Many travelers look at Panama City as merely a gateway to other parts of Panama. Whether you’re off to explore Bocas del Toro, Boquete, or the San Blas Islands, there’s a good chance you’ll land in Panama City before you take off on another flight or bus to your final destination.
However, I highly recommend allowing yourself a few days in Panama City, rather than booking it across town to Albrook Station, where the domestic flights and buses depart from.
Even if you just reserve one day at the beginning of your trip and one at the end — assuming you arrive and depart through PTY — you will not regret taking the time to explore this amazing city. During my 11-day language learning vacation in Panama, I spent three days in Panama City, and I could have easily spent more!
What to Do:
Where to Stay in Panama City
Money in Panama
Internet Access in Panama City
Map of Panama City with Points of Interest
Getting Around Panama City
Speaking Spanish in Panama City
Getting Around Panama
Panama City Quirks
Visit the Panama Canal
I didn’t think I would find the Panama Canal that interesting, but I was wrong. It was completely worth the $15 entrance fee. (They also have free wifi so you can Snap and Instagram the canal to your heart’s delight!)
Watching giant boats pulled into these tiny locks, slowly sinking or rising up as the water level changes, is pretty incredible, especially when you think about how this was all built over 100 yeas ago. The exhibits are interesting, but they get crowded. I found it most enjoyable to stand and listen to the “announcer” sharing information over the speakers as you watch the boats.
Helpful Information for Visiting the Panama Canal
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is the most popular place to visit the Panama Canal. Most people recommend visiting first thing in the morning (it opens at 9 a.m.) to guarantee you see a boat go through. I spent about two hours there and was able to see four boats go through one way (all at once) and one giant tanker go through the other way. There will always be boats waiting to go through first thing in the morning, but the afternoons could be slower.
When you arrive, you’ll want to secure yourself a good spot for viewing the first boats come in. Either go straight through, out the doors, and up the stairs to the first viewing deck (where I took the photos below), or go all the way to the top floor to get to the higher viewing area (as in the photo above). Both get very crowded very quickly.
The Miraflores Locks are a relatively short and inexpensive taxi/Uber ride from the city (or you can take the metro to Albrook and cab from there). If you are really interested in learning about the Panama Canal, this is the best choice because of the exhibits. However, if you’re interested in seeing the new expansion, you may want to explore other options.
If you have the budget for it, you can take a tour that includes riding a boat through the Panama Canal. I have to say, this looked pretty cool. (I can’t imagine what it feels like as the water level changes!)
Enjoy the Views at Ancón Hill
Ancón Hill, or Cerro Ancón, was my favorite thing that I did in Panama City. Surprisingly, not many people I met traveling there had heard of it. It probably takes 20-30 minutes to walk up to the top of the hill, but it is well worth it. (You may want to do this early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.)
If you can, I recommend doing this after you have visited other parts of the city, because it will be much more rewarding to look around and recognize the places that you have been. (From one side of the hill you can see the Miraflores Locks, from the other you can see Casco Viejo and most of the city.)
Once I reached the top, I was taking in the views when a toucan loudly made his presence known! I then relaxed on a bench enjoying the view with an empanada. (I recommend bringing a snack or meal and definitely water!).
On my walk back down, I walked very, very slowly. I really wanted to see some wildlife. It was silent, with almost no one else around, so I listened closely as I strolled along the path. I stopped at one spot with a particularly nice view, then looked the other direction and what did I see? A sloth moving slowly, climbing between two trees, and probably no more than 10 feet away from me. Incredible.
I stood and watched him for a while. When I finally continued my way back down, I quickly came across an armadillo as well. If you take the time to pay attention, I believe you will see wildlife at Ancón Hill!
Helpful Information for Visiting Ancón Hill
When I asked my Uber driver to take me to Ancón Hill, he drove me to Mi Pueblito, which is supposed to be a cultural attraction with a mock traditional Panamaian village. If this is of interest to you, by all means, take a look. I can’t speak to it personally.
However, if you walk out of Mi Pueblito and down the road (not toward the major road and city but rather past the parking lot and other traditional-looking buildings), you will be heading up Ancón Hill. There are no signs indicating this. I kept asking different people because I didn’t believe it. Eventually, you’ll see some stairs on the right and that will get you on the path up the hill.
Stroll Around Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is beautiful, but it is definitely an area geared toward tourists and the wealthy. That being said, the architecture and the views of Panama City are worth the visit. If you are interested in picking up souvenirs, you’ll have your pick here.
This is also a nice spot for restaurants and bars, though you will be paying a premium. I also appreciated how safe I felt here. (Because I was there during Carnival, there were lots of police, but it was very quiet, practically deserted.)
All in all, this is an interesting place to wander. Many compare Panama City to Dubai, it is constantly under construction and the skyline is always changing. Casco Viejo reminds me more of Old San Juan, but it is also an interesting example of this. It is still undergoing a lot of renovation — you’ll pass plenty of abandoned buildings, many which have been torn down except for their facades (preserved for their history).
You can see the renovation spreading past the current edges of the area, and I think it would be interesting to return in 5-10 years. I’m guessing this upscale tourist area will spread all the way to Ancón Hill.
Helpful Information for Visiting Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo can be pricey, especially for food. However, you can easily walk down along the waterfront to the Fish Market. There you can enjoy a cheaper meal, be reminded of the vibrancy of the city, and surround yourself with more than just other tourists. At night time, this whole area is bursting with energy.
Relax at a Rooftop Bar
Casco Viejo has a couple great selections for rooftop bars. Tántalo seems to be a popular choice, but if the wait is long there, I recommend going next door. It used to be called Gato Negro (the signage still says this up on the roof), but I believe it’s called Coliseum now. Skip the downstairs restaurant and head up to the roof.
As long as you arrive before 9 or 10 p.m., you should have no problem getting a spot to sit. This place has a cool loungey feel. They also have hookah if that’s your thing. While the prices are not what I’d called cheap, I think they’re reasonable for Casco Viejo and especially when you consider how much a drink would cost at this kind of place somewhere in NYC or another major city. Beer is around $4, cocktails around $8, and pizzas around $10-15.
Both times I visited this spot there were fireworks. (My last night in Panama City it was Carnival, so there were spectacular fireworks over the city skyline!) It’s a great way to hang out, feel a little sophisticated, and enjoy amazing views of the city for a reasonable cost.
Helpful Information for Visiting a Rooftop Bar in Panama City
Coliseum and Tántalo are easy to find in Casco Viejo, just off the waterfront near the beginning of the area on Av. B. I was imagining rooftop to be 20, maybe 30 stories. In Casco Viejo, we’re talking 3rd or 4th floor rooftops. This is enough considering you are looking across the water to the city.
If you want to have the “way up high” kind of rooftop experience, you’ll need to head into downtown Panama City. I’ve heard there are a number of hotels with rooftop-like bars (I am fairly certain you won’t actually be on the roof way up there). However, you will probably be paying quite a bit more for your food and drinks.
Hike Through Parque Natural Metropolitano
Parque Natural Metropolitano offers a different opportunity to see wildlife and enjoy incredible sweeping views of the city. Personally, if I had to choose between this park and Ancón Hill, I would choose Ancón Hill. However, a Google Search will find you plenty of people who disagree with me.
The views from the city at the top of this park’s hill are a bit further away but offer a very different perspective from Ancón Hill. What I enjoyed more about this park was that you are walking more through nature. Part of the loop is on a big paved path, but the other parts is a more intimate walk through the jungle.
During my visit to the park, I was disappointed that I did not spot any sloths, but I did see a number of monkeys. I would recommend bringing binoculars here if you have them, I imagine there is a lot of wildlife to be seen if you do. The monkeys, for example, were way, way up there in the trees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen monkeys so high up. Keep that in mind when you see the picture below, which was taken with the same lens I used on my African safari, and then cropped!
Helpful Information for Visiting Parque Natural Metropolitano
There is a small $4 entry fee to enter the Metropolitan Nature Park. This park may be a little more out of the way, depending on where you are staying. However, it could pair nicely with other activities on the other side of the city, such as visiting Panama Viejo,.
Where to Stay in Panama City
I stayed in two different places while visiting Panama City, both of which I would recommend.
Panama House Bed & Breakfast
Panama House Bed & Breakfast is a smaller, homier bed and breakfast/hostel. It is family run and has a nicely gardened backyard with birds and a resident pooch named Willy. If you are looking for something quieter (and frankly, less like a hostel) this is a good choice. It is quite affordable for your own room, even with attached bathroom, and a hearty breakfast (and free wifi) is included.
That being said, the location is not the most convenient for most of the attractions listed above. You will need to take the metro or cab/Uber almost everywhere. For me, it was just down the street from the Spanish school where I was taking a lesson. Many other people staying at the B&B were also taking lessons there, so it was easy to meet and connect with them. If you are interested in being more immersed in Spanish, this is a good option, as many of the people who work here don’t speak much English!
Luna’s Castle is more of your typical hostel, and the location in Casco Viejo can’t be beat. You can walk around the area easily, and you’re in a good location for traveling to the Panama Canal or Albrook Station for domestic flights/buses. The large common rooms have a balcony that overlooks Casco Viejo and views of Panama City’s skyline. It’s pretty awesome.
Here you will be staying in dorms, though, and sharing a bathroom (most likely). The bunk beds are nice, though — big-time sturdy wood, privacy curtains, personal shelf, fan and light, and giant drawers underneath. The hostel is well established, so they can help you arrange transportation to the airport, tours to other parts of the country, etc. The included breakfast is make-your-own banana pancakes.
Other Important Information for a Weekend in Panama City
Money in Panama
The biggest surprise for me when I arrived in Panama was the prices. Panama uses the U.S. Dollar, and the prices are pretty comparable to the States. Some things may be cheaper, others maybe more expensive, but on the whole, it didn’t feel much different to me.
Officially, the Panamanian currency is the Balboa. You may receive some of these coins and not even notice. The coins are all the same size and similar appearance to U.S. coins of the same value.
Unlike other parts of the country (I’m looking at you, Bocas del Toro), credit cards are widely accepted in Panama City.
Internet Access in Panama City
I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of wifi around Panama City. Many cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels and hostels have wifi. The airport and bus stations have wifi. In fact, there are even public areas in the city (including at the foot of Ancón Hill near Mi Pueblito) that have free, government-provided wifi.
The connection is not always great, and sometimes you have to give a lot of information about yourself before you can access the wifi. Still, the availability of wifi makes it easy to get by without purchasing a SIM card if you are only spending a week or two in the country.
Getting Around Panama City
Personally, I used Uber as much as I could in Panama City. I liked that I knew what I was going to pay (it tells you up front) and that I could minimize any miscommunications about my destination by putting it into the app.
I also had issues with Uber where my pickup location was wrong, drivers seemed to be lost or perpetually stuck in traffic when coming to pick me up, or they would just flat-out cancel on me. Of course, these are the same Uber problems you may face at home, but if the driver tries to text you it either won’t come through, or you may need to try your thumbs at texting in Spanish.
Other options in Panama City are regular cabs (though some taxis cannot be flagged down, they only pick up people who order them) and the metro, which I found to be less useful for the places I wanted to visit.
Speaking Spanish in Panama City
I found it easier to practice my Spanish in Panama City than in Bocas del Toro (which is more touristy). You are more likely to run into people that don’t speak English in Panama City, but still most people you interact with will probably speak at least some English if you don’t have knowledge of Spanish.
Getting Around Panama
If you fly into Panama, you will likely land at Tocumen International Airport (PTY). If you are taking the bus or flying to another part of Panama, you will likely need to go to Albrook Bus Terminal or Albrook Airport. They are not particularly close to Tocumen. On a good day, it may take you 30 minutes to get between them. If the traffic is bad, it could be hours.
Very Important Note About Albrook Bus Terminal
For some reason, nobody tells you this and there are no signs, but you MUST buy a special tarjeta (card) in order to get out of the terminal and board your bus. Seriously. You’ll notice that in the waiting area there are little turnstiles where you must pay your “terminal tax” with this card. You’ll also see these to get into the bathrooms. You need to get the transportation card to get through these. I saw so many people try to board their bus and get turned away, directed to go buy these cards.
Look for the booth selling transportation cards. There will likely be one by the bathrooms. They will charge you $3 for this card, but don’t be fooled, you only get 50 cents on it. The terminal tax is only 10c (yes, all of this for 10 cents!) but you must pay it with the card. It is 25c to get into the bathroom, so one potty break and bus ride and you’ve pretty much used your $3.
TL;DR : YOU MUST BUY A CARD TO PAY THE TERMINAL TAX AND BOARD YOUR BUS
Why can’t you pay the 10 cent tax with a coin, or include it in your ticket? Because that would make way too much sense and they want your money. Maybe if you’re lucky, you can find someone to swipe you through with their card. If you’re traveling with a few people, you could certainly go in on one together.
Panama City Quirks
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed Panama City. On my last day there, I met a girl who had been in Panama almost an entire month. She’d intended to travel around, but she found there was so much to do that she never left the city. A number of students at the Spanish school had opted to stay in Panama City (some in homestays) and were really loving it. Aside from the prices (which I think could be mitigated once you learned where to go and where not to go), I could really see myself spending time in this city.
If you’re really interested in taking in this city, I would suggest walking around downtown, taking the metro and getting off at random stops, vacationing like the locals do (visit Taboga Island), and talking to every Panamanian you meet — maybe even take Spanish lessons! You might just learn about a craft beer festival happening in the city, or stumble across an entire block of barbershop chairs filled with men getting their evening haircuts (it’s somewhere between the Estación 5 de Mayo and the Fish Market!).
Give Panama City a chance, and I promise you’ll find it bonito!
Many thanks to Habla Ya for hosting me during my lessons in Panama. All opinions are my own.