Why Panama City?
Panama has it all; the people – you are going to find tourists and residents from all over the world-, the food – the mixture of cultures creates a huge variety of gastronomic options -, the beaches, the old and the new, progress and culture; all in one place. Welcome to summer land.
Panama is in the middle of the American continent; and because of this strategic location, they are considered to be the “hub of the Americas”. You can find direct flights from almost every big city in the continent and some major European airports, which is extremely convenient since we all hate layovers. Besides this, the Panamanian currency is equal to the US dollar which avoids the conversion calculations and makes budgeting and keeping track of the expenses much easier. Oh, and if by now you are still not convinced, it is always sunny and hot in Panama – they do have a rainy season but there are no major storms, and rains usually last a couple of hours max.
Places to Visit
The one thing every tourist goes to visit. The Panama Canal was opened in 1914 and since then it has been considered one of the 7 wonders of civil engineering. Regardless if you are a fan of landmarks of modern engineering, the Panama Canal is a must; not every day you get to cut a continent in two and impact world commerce and economy.
The most famous visitor center to see the locks is Miraflores visitor center, they open daily (including holidays) from 8 am to 6 pm, have restaurants and snack bars and a 3D short film that explains the Canal’s history from its beginning to present. This has a cost of $15 for adults and children up to 6 years old have free entrance. Make sure to ask when is the next boat passing through so you can go to the terrace they have on the 4th floor and see the locks in actions.
If museums and learning from history is your thing, then you should check out the “Panama Canal museum” (located in Casco Viejo – read below), where you can learn in details the history of the Canal’s construction, began by the French and finished by the American; and all the challenges they went through when building it. The audio exhibitions are available in Spanish and English and the museum opens from Tuesday to Sundays from 9 am to 5 pm.
PD: if you are doing a layover in Panama longer than 6 hours you are allowed to get outside of the airport and there are buses that take you the Miraflores visitor center and back.
It’s a classic for Latin American countries to have these hidden and preserved “old cities”, why? Goes back to their history. In these towns, you get to see a leftover from the old European architecture and style. Panama’s “Casco Viejo” – or old town, is very special. The old town is located beside the city, and Panama City’s skyline is one of the most impressive in Latin America, from the old town you get to experience a true connection between the old and the new, all in the same place; the buildings with their old-fashioned balconies and bright colors, the brick-made streets, and being able to step into this scenery and having the amazing view of hundreds of sky-scrappers and their lights.
But, what to do in Casco Viejo? Recently the government decided to exploit the touristic and entertainment potential it always had. The buildings that were once fading away from lack of maintenance were reinforced and repainted, of course taking much care of not losing the original details; some people were reallocated and nowadays Casco Viejo is full of the best restaurants and bars of the city, were the locals and tourists go. There are so many to choose from it can be difficult to pick and make a wrong choice, if it is your first time in Casco Viejo and you don’t know locals yet, no worries! There are several guided tours that not only explain the historical sites you’ll see in this UNESCO world heritage site but will also take you to have a good taste of Panamanian drinks and eat. Some of the things you must taste from Panama and are located in the Old Town are; coffee – go check out Café Unido, micro-brewed beer – you can go to La Rana Dorada -, local rum – visit Pedro Mandiga Rum Bar -, and ceviche – fresh seafood (shrimp, octopus, fish, or combination, cured with lime) – seafood market next to Casco Viejo.
One last thing about this awesome place, this is where you experience the true Panamanian nightlife and there are so many options to go to, you can also end up wanting more. To experience the night and get to know all the must know places, you can find bar hopping passes; I highly recommend this as they save you quite a lot of money in covers – some of the best bars and pubs in Casco can be up to $20 cover (especially if you are a male). Get your bar hopping pass and experience casco nights the right way, you can find different options online.
While you are in Panama City go check out the Amador Causeway, this place was built with dirt that came from all the drilling that went down when the Panama Canal was built, what would you do with all the dirt that comes from cutting a country in two? You connect a group of islands near the city. This straight road has a lot of restaurants and parks for children, you can also rent a bike and cycle along the road – where you get a beautiful look and the best pictures of the city’s skyline, plus at the end of the road you’ll find the “Panama” sign for your travel picture.
In the Amador Causeway; you’ll find the Biomuseum, this museum opened in 2014 and was designed Frank Gehry’s – his first design for Latin America. You can pay a quick visit to this museum and learn incredible facts about Panama and how it changed the world. Without telling too much, Panama is a unique country in terms of biodiversity; it has over ten thousand plant species and a variety of animal life as well – especially birds -, all this happens because of its unique location, but the isthmus wasn’t always there and when it was formed it changed dramatically all the movement of animals from North to South America and the marine currents as well. All of this and more you can find in the museum, which won’t take long and it is totally worth paying a visit to.
Staying in the city without a car and want to know the Panamanian beaches? From Amador Causeway – mentioned above – there is a small dock where ferries go on a daily basis to Contadora or Taboga islands. Contadora is a little bit further away but the ferry ride is pleasant with a nice view – you get to see the Canal from up close and take a nice picture with America’s bride (the one that keeps connected the American continent), and the island has better water and infrastructure. If you wish to stay for the night you can find more accommodation and dining options in this island as well. Get an uber from your hotel or Airbnb and take a day off at the beach.
San Blas Islands
San Blas islands are without a doubt the most beautiful beaches in Panama, it is in indigenous territory and they are crystal clear water virgin islands, there is not much infrastructure in the islands because indigenous control everything that goes down in them and they try to preserve it as natural and raw as possible.
To get to these islands you need a 4×4 vehicle – the road is well done but you need to go through hills – so if you don’t feel like driving a strange road, renting a 4×4, or just renting a car at all, there are several companies and people with the business of pickip you up from your accomodation and taking you all the way to san blas for the day trip; they’ll pick you up around 5 am and you’ll be there at 7 ready to enjoy a day at the beach and come back at 5.
San Blas has 365 islands and only around 80 are inhabited – the rest are free for you to lay on a hammock and feel in the middle of nowhere. Islands with the best spots for swimmers are the ones the tours are going to take you, plus the not to be missed “natural pool”, an island that is underwater. After they take you to the highlights in the morning, you’ll go for lunch – which can be fresh fish or lobster (allergic to seafood? you can get chicken also) and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.
There are cabins in some islands for you to stay if you wish to spend the night, you’ll probably never seen so many stars. And if you want something a bit fancier you can also rent one of the many yachts at the islands and spend the day or two with your personal cooker and relax in the boat.
However you choose to experience these islands, you’ll love them.
Have a great trip!