Wander around Panama City for a couple days and you’ll be struck by its beauty and diversity. This cosmopolitan capital has much more to discover than its famous canal.
Start by heading to Casco Viejo, the city’s old quarter, where renovation and restoration projects are everywhere. Historic buildings such as the Central Hotel—the first hotel in Panama, and the meeting place of revolutionaries leading up to Panama’s separation from Columbia at the turn of the 20th century—are being returned to their original splendour. Soccer fans take note: the hotel’s Argentinean-style 9 Reinas restaurant is partly owned by Javier Mascherano of FC Barcelona fame.
Continue exploring Casco Veijo’s narrow streets, public plazas, and churches, then head to the Canal Museum at Independence Square. Once you learn the incredible story behind the construction of the Panama Canal—and its recent expansion—you’ll want to see it firsthand. Visit the Miraflores Visitor Centre to watch ships of all sizes moving through the Miraflores Locks from the Pacific Ocean, or take a boat tour and go through yourself.
Looking out to sea from Panama’s old quarter you’ll notice the Cinta Costera, a road and recreational pathway that extends from the colonial section to the modern Punta Paitilla district, with its densely packed skyscrapers. Join locals and walk, bike, or rollerblade the path for fun and fantastic views (tip: it’s cooler, and quieter, to do so in early morning).
This cosmopolitan capital has much more to discover than its famous canal.
In the heat of the day, seek shade at the Metropolitan Natural Park, a wilderness park known as the “lungs” of the city. Observe sloths, monkeys, butterflies, and birds, including the beautiful blue-crowned motmot, while hiking one of the numerous trails that criss-cross the park.
Active, outdoorsy types hankering for more nature can join a day tour with EcoCircuitos Panama, a locally owned tour operator committed to sustainable tourism. Kayak in the Panama Canal watershed or hike through a tropical rainforest en route to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, also in the Panama Canal.
If the heat doesn’t bother you, stroll the Amador Causeway, a long, narrow stretch of land that connects the mainland to four islands and is a jumping off point for two more. On the causeway but close to the mainland is the Biodiversity Museum; a colourful Frank Gehry-designed building.
Return to Casco Viejo in the evening for a sundowner on the rooftop terrace at Capital Bistro Panama, one of the trendiest bars in the old quarter. When it’s time to eat, options abound for every budget in Casco Viejo, but two places are worth noting—Café Coca Cola for its old-school atmosphere (try the whole fried fish) and Super Gourmet for its wide assortment of sandwiches and empanadas. For a taste of Panama’s renowned coffee, stop by one of Unido Panama Coffee Roasters’ five locations in Panama City. Their café in the American Trade Hotel in the old quarter is particularly popular with travellers.
Photos by Suzanne Morphet.
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