Panama is located between the Pacific Ocean and tropical rain forest in the northern part of Panama. Panama City is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Panama. It has a population of 880,691, with a total metro population of 1,272,672, and is located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, in the province of Panama. The city is the political and administrative center of the country, as well as a hub for international banking and commerce. It is considered a “beta-” world city, one of three Central American cities listed in this category. Here are a few suggestions for your visit to this Central American hub.
Direct flights to Panama City (PTY) are available from several cities in the US (including LA, New York and Miami), Canada (Montreal and Toronto), Europe (including Madrid, Amsterdam and Paris), and of course a large number of cities in Central and South America.
Panama City is hot and humid year round, with average temperatures in the high 20s to mid-30s Celsius (low to mid-80s Fahrenheit), and relative humidity ranging from about 70% to 90%. The rainy season runs from May/June to December/January, but rains usually come in fairly short, heavy bursts, so don’t let the rainy season put off your visit during those months.
Panama City has a range of inexpensive transport options from souped-up local buses for the adventurous (these are ex school buses called diablos rojos, which translates to red devils), to more comfortable, air-conditioned public transit buses (25c per trip), and the new metro (train) system (35c per trip) – the first metro system in Central America. Taxis are also a very cheap way to get around the City, and you shouldn’t be paying more than about $4 per trip (beware that many taxi drivers try to charge foreigners more than double the regular fare). Rental cars are available, but driving in the City can be a challenge.
Put on a hat and sunscreen, grab a bottle of water, and start out early after breakfast to beat the heat. Take your time walking along the Cinta Costera, a stunning waterfront boulevard featuring treed parkland, and views of the Panama Bay, surrounded by the City, old and new. You’ll notice numerous sculptures and artwork along the way, most notably a statue of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the Spanish conquistador who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean in the 1500s. The Balboa is also one of the official currencies of Panama, along with the US dollar.
Head towards the Southern end of the Cinta Costera to the fish market (Mercado de Mariscos) for lunch. Sample the infamous Panamanian ceviche, made from raw Corvina (White Sea Bass), sold by the many vendors. If raw fish isn’t for you, a range of other seafood dishes – including the popular fried Corvina – are also on the menu, and are generally served with the classic side of fried patacones (green plantains). After lunch, take a look around at the myriad of cheap, fresh off the boat seafood being prepared and sold to locals and foreigners alike.
Next, grab one of the numerous taxis to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage listed old quarter: Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo as it’s also known. You’ll weave in and out of the mix of mostly well preserved, charming Spanish, French and American 16th and 17th century architecture. This is area is not to be missed. Casco Viejo also provides a great opportunity to buy some unique Panamanian souvenirs at the artisans market. At night, the area comes alive and is the perfect place to enjoy the many local and international restaurants, and take in some live jazz, or shows.
After a busy day yesterday, why not relax a bit today and take the ‘Panama City Sightseeing Hop On – Hop Off’ bus. These red double decker buses stand out amongst the traffic as they traverse the City, with an open top and air conditioned bottom level. You’ll witness the sites of Panama City from a different perspective, and can choose commentary from 6 different languages. The tour allows you to get on and off at any of the 10 different stops all day for USD$29. Stops are conveniently located around the City, and include shopping malls, attractions, and museums.
Now, what trip to Panama City would be complete without seeing the infamous Panama Canal? In the early to late afternoon (around 3pm is best, in order to see the maximum amount of ships), jump off the Sightseeing bus at the Miraflores Visitor Centre to marvel at this modern engineering feat. From the Centre’s observation deck you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the ships coming in and out of the locks. Be sure to leave time beforehand to visit the museum, and learn about the history of the Canal. Once you’re starting to feel peckish, head up to the Visitor Centre’s International Miraflores Restaurant where you’ll enjoy the buffet dinner, and be mesmerized by the Canal, as it lights up when day turns to night.
After viewing the Canal from the Miraflores locks yesterday, today it’s time to experience it from sea level. You’ll take the half day canal cruise, which includes a bilingual guide, breakfast, lunch and drinks. Don’t forget a hat and sunscreen (and rain protection in the rainy season) so you can enjoy the outstanding views from the top deck. A driver will pick you up from your hotel in the early morning, and take you to a boat to begin your Canal tour from the Gatun Lake. The cruise will then take you through 2 (of the 3) sets of the Canal’s locks, where the boat will be raised and lowered, as the water fills and then drains again.
At the end of the tour in the early to late afternoon, you’ll be dropped off at the Flamenco Marina in the Amador Causeway. The Causeway is a popular spot among visitors and locals alike, to relax in one of the many restaurants and cafes and watch the sunset, and people go by. You can enjoy the picturesque views of the Panama bay, the City and surrounds, and sample cuisine from around the world. Then head back to your hotel to prepare for tomorrow’s departure.