This is the first entry in a new part of the blog dealing with vacationing in Panama. Whether you live here, or are coming for a visit, Panama offers a lot of amazing diversity in things to do and places to see. My wife, who grew up in Panama, has not even been to most of the country. So when we decided to move to Panama, my wife and I made it our goal to visit as much of the country as our schedule/budget allowed. Each time we travel to a new area, I will write a post about our experiences, and be sure to include a lot of pictures.
The first vacation I wanted to write was about vacationing in Panama City. Despite not having the same beaches or natural beauty as the interior, Panama City still has a ton for tourists to see. If you live here, you will inevitably have guests who want to come and visit you now that you live somewhere exciting. This guide is not meant to fully cover everything there is to do in Panama City. I am sure there are a lot of great places that I don’t even know exist. But if you follow this guide, I can promise that you and your guests will have an enjoyable Panama City vacation.
I don’t know if you may have heard, but Panama has this small, hidden, jem called the Panama Canal. Just kidding. Unarguably the thing that Panama is most known for, the Panama Canal recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday on August 15th, 2014. Whether you live here or are just visiting, watching the ships go through the Panama Canal is something everyone must do at least once.
The Panama Canal operates using a series of locks. Ships are raised and lowered from sea level to Gatun Lake, which is 85 feet above sea level. This occurs in three steps, at the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks on the Pacific side, and Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side. I could write a whole series of blogs on how the Panama Canal works, but you can learn some of that yourself when you go and visit!
The easiest place to watch the ships go through the locks is at the Miraflores Visitors Center. The visitors center is open from 9am to 4:30pm every day. The price of admission is $15 for tourists, $3 for Panamanians/permanent residents, and $1.50 for Pensionados/Jubilados. The visitors center has a museum, a movie theater, restaurants, a gift shop, and most importantly, a viewing platform to watch the ships pass through the locks. Make sure not to throw out or lose your ticket until after you leave the Visitor’s Center. Locals can go and just view the ships for free, and only need to pay if they are going into the museum or movie. So to get into these exhibits, you must present your ticket to be scanned.
The museum is definitely worth some time. It has exhibits that span several floors, and contains a lot of information about the history of the canal and what goes into operating it. They even have a virtual control room where you can “pilot” a ship through the locks. The movie, while not as good, is worth viewing once. There is one Spanish language and one English language showing per hour. The movie is about 10-15 minutes long. It’s supposed to be in 3D, but the last time we watched it, it wasn’t.
For me, the best part of the experience is watching the ships go through the locks. I’ve been to the visitors center 4 times now, and it never gets old. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s such an amazing engineering feat that it just must be seen to be fully appreciated. This is where we spend most of our time during our visits. We can spend hours there and not get bored. Be warned, if you go on the weekends, it gets crowded, so if you have a good viewing spot, stay there, and make sure to be aggressive (without being rude) about holding your spot, or you will lose it.
One important thing to know when planning your visit is that between the hours of 11am and 2pm, you are less likely to see ships passing through the locks. This is because the locks only support one way traffic, and they switch the traffic flow around noon (it goes 12 hours one direction, and 12 hours the next), and while that is happening, no ships will be passing through. We usually go in the afternoon (we are not morning people), and by the time we get there around 2, there has always been a ship in the locks. We have never had any problems seeing multiple ships pass through every visit.
I’ve heard that dining at the restaurant is a good way to watch the ships go through the canal, but I’ve also heard that the food is overpriced and not that good. There is cheap food available at the snack bar next to the the viewing platform.
If you want a more in depth, immersive experience, I recommend taking a partial transit cruise of the canal with one of the tour companies that offers them. My wife and I took one back in April with Canal Bay Tours, and really enjoyed it. It’s a great way to learn pretty much everything there is to know about the canal. Our guide was bilingual, very knowledgeable, and had an answer to all of our questions. The tour started off of Amador causeway, went through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, and then got off in Gatun Lake. They provided a bus back to the starting point. The whole tour takes about 4-5 hours. It’s a whole different experience actually traveling through the locks than it is seeing other ships go through.
These trips are normally expensive. The one we took runs usually costs $135 for an adult. The cost includes two meals (which were surprisingly good), plus soft drinks and bottled water. If you are living in the city, I recommend waiting around until a Groupon deal pops up for the tour. They run them fairly frequently. That’s how we got our tickets, and it was $65 a person. That’s much more manageable. But if you are only planning a one time trip to the city, it may be worth it to spend full price is you can afford it.
Panama Viejo (old Panama) is probably my favorite tourist attraction in the city. Panama Viejo is the ruins of the original Panama City, which was founded in 1519 and burned in 1671 by Captain Morgan (yeah, the guy the rum is named after) when he pillaged Panama for gold. The ruins are at the site of an old convent, and have been partially restored. There is no cost to explore the ruins, and along the walking paths you will find informational signs in both English and Spanish. Some of the ruins are more restored than others, and they have stairs and viewing platforms set up within the ruins. The crown jewel of the ruins in the old bell tower, which has steps and viewing platforms restored inside. If you climb to the top, which is about 85 feet high, you can get a great view of the rest of the ruins and the city.
When you go to visit, make sure to bring bug spray and walking shoes. You will do a lot of walking when you are there, so be prepared for a workout. We usually walk a couple of miles when all is said and done. The mosquitos at Panama Viejo are particularly bad, especially after it’s just rained. Bug spray is a must, and I would recommend wearing long pants if you can deal with the heat.
There are two entrances to Panama Viejo. One is at the tourist market (this is the entrance we usually use), and the other is at the tower, at the opposite side of Panama Viejo.
Panama Viejo is home to a great tourist market. It is a large two story market full of affordable tourist shops. Unlike most tourist shops in Panama, the people who are selling the goods are also the people who made them, so you are not getting the same markup you normally would.
Our favorite shop by far at this market is a shop run by a woman named Elsie, who makes these amazing decorative wooden plates to hang on your wall. Her shop is located on top floor (which is the floor you enter), in the back, right hand corner. Her work is fantastic, and affordable. It starts at $10 for the smaller plates, and goes to $40 for the larger plates. She’ll even make you a custom plate with a couple weeks lead time. By comparison, you’ll find smaller plates of much worse quality starting at $25 in most tourist shops. She, along with most of the merchants at the Panama Viejo Market, speaks some English. We’ve bought more of these plates from her than we can count, both for ourselves and as gifts. You can get pretty much all of your tourist shopping done at Panama Viejo.
Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo, Panama Antiguo, and San Felipe) is the area of Panama that was settled in 1671 after Panama Viejo was burned down by Captain Morgan. For a long time, Casco was a neglected area of the city, and largely became a slum. However, in 2003, the United Nations designated Casco Viejo as a World Heritage Site. This, combined with aggressive incentives by the Panamanian Government, revitalized Casco Viejo and turned it into one of the most vibrant, trendiest neighborhoods in Panama City. As part of the restoration, original structures had to be maintained and protected, so a lot of the buildings you see are the same structures that were there in the 1600s.
There is enough to do in Casco Viejo that it could warrant it’s own post. During the day, there are a number of museums to visit, including a Panama Canal Museum and a Museum of Panama’s history. We haven’t visited any of them, so I can’t vouch for their quality, but I have heard good things about the Canal Museum. There are several beautiful old churches in the neighborhood as well. We have not tried to tour any of them, but just visiting their steps and taking photos is a powerful experience. The Presidential Palace is also located in Casco Viejo, and tours are available. You must request and be approved for one in advance. If you just want to walk around and see the sites, Casco has many great plazas and parks to tour by yourself.
Casco really comes alive at night. That’s when this sleepy neighborhood turns into one of the premier restaurant and nightlife districts in Panama City. There are more restuarants, bars, and clubs than I could ever talk about here. You can find pretty much any type of bar, club, or restaurant in Casco, many that are open to all hours of the night. Most tend to be more expensive than places in other neighborhoods, because they are targeted towards tourists. One thing I would recommend doing at night in Casco is eating outside at the restaurant Casa Blanca. The food is overall very good and reasonably priced for a nicer restaurant (entrees range $8-25), but the ambiance is what sells it. It is located in Plaza Bolivar, and the area is just beautiful. They have ample seating outside. You will have people come up to you trying to sell you something/serenade you for money, etc while you eat, but it is not intrusive, and you just nicely put up your hand and say “no gracias,” and they move on.
When you visit Casco Viejo, even if you own or are renting a car, I strongly recommend you take a taxi or other transportation. Even if you are not drinking, parking is a nightmare, and you can drive around for half an hour without finding a space. There are also guys who will usually hustle you for a few dollars to “watch and protect your car.” A cab to Casco is usually only $4-5 from most of the city.
Also, while most of Casco is safe, and there is a heavy police presence due to the Presidential Palace and it being a tourist areas, there are still parts of Casco that are considered not so good areas, so be careful about wandering in areas you don’t know, especially at night.
For more about things to do in Casco Viejo, visit CascoViejo.org.
The Amador Causeway is a 6km long road over the water that connects four different islands in Panama City. There are jogging/bike trails that span the length of the causeway. There are a number of restaurants to eat at on the causeway, usually with great views. One popular restaurant for ExPats is the Balboa Yacht Club. While I think the food is just okay and the service is pretty bad, it is affordable and the views are tremendous. You can sit outside and get a great view of the Bridge of the Americas. The Yacht Club is also at the beginning of the causeway, so if you are taking a cab, it will be cheaper than going to a place further down the causeway. The causeway is also where most boat tours, including canal transit tours, leave from.
The Causeway is also home to the BioDiversity Museum, which was designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry. The plans for the museum, which are about as unique a design as you’ll see anywhere, were donated as a wedding gift for Gehry’s wife, who is Panamanian. The museum, after being under construction for almost 10 years, finally had it’s “soft opening” last month. It is now open to visit on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I went last month, and while the museum was very nice, I don’t think it’s a good value, particularly for visitors. It costs $22 for adult visitors and $11 for students/children under 18. It’s $12 for Panamanian Adults, and $6 for Panamanian Seniors, Students, and children under 18. Right now, only one main exhibit is open, and while interesting, it takes only about 45 minutes to go through. They are building more, but it will be a couple of years before more exhibits are open. I can’t really say that’s a good value for $22. But if biodiversity really knocks your socks off, or you can get in for one of the cheaper rates, it may be worth checking out. I would recommend going to the museum no matter what. Even if you don’t pay to go into the exhibit, you can walk the grounds and the atrium for free, so I definitely recommend doing that. It’s a really cool building to check out.
Ancon Hill is probably the best spot to go for great views of Panama City. The hill, which reaches a height of about 670 feet, can be accessed by hiking or jogging (if you’re in shape), or by car (if you’re out of shape, like me). The hill only supports one way traffic, so if you go by car, you will have to wait until a guard gives you the go ahead to proceed up the hill. The same is true for your return trip. There is no cost to enter.
At the top of the hill, you’ll find several viewing platforms to get great views of the city. There will also be a handful of merchants selling their wares. On the hill itself, the number one attraction is probably the giant Panamanian flag on top of the hill. Ancon Hill used to be under control of the US when it ran the canal, and used to be the site of an underground bunker for United States Southern Command. Ancon Hill was handed over to the Panamanians as part of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, and as a celebration of Panamanian sovereignty, the flag, which is the size of a basketball court, was hoisted on top of the hill.
Cinta Costera/Panama’s Parks
The Cinta Costera is a stretch of reclaimed land that runs alongside Ave. Balboa and spans from MultiCentro Mall to the Mercado De Mariscos at the beginning of Casco Viejo. In addition to the road, Cinta Costera contains several parks, bike paths, recreational courts, fountains, gazebos, and statues. It is a great place to relax, take a walk, or just take pictures. You will also find street vendors selling snacks and fruit all along the Cinta Costera. When we went, my wife bought shaved ice for $0.50, and I bought a bag of homemade plantain chips for $1.
In addition to Cinta Costera, there are a lot of great parks around Panama City. For such a dense city, Panama City really does have a lot of green. You don’t have to travel too far from wherever you are in the city to find a public park. The biggest and most well known park is Parque Omar, which is Panama’s version of Central Park. Located near the neighborhood of San Francisco, Parque Omar is massive, and includes a circular 3.8km walking/jogging track. It also is lit an open at night. I’m not sure how late it’s open to, but I’ve been there till 9:30PM and still seen plenty of people there.
CinePolis VIP Movie Theater at MultiPlaza Mall
This is one item that you won’t find on most tourism guide listings, but this is something I do with all of my out of town guests. The Cinepolis Theater at MultiPlaza Mall has a truly excellent VIP section. I have been to the nice theaters in the United States, and they don’t hold a candle to this one. The theaters have fully reclining oversized Laz-e-Boy seats, and are separated into sections of two seats (and a few 3 seat sections), so if you go with another person, your seats will not not be directly touching anyone else’s. They also have a full bar and food menu, including crepes, sandwiches, and sushi. They take orders from your seat, and bring it directly too you. The menu is surprisingly cheap, and the food is decent. A large sushi roll costs about $7, and that’s inclusive of tax and tip. I actually prefer the sushi at the theater to sushi delivery restaurants like Sushi Express. The service is slow and sometimes they’re out of a lot on the menu, but I definitely recommend going.
Tickets are $15 for 3D movies, and $14 for 2D, for both adults and children. For 3 Era Edad tickets, which is for seniors 55+ (women) or 60+ (men), tickets are half price. Not sure if this is supposed to only be for residents, but when my mother visited, we bought her one of these tickets and had no issues. Make sure when you are looking at movies, that you only buy tickets for movies listed as “sub,” which are subtitled, and not “dob,” which are dubbed. Movies have also have different titles here than their US title. For example, currently movie theaters are showing the US movie “Sex Tape.” The local title is “Nuestro Video Prohibido,” which translates to “Our Banned Video.” Tickets for all movies in Panama are assigned seating, so it’s recommend you purchase your tickets ahead of time online. There is no surcharge.
You can find showtimes and purchase tickets at the Cinepolis Website.
Hat tip to the blog PTY Life for this idea. Most pools at nice hotels in Panama are pretty easily accessible to people who are not staying at the hotel, as long as you are able to blend in. This will be the one time that you should try NOT to fit in as a local. Wear your floral shirt, and your Panama Jack Hat, speak as much English as possible. If you do, these hotels will just assume you are a guest and let you hang out by the pool. We tried this at both the Hard Rock Hotel and the Trump Ocean Club and had no issues. The Trump pool is especially nice. It is an infinity pool on the 15th floor that overlooks the water and Costa Del Este. My guess is that the hotels are aware this goes on, and as long as you are well behaved and respectful, they tolerate it, especially if you buy a couple of drinks from the pool bar. Just don’t volunteer to the staff that you’re not a guest.
For more information about pool crashing, check out the article on it at PTY Life.
UPDATE: Parque Metropolitano is a must add to this list. You can check out the article I wrote on it here.
As you can see, there is a ton to do in Panama City, and my article only scratched the surface. I am sure there are many great things to do in Panama City that I don’t even know about yet. If you are planning a trip to Panama, or trying to think of things to do with guests, this article will provide you with enough to keep a trip busy and enjoyable. If you live here, I recommend you do everything in this article and more. I’ve made the mistake when living abroad before of not taking full advantage of exploring the country while I’m there. I hope for however long you are in Panama, you will make the most of it and see as much as possible.