Panama City is big. It’s vibrant, loud and chaotic and if you don’t stay on high alert at all times, the city could easily swallow you up. What makes this energetic metropolis interesting is it’s chronic diversity. Not only is it a melting pot for international cuisine akin to the likes of Los Angeles, it’s also varied in terrain. One minute you’re stranded on a median in the middle of rush hour trying to navigate a massive city with no street signs as cranky drivers zoom by hollering and honking. The next you’re exploring a lush jungle thriving with wildlife, utterly tranquil, yet only a few minutes from the city. I was in Panama City enrolled in a Spanish immersion program with Habla Ya for two weeks, and took advantage of my time by exploring the city’s best sights. Here’s a look at my personal highlights of the 9 things you must do in Panama City.
To start, take in the glistening cityscape from every possible angle surrounding the city. Cinta Costera is a long pedestrian stretch of nearly 3 acres along the Pacific coast of Panama Bay. Vendors scatter trinkets on the ground and the scent of barbecued chicken wafts through the air from small food carts. In the evening, couples canoodle on the rock wall to watch the sun cast its last light over the city.
A picturesque layout of glistening skyscrapers get covered in a blanket of gold and pink and within minutes the city lights emerge for their nightly act.
Begin at Mercado de Mariscos and stroll along the pedestrian path toward the city center. This is a central point for fully gauging the obvious contrasts of Panama City. Facing the water, look to the right across the marina and fill your eyes with the colonial architecture of the old town. Then turn your gaze to the left and enter the modern era of the epicenter of international business. Old and new engage in a battle for your attention as the calm waters between play referee. Sit back and watch it all unfold, because this is a view completely unique to Panama City.
After the original location of Panama City (Panama Viejo) was burned to the ground following the invasion of English pirates led by Henry Morgan, the Spanish colonists set their sights on a strategic location to safeguard the city from potential attacks. They moved their city to what is now Casco Viejo (Antiguo), a charming old town filled with restaurants, markets and colonial architecture as far as the eye can see. Come nightfall, it turns into a party hub for locals and tourists alike and I can tell you from experience, you will want to be a part of that scene at least once.
There are sights to see within Casco Viejo itself, but my recommendation is to walk and get lost admiring the streets which are bursting with character. Neighborhoods close to the cathedral have had a facelift, painted and renovated to freshen up the city. Wander a little off the beaten path and you’ll see that the old town is not as manicured as you might think. Houses that have weathered years of rain and neglect show their tired age. Nevertheless, Casco Viejo provides something necessary when visiting Panama City, respite from the chaos of the hustle and bustle across the bay.
Many travelers choose to stay here but it’s more pricey in this area. I recommend staying elsewhere and just visiting the area. After all, it is only a $4 uber ride away.
Well, there’s not much to say about the Canal except that if you go to Panama City and don’t go to the Panama Canal… shame on you! I’m not suggesting that this is a super thrilling outing, but it is an absolute must see because where else can you view such an accomplishment of human engineering.
Remember when I mentioned that Casco Viejo is where the city moved after the original city was burned to the ground? Well, the ruins from the destroyed city exist in Panama Viejo, where you can visit and see the layout of its original roots. Visiting Panama Viejo deepens your perspective of this diverse and overwhelmingly modern city to see that it’s also got layers of history. To fully comprehend that, you must see Panama Viejo!
It doesn’t matter where you go in Latin America, but when you find yourself there you must follow the music and when you arrive to the source, salsa dance. When visiting Cuba last April I regretted not learning how to salsa and made it a deliberate goal to learn to salsa in Panama. If you know how to dance, great, if you’re a beginner like me, then take a salsa lesson! There are salsa clubs scattered throughout the city and they’re a great way to immerse yourself within the culture. If you’ve got two left feet, don’t be intimidated because someone will always be stumbling worse than you are… unless if you’re the absolute worse dancer ever. If that’s the case, congrats! You are my hero and I applaud you for your bravery!
Every Thursday night Paradise Banquet Hall has salsa lessons from 7-10 p.m. and in attendance are mostly locals with a few confused tourists (guilty)! The entry fee is $5 and they segregate into groups of beginner, intermediate and advanced dancers. Regardless of your skill level, I promise you will have a blast!
Spanish is obviously the official language of Panamá, so don’t go to Panama City expecting to hear English, because you will be sorely mistaken. Knowing pleasantries in Spanish will get you to and fro, but I recommend taking it a step further and enrolling in Spanish lessons. I am currently enrolled in a full Spanish immersion experience with Habla Ya Spanish Schools who offer a variety of classes including private and group lessons, and even crash courses for survival skills. They also have daily activities where you get to put into place everything you learn in class.
The school has a campus in El Carmen, Panama City, and I’m thrilled to only report great things about my experience there. The staff treats you like family, and you make wonderful new friends from the school. Overall it’s a challenging, inspiring and unique way to deepen your bond with the city.
Oh, if I could write an epic love poem about the views at the Amador Causeway *sigh*. Quite simply: they’re breathtaking. This is another spot where you can sit and savor the views of the cityscape from a distance. Only here, there’s a bunch of boats situated perfectly for sitting and watching time pass you by. But there’s more to do at the Causeway than just take in the epic views.
Get dropped off at the very end of the causeway and walk the entire island back to the Biomuseo which sits at the beginning of the Causeway. It takes about an hour to walk, unless you take a million photos like me then it will take about 2-3 hours. It’s really easy to take your time because there’s a lot to see. There’s a duty-free mall, the infamous PANAMA sign, panoramic views of the ocean and much more. What I loved most was that both times I visited there was hardly anyone there. It was incredibly hot so every 10 minutes or so I would sit on a bench and just bask in the glorious views all around.
One could easily spend an entire day at the Causeway. Conversely, you could start by going to the Biomuseo and walking all the way to Punta Culebra to get your fix of the local wildlife.
Sloths, turtles, and starfish are some of the local wildlife you can see at the Marine Exhibition Center of Punta Culebra. This outdoor visiting center is operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and is small enough to see the entire thing in about 2 hours. While I hoped to cry with glee from a sloth sighting, the little fellas were too high up in the trees to really see too well. That said, I still really enjoyed Punta Culebra and think it’s especially great for those traveling with little ones.
Admission is a recommended donation of $7. Do not forget bug spray! I applied and still got accosted, so be sure to bring a strong mosquito repellent.
One of the most attractive qualities of Panama City for me was the appeal of the twinkling cityscapes from towering rooftop bars. It’s entirely mind-blowing to me to view such a chaotic scene from so high up, yet feel completely at peace. So, my schoolmate, Julia, and I made our way to the 66th floor of the Ocean Club Casino’s rooftop pool bar, Panaviera.
On weekends there are cover fees of between $15-$20 that you’re required to pay up front, but you are given a ticket in that amount to be used toward your drinks.
After Panaviera, we took an Uber to the Hard Rock Café to entice in another sparkling view of the city below from the 62nd floor. The views at both bars were spectacular, but I was ready to hightail out of the tourist zones and see some quality nightlife. One guess where we ended up? A cave bar called Relic in Casco Viejo. Which means… nightlife in Casco Viejo is an unofficial entry on this list because it was epic. Good music, cheap drinks, and a crowd of mostly locals dancing and singing along to Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” Is there a better way to round out two exciting weeks in Panama City? No lo creo.
Have you ever been to Panama City? Drop a line with your favorite sight in the comments below!
*No BS* Thanks to Habla Ya for providing me with accommodation, activities and Spanish lessons. All opinions are my own!