Forget The Beach And Enjoy A Panama City Staycation Instead
Blaring car horns, congested traffic, slum neighborhoods, unscrupulous (but legal) sex workers, worn-down hotels, gimmicky casinos, over-priced shopping, and plenty of American-style fast-food outlets.
Panama City has all those things, and, as a result, for these reasons and more, Panama’s capital isn’t usually thought of as this country’s top choice for a vacation.
Most people coming to Panama on holiday opt for the white-sand beaches, crystal-clear Caribbean, or rugged mountain interior. These destinations are among the best in the world, so it’s understandable that it’s to these locales that the majority of vacationers head for rest and relaxation or exploration and excitement.
For many international visitors, Panama City is nothing more than the point of entry and exit. And that’s a shame; Panama City is so much more than just Tocumen International Airport.
For starters, Panama City is home to one of the most historic and architecturally rich colonial neighborhoods not only in Central America but in the world. Casco Viejo, founded in 1673 following the destruction of the city’s original location, has a long and storied past. In this UNESCO site, Spanish-, French-, and American-colonial structures line the brick-paved streets and surround the classic and shady plazas.
It all adds up to a great Panama City staycation for history buffs. You could spend days exploring the centuries-old churches, museums, and other structures, some converted into shops, art galleries, and trendy bars and nightclubs.
One important historic sight you won’t find in Casco is the original location of Panama City, known as Panama Viejo, now in ruins and a must-see for any hobby historian.
The downside to Casco today is that it’s become trendy. This means more tourists and higher prices. Accommodation can cost hundreds of dollars a night. Look for hotels offering discounted packages.
For example, Gato Blanco offers a deep discount on their high-end and comfortable rooms if you spend a certain amount (US$50 during my last visit) in the spectacular rooftop restaurant and lounge upstairs. The view from the rooftop alone made the stay worth it, never mind the deal on the room.
Luna’s Castle hostel gives guests a discount on drinks in its popular basement bar, Relic. The mix of backpackers, business types, and trendy 20-somethings makes the rustic Relic unique in Panama.
Less interested in history than in modern glitz and glamor? Panama City’s got that, too… starting with the Trump Hotel’s pool bar on the 66th floor, where the view of the city is worth the US$10 cocktails.
Feeling lucky? Roll the dice in the newly opened casino. The ocean-side restaurant is worth a visit, too.
If you’re not a fan of The Donald and shutter at the idea of entering a building with his name on it, don’t worry. You have other options.
At the Hard Rock Hotel, spectacle is everywhere, down to the memorabilia on the walls. The pieces on display include one of Slash’s famous top hats, Sid Vicious’ classic leather jacket, a rhinestone jumpsuit worn by Elvis, the shoes worn by Britney Spears in her “Hit Me Baby” music video, the bra and G-string worn by Madonna during her 1993 “Girly Show” tour, and the East German-built Trabant automobile used on stage during U2’s 1992–93 “Zoo TV” tour.
The upper-level rooftop bar hosts live music performances regularly, and the dance floor is always sweaty.
At the Hard Rock, the party doesn’t have to stop with last call at the bar. To keep the after-party going, ask the front desk to deliver an electric guitar or digital turntable to your room. You don’t have to be a rock star to party like one in Panama City.
After a long night of mojitos and cervezas, you might appreciate some fresh air. Take a stroll along the new Cinta Costera ocean-side walkway. The trails and parks along Panama’s oceanfront cover 26 hectares and include playgrounds, fountains, sculptures and statues, outdoor workout equipment, skate parks, soccer fields, and basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts.
Along the Cinta, too, are the fish market and Maracana Stadium. This is the place to be for parades on Independence Day, Christmas, Carnaval, and often random Sundays.
While the Cinta is a nice piece of greenery in an otherwise concrete jungle, it doesn’t serve up any wildlife. But don’t worry. Panama City has that, too.
With more than 650 acres of it, Panama City is the only capital city in the world with a rain forest within its city limits. If you want to experience some of this urban jungle (literal jungle, not concrete), take a trek up to the top of Ancon Hill. The 654-foot summit is the highest point in Panama City, and the views of the city and ocean are worth the hike. You might also see a sloth, a monkey, or other jungle wildlife.
Another spot in Panama City that should be on any nature lover’s list is the newly opened Biomuseo at the base of Panama City’s Amador Causeway, a stretch of islands connected to each other and the mainland using dirt and rock dredged in the making of the Panama Canal.
Designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, the Biomuseo is housed in a contemporary structure in the category of the Pompidou Museum in Paris. The museum’s exhibits are based on Panama’s biodiversity and curated by the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Panama. One recent exhibit showcased the fossils of giant sharks and tiny camels unearthed during the ongoing Panama Canal expansion work.
Finally, of course, no staycation in Panama City would be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. If you don’t want to invest the time (12 hours) or the money (around US$200) to transit the canal, visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, where you can watch ships pass through the locks and learn about the canal’s history in the center’s worthwhile museum.
Now, the next time someone tells you that Panama City has nothing to offer travelers, you can point out how he’s mistaken.
Skip the legendary traffic jams in and out of the city on holidays and weekends. Opt for a Panama City staycation instead.
Editor’s Note: VIP places for this year’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference sold out in record time last week. We’ve been able to add 10 additional VIP spots for this, our only Panama-focused event of the year.
These are available on a first-come, first-served basis and will go quickly.