When thinking about traveling to Central America, I cannot stress enough how much you should consider visiting Panama. It’s truly a beautiful country. Due to it being a part of the US in the early 20th
century, they still use the American Dollar as currency, besides their own, Balboa, which is worth 1:1 when compared to the USD. This makes getting around really easy since you won’t have to look around for places to exchange your local currency for an obscure one. Sometimes you might get change in form of USD and Balboas, but don’t let this confuse you, as stated before, they’re worth the same. Before getting any further, if you plan on renting a car, you should be aware that the people in Panama City are very aggressive drivers, and unlike many other cities, the city barely has stoplights, so you might find yourself having to fight other drivers to make a turn or cross an intersection. Another way to move around is using the local taxi service or an Uber. If you wish to use the local taxi service ask beforehand how much it would cost you to get to a certain location. This way you can compare their fees to an Uber fee and make your choice. While I did travel in Uber most of the time, there were a few occasions where local taxis turned out to be much cheaper. Now let’s start with the top 5 places you should see when visiting Panama City
Miraflores Visitors Center (Panama Canal)
Pretty much like everyone else, when I hear the world Panama I instantly think of the canal, I mean who wouldn’t? it’s Panama’s most famous tourist attraction. I was eager to visit and see it in person for the first time, and truth be told, it was underwhelming. The canal itself was a little boring in my opinion. I did get to see how the locks work, it is interesting seeing a vessel lifted up by the water so it can continue its route, but that’s it, there’s nothing much more about the canal other than that. If you would like to see it by yourself I’d suggest checking an online ship tracker
to see what time the ship would cross.
A ship crossing Panama's Canal.
There’s more to see at the Miraflores visitors center. A small movie theater which talks about how the canal was built, the place also has several exhibit halls, which display Panama’s biodiversity. Several of the artifacts and processes that took part in building the canal are also on display at the center. The thing that I found the most interesting was a computer where you could look up names of the canal construction workers through the years.
The computer where you can look up employees who worked in the canal construction.
How to get there: If you’re in a big group it’s better to organize a guided tour, otherwise, I’d recommend to take an Uber there.
Soberania National Park and Summit Municipal Park
If you enjoy nature, this is for you. Summit Municipal Park has a beautiful botanical garden and a zoo, with over 80 species on display, from eagles, squirrels, to tigers, monkeys, and even lizards. It’s a great place and very family friendly. While I did enjoy seeing most of the animals here some of their cages looked like they needed desperately a makeover. If you are more the exploring type, you’ll love Soberania National Park. This humid forest has many trails which you can walk and observe the nature around you, some of them taking up to an hour to a few. The longest trail, according to the security guard in there is around 30km long and you must travel through using a vehicle. I really enjoyed this park in particular due to the closeness to nature I was able to feel. We decided to take the shortest trail, it has a few resting areas and platforms to take better pictures. Unfortunately, due to recent heavy rains, a tree fell over thus blocking the path around ¾ of the way, so we had to head back.
One of the trails in Soberania National Park.
How to get there: There are many tour agencies that can take you there, and the city has a service to take tourists there too. You could take an Uber there like I did, but it would be expensive since it’s around half an hour away from the city and it’s hard to find one back.
As a science student, this was one of my favorite parts of the city. Located on the Amador Causeway, this museum really stands out due to the strange and out of the ordinary shape, it was built in. The museum centers around showcasing Panama’s biodiversity. It has a main permanent exhibit and several temporary ones. The fee is a little expensive, $18 USD, however, if you are a student like me and carry your ID with you it will only cost you $11 USD. The temporary exhibit this time was a scale model of the Panama Canal, and apparently, the week after they were planning to have giant bugs on exhibition. There’s also a small café in there and a souvenir shop, to take something special to remember your visit to Biomuseo.
How to get there: Located on the Amador Causeway, a taxi/Uber is a cheap and easy way to get there.
A mall in Panama City, however not like any other mall in the area, what makes Soho stand out is all the high-end fashion houses located in the store. Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Fendi and many others. There’s more than just luxury brand stores in the mall, there is also a movie theater called “Cinepolis VIP”. If you’re hungry there’s also a food court, which one would expect to contain the finest French cuisine, but it’s not only that, there’s a lot of casual dining too. Most people, including me, can’t really afford what 90% of the stores there have to offer, however that shouldn’t stop you from going to the mall just to check it out, a really beautiful place overall.
How to get there: Depending on where you are staying, you might be even able to get there walking, since most hotels are pretty close together and within walking distance of Soho.
Gaining a world heritage recognition status in ’97, this is a place you must not miss if you’re visiting Panama. When we first arrived in Panama we quickly took an Uber to Casco Viejo. Almost like traveling in time, it is a beautiful place, reminiscent of old Spanish architecture, a really safe neighborhood. You can walk freely around it with little care. The place has many things to see, Italian restaurants, local food, a local market on the main square. I suggest you buy something from there, whatever you get in that small market, truly represents the heart of Panama. There’s also a museum dedicated to the canal and its history. Overall, it is a great place to spend an evening walking around and meeting some of the local attractions.
How to get there: Depending on where you are staying, it could be 15 minutes walking from your hotel, or your hotel might even be situated in there, for me, it was an hour walk, so I had to call an Uber.