The Saturday City: Panama City

casco viejo in panama cityOften called the Miami of the South, Panama City is the capital of Panama and very much like the US city of Miami. There are high-rise condos located on the waterfront, lots of traffic, Spanish music everywhere, lots of movements, and an electric energy. But I actually found it to remind me more of Bangkok than anywhere else. Like Bangkok, it was gritty, energetic, active, modern yet still developing. Like Bangkok, high rises buttressed abandoned buildings sharply contrasted the slums that are still littered throughout the city.

However, overall, I have neutral feelings about Panama City. I liked the sordid feel to the city; the tense energy where anything can happen at any moment, and the feeling that the city is always in motion.  On the other hand, I never really felt safe in Panama City. I couldn’t help feel that something might go wrong if I moved just a few blocks in one direction.  I’m a bit torn between these two opinions and I don’t think I’ve fully made up my mind yet on this place.

That being said, I ended up staying in here for over a week and overall, I enjoyed myself. It’s a city you can easily get stuck in and while I didn’t find much to “do”, I found these highlights the most interesting:

Casco Viejo
Stroll through Casco Viejo, the 333-year-old Spanish colonial sector built in 1671, to witness the colonial and Canal Era historical buildings, which showcase Panama’s colonial past. Most of the buildings are now empty, dilapidated, and in ruin, but most are in the process of being renovated. Nevertheless, the area has a lot of old world Spanish charm to it. There’s a lot to see in Casco Viejo, such as a beautiful promenade, the Canal Museum, History Museum, and Presidential Palace. You’ll also find some amazing food in the area. I highly recommend the weekend market in Plaza Independence for its delicious and cheap meals.

panama viejo ruins in panama city

Panama Viejo
The original part of the city, Panama Viejo, was founded in 1519. All the gold from the Inca Empire went through this area, and it was once a thriving city of 10,000. Today’s extensive ruins are the result of an attack by English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. There is in depth museum at the visitor center, but the exhibits are mostly in Spanish. Luckily, there are a lot of visuals to look at if you don’t speak Spanish. The main reconstructed church offers sweeping panoramic views of the area. The ruins take a few hours to explore and are peaceful due to the lack of crowds.

amador causeway

Amador Causeway
With its spectacular views of Panama City’s skyline and of the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway is a major attraction. The Causeway connects four small islands made up of rocks excavated from the Panama Canal, which serve as a breakwater for thee Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The islands used to be bases for US forces, but have since been turned into a place many Panamanians spend their weekends jogging, riding a bicycle, skate boarding, or having a meal or drinks at one of the many restaurants and bars on the islands.

metropolitan park in panama city

Metropolitan Park
The Metropolitan Park is a section of the jungle watershed preserve for the Canal Zone. It’s a giant park located right in the city that houses many rainforest animals, birds, and plants. The park is fairly big but there are only 8km worth of trails so you can hike the whole thing in a day. From the top of the trail, you’ll get views of the entire city and the Panama Canal Zone. When the craziness of the city gets to you, come here for an afternoon and relax.

Eat Out
Panama City has some amazing food. On a personal note, I don’t like the local food. I find it plain and lacking a lot of the spices and flavors that you find elsewhere in Central America. But as a major international hub, the city has some great international fare. If you want to stretch your budget out, you’ll find delicious food throughout the city that’s worth busting your budget on. Casco Viejo has many high-end restaurants as does La Exposicion.

miraflores locks at the panama canal

Panama Canal
The highlight of the city is, of course, the Panama Canal. That’s the main attraction everyone comes to see. You can view the city from Miraflores Locks (one of the three locks in the canal). There’s a very good museum at the welcome center that features a lot of audio and visual displays, the lock, and a short film about how Panama got the canal back from the US. Make sure you go in the morning or afternoon so you can see a ship pass through the lock.

Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much to do in Panama City. You could see it all in about two days. I’m still torn on my final thoughts about the city, but I enjoyed myself here, I ate well, relaxed, and met some nice people. But I’m not 100% sure I’d be itching to come back here in the future.

  1. Willy

    Wow! Surprised about your introductory comments about PTY. I have been there dozens of times since 2006. Never once felt unsafe. I have walked home from a club at 4AM back to my hotel. Walked a lot of places. Obviously, there are “iffy” places, but I thought these were pretty well defined.

    As far as not much to do, that also surprises me. Nightlife and shopping are excellent. Huge variety of restaurants as you mentioned. But I would concur on the local food. Chilling on the Causeway alone is a great way to spend tim.Lots to do within an hour of the city. My biggest gripe of the city is not being able to go in the ocean, when it is right out your window.

    • NomadicMatt

      Drinking and shopping can be done in any city and I hate to include that as something to “do.” I did enjoy the Multiplaza mall but I wouldn’t go there just to see it, especially one so filled with American retailers.

  2. Panama City is absolutely one of my favourite places. You didn’t check out Isla Taboga? It’s beautiful, a good day’s worth trip away from the city. I love getting lost in Casco Viejo and shopping in Albrook Mall.
    I can somewhat agree with the place feeling unsafe some times. Added that I too, somewhat agree that there is not much to do in Panama City and you can do most things in 2 days.

  3. Peep

    Used to live in Casco Vijeo, this brings back memories. While in Panama, you just have to go to Kuna Yala. Paradise on Earth, nothing like it.

  4. Joey Phi

    Ah too bad you didn’t get a chance to go to San Blas island! I have been dying to go visit the Kuna tribe, they are lovely from what I hear…

  5. Thanks for the post Matt. Until now I must have read 4 or 5 posts on Panama City on other sites, all offering the “5 tips” and “10 things” type garbage. I rather read a first person narration and this post is great!

  6. Thanks for this Matt. A fair and honest review. We have never been, but from what we have heard from other travelers your review is pretty close. Nothing spectacular, but nonetheless a good experience. I have never been, but the canal intrigues me. Based on your post I would like to get a good view of it from the Metro Park. Cheers!

  7. I definitely want to get to Panama one day, but I’d probably only spend a couple of days in Panama City. I’ve heard such awesome things about the other parts of the country, especially the islands off the coast.

  8. Agree with you on a lot of this. There isn’t a lot to do I spent 6 days there waiting for my boat to Colombia and ended up not going to see the Canal as it didn’t interest me personally and instead went to the fish market which is awesome.

    I also was underwhelmed with the local food which seems to have evolved into a fast food culture although I do wonder if I had couchsurfed there if I would have found true local food instead of what they thought tourists would want.

    • NomadicMatt

      I thought the fish market was pretty good too. Good seafood in the area but for a country that eats so much chicken, I wish they knew how to make it better! ha!

  9. Matt, I have to agree with what you say. When I visit a new place, I try to go without preconceived ideas. When I arrived to Panama City, I got a little bit scared. We stayed with friends for a couple of days and they didn’t want us to go alone to the city. When people are afraid of visiting their own surroundings somethign is wrong. Even a police officer told us it was not safe to walk around with backpacks.

    In term of things to do, I think that 2 or 3 days is enough. However, there are a lot of day trips you can do from Panama City. You can take a bus to the beach, go to Taboga island, take a Canal Eco Tour or go and see the Caribean fortifications. Overall, I liked the country and I had fun.

  10. What a shame you didn’t really enjoy it (or are still in two minds about it) – I really enjoyed my time in Panama City. I was absolutely fascinated to see the Panama Canal and had been itching to see it ever since I watched a documentary on how it was made. The Miraflores Locks are so crowded – by far the best place to see the canal is to take the train to the Gatun Locks (although some people would warn you off this as Colon is considered quite dangerous). Here you pretty much have the viewing platform to yourself, and you get the chance to get up closer to it.

    Have to say, I never felt unsafe ever while there. Sure, there are some parts of Casco Viejo that you should not venture in to (a hostel can usually give you a map with these zones marked) but overall I felt incredibly safe.

  11. I’m curious about something (I’m new to this blog). what sort of perparation do you do before visiting a country/city? Unfortunately, some places are quite difficult to ‘discover’ without some specific pre-research, and I get the impression this is the case with Panama city.

    • NomadicMatt

      Sometimes I read a guidebook, most of the time I ask people who have been there or other writers, and other times I just go and explore on my own. There’s no real set plan.

  12. Could not agree more with everything you said Matt. I’ve been living down here for a month, and I have yet to really build a connection with this city. I don’t know if it is because there isn’t a real sense of community here (beyond the highly connected group of expats in Casco) or if this city is too busy to focus on building “community.” What have you encountered through the rest of Central America?

  13. Jackie

    My husband (65) and myself (56) are leaving for Panama in a few days. At the moment, we will be in Panama City for the first few days, then to Gamboa. So far that is all we have booked. We have rented a car and plan on mostly winging it. We did this in Costa Rica about 20 yrs ago and had no problems even though we didn’t speak Spanish and there was very little English there at the time. It was interesting to say the least. We’re pretty realistic on what to expect. We are going to be there for 5 weeks. Aside from the usual tourist things, what would you suggest since we have more time than most might have?

  14. Thanks for the post! I’ve never been to Panama city but I’ve always thought it’d be similar to other central american capitals, where it’s the hub but people get out of there asap to see the beautiful countryside (kind of like Bangkok unless you’re there for the partying)

  15. Kenny

    We went last April and had a blast during our 5 day stay. Besides what you mentioned, our highlights was an amazing dinner and show at Restaurante Las Tinajas (there you find the Caribbean spices for which you seek, and a nice dancing and music show full with singing and dancing, as well as dancers in their beautiful polleras), Gamboa walk through the rain forest and boat ride on Gatun Lake (the guide was amazing, she had the sharpest hearing I’ve ever seen, as she was able to pinpoint the various sounds and know exactly where some of the wildlife were. We did a couple museums: Afro-Antillian and Mi Pueblito, learning about the history behind the canal as well as the many native people’s still in existence (I love that they at least have a substantial native population still around). We closed it out with a couple days of relaxation in Las Cumbres outside of the city. My lasting impressions were that it was a city of stark contrast but these stark contrasts were extremely close together (ie a shack right next to a Trump – Tower-like hotel).

    We befriended a cab driver and for most of our transportation, he was our go to guy. He helped us with our Spanish, took pictures with us at Panama Viejo, and we got to meet his son (as he was picking him up from school as we were going to PV). We stayed at The Panams hotel in Bella Vista, and that was a great experience as well. Very nice amenities without the high price tag and the pretentious “luxury” marketing attempts.

    The only time we felt unsafe was walking along Amador Causeway after everything closed down and lights were off. That sound of the waves up against the shore on both side was almost haunting, but we were fortunate to get a cab back to The Panams.

    It wasn’t perfect yes, but we absolutely loved it

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