Mainly covered by jungle, Panama is also the financial hub of Latin America. The skyscrapers of Panama City emerge between the green vegetation and the sea, in a megalopolis that brings together nature and cement, tropical climate, colonial architecture and a melting pot of cultures. At the crossroads of two continents, the Panamanian capital is in constant evolution. Here are the top 10 things to see and do in Panama City.
1. Cross the Panama Canal by boat
The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel and the best way to see it is by boat. Crossing through the passage that brings together the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Panama Canal Tours offer partial and total boat trips of the Canal, with prices ranging from $120 to $180 per person, starting in the rainforest park of Gamboa, transiting through the locks and continuing either in the Panama Bay or all the way to the port of Colon, on the other end of the Canal.
Dominating the entire city is the Panamanian flag at the top of Cerro Ancón, a lush green mountain visible from most parts of Panama City. Set aside from the skyscrapers and thick urbanisation, it is one of the best natural retreats in the city. As cars are not allowed up, the only way to reach the summit is to take a half-an-hour walk during which you will enjoy spectacular views of the city and possibly also some wildlife.
Borrowing the concept from the well-known Diablo Rojo bus, the most folkloric and probably also most dangerous public transportation in Panama, DiabloCyclo offers a really funny and different way of exploring the beautiful area of Amador, whilst doing some exercise, drinking a beer and listening to music. The DiabloCyclo is a megacycle that can hold up to 12 people and that is propelled by pedalling – with the help of an electric motor, when necessary! Also available for private parties.
Discover the gentrified neighbourhood of Casco Viejo through the eyes of ex-gang members. The NGO Esperanza has built a programme called Fortaleza Tours that employs some of the young men who once found themselves at the margins of gang violence, with the goal of allowing them to reintegrate into normal life rather than being compounded to criminality. Get to know the new wave of community leaders who will share their past, present and future with you during one of these eye-opening tours.
Open from 6am to 5pm, Panama City’s Mercado de Mariscos is the best place in town to buy fish. Whether you want to buy fresh sea bass and shrimps just as the fisherman unload their boats, or if you are looking for a place to have lunch, a visit to the fish market is an absolute must. Sit at one of the numerous tiny restaurants and order a fresh ceviche (raw fish and seafood marinated in citrus juice) to get a taste of one of the most popular dishes in the coastal regions of Latin America.
The Biomuseo is Panama City’s most renowned museum. Located in the exclusive area of Amador, it was designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry, and is made up of eight galleries that focus on the origins of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity. After visiting the museum, take a short walk in the Garden of Biodiversity and enjoy the quiet away from the chaos of the city. The museum is open all days except for Mondays.
One of the perks of Panama City is its easy access to stunning nature. If you are looking for a beach destination less than 2 hours away from the city, Contadora Island is by far the best you can find. Several ferries, operated by Sea Las Perlas, depart from the Amador Island and will take you to this small exclusive island in the Pearl Archipelago, made up of white sandy beaches, crystalline waters and luxurious villas.
The city of Panama was founded in 1519 by Spanish conqueror Pedro Arias de Ávila, and became the first European settlement along the Pacific. Panama prospered for over 150 years under the rule of Spain, thanks to the export of Peruvian gold and silver to Europe, though the city was subsequently sacked and relocated to what is today known as Casco Viejo. Though much of the ancient town is buried, the ruins of Panama Viejo, a UNESCO heritage site, is the oldest monument you will find in Panama City.
Located at the heart of the charming neighbourhood of Casco Viejo, Ochoymedio (previously known as Las Clementinas) is a brasserie-type gastronomic garden, best known for offering fine dining cuisine. While dinner is more on the pricey end, you should not be dissuaded from experiencing the magical atmosphere of this hidden tropical courtyard. Every Sunday, Ochoymedio offers a unique Sunday brunch filled with unusual flavours, hand-made bread, natural jams and luxurious cocktails, that runs from 11am to 4pm.
A butterfly at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, Panama | Courtesy of Gamboa Rainforest Resort
Just 30 minutes away from the city center, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a 340 acre wide resort, located right where the Chagres River joins the Panama Canal. Offering panoramic views over the Soberania National Forest, the resort provides a wide selection of activities to both guests and visitors including a Night Safari, an Aerial Tram, a butterfly farm, a tour to the indigenous villages of the Emberá, boat tours to spot wildlife and much more.