Panamá City, Panamá
As overtourism overwhelms Earth’s most popular places, Wide Open World seeks emerging, offbeat but equally compelling destinations.
The first thing that surprises many on their inaugural visit to Panamá City is its futuristic look. A sea of glimmering skyscrapers line the coastline in Central America’s most cosmopolitan city. The country of Panamá is an emerging destination gaining favor with world travelers for its rainforests, beaches and remote islands. But the nation’s capital city has many of its own fine attractions. Founded by the Spanish in 1519, Panamá City is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Panamá Viejo is a peaceful, scenic archeological site where the city started. The settlement came to a violent end with a pirate attack in the mid-1600s. Today, Casco Viejo is the city’s historic heart. Located on the other side of town, it was founded after Panamá Viejo was destroyed. Once rundown and dangerous, the city has put much effort into rejuvenating and refurbishing Casco Viejo. Mindful of New Orleans’ French Quarter or Colombia’s Cartagena, the charming neighborhood is a maze of cobblestone streets, historic buildings, bougainvillea-draped balconies and old churches. There’s plenty to see and do with numerous shops, restaurants and several excellent museums. But the real draw in Panamá City is the canal. This marvel of humanity, considered by many to be the greatest achievement of modern engineering, connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal is the city’s most popular attraction. It’s a quick taxi ride to the visitors center which has a museum and a four-story viewing area. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to have a bird's-eye view of gigantic ships moving through the locks one-by-one with others queued in the distance. Another top draw is Parque Natural Metropolitano, a tropical forest and wildlife refuge within city limits. As I hiked the well-worn paths, I saw plenty of birds as well as coati rummaging through leaves, sloths hanging in trees and leafcutter ants in an endless parade.
Panamá forms the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America. The Caribbean lies to the north and Pacific to the south. Panamá City is on the Pacific side, at the top of the large Panama Bay.
Best Time to Visit
Panamá City is tropical so it’s always hot and steamy. Nevertheless, it has two seasons. The dry season runs January through April and the wet goes May to December.
Keep in Mind
Taxis and ride shares are inexpensive and reliable. But because Panamá uses the American dollar, prices are not cheap, particularly in tourism and business districts. Panamá City is generally as safe as any large city. Just be smart and stay aware of surroundings at all times.
Panamá official tourism site is useful. Frommer’s and Lonely Planet have helpful online sections on the country, too.