We visited Panama City on January 6th 2020. Panama is filled with wildlife, culture, beaches and the famous Panama Canal among other things. It is said to have one of the best shopping destinations in Central America. In addition, a popular destination for North American retirees.
Panama City is a unique experience between the old world and the new. Located in the heart of Central America, Panama is best known for the Panama Canal and the canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow Isthmus of Panama, and had played an important trade route dating back more than 100 years.
Panama has only one major commercial airport, which is Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. There are non-stop flights from North and South America, and some direct routes from the U.K and Europe. We flew on Copa airlines since they were the only non-stop flights going to Panama in January.
Panama is generally safe. According to the U.S. Department of State’s website ‘to exercise normal precautions’ in Panama. There are parts of this country that you should definitely avoid such as the border region between Panama and Colombia, most of the city of Colon, El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City, Curundu and El Marañón neighborhoods which are known to have a higher crime stats. Ocean currents, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are only some of the natural disasters that sometimes hit Panama.
– Power voltage is 110 and 220 Volts AC. US and Canadian will not need a plug adapter. Official language is Spanish, though English is widely spoken in the tourism industry. Many tour guides and hotel owners are native English-speakers. However, English is limited on local area outside of tourists area. Panama’s seven indigenous groups speak their own languages in their communities, and in some isolated areas indigenous groups does not speak Spanish fluently.
– Currency is the Balboa, however US dollars are used today. There are Panamanian coins similar to US coins such as 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents and $1 coin. You won’t find paper Balboa so only the US dollar is used.
– Many countries need a visa in order to enter Panama, while some, like the U.S and Australian nationals, will not need a visa for stays of up to 180 days. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 3 months beyond the date of arrival.
– The water in most of Panama’s major cities and tourist destinations is safe to drink, except in Bocas del Toro. To avoid any stomach complications, you might want to drink bottled water outside of major hotels and restaurants.
– The weather is tropical, hot all year round. Best weather is between January and March. Panama has two seasons. The dry season is from January to April and the rainy season is from mid-May until November.
– Medical Insurance may be a good idea since adventure travel is common here, especially if you plan on trekking, paragliding and/or hiking.
TOP PACKING TIPS FOR PANAMA TRAVEL
Dressing nicely is recommended. Panama City is a place where people live & work and is not a beach town. Summer dresses, shorts and skirts are good during the day and make sure you pack long pants for the evenings because some bars and restaurants have dress codes.
– The protection basics: take sunglasses, a hat and sunblock, insect repellent containing DEET. Panama has mosquitos, but they are not overwhelming. You will see more in rural parts along the Caribbean coast and not many near urban areas.
– Pack for humidity: for humid weather it is best to pack fabrics that breathe as much as possible and natural fabrics like linen, cotton or rayon.
– Swimming suits/outfits: make sure to bring more than one swimsuits. They are plenty of beaches to visit.
-Personal safety products: Money Belt and lock are useful to keep your valuables safe.
Tipping is not the norm. You do not require to tip the taxi driver unless you have rented it for a day. It is customary to leave a 10% tip for a good service at restaurants but just check to see they haven’t added it already.
WHERE TO STAY IN PANAMA CITY
You have tons of choices when it comes to accomodations.
Here are a few list of neighborhoods with a recommendation for one of the best places to stay.
-El Cangrejo is a block very close to downtown and has a great variety of places to stay, from big chains to budget hotels. Here you will come across many restaurants and many bars to visit and it is quite easy to catch a public transport to see the tourist attractions. You want to look for choices with El Cangrejo, Via España, Ave. Eusebio A. Morales or Via Argentina in its address to be walking distance from this site. The most popular choices to name a few would be El Panama, Torres de Alba, Hilton Garden Inn, Double Tree by Hilton and Veneto with its Vegas-style casino, Riande Granada.
Casco Viejo Historical Quarter or Old Town is located on a small peninsula in the southwestern corner of Panama Bay. The Old Town, also known as San Felipe, is the most picturesque and historically interesting area in Panama City. Once a dangerous area patrolled by gangs, it is now a UNESCO protected district, made up of renovated colonial buildings, several museums, boutique hotels, fine-dining restaurants and some of the best coffee houses in town. It is considered to be the best area to stay in Panama City. The metro line does not reach the Historical Center, so be prepared to take a taxi, Uber or bus to other areas of the city.
-The downtown area of the city is close to the major points of interest and many choose to stay here. It is also one of the most expensive areas with prices from $120 and above per night. If you choose anything with Marbella, Balboa Ave, Punta Pacifica, Calle 50, Calle Uruguay or San Francisco on its address will be centrally located. Any of these locations will be close to the historic landmarks, shopping malls, restaurants, vibrant nightlife and even the Panama Canal.
WHAT TO DO IN PANAMA CITY
Visit Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is one of the most-visited neighborhood of Panama City. There are cafes, boutigues shops, restaurants, elegant colonial buildings surrounding the plazas and immaculately manicured gardens. As you stroll through the old streets from one plaza to the next, you’ll meet vendors selling everything from handicrafts to snacks and paintings.
A must see is the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Antigua of Panama.
Visit Panamá Viejo
History buffs will specially love visiting Panamá Viejo – or “La Vieja” – the ruins of the original Panama City, the first one ever built by the Spanish at the American Pacific coast. It used to be a fisherman village that later attracted the pirates’ attention. You can now walk around these old buildings and picture how people lived almost 500 years ago! There is a $15 entrance fee to walk through the ruins and visit the museum.
Take a walk in the Rainforest in the City
Ancon Hill Panama City is the only metropolis in the world with a rainforest within its city limits. This is a good way to see Panama’s past, present and future when you take a hike up here. You’ll have a bird-eye’s view of Casco Viejo, modern Panama City and the Panama Canal. The paved path is through rainforest, you will likely spot some wildlife like birds and sloths. To avoid the hot midday sun and afternoon rain, take a hike in the morning or at 5 pm. It takes about 1.5 hours round trip. You can take a taxi to the entrance and ask the driver to come back for you in a couple of hours.
Check out Cinta Costera
This scenic area is known for its varieties of dining options and bar scene. It is great any day of the week, but it’s even more special during the weekends. Try to avoid this area between 11 am and 2 pm to prevent sunburns. Best time to visit is early in the morning, 6-7 am, or in the evenings from 6-10 pm when the weather cools down. Notice there’s a nice ocean breeze.
It’s especially popular with local Panamanian families on Sunday afternoons and evenings when the area by the Mercado de Mariscos/Panama City Fish Market is filled with street vendors selling snacks, shaved ice (‘raspao’), hot dogs and toys and there’s lots of families enjoying their day off on the waterfront promenade. Panama City Fish Market is open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Whether you are looking for a place to have a cheap and delicious ceviche, or if you want to buy fresh seafood directly from the fishermen, you’ll find it at the end of Cinta Costera, right at the entrance to Casco Antiguo.
Visit Punta Culebra
It is an open-air museum focusing mainly on marine science and education, conservation and interpretation of marine coastal environments. It is many people’s favorite destination on the Causeway. Punta Culebra is dedicated to understanding biological diversity. We saw a sloth sleeping atop a tree on the nature trail!
Visit the Panama Canal
It is known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and stretches 48 miles between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The best place to observe the canal operations is from the Miraflores Visitor Center. You can get here in 20 minutes from downtown Panama City. Remember that cabs in Panama usually do not have meters, so you must negotiate a price before getting into the car. From the large balconies on 4th floor which is the best area to watch as the lock gates are opened and closed for ships to start or complete their journey through the Panama Canal.
Hours: Monday – Sunday (holidays included) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tickets: $20 adults and includes the museum.
Take a stroll at Soberania National Park
A short drive away from the city center (15 miles/25km).
Soberania National Park is considered to be one of the most accessible areas for bird watching and wildlife observation. Panama has a diverse collection of wildlife, including monkeys, caimans, coatimundis, parrots, jaguars and harpy eagles.
Soberania offers a spectacular opportunity to see them. The best time is to get there early. The two most popular things to do in Soberania are hiking along Pipeline Road and visiting Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. If you like hiking, animals, and nature then this is the place! There are world records for numbers and variety of birds, so if they are your favorite, you should hire a professional guide. If you just want to see local wildlife, Panama Rainforest Discovery Center is a must.
Take a coffee tour
Panamanian coffee is famous and is some of the best in the world. Boquete is known world-wide as a coffee destination and there are countless tours available where you will learn about growing, harvesting and processing coffee cherries. Panama’s Ninety Plus Coffee Sells World’s Most Expensive Coffee for $4,535 Per Pound.
Head to The Amador Causeway
This was built from excavated rocks from the construction of the Panama Canal, and stretches four miles (six kilometers) to connect three islands. You will see many local Panamanians here. It’s lined with shops and restaurants and locals love to bike along the Causeway. If you are up for it, there are plenty of bike rentals available here. The causeway has a stunning view of Panama City from one side, and a view of the Panama Canal on the other.
Food and Drink
Sample the country’s national dish, Sancocho and other favorites
Sancocho is a chicken soup also known as Yard stew is enriched with root vegetables and cilantro. Panama cuisine is a combination of Spanish, African and Native American cuisines. Some of the favorite food to try are Ceviche del Mercado de Mariscos (Ceviche from the Seafood Market), a Panamanian classic, and Ropa Vieja y Arroz con Coco (Shredded Beef and Coconut Rice).
Guacho de Mariscos (Seafood Guacho), a thick rice soup with yams, yucca, mixed vegetables and mixed seafood try dish. Panamanian food shares many common ingredients with the rest of Central America and places an emphasis on rice, corn, flour, yucca and plantains.
Panama’s most famous drink is seco, a sugar-cane-distilled alcohol produced in Herrera and commonly served with milk and ice. This can be found in rural communities and cantinas and you won’t find this in chic bars or high-end restaurants. Also popular in Panama are vodka, rum and scotch. Also try Geisha coffee, which is grown in the highlands of Boquete, and is considered one of the finest coffee.
I hope it helps you plan an awesome trip to Panama and keep in mind prices to museums, national parks and other attractions are subject to change, make sure you check the websites before making a trip here.
If you have any questions or suggestions about Panama, please leave a comment below!