Without a doubt the most sophisticated capital in Central America, Panama City is both an entryway to the nation’s natural wealth and a perfect holiday destination in its own. It is also a flourishing hub for global trading and banking. From the Ancon Hill, view Panama City and its sultry skyline of shimmering glass and tall towers. Ideal for sports, cycling, jogging, or long distance walking, the view of the Panama Bay from the Cinta Costera is superb.
At the Panama Canal, learn a lesson in geography as you witness ships come and go on a long stretch of a channel that was formed out of a rock. Seeing merchant vessels passing from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean through this masterpiece of engineering is one of the important highlights of a visit to Panama City.
When To Go:
Humidity is constantly high in Panama, and precipitation differs considerably between the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the nation, with a few regions in the Caribbean getting just about double the yearly precipitation that normally occurs in Panama City. The best time to visit Panama is during the mid-year dry season from mid-December to mid-April. This is likewise the high season and when most national events occur, so quite a few hotels and resorts charge higher rates during this period.
The low season is characterized by high winds and an exceptionally misty precipitation called the bajareque that occurs from the last weeks of December to mid-February; January sees infrequent storm, and March to May are the most humid months of all. In the event that you are not able to visit during the dry season, remember that June and July often have huge rainstorms toward the evening that are short in span, but it is possible to see clear skies in the morning and afternoon.
Here are the things to do and places to explore when in Panama City:
With the attention to detail, as well as the clearing of the locks, the exhibitions full of curious facts AND the totally unique Panama Canal itself — here is an amazing experience that needs to be lived and seen from start to finish. To better appreciate this place, go early and catch the morning boat ride on the canal in the middle of very large tankers with a stopover in the jungle (where it is said that 70 years ago the American camp Dariensito was established). From the boat you can see both capuchin monkeys and howler monkeys. It is a truly extraordinary and exotic ride.
After the boat tour, don’t miss a visit to the adjacent museum (Miraflores Lock Center) that tells the whole story of the canal in a rather interesting and interactive way. There is a short film of about 10 minutes in English and Spanish, and observation decks from which to admire the impressive Canal locks. It is absolutely worth seeing the unique technology at work, with huge ships passing the locks and the guides making all the commentary in English. You have to visit the special part in the museum that offers a full-scale simulation as if you were in the cabin with the captain. It is indeed an unforgettable experience to visit the Panama Canal.
The Old City (Casco Viejo)
The Old City (Casco Viejo) was once called “El Peligro” (danger) and has been undergoing renovation. The dilapidated buildings and their adjacent structures are being rehabilitated and already show the progressive evolution of the country and the city. Unlike some countries or old cities, the buildings here undergo interior renovation and the façades are preserved for historic purposes, allowing this district to keep its charm and its beautiful colors. It is very pleasant to walk, there are some small bars, and restaurants can be found on every corner.
This part of the old town also offers breathtaking views of the modern Panama Ciudad with all its high-rise buildings.
Take a few hours to wander around the old town, which is currently experiencing a revival. The new avenues that are fully renovated are open to the public and now resemble the famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans with its wooden balconies on the second floors. Go to the Opera House and see the idyllic view of the downtown city from the tower of this cross-shaped edifice. The Casco Viejo is really a balance of jewel and harmony in the capital city of Panama.
Here is the ideal place for rollerblading, running, cycling, baseball — and there is a beautiful bike path. You can have lots of exercise while watching the illuminated city on the edge of the water. This sports park even comes with gym equipment for every physical activity — free of charge. Cinta Costera is a must see, especially its long promenade area at the edge of the water with splendid views of the skyscrapers in Panama. If you feel hungry, check out the meals that are offered at affordable prices in the small harbor restaurants. The people here are friendly and courteous but almost 90% communicate only in Spanish.
The long avenue connects the old town to the modern city of skyscrapers and shopping malls such as the Multicentre. Wear a hat for protection from the sun if it’s summer. The impact of the surroundings here is truly remarkable; despite the chaotic traffic, (it’s like a little Manhattan or Miami) the dichotomy of wealth and poverty is very evident. On one side you can see an old city while on the other hand there are large glass skyscrapers that tower into the sky overlooking the sea — and the shacks and shanties. Check out this beautiful walk between the Pacific Ocean and the skyscrapers that connect to the Casco Antiguo Unesco, through the fish market that must not also be missed.
The Bahai Temple is well worth a visit. It is one of eight such temples in the world and has a stunning architecture. Everyone is allowed to enter; there is no admission fee because it is a place that calls to spirituality. Surrounded by gardens, it has a view of the city. There is a cool breeze because of the lush vegetation that encompasses the area around this temple. Most guests like to spend time here to have a spiritual encounter and observe the wonder of its gardens and just be immersed in the solemn and quiet atmosphere.
It is a temple of the Bahá’í Faith. The teachings of this religion suggest that its temples should be built near dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational and scientific development, although none of these temples have been built exactly in this manner. Bahá’í Houses of Worship symbolize, according to the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, the unity of God, unity of all his manifestations, and the oneness of humanity. It focuses on the transcendental aspect of human beings, through the celebration and reverence to the Creator. There are seven Houses of Worship in the world: Germany, Australia, USA, India, Israel, Panama, and Samoa, Uganda. Chile is the eighth temple being built.
The Ancon Hill gives the best view of the city. You can see the old part, the coastal belt and the Punta Pacifica. The city is lovely to look at from this point. As for the hill itself, there are two forms of access and you need to take a taxi to get there. The taxi can leave you at the gate and from that point, be prepared for a steep walk. It takes about half an hour to climb up to the lookout. You can also ask the taxi driver to drive up the hill, there is a system of stop and go because the one-lane road only permits one car at a time; once up there you should ask them to wait for your return. It is more worthwhile to ask them to wait, if you are not willing to walk.
There is no infrastructure — no shopping, food, or bathrooms. It is advisable to bring your own provisions, drinks and snack. Located at the highest point of the city, you need to climb a bit, but it is all worth the effort. The observation deck at the top provides a panoramic view of the city with its tall buildings and the sea. Prepare to see armadillos and agoutis that dwell there, kids will love it!
Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum
The Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum is very interesting and explains in great detail the whole construction of the canal, with miniature replicas of the equipment built specifically for the construction of the canal. It even includes other peculiarities of the site such as existing insects, etc. It gives every visitor an idea of how revolutionary and precise the construction and engineering was considering it was built more than 100 years ago. It holds four floors of history about the Panama Canal. You will see s the boats used, and learn about the French who started the canal and the Americans who finished the project.
For those who like history, the museum is perfect. It has all the history of the construction of the canal, deaths of workers, the time it took to finalize the work and its importance to navigation and cargo transport. You can view models of boats that built the prominent channel. It even has a boat to simulate the crossing and a 3D movie. The museum is very cool because it not only explains the importance of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the fauna, but also explains the historical and financial importance of the oceans.
National Theater of Panama (Teatro Nacional)
The National Theatre of Panama is located in the historic center of Panama City, on the side of the church of San Francisco and right across the Plaza Bolivar. Its neoclassical façade is composed of six arches that are crowned. On each side of the main entrance there are two sculptures that represent the muses of lyrics and music. The ceiling of the theater has a large fresco painted by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis.
The theater opened in 1908 and was designed by the Italian G. Ruggieri. Today it is already fully restored and its facade draws attention in yellow/orange tones. There are orchestra rehearsals that can be watched during the visit to its interior, whose decor is sumptuous. This imposing building in Casco Antiguo is a historic downtown theater that allows an affinity with the local culture. It is worth a visit when you are in Panama City.
San Jose Church
The San Jose Church is small, but with a rich and complex history. You do not see any of the usual stunning stained glass or mosaic. But there is a golden altar that is very beautiful and unusual. Go to the church and admire, but be forewarned, as photographs are not allowed once inside the sacred place. This place was preserved when pirates burned the Panama Viejo — legend tells that the priests painted the altar black; the pirates, seeing no gold, thought it was worthless and left it alone. The altar was later restored to its original mahogany covered with gold leaf. It is a very welcoming church that generates excitement and devotion, and it is worthwhile to enter and learn about its history.
Panama La Vieja
The Panama La Vieja is the type of ruins where you have to walk a lot, in extreme heat it is tiring and there is no explanation of the ruins. But it is interesting to observe the contrast between the ruins and modern Panama in the background. It is an old ruin from the Spanish era that was destroyed by the pirate Morgan. Inside there is only one tower and some walls.
The site extends along the sea on several acres. It is neat but is currently under renovation for the comfort of tourists. It is also well guarded by the local police. If you have the courage, as the heat is overwhelming, it is best to enter by the “Centro de Artesania of Visitantes ” and make the walk to the ruins. Do not expect to find explanatory signs; explanations and guides are unfortunately lacking so far.
Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
The attractive national road known as the Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) was built using earth removed during the construction of the Panama Canal. You can explore it on foot, by bicycle or in a 4-wheeled tandem bike that can be rented by the hour ($10). You can follow along the entire waterfront from there, and at the end of the corridor that juts into the sea there are several restaurants that offer authentic dishes and drinks. The place is ideal for sightseeing because it is very neat, well maintained and has a relaxing view of the marina.