At the Crossroads of Two Oceans and Two Continents
We leave behind Guatemala towards our last stop in this trip, Panama. From an incredible array of historical places, through the jungle and volcanoes, the second largest barrier reef in the world and turquoise waters, we end our trip in this rich country where it’s capital could well be anywhere in the booming new cities of the Middle East with the difference the richness are not coming here from petrol or gas reserves but from an unlimited source instead, the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
With some sort of similar feeling to when I was in Dubai, the main differences are first of all the weather not so hot and terribly dry, the language and religion. As for infrastructure, new architecture and urbanism both are pretty much similar. Both do also share the frenetic unstoppable construction with towers reaching higher and higher.
But not everything is new. The city is, in fact, three cities in one. Panama Viejo, the original settlement chosen by the Spanish to build the first city in 1519. Thereafter destroyed by pirates in 1671 and ever since then in ruins. The Casco Viejo, the second colonial city built after Panama Viejo was destroyed, where you can still marvel today as one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities in Latin America; and lastly, the shiny new city mushrooming along the coast with never ending construction. The former 2 are listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
The city is very safe compared to some of the neighbouring countries, you really have nothing to fear or be scared of. Walking in the night is perfectly safe as opposed for example to Guatemala City from where we came came in this trip; but of course, being cautious is always a must like you would do in any city in the world no matter where you go.
As for the weather, be prepared and plan beforehand. It is extremely hot and humid with a constant of around 33 degrees every day of the year during the day. Also, from May till November, the rainfall is extreme, although a point in here, it does not necessarily need to be such months as in here, any month can get such a fierce rain. Fortunately the same way the clouds suddenly come and rain, they quickly disappear and sun comes out again. Generally rain tends to come in the afternoon, this is good to know so you can plan your days around it.
Food wise talking, Panama City has been one of the places where we ate as the best while in our Central America tour. But don’t think you need to go to any posh restaurant, as contrary to that, in the food court at the Multicentro you will find Leños y Carbon, an Argentinian place where you can get huge steaks from the grill for really great prices. Although we ate here most of the days, of course we also went to a nice restaurant called Hacienda Real. The very same we went in Guatemala City. It is not far from Avenida de Balboa and probably walking distance to you hotel, otherwise get a taxi. It is really worth it for the quality and choice of food and for the money. Real good value for money.
For more information about the city of Panama visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Panama’s currency is the United States Dollar (USD, $). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Panama City
- Cerro Ancon For the best views of both Panama Viejo and the New City.
- Panama Viejo Part of the UNESCO world heritage list. Built in 1519, attacked many times until 1671 when it was completely destroyed. Today you can walk around those archaeological remains of the original churches and buildings.
- Casco Viejo Also part of the UNESCO world heritage list. Built in 1671 after Panama Viejo was destroyed, it stands today as one of the greatest and best preserved examples of Spanish colonial cities in Latin America. It is the sight number one in the city and currently it is having a massive face clean with absolutely every decaying building being refurbished. Important buildings inside Casco Viejo include:
-Plaza de Bolivar Is one of the largest squares in Casco Viejo.
-Palacio Bolivar Occupies one of the sides of Plaza Bolivar.
-Church and Convent of San Francisco de Assisi Is literally attached to Palacio Bolivar.
-Teatro Nacional Build in 1908, on the same side of Palacio Bolivar and across the street.
–Palacio Nacional On the back of the National Theatre is the Government and Justice Palace.
-Las Bóvedas Is the waterfront promenade on one of the sides of Casco Viejo.
-Plaza de Francia At the farthermost tip of Casco Viejo this square is the place from where to get the best skyline view of the new city. Las Bóvedas promenade leads directly here.
-Skyline As Seen from Casco Viejo towards the new Panama.
-Plaza de la Independencia The main square in the centre, surrounded by beautiful buildings at all sides and a small music box at the centre.
-Catedral Metropolitana Located in Plaza de la Independencia, started construction in 1688 and did not finish until 100 years later.
-Palacio de las Garzas Is the Presidential Palace. You can get inside the gates but only to see the building from outside. You will need to show your ID and the guards will let you in.
-Church and Convent of Santo Domingo Lies in ruins, it is famous for the Arco Chato.
-Iglesia de La Merced After the Cathedral, the next most important Catholic church in the city, dating back to 1673 and baroque style.
-Iglesia de San Jose Another of the many churches in the little space that is Casco Viejo.
-Casa Gongora One of the oldest houses in Panama hosts exhibitions from Panamanian artists.
- Trump Ocean Tower Another of Trump’s impressive towers around the world. It is a top of the class hotel and luxurious apartments.
- Bridge of the Americas Connecting both Americas (North and Central with South). It is the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.
- Panama Canal and Railway Runs from Panama City up to Colon on the Atlantic coast. Tickets are sold in the station and cost 25$USD per way. There is only one departure on each direction per day. From Panama City it departs at 07.15am, and takes 50 minutes to complete the journey. Once you are in Colon, don’t waist your time and do not plan to return by train. Get a taxi to the bus station. Yes, the bus station is not even 10 minutes walking distance, but please don’t walk! it’s absolutely not safe. Once in the bus station, grab the next bus back to Albrook. From Albrook, a taxi to Miraflores Lock museum will cost you 5$USD (don’t pay any higher). The museum entrance is 8$, or 5$ for students. You will see from the roof terrace the ships passing by and the three locks at its grandest.
- Taboga Island If it is the unfortunate event that either you don’t have time or all flight tickets are sold out of over the moon in prices to go to one of the marvellous islands in the Caribbean side, you can still trying to go to Taboga Island. Calypso Boats leave from Amador Causeway near Mi Ranchito at 08.30am and return back at 16.00pm. It takes only 45 min to get there and costs 14$USD return. Another company, National Tours, leaves from the end of Balboa Yacht Club Pier on Amador Causeway near Country Suites Hotel and TGI Friday. This company costs 16$USD return and takes 30 minutes. From this trip I enjoyed the most the views from the boat, and the pictures of the beach while on the island. Unfortunately, do not expect clear waters. The tide is quite strong and while in the morning you will have plenty of beach, in the afternoon this gets reduces to a little strip. In the mornings the water is quite messy, while in the afternoons is clear and nice. The island has nothing else on the other hand. Tourist infrastructures are none to zero, for what it was quite challenging to find a decent place to have a drink and not being ripped off.
From the airport, Tocumen International, you can get buses to Albrook for only for 1.25$ but they require a metrocard for payment, which cannot be obtained in the airport, only in Albrook! As people write over the internet, you can get inside the bus and ask someone to pay with their card and you pay them back in cash. The bus stop is not even outside the airport, you need to walk on the path towards the main road and there you will see the stops. Once in Albrook, which is the main bus terminal, shopping centre and also the airport for internal flights you can get yourself a metrocard (2$USD fee) and buses to anywhere in the city depart from there at the minimal cost of 0.25$USD.
Being that option a long way and quite inconvenient, specially if you have luggage with you, the best and only options left are taxi and collectives (colectivo). A colectivo is way cheaper than a taxi and basically it is a shared taxi. They have a set price of 11$USD per person (as of January 2014).
Within the city, if you managed to get a metrocard, you can move with buses and metro, however the metro only covers a small area with currently 2 lines operational; otherwise a much faster and comfortable way as a tourist is by taxi. They do not have taximeters therefore negotiate the fare before but they were quite cheap. We only moved by taxi anywhere; honestly you will be glad if you do the same specially if you have in mind that with 35 degrees outside and buses without air conditioning that can be deadly.
The choice of hotels in this city is just immense. Whatever you desire you will find it. From the luxurious top of the class, to shiny towers, or to more modest, bed & breakfast and guest houses. Finding anything to suit your needs is the less complicated here. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We opted to end our tour by staying at one of the top hotels. The Hard Rock Megapolis on Avenida de José de la Cruz Herrera with Multicentro, meters away from the waterfront promenade Avenida de Balboa. A 62 floors tower where design, style, ambiance, music and everything was totally different to what we’ve ever been before. Trendy, chic; clearly a hotel more for young people. But don’t think it will come cheap. Your budget should be more moderate here.
The greatest plus were the infinity pool overlooking the skyline, the hot tubs by the pool area, the spa, the 62nd floor disco from which terrace you can see the whole city below (free for hotel guests), the many other discos and bars and entertainment overall. As a note, they offer per room and per day 20$USD free to spend at certain pubs and bars within the hotel. Therefore you can enjoy free drinks by the pool for example. That was something unexpected. Be aware it is not accumulative. Either you spend it per day, or you loose it.
The City of Panama
The Panama Canal