Panama City Offers A Delightful Contradiction Of Nature And Urban Expansion…
So, why visit Panama? For a start its very easy to get here. Most major airlines fly here and flights are available from any number of international airports. It is one of safest countries in Latin America and you can feel at ease walking the streets and exploring the city’s nightlife. As you will see below it is one of the premier destinations in the world for Eco-Tourism with an abundance and concentration of wildlife which is a wonder to behold. The tropical climate is welcoming all year round and the prices are very cheap by U.S. standards.
Whether you are visiting Panama on holiday, to scout for new property, or even for one of our conferences, there is plenty to do and see. This list concentrates on things to do around Panama City.
1. Panama Canal
Alongside the Panama Hat, the Panama Canal is perhaps what the country is best known for worldwide. Considered to be one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, the Panama Canal is a 77km stretch of water connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean.
The formidable task was originally started by the French in 1881. They had seen the success of the Suez Canal and rightly thought that canal in Panama could be a similar success. However after 13 years of battling the tropical rains, disease carrying mosquitos and mudslides, they surrendered. The material cost was huge but more significantly 22,000 people died, most of them from tropical diseases transmitted by mosquitos, abundant in Panama during that time. In 1904 the U.S. arrived to continue where the French had left off. By this time many regarded the canal as an impossible dream but the Americans realized it was possible however a couple of major changes had to be made. The first was to update the French infrastructure and the second was to eliminate the mosquitos which has caused so many deaths. 10 years later and the work was complete, changing the course of Panama’s history forever.
Visiting the canal today it is easy to appreciate just what a remarkable achievement this was. The scale of the canal and of the boats that goes through it is staggering. Miraflores Locks is the best place to witness this for yourself and is a great place to watch the huge ships navigate the locks up close. It contains a fascinating tourist center complete with interactive displays providing an in depth history of the canal and guide to the local wildlife, and a cinema showing some footage of the canal being built, and developments that have since taken place. A must see if you are visiting Panama for any length of time.
2. Summit Botanical Gardens
Just outside of Panama City lies the perfect place for a pleasant to stroll through tall bamboo walkways and lush green grass interspersed with wild butterflies, birds and lizards.
The Gardens are famously home to the Harpy Eagle, the national bird of Panama, depicted on the countries coat of Arms and more recently the national team’s soccer jersey. Unless you are an intrepid ‘birder’ the Botanical Gardens represents your best chance to see the Harpy Eagle In its natural habitat. It is notoriously difficult to spot since it doesn’t soar and lives deep in the jungle hunting monkeys and sloths.
Seeing animals in cages is something has always made me uneasy but it is worth remembering that many of the animals in the center are there to be rehabilitated. Some are endangered in their natural habitat and have been given safe haven in the Gardens to try and reproduce and boost population numbers. Others have been found injured or for some other reason have been unable to survive in the wild.
Based just outside Panama City center, it can be a little difficult to get to the Gardens so consider hiring a taxi and paying the driver to wait while you walk round.
3. Panamá Viejo and Casco Viejo
While much of Panama City is now dominated by glass skyscrapers and high rise apartment blocks the ‘old town’ offers a glimpse into the city’s past. The wide cobbled streets and colonial buildings are now home to many of the city’s finest restaurants and bars as well as museums, the Cathedral and the Presidential palace.
Panama Viejo was the original capital city of Panama and the base for Spain to send plundered gold back to Europe. True to form, the abundance of gold made Panama Viejo a magnet for pirates and the city was frequently attacked. In 1671 (Captain) Henry Morgan and his band of pirates sacked the city after marching across the jungle from the Caribbean. During the battle a fire was started which destroyed the city and thousands of Panamanian lives were lost as well.
The Panama City we now know was rebuilt a few km away from the original site. In 1997 the ruins of Panama Viejo was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the modernization set in motion by this award has been sympathetically done. This is a great place to visit for a history lesson on Panama with the bonus of beautiful views across the water. The Casco Viejo district of Panama was the first area to be rebuilt after Henry Morgan destroyed the old city.
Up until fairly recently it was wise to stay away from this part of the city as gang activity was rife but times change and now this is a thriving tourist hotspot. During the day the area has a relaxed feel and you can wander the cobbled streets and take in the colonial buildings, churches and statues. It is also a great place to get souvenirs with lots of indigenous craftwork on display. At night the area comes to life and many of Panamas best bars and restaurants are to be found here. The rooftop bars provide a great place to view the city from and enjoy a cocktail or beer.
4. Museum of Biodiversity (Biomuseo)
The striking Biomuseo was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry, his first for Latin America and is located on the scenic Amador Causeway. The museum pays homage to the formation of Panama which is regarded by geologists as one of the most important events regarding the modern world’s climate.
Before the Isthmus of Panama was formed around 2.8 million years ago, North and South America were separated by ocean. As Panama formed, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans became divided, changing the flow of the world’s currents and joining two separate ecosystems. This gave an opportunity for wildlife from each continent to migrate something considered by geologists to be one of the most important events in history. When you factor in that Panama is home to a huge variety of wildlife and plants you can see why it is the perfect place for a museum celebrating biodiversity.
Many of the exhibits are interactive and the galleries are spectacular especially the oceans divided and the museum can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. The museum also has a more serious message. According to the World Wildlife Fund between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct every year and unless something changes the effects could be catastrophic.
5. Ancon Hill
A 654-foot hill which overlooks Panama City the area was originally used for administration of the Panama Canal. The summit is the highest point in Panama City and a great vantage point. In fact most people agree that the views from Ancon Hill are the best in all of Panama City.
The climb is fairly relaxed, going up 2km of shady hillside and ending with a 360 degree view of Panama City and even as far as the Panama Canal. Although the walk only takes 30-40 mins you can take an Uber or Taxi for around $8 if you prefer.
Ancon Hill is one of the best places to view wildlife within the city limits and has a huge array of animals you can see. You will have a good chance of seeing sloths and monkeys while there are as always any number of birds and butterflies. With luck you can hope to catch a glimpse of an iguana, or blue frog.
Water here is a bit overpriced and climbing in Panama’s humidity can be thirsty work so bring a bottle of water with you. A final piece of advice is not to walk here from Casco Viejo as this will take you through the El Chorrillo neighborhood which can be a dangerous place and is probably best avoided.
6. Amador Causeway
Stretching across the Pacific, the palm lined causeway for so long only popular with fishermen and pelicans is now one of the most picturesque areas in the city.
Named after Manuel Amador Guerrero, the first President of Panama, the Causeway was built with rocks from the excavation of the Panama Canal. For a long time the causeway was simply a stretch of road linking Panama with the nearby islands but, like so much of Panama, it has undergone a transformation in recent years.
The Causeway is especially popular with runners, roller skaters and cyclists. Bike lanes run the length of the causeway and link up to a mountain bike trail at the nearby Amador bike park. The Amador bike park contains an indoor bike park plus areas for you to practice your skills and tricks, if you are feeling adventurous! For most though, hiring a bike from one of the stalls and taking a leisurely ride on the causeway should suffice.
You don’t have to run or cycle though, the cooling breeze and views of huge container ships waiting in the bay to enter the canal make this a great stretch to walk or even drive along.
If you’re looking for more sedate pleasures then Causeway has some of the best restaurants in the city and it’s a wonderful place to stop of for a cold beer on the way to your next destination.
7. Camino De Cruces National Park
The 9000-acre tropical forest lies an easily accessible 15km away from Panama City but it feels like another world.
Established in 1992 the park is situated between the Soberania National Park and the Metropolitan Natural Park. The three parks provide a vast protected area allowing animals to roam freely between them.
As with most of Panama, the Park is a hotbed of wildlife with different species of monkeys, raccoons and a huge array of birds. Sloths iguanas and frogs also hang out her so consider hiring a guide who can assist you with spotting and identifying the animals and their calls.
Definitely consider bringing strong shoes, plenty of water and strong insect repellant. Buses here can be unreliable though so take a taxi and arrange for a return journey. Traffic in Panama City gets very heavy at rush hour times so if at all possible try to avoid travelling to or from here at those times.
8. Gatun Lake
This huge man-made lake owes its existence to the construction of the Panama Canal. It was created by the building of the Gatun Damn which was needed to provide water for the huge ships crossing the Panama Canal. The lake acts as a reservoir for the canal and holds rain water which is used to operate the locks during the dry season.
The Lake is now one of Panama’s top fishing destinations being home to an abundance of Peacock Bass, one of the world’s top sports fish. The Peacock Bass is not native to Panama and was introduced by accident after heavy rains flooded a back yard aquarium, releasing fish into the nearby lake.
Tours can be easily booked online however for the best rates you can turn up at the dock and negotiate a tour boat yourself. As well as the fishing you can also book sightseeing tours where you can view, Caiman Iguana, Toucans and as usual many species of monkey (some of which you can feed!) and birds.
To be on the water with the huge container ships is an awesome experience and gives a perspective on their size which you can never quite appreciate from land!
Known locally as ‘The Egg’ the Baha’i Temple sits atop a hill on the outskirts of Panama and is the only temple of the Baha’i faith in Latin America.
Despite being situated in San Isidro which is one of Panamas most deprived areas the Temple has become hugely popular and attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. The Baha’i religion is an independent religion and was founded in 1844 in Iran. The faith is based on equality of all people and the goal of teachings is a unified world to benefit all nations, races and classes.
The Temple has a modern minimal style and the inside area is open walled allowing birds fly through. Don’t think that you have to be a Baha’i follower or even religious to attend. Encouraging everyone to take a moment away from it all is one of the main reasons for the temple existing.
The grounds are peaceful, somehow the noise of the city never seems to reach here, and make a great place for meditation as well as providing a tranquil 360 degree panoramic view of the city. Out of respect, please refrain from taking photos inside the temple and from smoking on the grounds.
I hope this list provides you with some ideas of great things to do in Panama City. If you have any recommendations we missed please let us know. If you venture further afield you will find, white sanded Caribbean islands, great snorkeling and ancient Indian tribes plus so much more.