Panama City is a hub in every sense of the word. Located in the Gulf of Panama along the Pacific Coast, Panama City sits in the heart of the country and serves as the main artery through which the rest of Panama receives its visitors, commerce, and culture.
The Tocumen International Airport welcomes more flights than anywhere else in Central America; and the Panama Canal, dubbed the "crossroads of the world," has a never-ending line of ships waiting to pass through its locks. The unbelievable number of skyscrapers in Panama City is increasing, and the amount of clubs, restaurants, and shopping malls is constantly on the rise.
The pace of life here is fast, especially compared to the rest of the country – at all hours one can find taxis plying the streets, vendors hawking products at intersections, and locals chatting along benches in shade-drenched parks. Still, for all its modernity, Panama City still contains a good deal of tangible history – the ruins of Panama Viejo, for example, are well-preserved and extensive – which visitors will find both delightful and informative. Furthermore, because of the country’s unique location, it is exceedingly international, with cultures from all over the world represented within the unique fabric of the city. Whether for only a few days or a few weeks, Panama City will captivate all who visit and serve as a wonderful introduction to the rest of the country.
As with any large city, Panama City has a wide range of accommodations. Everything from extreme budget options to enormous luxury hotels exist within the city, with similar options often set within the areas. Most of the midrange hotels are around El Cangrejo and Vía Argentina, right near the center of the city. Also within this area are the luxury options, which stand amongst enormous skyscrapers and 24-hour casinos. Casco Viejo has some nice hotel options as well, and is shaping up to be one of the more elegant areas to find a room.
Also due to the extensive size of the city, the tourist services here are the best in the country. Trips to islands, beaches, and jungles can be arranged within Panama City, as can a wide variety of activities.
There is no shortage of things to do while visiting this city. Although there are boundless options for entertainment, Panama City has several well-known and well-loved attractions. Among these are Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo, which are the oldest parts of the city; Calle Uruguay and Avenida Central, which compose the colorful shopping and club districts; Parque Nacional Metropolitano, and the Panama Canal.
Panama Viejo is a scattering of widespread ruins dating back 400 years, composing what’s left of the original Panama City. The ruins are well-preserved and quite the sight to behold – row upon row of grey stones erect walls, arched entry-ways, and the infamous cathedral tower, a national symbol which stands sentry at the entrance to the ruins’ official entrance. This tower, built between 1619 and 1626, can be climbed during regular daytime hours, providing visitors with a sweeping view of the ruins and the modern-day skyline in the background. There are informative signs, in both English and Spanish, that provide guests with the history and importance of the various buildings, as well as a comprehensive museum dedicated to Panama Viejo that houses ancient artifacts and attractive displays. And although a portion of the ruins are contained and run by IPAT (the Panamanian tourist department), a good deal spill out into the actual city itself. Indeed, in some places small soccer fields sit scattered between the crumbling stone structures. All in all, Panama Viejo provides the perfect afternoon stroll; a lesson in history, architecture, and culture right within the city limits.
Following Henry Morgan’s sacking of the old city in 1671, the Spanish decided to move the city 8 km southwest to an area that was easier to defend. This area now composes Casco Viejo, the second major sight of Panama City. Today, Casco Viejo is hands down the most attractive area of Panama City. Its unique blend of architectural styles, with both Spanish and French colonial buildings, are stunning in their decadence – paint-chipped walls extend onto wrought-iron balconies overflowing with flowering plants, and churches with marble altars and stained-glass windows stand remarkably intact. Indeed, as the second sight of Panama City, Casco Viejo contains much of the city's traceable history. There is the Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903, and the Plaza de Francia, commemorating the failed French effort to build a sea-level canal; the National Theater and the Presidential Palace; a museum of colonial religious art and a museum dedicated to Panama’s history; indeed, there is something for everyone within this neighborhood.
Additionally, there are areas where visitors can purchase Kuna molas and Panama hats, cafés where coffee can be sipped, and restaurants and bars where international cuisine can be enjoyed beneath the crumbling ruins. However, these ruins are gradually being restored, and the area is seeing a serious boom in renovation. In fact, the ongoing effort to restore Casco Viejo to its original splendor resulted in the area being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sight in 2003. The coming years are likely to see Casco Viejo develop into a pretty swanky area, but for now, it’s an ideal spot to soak up the charm of the old city.
Visitors looking for a colorful taste of inner city life should take a stroll down the pedestrian walkway of Avenida Central. This busy walking street is lined with all sorts of shops and all sorts of people – bakeries, shoe stores and fruit stands, Kuna women, young children and gringo tourists. Avenida Central borders Casco Viejo and Parque Santa Ana, a tree-dappled park filled with shoe-shiners, old men, and juice vendors. However, for those looking to get into the throbbing heart of the commercial district, it would be wise to head for Calle Uruguay, which houses a wide range of clubs and an even wider range of restaurants. Trendy bars and dance clubs are constantly opening, providing both foreigners and locals alike with a range of all-night rhythms to dance (and sweat) to until the early morning.
The Causeway provides yet another option for those looking to walk, run, bike, or even rollerblade. Lined with bars, restaurants, and cafés, the Causeway is a 2 km stretch of man-made boardwalk that connects three different islands. It affords spectacular views of the city skyline, as well as a wonderful vantage point from which to watch the stream of enormous ships waiting to enter the canal.
On a hill just north of downtown is Parque Natural Metropolitano, a 265-hectare national park that protects a large swath of tropical semi-deciduous forest right within the city limits. Because of its close proximity to the city, it provides the perfect place to escape the bustle of the streets and do some leisurely hiking. Two main trails lead through the park’s forest, which houses a surprising amount of wildlife, including sloths, Geoffroy’s tamarins, and anteaters. The trails form a loop which rises to the top of a hill where a mirador (lookout) provides panoramic views of Panama City, the Pacific Ocean, and the canal. The park’s inner-city location allows the sounds of traffic to float into the forest, which can be an annoyance for some hikers. Still, the location can’t be beat, and the views are amazing. Parque Natural Metropolitano is a wonderful daytime excursion for those looking to stretch their limbs and experience an intact tropical forest while staying within the capital.
Undoubtedly, the Panama Canal is one of the main draws for visitors to this country, and for good reason – it is an amazing feat of intellect, architecture, and human drive. After a failed attempt by the French during the 1880s, during which 22,000 workers died, the Panama Canal was finally completed by the United States in 1914. A true marvel of engineering, it stretches 50 miles (80 km) from Panama’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic side, and is composed of three sets of double locks. The Miraflores Locks are the closest locks to the city and are considered the best place to experience the canal. Only a fifteen-minute drive outside the city, the locks are bordered by an extensive visitor center with four-storied viewing platforms, a museum, gift shop, and restaurant. And although the process of waiting for boats to enter and move through the locks can be a bit slow-going, it is certainly worth the wait. The sight of a 60,000-ton cruise ship inching through the locks is hard to forget.
At present, Panama is beginning an ambitious plan to expand the canal by widening the existing channels and constructing another set of locks. It is set to be done in 2014.