Panama City is the largest city in Panama and with its 880’000 inhabitants one of the smaller Latin American capital cities which at first sight resembles Miami on speed rather than a Central American town.
But there is more to this Pacific Coast City than its dubious reputation. With new authorities in the city hall there is a certain polishing taking place both in the notoriety and in its physical appearance. The restoration process of the old colonial peninsula of Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo), UNESCO World Heritage since 2003, will eventually give it a great contrast to the skyline of steel and glass.
If you fly in, you will probably arrive at Tocumen Airport 20 kilometres north-east of the City, the “hub of Central America” as the local Copa Airlines like to call it. There are a few direct flights from Europe, Copa mainly serves the destinations in the New World. There are two other airports in Panama City, mostly serving local and regional destinations.
We travelled by bus from San José Costa Rica, via David, the second largest city in Panama. Bus travel, like everywhere in Latin America, is rather well organised in Panama and connects all major destinations in and around the country.
There is one metro line operating since 2015 and more lines are being built or planned at the moment, the goal eventually being 8 lines. There are city buses and taxis but the most efficient means of moving around is Uber. Or you can just walk.
A rental car is also a good option if you want to travel out of the city, the buses often being overcrowded. You can save some money by booking in advance through Rentalcars (the earlier the better). Cancellations are possible, often up to 36 hours before arrival in case you change your plans.
Airbnb offers a few really good deals in colonial houses in the Casco Viejo. Click here to find a good deal and get EUR 25 off your first booking. The beautifully renovated American Trade Hotel in the centre of Casco Viejo is a historical building and sometimes offers good deals if you want to give yourself a treat. The local brand Selina has just opened a hostel in Casco Viejo and also has double rooms with private bathrooms on offer. Choose the deluxe room if you want to have a hotel experience here.
In the Business District the hotels are mainly located in skyscrapers and most of the international hotel brands are represented here. Some Airbnb’s are also located in these superstructures.
With a strong historic bond to the USA, Panama City has tremendous amounts of US American chain restaurants on offer so getting decent food close to you is sometimes a struggle. The local restaurants are called “Fondas” and there are many of them around, especially in the popular parts of the city.
Our favourite is “Fonda Lo Que Hay”, literally meaning “what we have”, run by the local chef José Carles. He gives the Panamean street food a new twist in this hidden Casco Viejo eatery. Enter the small space, order at the entrance and pay upfront, and you will be blown away by the flavours created “à la minute”, at a fair price. José Carles’ other restaurant called “Donde José”, not far, is the gourmet version of his talent. Make sure to book in advance and show up with a stocked wallet. Enjoy great after dinner drinks at the Strangers Club just across the street. By the way, they also serve delicious food…
The Mercado de Mariscos between the Casco Viejo and the New Town offers seafood in a fish market setting. Prices are not the lowest but the whole experience has its charm.
The Cabana in the Philippe Stark designed Yoo Hotel facing the Cinta Costera ocean side avenue in the New Town offers gourmet Italian food with a twist and a great terrace setting. Leave your shorts and flip flops home and dress up for the occasion.
For simpler Italian food and wine, head to Vespa. This place is run by Italians and their pizza and pasta dishes are “come a Napoli”.
Walking in Panama City is safe so do walk through Casco Viejo, have a drink at the Rana Dorada or the numerous rooftop terraces, get a feel of the old colonial Panama City by lazing at the Plaza Tomás Herrera in front of the American Trade Hotel or Plaza de la Independenza, next to the Cathedral. Walk to the Plaza de Francia, enjoy the view to the New Town and stun the monument to the French who started the idea of the Panama Canal. Avoid the Biomuseum located on Amador Peninsula. Even if the building is from Frank Gehry, it is only really worth going for a better view on Panama City.
Before visiting the Panama Canal, visit the Panama Canal Museum in the Casco Viejo. It provides you with the basics before heading to the Miraflores Locks at the canal, only 25 minutes away with an Uber. The Miraflores visitors centre is the best place to see the boats passing by, twice a day. Check the timings for the day on the website. A highly interesting visit for techies.
Panama City does not have the privilege to offer any beaches the likes of Miami, so you need to plan a few days out of town for this.
One option is to book an Air Panama flight from Panama City’s Albrook airport or take a boat from Sea Las Perlas Ferry Terminal to Isla Contadora on the Pearl Islands Archipelago in the Pacific, made famous in the past by the rich and prominent of this planet. A certain mystery can be felt here and a private spot on the beach is nearly guaranteed. Stay at Hotel Gerald or the fairly run down The Point Hotel. Don’t miss dinner at Casa Tortuga.
The other option, if you’re feeling adventurous, is to spend a few days at the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean Side. The best way to discover this paradise is by sail boat. There are many options, such as a sailing trip from Colombia to the islands, we suggest booking a cabin in the Lyckaribe sailing boat, managed by a charming Catalan-Venezuelan couple who will sail you through the best of the islands with love and passion. Excellent fresh food guaranteed. Book a cabin through bookings.com and the sailors will contact you to organise the rest.
Did you know
Panama was part of Gran Colombia until 1903 when it gained independence and nowadays the land border to Colombia remains closed. The only possibility of reaching Colombia is by boat or plane. The Pan-American Highway (Pan Americana), that leads from Prudhoe Bay in the USA to Quellón in Chile makes a break between Yaviza in Panama and Turbo in Colombia of 160 km. This “Darien Gap” is said to be full of swamps, marshes and rivers and has ensured for decades that foot- and mouth-diseased cattle has not been able to transit from South America to Central and North America. This area also possesses a fragile ecosystem and offers natural hideaways for all sorts of dealers and smugglers.
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