On our trip to Panama we had about a day and a half in Panama City. As much as I prefer to bypass cities, especially big cities I also like to build in a day at the start of a trip in case of flight cancellations, delays…the usual.
It was the first time in Panama for our group of four so although we could have spent the better part of a day hanging out by the small but lovely pool at the American Trade Hotel we all wanted to see what Panama City had to offer the tourist.
Listed below are 5 things to do in Panama City, Panama – also known as the Miami of Central America.
Visit Panama City’s Metropolitan Park
Grab a taxi and in short order you’ll go from the frantic pace of downtown Panama City to one where it’s green, lush and peaceful. Panama City’s Metropolitan Park is the ONLY tropical rainforest located within a city (and Soberania National Park where we stayed at the Canopy Tower is only 45 minutes away).
On one of four hikes that loop through the park, look for some of the 976 bird species that are found in Panama along with a dazzling array of orchids and plant life. From high points in the park you can see the Panama City skyscrapers, the Panama Canal and a few of the nearby islands.
One of the highlights for us was watching leaf cutter ants carry their enormous loads. Simple pleasures!
Check out the Miraflores Visitor Centre at the Panama Canal
The Miraflores Visitor Centre is just 30 minutes away from downtown Panama City. Although we didn’t spent time in the visitor centre per se, we did enjoy the exhibits we saw on the way to our dinner – which remains one of the unexpected highlights of our trip. There is something awe-inspiring about watching a massive ship move down the canal with mere inches to spare on either side. Make reservations for an outside table and I guarantee you will enjoy the experience.
Wander through Casco Viejo; better yet stay here and soak in the culture
Casco Viejo was Panama City’s downtown until the 1930’s. After its heyday it went into a long decline that has just been broken in the last decade. Ongoing restoration will return the area to its former glory. Today you’ll find Spanish colonial architecture in a rainbow of colours – some restored, some with years to go; excellent restaurants, markets, small museums and a throbbing, beating nightlife. You can easily spend a half day poking around – even a full day if you go slowly, chat with the locals and grab something to eat.
We stayed in two places – the American Trade Hotel and the Tántalo Hotel. Tántalo has very arty rooms and a rooftop bar with a hopping nightlife – which translates to a lot of noise in some of the rooms well into the wee hours. Between the two I preferred the American Trade for its rooftop pool and quieter ambiance.
Walk or bike around Cinta Costera
From the fish market just outside of Casco Viejo walk or bike on a pathway until you reach the skyscrapers of downtown Panama City. Despite the fact busy Balboa Avenue runs parallel to the paths, there seems to be enough space and greenery to dull the noise. On weekends this is a very popular area. The ocean is your constant companion on this walk along with birds, boats and all the wonderful clouds you see. Allow about an hour each way, and more if you sit on a bench and just watch the world go by.
You can also rent a bike just outside of the fish market if you’d prefer not to walk.
Eat Like the Locals in the Fish Market (Mercado des Mariscos)
When you arrive at the Fish Market you will be besieged by vendors trying to get you to eat at their location. I don’t know how you really pick one over the other. We looked for restaurants that were hopping and full of locals. It’s a colourful spot with a lot of character and the food is decent, not amazing. Adjacent to the fish market you can watch all the activity around loading and unloading of boats, repairing boats and just hanging out watching boats.
The one thing you shouldn’t do in Panama City
My husband, John has exceptional navigation skills which he demonstrates time and time again in the wilds of Canada. I would have to say his city navigation skills aren’t quite so good. Of course it doesn’t help if you don’t have a map or any landmarks either.
Rather than take a cab we all decided to walk back to our hotel in Casco Viejo from our lunch spot at the Fish Market (Mercado de Mariscos). How hard could that be?
What we didn’t appreciate was the location of El Chorrillo, a sketchy neighbourhood adjacent to Casco Viejo. Somehow we took one wrong street, then another and in no time ended up getting deeper and deeper into the El Chorillo neighbourhood. You could tell. People watched us like a hawk. We knew it wasn’t good but nor did we ever feel unsafe, merely unsettled. After about 15 minutes a police car pulled up beside us shouting muy peligrosa(very dangerous)at the same time as a women was about to come to our rescue and point us in the right direction. The police were kind and helpful and rather than stick us in a cab insisted that we all jump in the back seat and they’d drive us back to our hotel. That was a first for all of us and one of my more memorable travel experiences. And we’re all thankful it ended so well.
Useful Information about Panama City
- English is widely spoken.
- The US dollar is used here.
- There are no hurricanes in Panama but there is a wet and a dry season.
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