Panama City. Known for the Panama Canal but also Central America’s largest banking and shipping centre. The city is soaked in history and has plenty to see and do, whether you’re there for a cultural experience, or to let loose in the vibrant nightlife and take in the weather. Or both? This cosmopolitan city boasts glittering skyscrapers bordered by cobblestone streets, as well as Spanish colonial architecture and 18th-century ruins. It’s one of my personal favourite destinations and I’m here to give you the tips you need to have the best possible time.
Population: 1.8 million (Metro Area)
Currency: US Dollar
Climate: Tropical Maritime. Hot and humid year-round with a wet (July – Nov) and dry season.
When you fly into Panama City, you’ll land at Tocumen International Airport (PTY), the home of Copa Airlines. From here you’re about 20km from the downtown centre which you can reach by taxi for $15, Uber for $7-10 or the Tocumen-Corredor Sur Metro Bus for $1.25. Uber is recommended since the fare is fixed by the app. You just arrived and you don’t want to have to negotiate with a taxi driver who’s command of the area and the Spanish language is likely a touch superior to yours.
If you look like you don’t know what you’re doing they will take advantage. I’ve heard stories of people throwing their luggage in the trunk/boot and the taxi driver taking off before they can get in. More likely, they’ll tell you it’s $30-$40 with the confidence that you’ll accept it. If you’re lucky you’ll get a good one and they’ll grab you a beer from the cooler in the trunk and off you go. Always negotiate the fare before you get in. Either way, you probably want to avoid the bus since it’s going to take substantially longer and you’ll be lugging suitcases around. You might not get a beer, but stick with Uber.
Accommodation in Panama City
Whatever your budget, I recommend staying in Casco Viejo or “Old Center”. The historic district of Panama City is picturesque in itself, but also has tremendous views of the downtown skyline and provides everything you would want near your abode. It also happens to be where the President of the country lives, and as a result is very safe.
On the Cheap
If you’re on a budget (or just young and want to have a really good time), I can’t recommend Lunas Castle enough. It’s a hostel with a great sense of community and you can lay your head down for $14/night in dorm-style accommodation or $34/night for a private room. They have maps, free bikes, guitars, ping-pong, patios, luggage storage, on-site security and more. The staff is friendly and they are partnered with different excursion companies with good rates to go to San Blas Islands and Bocas del Toro if you want a taste of the island-life while you’re away. Did I mention they have their own underground bar with $1 bottles of beer? It’s central to markets, bars, restaurants and cafes and just a $3-5 Uber to the heart of downtown.
If you’ve got deeper pockets then you could consider the American Trade Hotel, also located in Casco Viejo. You’ll feel like Ernest Hemingway the moment you arrive, and if you elect not to stay here, you should at least saunter in and pretend you’re lost. I don’t need to drone on about all the amenities. It’s got what any other upscale hotel you’d find in a big city has, except with more character. One thing to consider is that this hotel is located near the end of the ‘safe part’ of Casco Viejo, so make sure not to have too many cocktails and take a merry midnight walk down to El Chorrillo (as I did).
I’ve obviously suggested two very different places at each end of the price spectrum. This is to try and cater to all readers, but as you know, with AirBnB you can find everything in between. If you go that route, I still recommend Casco Viejo. That being said, the neighbourhoods of Obarrio & El Cangrejo offer a more modern experience in the downtown core, while still being safe areas. Many hotels here will have rooftop pools with spectacular views of the sprawling Panama City skyline. Of course, you can find your usual chain hotels in this area, but try to stay somewhere you won’t find anyplace else. It will make your time here much more memorable I promise you.
Panama City during the Day
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is obviously one of the things you’re supposed to see when you visit Panama. Humans manually connecting two Oceans is one of the greatest engineering feats to date. It enables ships to cross between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without travelling to the Southern tip of South America (Cape Horn) and in fact, most ships are built with the canal’s dimensions in mind. Experience it with a 2-hour tour through the Miraflores Visitor Center for $20 a person – I wouldn’t make it a full day trip unless you’re really enthusiastic about its history or ships.
Mercado de Mariscos (The Fish Market)
An absolute must-see while you’re in Panama City. The food is as fresh as it gets and costs next to nothing. The ceviche here is like nothing you’ve had anywhere else (in a good way), and costs under $2. The area is great for people watching and has a great view of the skyline too. If you’re looking for exercise you could jog or walk from Casco Viejo, through the fish market all the way to the yacht club and downtown while being surrounded by water and beautiful parks the entire way. Work off last night’s indulgences.
Home to the trendiest restaurants, boutique shops and, if you heed my advice, your hotel/hostel/AirBnB as well. You might get yourself an authentic Panama hat from a street vendor and keep the sun off your face, or pick up some home decor. Maybe grab some souvenirs for those back home. Take in the architecture as you walk around. There are plenty of incredible buildings such as the Cathedral Metropolitana and the Plaza Bolivar.
If you like rum, stop into Pedro Mandinga or another dedicated rum bar, and have one for ol’ Captain Morgan who robbed, looted and set fire to this part of the city himself back in the 18th century. The streets are filled with cafes, restaurants and live music for you to eat local food and drink local drinks at your leisure.
The beaches in Panama are not great and typically people will leave the city bound for Veracruz which would be the closest option. Accessible via 20-minute city bus or a shorter, more death-defying cab ride if you’re pressed for time. If you’re anything like me you’ll prefer to hang out by a nearby rooftop pool with some good ambience and a view.
Panama City at Night
‘Uruguay Street’ is one of Panama City’s top bar strips, located just west of downtown. It’s loaded with bars and nightclubs that get busy around 10pm and can stay open until morning. This is where both locals and tourists go to see and be seen, but can be relatively expensive compared to other parts of town – in fact you’ll probably pay about the same as a night on the town in Miami.
Places like The Wine Bar and The Londoner are good for a more laid-back vibe, otherwise just head to where you hear the music. If you’re a single guy and notice yourself doing a little too well with the ladies, just be weary – they are likely to be ‘working girls’.
Are you seeing the pattern here? It pays to stay in Casco Viejo. The historic quarter of the city is home to some of the best bars in the city, and, since you aren’t in the city, you can see the city. You’re more likely to see people from all over Europe and Australia than locals here at night.
Tantalo Roofbar, with its string lights and skyline views, is one of my favourite places to be in the city at night. It’s not just a watering hole though – it has superb food. Have a great meal on this rooftop, watch the sunset, and start your evening out properly.
Relic is a hotspot for backpackers since it’s located underneath Lunas Hostel and has very cheap drinks. It’s located in a stone cellar underneath the hostel which gives it a very cool vibe, but it’s nothing fancy, just a good time.
Other mentionables – Mojitos Sin Mojitos, Barlovento, Salvaje, Lazotea and Casa Casco.
Hotels and Casinos
The Hard Rock Hotel Megapolis is hard to overlook when it comes to nightlife. I spent New Years Eve here and was not disappointed. It houses 4 bars including one that’s 60 stories up for remarkable 360 city views. Free entry if you’re staying here, otherwise expect a $20 cover charge. The Riu Plaza is also located in the heart of downtown and has a great vibe in the pool area, complete with outdoor bar.
It cannot be argued that the Trump Ocean Club Panama has the best view of Panama City. You absolutely have to make it here for at least one sunset on your trip to this city. You will pay top dollar for food and drinks, but it’s completely worth it. Regardless of your political views, the man has a great hotel here. Ocean Sun Casino is downstairs – go and try your luck on the roulette or blackjack tables and then head upstairs to Panaviera Bar. It’s open from 5 pm til 2 am and you will get the best photos of your trip here. The bar backs on to an infinity pool which backs onto the entire city, including Casco Viejo. Need I say more?
- Take Ubers if you can. If you want to take cabs, negotiate the price before leaving
- A little Spanish will take you a long way. Learn what you can beyond the cliche “dos cervesas por favor” (cringe)
- Rain season is June-November. You’ll find cheaper hotel rates and flights, but…it will be rainy
- Dress like you’re in a metropolis. Keep your shirt on in public, the police will hassle you. Don’t treat the city as a resort
- No need to tip, but if you had great service at a restaurant, leave 10%
- Carry small bills so you don’t need to deal with asking for change
- Watch your belongings (as you would in any big city), but avoid El Chorillo. It’s a very poor and dangerous area
- If you’re from the U.S., Canada, or Europe, you may notice the concept of personal space is not recognized
- Get some culture – you don’t go away so that you can go to the same chain hotels and restaurants you have at home
This short guide to Panama City is obviously not all-encompassing, but if you get yourself to the general areas mentioned, you are guaranteed to enjoy your time here. Keep an open mind and take some risks (within reason of course).
If you have any suggestions for places to see, leave them in the comment section below, and be sure to check back in on The Modern Aviator for travel, aviation and lifestyle-related articles!