– By Wendy Morley –
When you fly to Panama, you will come in for a landing over the water, watching the little white dots that are ships grow larger and larger. The countryside itself is lush and green, as you might expect for a country with a rainy season that lasts nine months each year. But rainy season is nothing to be afraid of. Even in June, one of the peak months for rainfall in the country, the day generally starts off sunny, with clouds slowly gathering in later morning, readying for a rainfall by about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon. The rainfall lasts an hour or two, and can be anything from a light sprinkle to a strong downpour.
Globally, Panama is known almost exclusively for the Panama Canal. Yes, it is an engineering feat and is quite interesting to watch—we took a tour that included seeing the new east section being built and then a bus ride to watch some boats go through the west side, down 22m from lake to sea level. But honestly, other parts of Panama are far more interesting.
The Old City
The concept of “Old Panama,” is a little confusing. Panama Viejo, the original European settlement, was attacked by pirates and destroyed in 1671. The area, which lies to the east of Panama City, is made up of a number of ruins. In combination with the slightly younger Casco Viejo, settled after the destruction of the original settlement, Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Casco Viejo was settled in 1673. Currently in the process of being redeveloped, this area is a mix of truly dilapidated shells with trees growing through floors, burned out beams and feral cats climbing through barred glassless windows and gorgeous buildings caringly and lovingly brought back to their original splendor, under the watchful eye of UNESCO. This is undoubtedly the up-and-coming neighborhood of the city, with trendy bars and restaurants such as Whisky Bar, Tántalo hotel and rooftop bar and Diabolicos, offering an inoffensive tourist destination for traditional Panamanian food and dancing.
A short walk or inexpensive taxi ride brings you through one part of town that reminds you you’re in an emerging country, with obvious poverty and far more sellers of a diverse number of wares than there are buyers. After a few minutes you will reach the fish market. Not a place to buy fresh fish, the fish market is made up of many stalls replete with plastic tables and chairs, selling fresh ceviche, whole fried fish dishes and local Balboa or Panama beer, among other food and drink choices. An easy and inexpensive choice for lunch or dinner, this place is popular with locals and tourists alike.
Panama City is quite safe; even the less savory areas do not feel at all dangerous, although granted we did not venture into them at night. Walking everywhere is quite easy, and a walking-running-biking trail runs along the water. If you’re up for a little more challenge, then head to Ancon Hill, the highest point in the city at 654 feet. A pleasant uphill hike on a paved road offers the chance to experience the protected rainforest within the city, with local plants and wildlife, and plenty of views out over the city and bay. At the peak, you can look out over the Miraflores locks, the final locks boats pass through on their way from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans.
The tides are high at Panama City, and indeed that’s at least one reason the city was built where it was; a pirate ship would have to arrive at high tide, but before long low tide would trap those pirates on land. You might expect great beaches in a tropical paradise, but in fact you have to head out to a neighboring island to find that.
If you need to lie on a beach in order to feel you’ve had a vacation, then Panama City has a few options. The quickest and least expensive is a ferry to Taboga island, also known as the island of flowers. A ferry leaves each morning and comes back to the Amador Causeway in the afternoon. Apparently schedules and times change frequently, so it’s best to confirm. The Pearl Islands are another popular ferry destination, but a longer journey and also more expensive. Saboga and Contadora Islands are easy to get to from the city. Again, ferries leave in the morning and return in the afternoon from the Amador Causeway.
A popular place to retire or to settle while working in the banking industry, Panama City is not especially well known for its nightlife, and popular destinations tend to have more of a lounge or pub atmosphere than nightclub atmosphere, but nightclubs do exist. For dancing, your best choices are Villa Agustina and Teatro Amador. If a lounge is more your style, then Tántalo’s Rooftop Bar is lovely. Relic Bar has a completely different vibe – a little more New York to Tántalo’s California, if you will. Other notable mentions are Zaza restaurant/lounge in the evening turning into party place later on, and Gatto Blanco, another spectacular rooftop bar in Casco Viejo.
Shopping in Panama
If shopping is your thing, you’ll find plenty of it. Within Panama City you will find the Multicentro Mall, with a solid variety including inexpensive choices. Multiplaza offers higher-end selections and Albrook Mall has everything you could be looking for and more, no matter your price range. The city has lots of little shops and boutiques, as well. If you’re looking for traditional handicrafts, then head to either Independence Square in Casco Viejo or to the tourist building at Panama Viejo. They offer similar selections at similar prices. For duty free shopping, you can hop across the country over to Colon, a huge duty free shopping zone.