Often 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 movement, and an electric energy. But I actually found it reminded me more of Bangkok than anywhere else. Like Bangkok, it was gritty, energetic, active, and modern yet still developing. Like Bangkok, high-rises sharply contrasted with abandoned buildings and 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 there. 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:
Stroll through Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial sector built in 1671, to witness the colonial- and canal-era historical buildings, which showcase Panama’s past. Most of the buildings are now empty, dilapidated, and in ruin, but many 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 the beautiful promenade, Canal Museum, History Museum, and Presidential Palace. You’ll also find some amazing food in the area. I highly recommend the weekend market in Independence Plaza for its delicious and cheap meals.
The original part of the city, Panamá 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 an 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.
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, skateboarding, or having a meal or drinks at one of the many restaurants and bars on the islands.
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.
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 Exposición.
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.
Photo credits: 2, 3, 4