Panama City, Panama
When one plans to travel to Panama, the Panama Canal will always be on the itinerary, so a stay in Panama City is required. The city is located at the Pacific entrance of the canal and is the political and administrative center of the country as well as the hub for banking and commerce. The metropolitan area of Panama City boasts a population of 3.5 million people. The canal has made it a center for shipping but even before the canal it was a starting point for expeditions for conquistadors headed for the Inca Empire in Peru. The city was established in 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Davila. The gold flowing through the city also brought pirates and privateers to the area. In January 28, 1671, the original city, known as Panama Viejo, was sacked and destroyed and set on fire by Henry Morgan and his men. It was then reestablished two years later on a location 5 miles (8 km) from the original settlement. This location become known as Casco Viejo and is now a popular tourist attraction.
Panama City is filled with many high-rise buildings and multiple cranes can be seen in the city as many more skyscrapers are being built. The city is the economic and financial center of the country, accounting for approximately 55% of the country’s GDP. The city’s economy is service based, heavily in banking, commerce and tourism.
The primary tourist attraction for the country is the Panama Canal and is just about a 20 minute drive from the city, depending on the location of your hotel. The canal is a waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. It’s cut across the Isthmus of Panama which only takes about 2.5 hours to drive from coast to coast. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, from digging the canal to the raising of the ships via locks. Ships are raised, 85 feet (26 m) as it travels through the canal to adjust for the severe tide swings of the Pacific Ocean. Each ship is boarded by a canal captain who steers it safely through the narrow channel.
A byproduct of the canal is a stretch of roadway connecting three islands called the Causeway. This road was made with the dirt excavated from the canal and dropped into the ocean to connect the islands. It’s a beautiful stretch of road connecting shops, restaurants, and harbor to the mainland.
Another, tourist destination is the earlier mentioned Casco Viejo. It is a glimpse of the city’s past and the Spanish influence visible in the structures. There are old churches, some with just the walls remaining, and tourist shops and restaurants that line the streets where pirates once mingled with the locals. Casco Viejo isn’t very large so you can easily walk and see the area. It’s a safe area but does border a sketchy part of town as well, so don’t stray too far.
Ancon Hill is another location I recommend. This is the old location of the U.S. barracks before they handed over owners of the canal back to the Panamanians. At the top of the hill, you can see why the U.S. military picked this location for their base. It has a wonderful view of the city on one side and views of the vital canal on the other. If you drive to the hill on your own or take a taxi, you’ll have to park in front of the community gate and hike up the road to get to Ancon Hill. It takes about 30 minutes one way with steep steps right before the finish. Tour vans are allowed past the gate so you’ll have less of a hike if you do it with a tour van.
Also, if you plan your itinerary during the month of February, you can take part in Panama’s Carnaval. This is an important holiday for the people of Panama who get four work days off for the holiday. The government has invested a lot of money for the Carnaval celebration with musical artists, nightly fireworks, and a nightly parade. I decided to avoid the large crowds and more rowdy party goers of the later hours so I went in the late morning. I got there at 10.30 a.m. and by the time I left, around 1:30 p.m., the music venue was almost full. The queue to get in was about 200 people deep, waiting to be checked by security. If you attend this area, make sure to dress in your swim wear as the staff will spray water into the crowd from water tankers. It’s hot and humid and with thousands of people within inches of you, you’ll be begging to be drenched by the hoses. The parade is in the evening, after 6 p.m. Unfortunately I didn’t make it back to the celebration to see it, my one regret.
Panama isn’t a large country so there are many tours you can do from Panama City. You can see the rainforest, Monkey Island, cruise Gatun Lake, or visit indigenous tribes of the area. Panama City isn’t just a hub for shipping but it is a central location for your common tourist or eco-tourist.
Pictures don’t always tell the whole story so I put together this video of my time in the city.