Panama City, Panama is full of pleasant surprises. Full disclosure, I never really thought about visiting Panama. Then, I started perusing websites looking for a deal on a flight/hotel in the Caribbean, and Panama kept coming up. In an effort to find a warm weather locale for a trip for my winter birthday, I bet on Panama City. I was rewarded with adorable cobblestone streets and rooftop bars, charming nearby native villages, the ability the cruise from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single day, and a crazy fun Carnival festival (if you time it right). Bottom line: don’t underestimate this Central American gem.
Panama City, Panama Planning Guide
- Where to stay: Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis or American Trade Hotel & Hall
- Flight details: Fly into Tocumen International Airport (PTY)
- Time of year visited: Winter
- Time in Panama City: 3 days
- Italy itinerary: 1 week in Panama, split between Panama City and Isla Contadora (1 week off of work!)
Save this map to use on your Panama City, Panama trip:
- Click the star to the right of the map title
- Open the Google Maps app on your smartphone
- Click on the three lines in the upper left corner and select “Your Places”
- Select “Maps” and the map will be saved there for you to use on your trip. Have fun!
The Panama Canal
There are certain moments in any bonafide traveler’s globetrotting career that are monumental. When you’ve hit all seven continents, discovered the perfect off-the-beaten path watering hole only known to locals, or managed a (mostly) intelligible conversation with someone not in your native language all com to mind. Cruising the Panama Canal felt like one of these moments for me. A lot of it has to do with the fact that my grandfather had done it countless times during his service in WWII, and my dad and uncles were so excited that I was getting to do it, too. There’s something magical about being on the canal and contemplating all of the lives that were in some way touched by this manmade wonder.
I cruised with Pacific Queen, and honestly, I don’t really see how you could get a better experience. Day tours pass through two of the major locks, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. If you’re into science or the mechanics of how things work at all, you’ll be as excited as I was to see how the different lock systems work. The water flows so quickly in and out of them, yet oddly, you don’t really notice until there’s been a significant change.
It takes some time to get through the canal. Smaller boats have to wait for a other boats to join them before they can move through the locks. Any boat that goes through also waits at either end of the canal for a canal pilot to board their vessel and guide them through. Most boats wait an average of 24 hours at the end before they can begin.
Choose the southbound partial tour, so you get the driving out of the way in the beginning. You’ll only cruise in one direction, so you have to drive the length that you’re sailing before you can get on the boat and go back from where you came. If you’re staying in Panama City, the southbound tour will leave you off back at the city, where you can see all of the boats queueing for their turn.
Panama City History
Panama City’s historic district, Casco Viejo (aka Casco Antiguo or San Felipe), is a small area full of the charm and history you’d expect from a city founded in 1519. You could easily laze the day away in the main square, Plaza de Independencia—named for Panama’s independence from Columbia in the early 1900s. It’d be easy to sit there watching sun-weathered local men in their Panama hats (yes, they do wear them!) play card games/checkers/chess and shoot the shit. But don’t! There’s so much to see here, and I know you—you don’t want to miss a thing!
Since everything is in close distance, opt for a self-guided walking tour. The map above (which you can save!) will take you past the best highlights.
Start at Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María la Antigua in the center of town. With its stone façade flanked by two white bell towers, it took over 100 years to complete, and was practically abandoned from 1796 until restoration began in 2003. Head through Plaza de Independencia, the place where Panamanians celebrated their independence from Spain and Colombia. As you walk, you’ll see that much of the area has been well-preserved. That is until you arrive at Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús and Convento Santo Domingo. Only exterior brick-wall arches eerily rising into the sky remain from two major fires that devastated the buildings hundreds of years ago.
No city sightseeing tour is complete without a little shopping, so make sure to walk through the Paseo Esteben Huertas on Calle 5a. Local craftsmen and women set up along the walk, and the views of the modern part of the city are gorgeous from here. And you can’t leave Panama without a Panama hat—Victor’s has hundreds to choose from.
Casco Viejo proper (the area southeast of Calle 12 Este) is quite safe for tourists. However, this is still considered an up-and-coming part of the city that borders some less desirable neighborhoods. For a day trip, plan to get dropped off near Quinto Centenario, which is your most direct and scenic entryway into Casco Viejo. If you’re staying in the area, there are some great spots for dining and nightlife within Casco Viejo, including Salsipuedes, Capital Bistro Panama, and Tántalo Roofbar.
The Culture in and around Panama City
Like any historic city, Panama City offers an amazing juxtaposition between the ancient and modern worlds that simultaneously inhabit the same place and time.
For a deeper understanding of the indigenous people and how they live, spend a day with an Emberá tribe. The Emberá people still live deep in the rainforest in traditional villages. You’ll never have a greater understanding of how small our world really is and how alike we all as when you see a tourist boy in western clothes from the U.K. playing soccer with an Emberá child in a loincloth. Emberá Village Tours provide funds for the formal education of the Emberá children. They also appreciate school supply donations if you have the means to bring some along.
If you want a taste of how the modern Panamanians party like Panamaniacs, make sure to visit during Carnival. It’s celebrated with the same revelry and abandon (their words!) as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio. You’ll enjoy live music and dancing, beautiful women in bedazzled bikinis, and a truck that soaks the audience with firehose-like blasts of water.