Oh, How Beautiful Panama City is!
Panama has such beautiful beaches to offer that provinces like Bocas del Toro, for example, have become a true Eldorado for backpackers. Each year, more and more travellers are drawn to this small Caribbean country and its dream coast. Panama’s only international airport is in the capital, Panama City – so, you’ll most likely pass through here.
In this article, we want to show you that Panama City has been rather overlooked as a real tourist destination. But when you first see what makes this city so unique, you’ll understand just as much as we do. Panama City manages to combine an ultra-modern metropolitan environment with historical flair – you will hardly find this anywhere else. However, please let us give you a few pointers as well; it will help you understand the people who make Panama City what it is.
Two Worlds United in Panama City
In no other city with a population of around one million is the gap between traditional and modern as obvious as in Panama City. On the one hand, it is the economic power in this region – not least because of the Panama Canal in its immediate vicinity. On the other hand, you’ll discover the colonial beauty of the historic old town of this metropolis. The influences of indigenous tribes such as the Guaymi or the Kuna and those of the Spanish and later Colombian rulers are visible here. The landscape around the city, its beaches, and its parks all make up the casual atmosphere; they provide sand and trees between all the concrete, glass, and marble.
The Modern Skyline
The city centrer skyline is strongly reminiscent of an American metropolis with its characteristic skyscrapers, various bridges, and docking areas for boats. You can catch a really wonderful view of the cityscape from the water.
The Panama Canal was the largest and most expensive construction project in the country’s history. It was opened in 1914 and is still one of the most important shipping routes. For this reason, many consider it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Each year over 13,000 container ships no longer have to navigate around the whole of South America; instead, they can travel directly from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and vice versa. It only takes around 12 hours to travel 80 kilometres through the canal. Due to the country’s S-shaped outline, ships coming from the Pacific heading toward Europe have to sail to the west.
However, the Panama Canal is not the only architectural masterpiece worth a visit. Did you know that eight out of ten of the tallest buildings in South America are in Panama City? There are 22 proud high-rises in this city that surpass the 200-metre mark and really show off the skyline.
Most of these buildings house hotels, banks, and international companies with prominent names. The most striking tower in the city is probably the literally spiralling F&F Tower. With its full glass façade, it seems as if a staircase rises into the sky.
The Colonial Old Town
As soon as you leave the modern city centre and enter the old town (Casco Viejo), you may well think you are in a completely different city. The exterior walls of the buildings are no longer made of grey concrete or have many glass windows. Now, you see gorgeous marble and wooden façades in colorful pastel shades. The central point is the Plaza de la Independencia and the San Francisco Cathedral. Both are impressive sights, just like the Canal Museum that’s also located in the old town. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site.
The best thing to do here is to go on a long walk through the district and enjoy the beautiful balconies, magnificent palm trees, and a more relaxed small-town vibe. Along the way, you’ll be enchanted by the colonial architecture and striking cleanliness.
It’s not surprising that travellers love to stop here for a cocktail, buy a famous Panama hat, or exotic fruits and seafood – completely in line with the translation of “Panama”: fish in abundance.
Nearby Beaches and Destinations
As already mentioned, many backpackers are particularly happy about the picture-perfect beaches of Panama. The Panama City Beach is easy to reach but not nearly as beautiful as the touristy coastline of Bocas del Toro or the San BlasIslands.
Nevertheless, the city beaches add to the metropolitan environment, so you won’t miss out on the Caribbean dream. Moreover, from Panama City, you can easily reach any region of the country by bus, domestic flight, or boat.
Not far from the city centre, you can explore the Parque Natural Metropolitano. Although it’s easy to think of it as a typical city park, it is home to many exotic animals and plants. For a small entrance fee, you can take a walk or a long hike – whatever suits you best. If you visit the park on a good day, you might see magnificent orchids and palm trees, as well as monkeys, armadillos, iguanas, or the occasional sloth.
For every backpacker, the temple Baháʼí Faith, the Afro-Antillean Museum, the municipal zoo with a botanical garden, and the infamous Biodiversity Museum leave nothing to be desired for. For history enthusiasts, you will probably find what you’re looking for at the Panamá Viejo. Here, the pre-Columbian ruins provide travellers with an understanding of the country’s unique history before and during the European settlement. Panamá Viejo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Symbol of Panama City: Its Citizens
If the contrast between city and nature hasn’t won you over yet, the citizens of Panama City certainly will. Like Panama’s other inhabitants, the people in the city are at least as friendly and respectful. If you get into a conversation with Panama City’s locals, you’ll experience table manners, politeness, high spirits, and the influence of indigenous and African cultures.
Get ready for a very international and cosmopolitan city. Not everyone here speaks another language besides Spanish, but knowing English, you will get by better here than in other parts of the country.
Tourism in the capital isn’t that big, so a few Spanish phrases often work wonders. By the way, locals simply call their hometown Panamá; they don’t use the official name Ciudad de Panamá. As a backpacker, you should know this to avoid possible misunderstandings.
For the most part, the city isn’t dangerous; safety here is similar to other metropolises in Central America. Just be careful not to wander into the wrong areas: Apart from the fact that you’ll find rotten fruit on the sidewalks and abandoned shacks, which aren’t necessarily interesting for you as a traveller, you also run the risk of quickly being exposed as a foreigner. Unfortunately, Panama has been struggling with gang violence and the Colombian drug war next door for years.
Most locals appreciate the economic upswing brought about by foreign companies and tourists who flock to the country every year for their vacations. The cultural, ethnic, religious, and social diversity is seen as positive enrichment. However, try to avoid the social oppression of many indigenous people as a topic of conversation.
Of course, there are also some rather superficial residents in Panama City, especially in the business district. Here, you should be well-dressed and approach people with decency and etiquette. It is normal to address others formally; and keep in mind that some locals are quite sceptical of tourists.
Also, a few crafty locals do try to rip off tourists. In small shops and markets, you have to be very careful with the prices. The problem is that there are two official currencies in Panama: the US dollar and the local Balboa. This means every product is marked with two prices. Even though the currencies conversion rate is 1:1, the tourist price in dollars is usually much higher. You will often receive your change in Balboa, which can only be exchanged back at a bad rate. As a traveller, you’ll have to get used to this, whether you like it or not.
It’s rare for a city of almost a million people to maintain the balance between modernity and tradition as elegantly and joyfully as Panama City. Whether you’re into unique skylines, enjoy boating, or simply appreciate the Caribbean lifestyle – you’ll be completely satisfied here. Oh, how beautiful it is in Panama!