Panama City left us wanting more. Check out what to see and do in this modern Latin American City.
Downtown Panama is less overbearing than other Latin American cities because of the welcoming balance between man and nature. In particular, the long stretching harbour provides a sense of seclusion, relaxation and recreation from the neighbouring hectic central business district. This balance of man vs. nature is best explained by an insightful visit to the Bio Museum which explains the creation of Panama as well as problems to animals and mankind alike.
Another affordable must see is Casco Viejo. This quiet neighbourhood is lined with old, brightly coloured colonial houses which are slowly being restored to their natural beauty. Include the Presidential Palace, Ministry of Foreign Relations, Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza Tomas Herreras and the crafts markets in your trip. Budget travellers will note few cheap restaurants – we enjoyed La Vecindad (Av. A, Panamá), $5 for a set menu. The neighbourhood is labelled as potentially unsafe by the major travel books but we did not get this feeling without straying. Many tourists choose to stay here but in our opinion, staying downtown provides more access to other attractions, restaurants and nightlife.
A visit to Panama City would not be complete without seeing the Panama Canal in action. Watch huge ships squeeze through the comparatively tiny locks and learn all about it’s intriguing history in the museum. Afterwards, a visit to the central but quiet Parque Natural Metropolitano is worthwhile if you have the time. If you’ve got a good eye you’ll see sloths high in the trees (the abundance of wildlife surprising given the location), jesus lizards gracefully running across ponds occupied by an abundance of turtles, iguanas and a beautiful view over the city.
Panama City has a great selection of shopping malls: Multi Plaza , MultiCentro, Soho and Albrook. Multi Plaza was by far the pick of the bunch for us. There are both moderately priced and up market shops (the ones where you’ll barely be able to afford the stitching). The entire upper level is a food court which provides enough temptation in itself. The complex also houses a cinema, large grocery store and 3 stories of clothing stores.
Got a few spare hours in the city? There’s many museums like Museo de Arte to check out. Panama also has a huge range of bars and restaurants. We opted for the Hard Rock Cafe – pricey drinks with an unauthentic vibe but amazing views of the night skyline. The Seafood Market is also worth a visit.
• BioMuseum (Edificio 136, Calzada de Amador, Calz. de Amador 136, Panamá, Panama) – Admission for adults $22, students $11. One of the best museums we visited in our 6 month journey of Latin America. Enjoy a walk (1.5 hours) along the harbour side to this insightful, well laid out museum. Alternatively taxi for $7-10 or bus from Av Balboa, Panamá (just outside and on the same side of the road as Multicentro) for $0.25.
Follow the causeway past the museum to see the Bride of the Americas and ships waiting to approach the Panama Canal. We did not find the causeway overly worth visiting but it is perhaps more lively on weekends and easier to visit on a bike.
• Parque Natural Metropolitano (Avenue Juan Pablo II final, Panama City) – Admission $4. Call the park in advance for a tour or pick up a map from the information desk for a easy self guided tour. Taxi to the park is around $5.
• Casco Viejo – free! Budget travellers will note few cheap restaurants – we enjoyed La Vecindad (Av. A, Panamá), $5 for a set menu. Alternatively plan your day to eat at the Seafood Market about a half hour walk from Casco Viejo back along the waterfront.
• Multiplaza Shopping Mall – (Punta Pacifica, Punta Darien St., Panama City)
• Museo de Arte Contemporaneo – Admission $5. This is a small museum but had some interesting displays during our visit. A taxi here is $5.
• Hard Rock Cafe (Avenida Balboa, Panamá – access also through Multicentro Shopping Mall). The rooftop bar does not open until 8pm but the lower bars still offer a great view and pools to swim in while you wait.
• Seafood Market (Mercado del Marisco, Cinta Costera, Panamá).
• Hostel Villa Venta Surf (Calle 47, Casa 7, Panama City 1111, Panama):
Dorm beds $15-$17 per person. If you are a couple share the double bed in one dorm room for a lower overall price. We paid $20 for two people.
Facilities include a well equipped kitchen, breakfast (pancakes), a swimming pool, well kept hang out area, lockers and friendly staff. There are quite a few eateries within 3 blocks or more further out (including a great vegetarian street food stall on the same street). Supermarket and large shopping areas within walking distance (see below).
Downside: bad internet connection which is supposedly an issue throughout the district?
Getting there from San Jose, Costa Rica:
Click here for full instructions and details including taxes, bus station addresses and durations.
Getting away to Colombia:
You are unable to cross the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama due to safety, not to mention extremely thick bush. Alternatives include:
• To Medellin, Colombia
Viva Colombia (US$83.60) from Panama Pacifico Airport (NB: NOT Panama’s main airport). To get to Panama Pacifico airport we took a local bus from Av Balboa, Panamá (just outside and on the same side of the road as Multicentro) for $0.50. From here we paid $10 for a taxi to the airport. Again, prepare to pay more as the our driver thought we meant the main airport which is much closer. The taxi will take approx 25 minutes depending on traffic.
Viva Colombia is a cheap, no frills airline however both our experiences with the airline were on time and stress free.
• To Cartagena, Colombia
• For US$375-400 you can catch a scenic ride from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia through the San Blas Islands. There are many companies (with varying) reputations. We felt that the relative experience gained would not compensate the huge cut from our budget but it is worth looking into if you have the money. Shop around and consider factors such as the season, seasickness, style of boat, reputation of the company etc.
•There is also a standard ferry that runs from Colon to Cartagena during peak season however this seems to come and go depending on demand and does not include the scenic stops at the islands like the above sailing option.
• Supermarket: Super Kosher – Punta Paitilla, Panama City, Panama. Large well stocked supermarket. If you can’t tell by the name, you won’t be able to find bacon here.
• Shopping malls: Multiplaza Pacific Mall (Punta Pacifica, Punta Darien St., Panama City) has everything from high end to affordable shops. There is an enormous food court, large supermarket and cinema.
• Shopping malls: MultiCentro (de, Av Balboa, Panama City, Panama) is not worth your time unless you are wanting a food court, internet cafe or nearby casino.
• Internet cafe: Multicentro (de, Av Balboa, Panama City, Panama)