Panama City is the capital of Panama, with a population of over one million people in its metropolitan centre. Due to its location between central and south America, and between the Pacific ocean and Caribbean sea, this bustling capital city offers a crazy mix of relaxed Caribbean beach vibes and cosmopolitan grandeur. In addition to this, Panama City is also well known for its vast green spaces, such as the Metropolitan park, which is full of exotic plants and wildlife. However, what sets Panama apart from other Latin American countries, is the Panama canal, which critically connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans providing a world renowned and international shipping route. Unlike neighbouring cities in Latin America, Panama City feels sophisticated and refined, especially in the historical district of Casco Viejo, which has been beautifully restored.
Boat: If you are traveling to Panama from Colombia, you have a fantastic (although slightly expensive) travel option ahead of you, The San Blas route: a sailing cruise from Cartagena’s old town in Colombia to the stunning San Blas Islands or visa versa. It will cost you around $650 (€559) for 6 days all inclusive. From the San Blas islands you then have a half a day of combined boat and jeep travel to Panama City. Be prepared to sail across crystal clear waters and snorkel with turtles, stingrays and so much more (no sharks, don’t worry!), but if you don’t feel that comfortable on a sailing boat and get easily sea sick, it might not be the best option for you as the water is choppy!
Flying: The quickest way to arrive in Panama City is to fly. The main international airport is called Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen (IATA). From Colombia they are daily direct flights from almost every major city, with either Viva Colombia or Copa Airlines. As always, the earlier you book the cheaper your airfare will be. For example, a direct flight from Cartagena to Panama City cost me $158 / €135 one month in advance. TOP TIP: When you book your flight to Panama City, make sure that it is really in Panama. There is also a Panama City in Florida, USA. Don’t make the same mistake as me! ;-) You are looking for Tocumen International Airport (in Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen), symbolised often as IATA, which is the international airport of Panama City.
Bus: I don’t recommend crossing the border from Colombia to Panama by land.This border area is really dangerous and still owned by the narco traffickers and/or military. You don’t want to risk it. You can however get a bus from Costa Rica to Panama, which will arrive in Panama city at the Gran Terminal de Transportes also known as Albrook station. From here it is a short public bus (see below) or taxi to the tourists areas.
Getting to the city center from Tocumen International Airport, you have many options:
Take the local bus. It will cost you less than $1 (€0.90), but you need to buy a Metro card before you board the bus. You will find vendors in the airport’s arrival areas, look out for ‘Venta de targeta y recarga’ sign‘. You could also ask some locals if you can pay them in cash and use their card. If you are nice to them it shouldn’t be a problem.
Within the city, you will see plenty of bus stops along the major streets. The buses are not numbered but they will have the destination in the front window of the bus, make sure you wave the bus down, they don’t stop automatically. Tap your card on the card reader when you board the bus, which will discount the ticket price from your card and go through the turnstile, to exit, press the red button on one of the poles.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: If you wanted to take another bus and transfer your fee, wave your car at the reader behind the turnstile and you have around 30 minutes to take your connecting bus without another charge.
As Panama is a well-developed country, you will have some Wifi at the airport and therefore be able to order an UBER to bring you to your hostel. it will cost you in most cases less than $5 USD (€4). When in the city, UBER is always a great way to get around as most of the rides will cost you not more than $2-3 (€2-3).
Take a taxi for around $15-25 (€13-22). You have two options: Bright yellow taxis or tourist taxis which are smarter looking black sudans - these tend to be a little more expensive and base themselves close to upscale hotels. Taxis don’t have meters in Panama, but there are strict price zone laws or they work to a set price for a particular route. Whilst most fares are cheap and affordable, it is smart to agree on a price before you get in the taxi.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: In some Central American countries, the number plates are only on the back of the car, so make sure you check you are entering the car you ordered when it pulls up.
Panama City is divided into two major parts: the old colonial part of the city, Casco Viejo, and the new part of the city which is basically everywhere outside of Casco Viejo. Begin your exploration in Casco Viejo, walk around this part of the city and enjoy the atmosphere; it is quiet and charming during the day and loud and vibrant at night. You will encounter lots of colonial and colorful houses. You can start a nice walk at the monument Mano de Tigre in front of the cathedral, where you will find a little food market and live music on Sundays. There is also an interesting museum of the Panama Canal on the right side of the cathedral. Walk the narrows streets and head for the National Theater - if you have time, go and check the schedule for some of their famous shows. Finish your walk at the Plaza de Francia from where you will have a great view on the new part of Panama City. Another thing to do in this area is to go to the fish market. It opens early in the morning, but if you go there around noon you can taste the fresh fish served up on the second floor in the fish restaurants. If you want to experience the real Panama City, go back to Casco Viejo in the evening, as the locals do, it is the place to be on the hunt for a night you will never forget or even remember.
For a birds eye view over Casco Viejo and Panama City including the canal and all the ships, head to Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon in Spanish). If you take a taxi, they will most likely drop you off at Quarry Heights residential area. Walk through this area and you will see the sign for Cerro Ancon and a gate. This is where you start the hike, climbing the stairs to the top. It should take around 1.5 hours to get up and back to the entrance of the park (2km each way) and it is best to go in the morning to avoid the crowds and heat. A taxi should cost no more than $2 (€1.70). This is an amazing walk and a great chance to see lots of wildlife - sloths, toucans, butterflies and much more! There are bathrooms and picnic tables at the top, why not make a lunch date out of it?
Head for the new town: A nice way to do so is to rent a bicycle and cycle the famous Cinta Costera boulevard. It stretches all the way from Casco Viejo to the new town and follows the shore line. Here you will also meet the locals doing their sports, walking their dogs or simply meandering around. About half-way, take a picture with the famous Panama City letters. After all this walking or cycling, it is time to treat yourself to a delicious cocktail with a view on the rooftop of the Hard Rock Cafe hotel and perhaps a dip in their pool?!
*If you have a lot of time, I recommend going to Isla Naos and Isla Perico, parts of Panama city which used to be the areas of the fishermen.
Shop until you drop: Panama City is also famous for its low taxes. Therefore, if you are a shopping addict, you will find a lot of shopping malls to spend your money in. The newest Multiplaza is a great one! Soho plaza is defined by luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, but in recent years it feels more a bit like a ghost town with lots of abandoned buildings and barely any shoppers. Albrook mall is close to the airport and main bus station, and whilst it looks a bit old fashioned, it is where you will meet the real people from Panama City. It’s Panama city’s biggest mall. It also has a great food court, with every food you could possibly think of. I wouldn’t recommend the Multicentro Mall which is directly at the bottom of the Hard Rock Cafe hotel. It has the charm of Pittsburg, PA and the 70s and believe me that is not a quality indicator.
Panama City is full of great museums, but if I had to pick only one, I would highly suggest visiting the Biomuseo. Firstly, the architecture of the museum is great, the roof is colorful and it is the only museum in central and south America designed by the famous Franck Gehry! Secondly, it will teach you everything you need to know about biodiversity and Panama’s outstanding role in protecting it. As Panama bridges two continents together, north and south America, it plays a critical role in the mingling and cross-breeding of species. Nowadays, Panama is more biodiverse than all other south American countries combined and in need of protecting. The museum is kid friendly and so well done that I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.Please note this museum is closed on Mondays. After your visit, you can have you first glimpse at the Panama Canal and the oldest bridge connecting the continents in the background. Grab a UBER and go to visit the Mira Flores Logs, it is really a must see!
TOP TIP: Buy the multi-ticket including the Biomuseo and the Mira Flores Logs and you will save around $5 (€4).
Panama City is famous for its Panama Canal, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic ocean providing a critical international shipping route. Head down here early in the morning and you will see a hive of activity.
To learn more, check out the Panama canal center at Mira Flores. Here you will find a lot of information about the canal’s construction as well as a great simulation multimedia room, where you can pilot a ship on its voyage through the canal. It is a pretty cool experience. From the top deck of the logs, you have a perfect view over the canal and of some of the largest ships in the world (If you get there before 10am, you are more likely to see the bigger vessels). I guarantee you that you will be impressed by the size of these monster ships as many of them are longer than the surrounding skyscrapers.
After all this time in the city it is time for some nature! Good news: The Metropolitan park is right in the middle of town. A nice walk through the park will lead you to one of Panama City’s most spectacular views. If you are an animal lover, you will be happy as there are hundreds of birds, sloths, bears and many more wonders to be seen. From the view point you will have a great view of the Panama canal and on the new part of the city.
In Casco Viejo: Luna’s Castle hostel is a great option because of its location. Even more important: it is the only hostel in Casco Viejo, therefore it gets booked out super quickly! The hostel itself it nothing special, but from Luna’s castle you will be perfectly positioned for your nightly adventures. Costs vary depending on demand. For a bed in a mixed dormitory with ocean views, expect to pay around $14 (€12).
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Try to book way in advance to get a bed in this unique location!
In the new part of the town: El Mâchico hostel is a great place! Here, you will find a big kitchen and a clean and spacious swimming pool that you will highly appreciate after a long day wandering around the city. You will be also happy about the AC in every room! This venue is quite new, and the staff are really nice and welcoming. The decoration is well done, the Wifi is great - what else do you need? Plus, in the morning you will get a free breakfast with pancakes and fruits. As with most hostels in Panama, El Mâchico hostel organises trips to the San Blas islands and cruises to Colombia. They also have bikes to rent. For a bed in a mixed dormitory, expect to pay around $15 (€13) per night.
Street and Local Food:
- As in every big city, you will find all the international cuisine you are looking for in Panama City. In central America there isn’t really a typical food that you have to try. As in south America there are empanadas, fried bananas (patacon), fried chicken with rice and beans or just fried chicken in every imaginable form. Most of Panama’s food is fried!
- If you are into ceviche, the Red Ocean cevicheria situated close to the cathedral in Casco Viejo is probably your best option!
- The Italian restaurants in Panama City are very well regarded and for all you fast food lovers, all US fast food brands are well represented in Panama!
- In Casco Viejo: A great place to have a bite and drink is Hotel Tantalo. The restaurant on the ground floor has a great vibe and offers daily lunch menus and brunch on the weekend. For sunset, climb up to the rooftop and drink an amazing cocktail with the view on the old town.
- For a drink with a view, head to the Hard Rock Cafe rooftop in Panama City. Obviously, the prices are a bit higher here, but you remember that you deserve to treat yourself sometimes!
Whilst this charity is not in Panama City, they are definitely worth a mention and they could really do with your help. Salvadores de Animales, is a small charity run by volunteers who are dedicated to helping abused or injured cats and dogs, by providing medical treatment, food and shelter, with the aim of finding these animals their forever homes. Their mission is to eradicate animal abuse, neglect and suffering through raising public awareness in the area of Boquete. They do various outreach programs, adoption events and fundraisers and they are always on the look out for volunteers. You can get involved in a number of ways, long term or short. Head to their website for more information and to contact them, and follow them on Instagram: @salvadores_de_animales