Many cities are a dichotomy and none more so than Panama City, one of the few Central American capitals I’d recommend visiting. From the centre of the old town Casco Viejo, gleaming skyscrapers stretching into the cloudy expanse of sky can be spied at the end of narrow streets lined with much older and often run down houses.
Commerce is well and truly alive in Panama City, largely because of the famous ship canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But in the old town, the streets are reminiscent of Havana with their mix of colourful houses crawling with bougainvillea, alongside others in dire need of repairs to window frames and tiles, not to mention a fresh coat of paint.
Even though walking is the most obvious way to get around the cobbled streets of Panama City’s old town, there were countless cars forcing their way through, squeezing around corners and coming to a halt when one of the many road closed signs suddenly appeared. Annoying as they were to motorists, they were signs of a changing future as building work throughout the area was aiming to make it more tourist friendly.
Previously known only as a business centre and overlooked in favour of its prettier neighbour Costa Rica, Panama has started to become one of the countries that regularly feature on Central America itineraries. So in the capital, local souvenirs now appear on market stalls alongside the endless variations on Panama hats. And while the city is not overrun with must see sights, it’s definitely worth a night or two before venturing to other areas.
Top of the sightseeing list in Panama City is of course the canal, an extraordinary feat of engineering that makes it possible for enormous shipping containers to cross the Continental Divide, instead of sailing thousands more miles around the tip of South America. What’s more amazing is that it was built 100 years ago, albeit at the cost of 22,000 lives – workers who succumbed to illnesses like malaria and yellow fever during the lengthy construction period.
We were lucky with our timing and arrived just as the Miraflores lock was filling for a ship to move through on route to the Atlantic. It’s one way traffic with the morning ships heading in that direction and the afternoon’s bound for the Pacific. And the cost of all that east-west movement is substantial – fees are paid according to a ship’s weight and the profits generated provide the Panama government with millions of dollars to invest in local infrastructure and community projects every year.
At Miraflores there’s an exhibition, a film and a shop, though if there are ships passing through then the viewing platforms are where the real action is. Or for the full experience you can also go through on a cruise ship. Several include passage through the canal on their itineraries, or you can book onto a one day transit or tour with Canal & Bay Tours.
Back in the old town, Casco Viejo is actually a Unesco World Heritage site and has a range of plazas, museums and ruins amongst buildings which are either very nicely restored, in the process of restoration or falling apart.
There are also lots of places to stop for food and drink while exploring the area – we loved the small courtyard at the back of Caffe Per Due on Avenida A at Calle 2, where they serve great pizzas, pastas and salads. And for entertainment there’s live sport – after lunch we walked to the end of the peninsular that the old town sits on and came across a group of locals playing a lively game of football on a very small patch of beach!
Also worth a visit are the ruins of Panama Viejo, the site of the original city that was founded in the 16th century. Surprisingly the ruins are not fenced, so there’s no entrance fee and there’s quite a bit to see including a cathedral with a stone tower, a church, hospital, convent and plaza. And for views of the city skyline and some fresher air, you can head over to the 2km palm lined Causeway which connects four small islands to the mainland and is popular with joggers and cyclists.As well as eating and drinking in the old town there are also plenty of options in other areas. We had a great meal in the El Cangrejo area at El Trapiche in Via Argentina where they serve local Panamanian food. Then it was cocktails at nearby La Rana Dorada, which has a couple of branches in the city and its own micro brewery.
In retrospect I don’t think I had any idea what to expect of Panama City as I only knew it was famous for the canal. But it turned out to have more to offer than I expected and I was glad it was the starting point for my first trip around Central America.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery.