We didn’t have a lot of expectations for Panama, other than we knew it would be the first Big City on our trip. As one of the most populous cities in Central America (1.4 million) and a skyline like a waveform, we didn’t want to miss it.
This lack of expectations made it difficult to be surprised, but there was plenty to be both delighted and disgusted by. First, lets dispense with the bad:
- Panama City could not be described as a very clean city. The transit systems seems to have little environmental regulations, and huge plumes of black smoke coming from buses, cars, and motorbikes are very common. Although there is a good amount of trees and plant life throughout the city, there is also garbage, standing water, and power lines dangling alarmingly low from many intersections downtown. After leaving the center of the city, things get slummy pretty quickly.
- It’s uncomfortably hot and humid almost all the time. Things settle down at night, but it was routinely high-90s (35C) here during the day.
- The waterfront has a long beautiful park, but it’s unfortunately soiled by the awful smell of the low-tide right next to it. The tides in Panama City are fairly intense, as the water will retreat from the shore by a good 10-20 feet.
- Panama is not a walkable city. Sidewalks are often nonexistent, cars are given the right-of-way almost always, and crosswalks feel extremely dangerous. Combined with the heat, the smell, noise, and pollution from the streets make waking anywhere more than a few blocks away unbearable.
Those things said, I can tell you more about the greatness of Panama City:
- The architecture: we saw so many insanely cool skyscrapers, and even more beautiful colonial building throughout Panama, and especially in Casco Viejo, the city’s old town, which I’ll discuss more later.
- The people: everyone we met was friendly and helpful. We never felt unsafe, and always welcome.
- The cost: our 4-star hotel (Hilton Doubletree) was only $60/night. Beers were $3 and a cab across town was $10.
- The authenticity: This could be an effect of being out of the carribean, where there are so many tourists, but we felt like there were surprisingly few other tourists around. So few, in fact, that we repeatedly saw some of the same travelers in restaurants and bus tours. We spoke Spanish (or least attempted to) with everyone we met, and it was greeted with fast and serious Spanish responses – no one assumed we were simply gringo tourists. (But once they realized, they were happy to be of help and switch to English if possible.)
We spent 5 days in Panama City and there was plenty to do. Here are some of the highlights:
- The Canal: Of course! The sole reason to visit for many. This engineering marvel has a fantastic multi-story visitor center at the Miraflores Locks with viewing decks to watch ships pass. There are roughly 40 transits made per day (at an average toll cost of $140,000!), so there’s and good chance you’ll get to watch one go through if you decide to visit. Tip: skip the movie; it’s not that interesting and already sadly out of date. We chatted with someone who did the crossing on a tourist boat and didn’t recommend it because of how long it takes, and how much of the time is simply spent waiting. Interesting note: they are currently building a very major expansion to the Miraflores Locks they will open by the end of the year. It will allow even larger ships to pass quicker, and reuse water to be less wasteful. You can read more about it here.
- Biomuseo: A new, super cool biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry. Unfortunately it was so new that only about 1.5 of the 4 exhibit areas were open, and construction was still going on in the areas around it. Still worth seeing, as the 9-screen surround (floor and ceiling!) Panamarama theatre is in full operation which shows a mini Planet Earth-style film that makes for an incredible experience. (I was the only one there when I saw it, and man was it cool.)
- Casco Viejo: The old town! This is where we should have stayed. Tons of cool colonial buildings, many of which are in the process of being restored into restaurants, cafes, and hotels. We got excellent coffee at the Ace-owned American Trade Hotel – one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been, anywhere. We had an awesome dinner at the acclaimed Manolo Caracol, and later had beers at La Rana Dorada, a local microbrewery, that were excellent. We drank and took in the city views from the open air rooftop bar at Gatto Blanco. Overall, it was a blast.
Our final night in Panama was a great one for another reason: we got to meet a friend-of-a-friend, Rebecca, who was there on a work trip. We toured the old town with her, shooting portraits in front of buildings and doorways hundreds of times our age. We joined up with her compatriots, Ben and James, and had amazing fish tacos at The Fish Market (a food truck with live music) just down the street from their hotel. After 2 weeks of being with just each other, it was so nice to yam it up with a few new friends.
There are some things we didn’t see, such as the views from the club at the 62nd floor of the Hard Rock Megapolis, but I’m happy to leave that for another time. It also would have been nice to explore some more neighborhoods, but we really needed more of a local guide – the city center felt very disjointed to us.
Because of its downsides, Panama City may not be the fantastic vacation destination some of the Panamanians might have hoped it would be. While it’s not a city I see myself returning to soon, it’s one I do hope I have a reason to visit it again.