The capital of Panama is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in the world, yet it is not on many people’s bucket lists. More fool them! Read our top ten reasons why you must visit Panama City.
The capital of Panama is one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan capitals in the world, yet it is not on many people’s bucket lists. More fool them! Read our top ten reasons why you must visit Panama City.
We visited Panama City one March as part of a self-planned tour of Panama. Our holiday was three weeks long altogether and our itinerary also included Miami and New York.
For more on this trip read ‘How to Combine Miami, Panama & New York in One Epic Trip‘.
We had longer in Panama City than the average city break, six nights in total. It is such a fantastic city that we could have stayed much longer, but six nights gave us the opportunity to experience a lot of what it has to offer. We didn’t know much about Panama and its capital before we visited and any word association game would have ended after saying ‘hat’ and ‘canal’. However, it turned out to be one of the best places we have visited and we can’t wait to return. Why? Read on for our top ten reasons why you must visit Panama City.
To see why Panama is one of our favourite winter sun holidays read Top Winter Sun Destinations Around the Globe.
‘One of the best places we have visited and we can’t wait to return’
1. Standard of Living
Our visit to Panama came about as a result of us wanting to: visit a continent neither of us had travelled before, go somewhere exciting and unusual, go somewhere that was easy and relaxing to travel.
Choosing the continent was easy, even though we cheated. Our first criterion meant only Antartica made it to the shortlist. We ruled that out as, whilst it would definitely be exciting and unusual, it was unlikely to be easy and relaxing to travel. We ruled Central America in, momentarily overlooking the fact that it is not a continent in its own right. However, having ruled it in there was no way we were going to rule it out! We were spoilt for choice by the list of Central America countries, each being exciting and unusual for a holiday. Ultimately we chose Panama because our research led us to conclude that it is easy and relaxing to travel. Why?
The standard of living in Panama, and Panama City in particular, is high and the country is advanced in a lot of respects. The following list is not an exclusive list of factors but gives you an example of what we mean. The hygiene and healthcare standards are high and tap water is safe to drink in most areas. Smoking is illegal in the vast majority of public places, both inside and outside, and bathrooms have western toilets. Spanish is the official language of Panama but English is widely spoken. It is one of the safest countries in Latin America and is far less conservative than most of the others: an example of this is Panama City’s vibrant gay scene.
We appreciate that a high standard of living would cause some to rule out a visit to Panama City based on a misconception that it is unadventurous. For us and the sort of trip we wanted at this particular time, the list made Panama City the perfect destination. Especially as we needed to fit our holiday into our annual leave commitments. With limited time available, we wanted to visit somewhere exciting but also easy to travel, as said at the outset. Step forward Panama City!
2. Ease of Travelling Around
We talked above about Panama being easy to travel and we look at that literally here. To make the most of all the things to see and do on a visit to any city you need to be able to get around. Panama City’s infrastructure makes it very easy to travel around from place to place.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap to use, especially if you avoid those waiting outside hotels. The city is separated out into price zones and you pay according to your destination. In other words, taxis are not metered. The inevitable downside is that drivers can and do charge what they like if they think they can get away with it. It is definitely worth researching average prices in advance and telling the driver in advance what you will pay rather than asking him what the fare is. Another tip is to get out of the car at the end of the journey and pay the driver what you think without asking. However, this takes some nerve and it definitely is worth researching in advance. Whilst getting ripped off is a possibility, negotiating a taxi fare is all part of the experience and it is not something to fear.
The alternative is to use Uber, our preferred form of transport. There is excellent Uber coverage in Panama City and the prices are very reasonable. We found the standard of cars and driving to be very high and the drivers we had were very pleasant. We used Ubers on many occasions and had as many female drivers as male. Additionally, Internet coverage is good throughout Panama City so it is usually possible to arrange a car wherever you are.
Renting a car provides you with the most flexibility and all of the well-known international car rental agencies operate in the City. Car rental costs approximately the same as it does in the United States. Unlike the States, cars with manual transmission are widely available as most Panamanians drive ‘a stick’. However, automatic cars are also available. As with most major cities, driving in Panama City can be very challenging. The roads are generally in good condition but the stresses arise from the standard of driving of other road users. In our opinion, it’s just not worth renting a car.
Buses are also available and the Metro Buses are air-conditioned with excellent city coverage. There are two rates: $0.25 for non-corredor buses and $1.25 for corredor buses. The difference depends on whether the journey involves going on the highway. You will need to purchase a Metro Bus card, currently costing $2, and top it up with credit to use on the buses. The buses are a cheap and convenient way to travel around the city, although they can get crowded. People queue politely for buses which, depending on where you are from, you will either find extremely comforting or annoying!
3. The Panama Canal
Even if you don’t know much about Panama the chances are that you have heard of the Panama Canal. Visit the Canal and it is easy to understand why its construction is deemed to be one of the most spectacular human engineering feats in the history of the world. We confess that we decided to see it more because we felt that we should rather than because we wanted to. However, it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Panama City. Essentially, if you visit Panama City you must experience the Panama Canal.
The Canal passes through the country connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and it is one of the world’s most travelled waterways. As early as the 16thcentury, the idea of constructing a canal was considered by King Charles I of Spain. Deemed to be an impossibility at that time, the French made the first real attempt at construction in 1880. Leading the effort was Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Suez Canal’s architect. However, this failed miserably with around 20,000 people perishing, partly due to an underestimation of the challenges presented by building in Panama’s jungles.
In 1903, the United States took over construction and subsequently achieved the impossible. In 1977 the two countries’ presidents, Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos signed a treaty which handed control of the Canal to Panama on 31 December 1999. At the time, this was deemed to be controversial, the view being taken by some that the Panamanians would be unable to run the Canal successfully. However, the country, and the Panama Canal Authority in particular, have proved the doubters wrong and, following a referendum, the Canal was expanded by the creation of wider locks to increase the transiting traffic. Further construction to increase the capacity is ongoing.
There are locks at various points in Panama and in Panama City you can visit the Miraflores Locks. The Locks are around a 15-minute drive from the centre of the city. As well as an excellent observation platform, there is a fantastic museum and exhibition centre. We definitely recommend visiting the centre. It is very well thought out and the range of exhibits are truly engaging, presenting the history of the Canal in a fascinating and easily accessible way. Ships tend to pass through the Locks at around 11am and 3pm but it is worth contacting the Visitors Centre in advance to ascertain the timings of the large ships.
If you want to experience transiting the Canal for yourself there are various companies offering full-transit and partial-transit journeys. We didn’t do this ourselves so can’t specifically recommend any companies. However, you may wish to look up one of the following: Panama Marine Adventures, Canal & Bay Tours, and/or Ancon Expeditions. Alternatively, the Panama Canal Railway runs between the capital and Colón in the north, bordering the Canal. Originally built in 1855, the train was relaunched in 2001 with coaches modelled on the 19thcentury originals. The trip takes around an hour. At the time of writing, the train runs Monday to Friday, departing Panama City at 7:15 am and Colon at 5:15 pm.
4. Casco Viejo
If you Google ‘Panama City’ you will find descriptive phrases such as ‘vibrant metropolis’, ‘cosmopolitan city’, and ‘skyscraper skyline’. These are apt. But what if you want more from your city break? Does Panama City have anything more, well, authentic? Yes, yes, and yes! Casco Viejo is what you’re craving.
Casco Viejo is the historic district of Panama City. Spanish for ‘old quarter’, it was settled in 1673 after the sacking of the original capital, Panama Viejo (see below). It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, attracting attention to what had been allowed to deteriorate into a slum. Today, Casco Viejo is a shining example of rejuvenation and regeneration. It is a convergence of old and new, home to many of Panama’s best restaurants, bars, and cafés. A bustling living dedication to a myriad of architects styles, the buildings are in various stages of redevelopment, some surrounding beautiful plazas. The Plaza de la Independencia being one such example (where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903).
You will find many buildings of national importance in Casco Viejo. One such building is the Palacio Presidential, the offices of Panama’s President. The building is well guarded and so it is difficult to get a good look at it. You may, however, see two herons circling. ‘Heron’ is garza in Spanish, giving the Palace its alternative name ‘Palacio de las Garzas’.
Other buildings include the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre) and the Catedral Metropolitan. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1796 after 108 years of construction and is one of the largest in Central America (the largest is in León, Nicaragua).
5. The National Parks & Rainforests
National parks and rainforests abound throughout Panama. These stunningly lush and beautiful natural landscapes contribute to making the country a must-visit destination. One of the best things about a trip to Panama City is the proximity of a number of these parks and rainforests to the capital.
Parque Natural Metropolitano
The Natural Metropolitan Park is a protected tropical forest within the city limits. How many cities around the world can lay such a claim?! The thick jungle is home to approximately 200 species of birds and 40 species of mammals. It is around 255 hectares and is in the north of the city. There are a number of hiking trails you can use to explore the park. The shortest circular trail is the Momótides, taking around 30 minutes to walk. This is the easiest trail and is suitable for young children. The most difficult trail is also the longest: the Cienequita Trail which takes around 2 hours to complete. We opted to do the Mono Tití Road and looped back via the Cienequita Trail. There are spectacular views of the city from the trail and the total distance is around 2.2 km. The trail is moderately difficult due to a number of inclines but anyone who is reasonably fit will find it fairly easy going. Being in the middle of a tropical forest hearing only the sounds of nature but catching glimpses of the city is a surreal experience. This park is definitely worth visiting, it adds a new dimension to a city break!
The park is easy to get to by car, which is how we got there. On a clear run, it is only a 10-minute drive from the Area Bancaria (see below). We got an Uber there but were unable to get one back because there weren’t any in the area and our phone signal wasn’t good enough. This could have been a case of bad luck on our part but planning how to return merits consideration. Eventually a taxi drove past and we were able to hail that, but they were few and far between.
Panama Rainforest Discovery Center
The Rainforest Discovery Center is a fantastic park. It’s situated on the edge of Soberanía National Park, around 40 minutes from the centre of the city. The reason to come here is for the birdwatching. Species of toucans, parrots, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds, all call the rainforest their home. Those who are serious birdwatchers, together with those who are morning people, can arrive at 6am and experience the rainforest waking up. Or you can take part in a night walk and discover the wildlife active at this time. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the morning show (we’re neither serious birdwatchers nor morning people) but experiencing the rainforest was spectacular nonetheless.
The two highlights of our visit were the observation tower and the hike to Lake Calamito. The observation tower is 40-metres high and climbing it to be within the canopy of the trees observing the wildlife is not to be missed. The park has well-maintained trails, one of which takes you to the viewing platforms on the edge of the lake. We spent ages listening to the sounds of the forest and wondering if the shadow we could see in the water in the shape of a crocodile was indeed a crocodile. There was definitely something there!
Summit Gardens Park & Zoo
OK, this is a local rather than a national park but the Summit Gardens Park merits inclusion all the same. This park introduces you to the flora and fauna of Panama and is particularly worth visiting if your time in the City is limited. Originally created as a botanical garden, the Summit is now home to many exotic species. The green spaces are large, making the Park popular with families as children can roam free.
The zoo is not in the league of those such as San Diego and London, but it is worth visiting all the same. It is home to a jaguar, a puma, and monkeys, amongst other animals. However, the star is Panama’s national bird, the largest eagle in the world. That’s right, the harpy eagle.
It is difficult from the picture to see just how large the Zoo’s harpy eagle is but she is a beauty. The size of her talons and beak made us grateful we couldn’t become her prey. As the chances of seeing a harpy eagle in the wild are remote, it is worth visiting the Summit just to see this majestic creature.
We visited the Summit on the way back to the City from the Rainforest Discovery Center. If you were really pushed for time and got an early start you could fit a visit to both into half a day. However, we spent a leisurely and memorable day visiting both. This allowed us to take our time and soak it all up. By this point in our trip we’d become friendly with someone who owned her own company of drivers and we hired her for the day to act as our guide. It is easy to hire a taxi for the day and we’d recommend doing that so you know your transport is sorted.
It is also worth considering combining a visit to the Summit with Soberanía National Park.
Soberanía National Park
Not to labour the point but being able to go from city to lush rainforest within an hour is one of the reasons why a visit to Panama City is so unique. Soberanía National Park is Panama’s most important national park. It is incredible that such a vast tropical rainforest (approximately 19,430 hectares) is only 40 minutes/25 km from Panama City! Located on the eastern shore of the Panama Canal, this Park provides millions of gallons of water to keep the Canal in operation. This makes the Park crucial to the country’s economic welfare, as well as its natural welfare. The Chagres River runs through the park helping to sustain the wildlife. Jaguars and monkeys, along with over 100 other mammal species call the park their home. As do over 500 species of birds. The hiking trails are maintained by the park ranger service and there are trails of varying difficulty.
The Park also houses Gamboa Rainforest Resort (see below), making it possible to stay within the rainforest in more luxurious surroundings than a tent.
6. Standard of Hotels
As you would hope, the standard of hotels is high, although we’re sure you can find terrible ones if that’s what you want. The two main areas for accommodation are the El Cangrejo/Area Bancaria (Financial District) and Casco Viejo.
El Cangrejo/Area Bancaria
This is the glossy skyscraper part of the city. Well-known luxury chain hotels are amongst the shopping centres and business institutions. If you search online for hotels in this area you will find luxury hotels like the Waldorf Astoria, The Bristol, the JW Marriot, and the Radisson Decapolis. Smaller hotels include the Global Hotel, whilst the Panama House B&B is reportedly an excellent budget guesthouse.
We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megalopolis. In the heart of the city and 20 minutes from the international airport, this enormous hotel (over 1,400 rooms!) has everything you could need for a city break. Work out in the fitness centre, relax in the spa, and then visit the beauty salon. Alternatively, you can satisfy that urge to shop in the connected shopping mall before going to the casino to try to win back the money you have spent. Whether you want sushi, steak, pizza, tapas, Peruvian cuisine, a French twist, or the option to try lots of different dishes, there will be a restaurant for you. Add to that the bars, nightclubs, the rooftop pool, and the chance to rock out in your room with a guitar selected from the ‘guitar menu’.
We were attracted by the novelty factor as we had never stayed in a Hard Rock hotel before. However, whilst the standard is undoubtedly very high and the facilities are brilliant, we prefer the smaller boutique style hotel and so would not necessarily stay here again. Having said that, we loved our room which was large, had an ocean view, and was immaculately clean. The buffet breakfast was fantastic: there was so much choice you could easily while away an entire morning eating so much that you want a nap afterwards! The rooftop pool is definitely a rock star touch but it is a pool to pose by, not to have a proper swim in. The gym is small considering the size of the hotel, but we had it to ourselves every time we used it (usually early evening).
If you like huge resort style hotels we would recommend staying here because it is a fantastic example of this. Importantly, it is easy to get to other parts of Panama City by taxi from the hotel. We used Ubers but you could use one of the more expensive taxis which wait outside the hotel if you wanted.
If El Cangrejo is home to skyscrapers and enormous hotels, Casco Viejo is home to historical buildings and boutique hotels. There are some fantastic options if you want to experience this buzzing, charismatic, and cosmopolitan district in more depth. For example:
Without a doubt, the hotel you should want to stay in in Casco Viejo is the American Trade Hotel. Now a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World brand, this stunning hotel combines Art Deco with the golden age of jazz with contemporary touches to provide a stunning place to rest your head. Whether you’re posing by the rooftop pool, being achingly cool in the jazz bar, working up a sweat in the gym, or drinking the best coffee Panama has to offer in Café Unido, a stay in this hotel will help you have the ultimate city break in Panama City.
An alternative to the American Trade Hotel is Las Clementina’s. This boutique hotel opened in the 1930s and has six apartments and three studio rooms to choose from. Beautiful parquet and tiled flooring can be found throughout, setting off perfectly the neutral tones and exposed brickwork of this stylishly decorated place. Facilities include a gym, spa, and private parking (for a fee).
As you will gather from this post, Panama City is a multi-faceted capital. It is possible to be on the beach, in the rainforest, in a historical town, or dwarfed by skyscrapers and still be staying within Panama City. The hotels above give you ideas for staying in the historical and modern parts of the city. The two hotels below are rainforest and beach accommodation options.
As stated above, the lush tropical rainforest that is Soberanía National Park is only 25 km from the city centre and within it can be found the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. For a unique city break in Panama City you could choose to use this resort as your base or stay for a night or two as part of a longer visit to the capital. The hotel is situated by the Chagres River overlooking the Panama Canal within 340 acres of the park. Amenities include a swimming pool (with a poolside bar), waterfall, a spa, and two onsite restaurants. It can also provide an aerial tram ride through the rainforest, jungle and canal tours, and the chance to visit an indigenous community on the banks of the Chagres River.
If you want to sleep in a rainforest, but with something more substantial than canvas over your head, this resort is an option at the other end of the spectrum!
One of the reasons to visit Panama City is the opportunity to combine a city break with a beach break (see below). For the latter part of our time in Panama City we chose to stay at Playa Bonita in the Westin Playa Bonita Resort & Spa. We booked the hotel to be on the beach: it overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is 20 minutes from the city centre. The Westin is a big resort style hotel with three swimming pools, a spa, six restaurants, and a well-equipped business centre. Unfortunately, whilst staying there we were reminded that this style of hotel is just not our thing. The same reasons why we were not enamoured with the Hard Rock Hotel apply to the Westin. Whilst it was very clean and had immaculate facilities its large, impersonal nature made us feel as if we could have been anywhere. The beach was also a disappointment. The website pictures made it look as if we would could lay on fine white sand to bask in the sun. Instead, what beach there was was akin to grey shale. Definitely not the beach we were anticipating it would be.
There were numerous guests clearly very much enjoying their time at the Westin as it is a good hotel. Just not our ideal hotel.
7. Fantastic Restaurants
Panama City’s gastronomic scene has more than enough to satisfy even the most discerning foodie. The eclectic mix of cuisines epitomises the diversity of the city. Gourmet food trucks, Chinese restaurants, steakhouses, and Italian trattorias all have their place amongst countless other options. For fine dining visit Maito, named the best restaurant in Panama in the Latin America 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards and 29thon the overall list. Or Initimo, a 28-seater restaurant where guests marvel at the magic created by the chefs cooking in front of them. The restaurant has a policy of locally sourcing 90% of its ingredients to support Panamanian farmers.
Our ‘go to’ restaurant which we highly recommend is Pastissima, an elegant, contemporary Italian restaurant in Casco Viejo on the corner of the same plaza as the American Trade Hotel. The reasonably priced wood-fired pizza and pasta dishes are delicious and the wine list is good. We enjoyed the food so much we ate there on several occasions. Even travelling there from Playa Bonita for dinner one evening!
For ideas on how to use your annual leave to get even more time off for work for experiences like this read How To Maximise Your Annual Leave.
Lung Fung is a busy Chinese and dim sum restaurant. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and the food is pretty good. It’s fairly average in the sense that it’s not high-end Chinese dining, but nor is it that horribly greasy ‘Chinese but not Chinese’ food some restaurants serve. Not the best Chinese we’ve ever had but certainly not the worst. It’s a huge place but, as it’s on the edges of the city, it’s worth calling ahead to check they have a table.
8. Panama Viejo
Gold raids, pirate sacking, the history of Panama’s first settlement is certainly colourful! Panama Viejo was founded in 1519 and was amongst the first European settlements in the Americas. Its port was once used to help transport gold raided from the Andes to Spain. Left now are the ruins of a once glorious city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was razed by the pirate Henry Morgan (yes, he of rum fame) in 1671 and then abandoned. Wandering amongst the shells with the waters of the Gulf of Panama as a backdrop is reason alone to visit Panama City. The remains include palaces, convents, a hospital, and a cathedral.
The remains don’t include the Iglesia de la Merced, a church dating back to 1680. This church can, however, still be seen albeit in Casco Viejo. Remarkably, it was transferred stone by stone from Panama Viejo to where it stands today on Calle 9a in Casco Viejo. Human remains have been found and it is possible to see skeletal bones sticking out of the earth at a site near the cathedral ruins.
Take it from us, Panama Viejo is definitely worth visiting. Further information can be found at www.panamaviejo.org.
9. Proximity to Beaches
Thanks to its Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea coasts, Panama is blessed with some of the world’s most stunning beaches. Comarca Kuna Yala (formerly known as the San Blas Islands) is probably Panama’s most famous beach destination. Located in the north-east of the country, these 350 islets bring to life most people’s dream beach. Think glittering turquoise waters surrounding lapping on the shores of white sand so fine it’s as if it’s been finely milled. Add in a coral reef, coconut palms, and an indigenous tribe and the fantasy is complete. A 20-minute flight followed by a drive of around 2 hours gets you there from Panama City.
Competing with the San Blas Archipelago for the perfect beach destination title is the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago. Located off the north-west coast of the country, close to the border with Costa Rica, are 200 islets. And, yes, piercing turquoise waters and powdery white sand comes as standard. The Archipelago is an hour’s flight from Panama City and is a fantastic surfing and snorkelling destination.
Closer to Panama City is the Archipiélago de las Perlas or Pearl Islands. If you ever watched the TV programme Survivor you will be familiar with these islands as the series was filmed here. These islands mix it up by having golden-sand beaches as well as white-sand beaches, surrounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean. They can be reached by a 20-minute plane journey or an hour 40 minutes high-speed ferry journey.
The closest beaches to the city which can be reached by road are all on the Pacific coast. You need to be careful of strong riptides if venturing into the water. Playa Bonita is the closest to the city and a taxi is not overly expensive. Whilst you can easily visit as a day trip, if you wish to stay here two mega-resorts are found on the beach: the Westin (where we stayed, see above) and the Dreams Resort. Santa Clara and Farallòn are approximately 70 miles/1 ½ hours from the city. These are probably best reached by hiring a car. They both have white sand beaches, pretty good swimming conditions, and are home to huge resort style hotels. For example, Santa Clara has the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort whilst Farallòn has the Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort (the 18-hole golf course was designed by Jack Nicklaus) and the Royal Decameron Panamá.
10. Cycling/Walking Along the Amador Causeway (or Calzada de Amador)
For a scenic stroll or bike ride it’s difficult to find a place better than the Amador Causeway. The Causeway is a series of four islands (previously the haunts of pirates) linked by a road and walkway. It projects 6km out into the Pacific Ocean at the point where the Panama Canal meets the sea. It is an excellent place to view the city’s skyline and watch the ships entering and exiting the Canal.
The islands were connected in the early 1900s using soil excavated during the Canal’s construction. However, the United States fortified the promontory and used it during the two world wars. It was not until the end of 1999, when the Americans handed control of the Canal over to the Panamanians, that the Causeway opened up for public use. Since then, it has become an excellent place for walkers, joggers, and cyclists with a number of bars and restaurants along its length. There are various places along the way to hire bikes. We did so one evening on a whim and it was very easy to do without any advance planning. You can also visit the Biomuseo, an excellent natural diversity museum housed in a stunning building designed by Frank Gehry, and the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra Nature Center, an open-air museum aimed at educating people (and children in particular) about coastal conservation.
We did not expect to fall in love with Panama City at all, let alone as much as we did. Without a doubt, it is a city that you must visit. There is so much to see and do your time will be filled no matter how long you spend here. If you can, however, you should definitely allow more time than that given to your average city break. As you can see, this is not an average city so you won’t regret it!