Panama City is one of those strange places that sits between two different worlds, and you’re never sure which one you’re in. Old? New? Legitimate? Shady? Caribbean? Central American? Dollar? Balboa? It’s anybody’s guess!
Arriving in Tocumen airport, which many that traverse the skies of Latin America do, the most striking feature is the wall of skyscrapers that hug the verdant coastline for miles and miles. Dolmens of development or moai of money laundering, the contrast is stunning.
Like the ships plying the country’s famous canal, most of these travelers don’t set foot anywhere other than port. But earlier this year I decided to go beyond the Copa Airlines stopover lounge and explore the charmingly bizarre city and its environs.
It only takes a two or three day layover to discover what makes this place special.
5pm – Make it on the Malecón
It wouldn’t be a trip to the gleaming center of Panama City without a stroll along the Malecón. Stretching for miles along the bay, the renewed urban park thumps with body perfect joggers, young couples, and enough designer sportswear that would make you swear you were in Miami. Take a walk from end to end and take in the tropical sunset at one of the bars along the stretch to kick off your weekend.
8pm – Pass the Posta
There’s a reason why Panamanian restaurants don’t line the streets of the world’s great cities. A distinctly Caribbean place which suffered cultural influence from one of America’s least distinguished culinary periods, there’s a lot of fast food, a lot of fried food and just a lot of bland. But this doesn’t mean you can’t eat well.
Several new restaurants have cropped up, particularly in the city’s hip and central Bella Vista section, which take advantage of Panama’s tropical climate and easy access to cargo to spice up the local offering.
La Posta is a place for several of the senses. Serving a perfectly capable Italian menu, the restaurant is a place to see and be seen, and enjoy a Havana-esque tropical dining room replete with colonial fans.
Another solid option nearby is Market in Bella Vista, for international food and things that won’t give you the willies about your stomach ahead of your big canal adventure.
Go to bed early to assure you’re ready for the necessary trip to the canal tomorrow.
8am – Setting off towards history
A full day in the Canal Zone is as rewarding as it is mystifying. 100 years later, I still found myself asking “how can this exist?” At a time when we feel innovative by creating a new app to order food from a smartphone, our ancestors connected oceans and built locks and dams that still survive today.
This is envisioned as a weekend itinerary, but if you’re around during the week, it’s very worth taking one leg of your trip on the Panama Canal Railway. Envisioned as a throwback to headier days of rail travel, the service makes a once a day, 1-hour trip between Panama City and Colón (where you were end this itinerary). The route hugs the canal while providing views impossible to see from the road and inaccessible by foot.
Otherwise, rent a car and head to the Miraflores locks, 30 minutes outside town.
9:30am – A first glimpse at the canal
The morning is a particularly good time to spend at the locks, as it is often the most active time for this part of the canal. Head into the observatory to view history and engineering continue to stun the streams of guests. From the top platform, you can appreciate the difficult physical landscape that the founders had to contend with, and see just how large the ships are that pass through the narrow locks. From the bottom, less crowded outdoor area with a charmingly rundown concession stand, take in the nuts and bolts of the canal’s operations, and sit alongside some of the dockworkers as they take coffee breaks.
10:30am – California coffee
Stop for a coffee of your own across the street inside the curious Ciudad del Saber. Sitting between the American embassy and the locks, this complex looks like it was lifted from Southern California and plopped down in the tropics. It has been meticulously kept as an office park through the years, and the new central courtyard with restaurants and bars is testament the uniqueness of the place.
Make a right on your way out and you’ll be on your way to Colón.
12:00pm – Changing winds
You’ll notice something strange happen when you approach Colón. Start looking at people, and start looking at the surroundings. Start listening to accents on the radio. They’re different. As the center for the country’s Afro-Panamanian population, the Colón area offers a cultural detour from glitzy Panama City and into gritty Caribbean decay.
Intrepid travelers (I am not one of them) could check out Colón’s center, which is full of buildings in various states of disrepair and people in various states of despair. Once a prosperous city, merchants have abandoned it over time with new warehouses on the outskirts of town and businesses in Panama City. The city now is the country’s most violent cities and a modern synonym for bad Latin American urban management. It is also the hub of the country’s Middle Eastern and Asian merchant classes (the main avenue in town is called “Avda. Ahmad ‘Miguel’ Waked”), and you shouldn’t be surprised to see Asian and Arab Panamanians walking through the city’s shopping malls or more upscale establishments.
For a more pleasant and historical detour, take the short drive out to Portobelo, reputedly the place where Colón first set foot on the American continental mainland. The town now is a charming, small, tourist-oriented but workaday place, with remnants of old Spanish forts and cemeteries dotting the urban grid and a breathtaking bay with ferry operators ripe to take you on a tour.
If you have more time in Panama, this is also an excellent jumping off point for wild, secluded beaches down the coastline. Inquire with the boat operators on how they schedule their trips.
2:30pm – So close you can touch it
Now that you’ve seen Miraflores, you might think you’re done with locks. But it would be a mistake to pass up Gatún, the northern set of locks and a more intimate visiting experience.
A smaller complex closer to the sea, your approach to the locks is through a very working building with men wearing hardhats and lock workers milling about the visitor’s center. Even more special is the viewing deck, where you can see the gates holding different levels of water and containing the lakes and the sea through their tiered doors. If a ship passes by, unlike Miraflores, it comes almost close enough to touch.
On the way out or in you’ll have seen a glimpse of the massive expansion underway at the Canal, with an ambitious plan to more than double capacity through new locks and wider channels.
3:30pm – Driving through time
Be punctual! And don’t miss a nearby attraction that allows you not only to see an incredible former Spanish fort inside a former American military base, but also allows you to actually drive a car across the canal.
On your way out of the visitors’ center, hang a left towards Castillo San Lorenzo and Real de Chagres. Just to your left, you’ll see the expanse of the canal spread out before you and the doors holding back your imminent death as you toddle across a rickety mesh iron bridge.
You’ll start to pass intimidating former US military-looking signs and finally arrive at a gate to pay and enter the national historical site and current Panamanian base.
Upon entry, the first thing that you’ll see is haunting. Rows upon rows of American-style barracks sitting empty, being left back to nature. Like the set of an apocalypse movie, the place truly makes you want to stay in your car. Continue on and you’ll see a still active US marina and restaurant with American military posted in Panama on site.
Continue to the end of the road and prepare to be marveled (and watch out for the giant sink hole that I presume is still there). When you reach the end, you will find Castillo San Lorenzo and Real de Chagres. While there’s a lot of history to know about this fort, just take it all in while you’re there. The confluence of the sea and rivers, the forest, the nothingness around you, and it becomes clear how strategic a lookout this must have been in its day. Old cannons remind of the geopolitical importance, and the ruins of buildings make it plain how nature can reclaim anything it wants to.
9pm – Glitz and glamor
Once you arrive back in Panama City and have a chance to rest from a busy day in the Canal Zone, it’s time to party. Now, full disclosure, I’m sort of terrified by the idea of serious Panama City nightlife – it’s not exactly Disneyland and lots of things find their way in and out of the big city. But if you play it safe and don’t mind a relatively tame evening, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.
But first you’ve got to eat.
There’s no better place for a Saturday dinner than the Centro Histórico, Panama City’s rapidly developing historical core. You’ll be back tomorrow for sightseeing, but get your nighttime bearings (without going too far off the beaten track) at a table at Manolo Caracol which is one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants serving a range of international market-style dishes with a Panamanian flair.
Then, head over to the rooftop of Tantalo bar, where you can admire the Singapore-like views from afar at an open air bar, to the sounds of live salsa, son and the occasional bachata. They have reliable (if offbeat) tapas as well.
11am – Downtown by day
Get an easy start and head right back down to the historical center to see what you missed the night before.
Take an hour getting lost in the charming streets, and witness the construction and toil going into renovating buildings and façades alike. Walk past the Palacio de las Garzas, the Panamanian White House, have a seat in a nearby plaza for an ice cream, and generally soak up the view of everything you want a colonial Caribbean city to be.
Panama City is not especially renowned for its museums, but the Interoceanic Canal Museum is a must. Telling the story of Panama from the history of the territory to the canal’s construction to the “Zonians” (the word for the Americans inhabiting the former US territory of Panama Canal Zone) and the sovereign movement. An exercise in the history of Panama as well as the U.S., it’d be a shame to miss on your visit (plus they have great air conditioning – which you’ll appreciate by this time in your journey).
If you aren’t in a hurry anywhere else, and head over to the Amador Causeway and dock at Barko to have lunch or a drink as you watch the boats go past. Accompanying you inside and outside the restaurant will be families, couples, and other visitors eager to hug the sea and stroll in the city’s newfound prosperity. It’s not the Canal Zone of yore, nor is it the Latin America you’ll recognize from elsewhere. It’s just Panama City.
And while it might not be Singapore or Miami, by the time you’re done with your visit you’ll find your own interpretation of what is truly special (or strange) about Panama City and the former Canal Zone.