyes on The Panama Canal
Yes, there’s more to Panama City than the canal. But the canal is pretty damn cool! The visitor’s center at The Miraflores Locks is without question crowded and touristy. Yet it’s also fantastically organized and presented. There’s a 3D theater featuring beautiful footage of the canal, a four-level interactive museum, and three observation decks from which to wave to passing ships.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it — The Panama Canal is simply fascinating. Its history and politics are steeped in drama, its construction is a mind-blowing feat of human engineering, and its current impact on world trade and economics is immeasurable. My poor brain could barely keep up with all the information coming its way.
2. Strolling through Casco Viejo
Ideally, you won’t just be visiting Panama City’s most charming neighborhood — you’ll also be staying there. But regardless, don’t even think about leaving Panama City without spending a few hours cruising around the Casco — a restored historic neighborhood overflowing with chic boutiques, trendy restaurants, and red hot nightlife.
3. Getting a Taste of Panamanian Culture
Panama is a nation of diverse cultures and indigenous groups, and they have a wealth of musical, fashionable, and culinary traditions to prove it. You can get a fun — and delicious — primer on all of the above by attending a cultural dance performance in Panama City.
On our visit, we sampled Panamanian specialties like sancocho, a country-style chicken soup, ropa vieja, a spicy shredded beef and the national dish, and tres leches, a delicious cake that I blame for the fact that I left the country with a few extra pounds for a souvenir. As we noshed, we enjoyed live music accompanied by an endless swirl of colorful costumes, passionate live music and elaborate dances.
4. Cruising Along the Amador Causeway
The Causeway, a 2km long man-made link between the mainland and four small islands dotting the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is an attraction in its own right. It’s a popular stretch for locals and tourists alike to get in a dose of oceanfront exercise by bicycling, jogging, or rollerblading up and down the calzada.
Along the way, you can stop to take in the nearly finished Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, spot wild sloths at the Smithsonian-operated Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas, and watch ships roll into the Canal from one of the many seaside restaurants. We visited the Causeway as part of a Panama City day tour with Barefoot Panama, a trip that also took in the Miraflores Locks, Cerro Ancon hill, and Casco Viejo.
5. Diving into Downtown
Panama City’s concrete jungle of skyscrapers sets it apart from any other Central American capital. Not only is Panama City’s downtown a major center for international banking and commerce, it’s also a top shopping destination for Latin America’s elite. Those who once upon a time would flock to Miami for their retail fixes have set their sights on Panama thanks to the USA’s ever tightening borders and unpleasant airport experience, meaning today, a Prada bag is considered as good a Panama souvenir as any.
With taxis charging an expensive Gringo Tax, we opted to cruise through downtown with a Hop On Hop Off bus pass, which picked us up right in our home base of Casco Viejo. I wasn’t kidding about the shopping obsession — three out of the fifteen stops are malls.
Not that I’m talking smack about malls. I was thrilled to restock on some hard-to-find products (hello, Lush solid shampoo!), bask in air conditioning and frozen yogurt stands, and see a movie in a theatre instead of on my laptop. While those things might not seem thrilling to someone on a quick vacation, to those who have been long-term backpacking through Latin America, they are a fairly close simulation of heaven.
Looking for a seriously good-value downtown date? On a Wednesday, head to Sukhi Thai for their weekly $10 all-you can-eat curry buffet — some of the best Thai food I found in Latin America — and then waddle your way over to the Cinépolis Multiplaza, Panama City’s plushest retail palace, to take advantage of Wednesday night half-price movie tickets.
6. Hiking in Metropolitan Park
Every urban jungle needs a green oasis of respite within city limits — in New York City, it’s Central Park; in Panama City, it’s Parque Metropolitano.
With a $4 entrance fee and five interlocking trails that total an estimated 4+ hours of hiking time, a morning at Metropolitan Park is a great value (though we found the trails took us about half the time that the maps estimated). The park is well maintained and informative signs help you choose a trail based on what you’re after: an easy walk, a challenging hike, a great view, birdwatching, etc.
Our wildlife encounters were limited to some eerie spiders and the rustling of a few monkeys in the distance, but we heard of others coming across anteaters, sloths, and white-tailed deer along the trails. One thing that would be impossible to miss? The views from the 150 meter high mirador.
7. Riding the Panama Railway
The historic Panama Railroad spans the entire width of the American continent — which in Panama, means just under an hour on the rails. Constructed in 1855, the Panama Railroad took five years and $8 million dollars to build — at the time, it was per-kilometer the most expensive set of tracks ever built. Today, you can ride from Pacific to Atlantic for just $25, taking in views of Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal, and the country’s diverse tropical rainforest along the way.
8. Going Back in Time at Panama Viejo
Panama City, like many national capitals, has gone through a few phases. Currently, it is centered around the skyscraper-laden Downtown. Previously, it was based in the charming area of Casco Viejo. And originally, from 1519, it was rooted in Panama Viejo — the first European settlement anywhere along the Pacific!
Today, the site is mostly dismantled and the ruins are, well, in ruin. But the lively history makes up for the what’s neglected of the Unesco World Heritage Site. For over 150 years after its founding the city thrived thanks to the gold being plundered from Peru and siphoned back to Spain through Panama, and the natural barriers that made Panama Viejo an unstoppable fortress. So historians are still baffled as to why, in 1671, the Spanish soldiers abandoned their city stronghold in order to meet Captain Henry Morgain’s pirates, who were approaching Panama Viejo from the Atlantic side of the country. It was a fatal mistake, and Panama Viejo was plundered and burned to the ground as a result.
While it’s certainly not the most intact ancient city I’ve ever visited, Panama Viejo is a must-see in my books due to the pirate-y lore, the historical significance and the juxtaposition of looking out at a modern metropolis from the crumbling carcass of its past.
While visiting the ruins is free, the onsite museum has a $3 entrance fee — don’t make the same mistake as I did and visit on a Monday when it’s closed! To avoid high taxi prices from Casco Viejo, we visited as a stop on our Hop On Hop Off tour.
Have you been to Panama City? Have I left anything off the list?