From the bustling downtown core and shopping malls around Balboa Ave. to the lofty sky rises dotting the coastline, it’s quickly apparent that Panama City is not your typical Central America town. Home to the famous Panama Canal and an international hub for banking and commerce, Panama City is leading the way economically across Central America and offers a welcome treat back into the Western world.
The success story for Panama City lies in its important role in the shipping industry with the world’s largest canal system passing through its narrow straights. Completed in 1914 it is still ranked today as one of the world’s largest and most complicated engineering projects with almost 15,000 ships passing through the locks annually.
As the city’s top tourist attraction, a visit to the locks is a must-do. Surprisingly there are limited public transit options to get to and from the locks so unless you’ve got a whole day to kill, you’re better off taking a taxi round trip. The Miraflores visitor center consists of a museum, amphitheater, three observation decks and a restaurant. Entrance is $15 US for entrance to the entire exhibit, or $10 for just the viewing platforms. The big “Panamax” Ships usually cross early in the morning or late in the afternoon, making this the best time to see the canal at its peak capacity.
After you’ve marveled at the canal’s engineering and technology, head over to Casco Viejo for a look back in time at Panama’s historic center. Designated a world heritage center in 1997, Casco Viejo was settled in 1673 by the Spanish after the original Panama settlement burned down. The neighbourhood mirrors other Central American towns with narrow streets lined with Spanish architecture churches, homes and a main central plaza with much of the neighbourhood under renovation to restore it to its original splendor. The outskirts around Casco Viejo are still quite dodgy so it’s best to stick to the main tourist sections and plan your visit during daylight hours.
Accommodations are a tad pricier than elsewhere in the country, but with so many upscale options available it’s a good place to treat yourself to a nice hotel or B&B and enjoy a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep. It’s also a good place to splurge on air-conditioning, as the humidity level can be unbearable during the day with late afternoon showers being common.
Girl Gone Gallivanting Review: A great introduction to Central America and a refreshing break on land after our five day sailing trip through the San Blas Islands. Two days in town is enough to see the sights and enjoy the civilization of the city before venturing back into the wilderness of Central America.