We weren’t quite sure what to expect from Panama City as it was to be our first capital city in Central America, and indeed it was quite unlike any city we have seen to date. We could immediately feel the American influence from the colossal malls, imported products and series of fast food restaurants on multiple lane roads. It was also possible to see that there is (at least some) considerable wealth in the city as everyone seemed to have a huge SUV and the prices felt like they were comparable to Europe. Of course we did also see poorer run down areas outside of the tourist sectors, so it is certain that there is a marked disparity of wealth.
For those wanting to spend a few days in one of the power capitals of Latin America, here are our suggested top 5 things to do in Panama City.
1. The New Town
One of the obvious highlights is Panama City’s dramatic skyline of skyscrapers belonging to the thriving offshore banking sector, recently plunged into the spotlight following the release of the scandalous Panama Papers. The skyline is best appreciated from far away although it is of course possible to go to restaurants and bars on the umpteenth floor of some of the swankier places. Walking around underneath the skyscrapers is not a very pleasant experience; it is just hustle and bustle, faceless malls and crazy traffic.
2. Casco Viejo
We enjoyed the old town area of Casco Viejo and this is certainly an excellent place from which to appreciate the skyline both during the day and by night with a cocktail. The old town felt like a mix between the polished cuteness of Cartagena in Colombia and a bit of the crumbliness of old town Havana, Cuba. There were plenty of squares, churches, upmarket eateries, bars and souvenir shops interspersed with buildings that had seen better days. Walking around the waterfront promenade you can view the islands offshore, the causeway looping around and browse for souvenirs at little stores, many of which are run by Guna ladies from Guna Yala selling colourful molas and other handmade curiosities.
3. Panama Viejo
Casco Viejo is actually not the oldest part of Panama City. To the south of the high-rise there is an area called Panama Viejo which contains the ruins of the first settlement, important for its role in launching expeditions to South America in search of gold and silver. Abandoned following a fire, probably set by Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan, the city was then rebuilt in Casco Viejo. The ruins make an interesting, albeit hot stroll and there is a good lookout back to the city from the church tower, within which ascends a new metal stairway.
4. Mercado del Mariscos
The Mercado del Mariscos (fish market) is walking distance from Casco Viejo and makes an interesting diversion from malls, shops and bars. Chances are you will smell it before you see it! It’s not the nicest building and can feel very busy and overwhelming, but it is worth a visit to see rows of ladies peeling prawns at lightning speeds and the locals buying their fish. There are some stalls on the outside of the market where you can order a ceviche or a cocktail of seafood. We had some but didn’t find it all that impressive, especially when comparing it to our beloved Peruvian seafood!
5. Panama Canal
Of course no trip to Panama City would be complete without visiting the feat of human endeavour and engineering that is the Panama Canal. The canal is a maritime shortcut which allows ships to pass over the continental divide rather than having to navigate all the way around South America. This of course saves lots of time and money in the international transport of goods.
To get to the Miraflores Locks just outside of the city, you travel through the Canal Zone which was once American territory and kept those Americans who lived there decidedly apart from the Panamanians. The Miraflores Lock is a tourist machine and you do have to pay a fairly high price to enter. The cost includes an educational video, the museum and access to the viewing platforms of the locks themselves. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the viewing platforms trying to find a good spot from which to watch the ships passing through. Morning is good for passages from the Pacific to the Atlantic and during the afternoon it is the opposite, as ships finish traversing the 80km of canal. We watched two oil ships pass through and a small private sailboat. It really is something to see a gigantic ship being expertly guided through the canal with just centimetres to spare, in a relatively short space of time. Whilst the canal is probably not the most beautiful thing we have seen whilst travelling, it is certainly a must see as an important piece of Panama’s history and current economy.
We weren’t head over heels with Panama City but it was an essential stop in our itinerary. Whilst there is certainly a fair amount to do, it is quite an expensive city and like most metropolises, fairly frantic. It would be our recommendation, if you only have a short amount of time, to visit the canal and then move on to explore other parts of the country.