Few cities in the Americas can compete with Panama City when it comes to things to see and do. Some travelers spend their entire visit in and around Panama City, touring sights such as the historical ruins of Panama Viejo, walking the enchanting streets of Casco Viejo, visiting Natural Metropolitan Park, or strolling along the Amador Causeway. Visitors can also head outside the city limits for day excursions such as boating in the canal, bird-watching and trekking in Soberanía National Park, and visiting Emberá Indian villages.
It is recommended that travelers book a city tour; transportation is included, and the experience is enriched by interpretative background provided by a bilingual guide. Half-day city tours include a morning visit to Old Panama and Casco Viejo; full-day tours head to the Miraflores Locks at the canal in the afternoon. Panama Tour Bus tel. 264-4466; www.panamatourbus.com) offers a bilingual hop on, hop off tour that picks you up at your hotel -- or the hotel closest to you -- with stops at the Panama Canal, Albrook Shopping Mall, the Amador Causeway, and Casco Viejo. Tours cost $30 (£15). There's no need to buy tickets ahead of time, just call ahead to find out what time they'll be picking passengers up at your hotel. Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com), Gloria Mendez Tours (tel. 263-6555; www.viajesgloriamendez.com), Panama Travel Experts (tel. 265-5323; www.panamatravelexperts.com), and Pesantez Tours (tel. 263-8771; www.pesantez-tours.com), also offer full and half-day tours of Panama City and the surrounding area.
If you want to see Panama City on your own, taxi drivers charge between $15 and $25 (£7.50-£13) per hour. Every hotel has a personal recommendation for a private cab and can arrange the details.
Museums -- Museums across Panama are under-funded and poorly staffed, and the story here in the capital isn't any different just because it's a metropolitan city. Things could change when the Museo Antroologico Reina Torres fully reopens at its new location on the edge of Parque Natural Metropolitano. The project is far behind schedule and currently only one exhibition is open to the public, but the museum should be up and running by early 2009. The Canal Museum in Casco Viejo has modernized its tours, with bilingual interpretive signs and guides.
Beyond this, most museums in Panama City are worth visiting only if you happen to already be in the neighborhood. Perhaps local indifference to the city's museums arises from the fact that many are closed on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays -- the very time when most locals are able to visit. Volunteers and nonprofit organizations are the ones who keep the museums hanging in there, sometimes only by a thread.
Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, comprises the ruins of the oldest capital in the Americas, and is a proud emblem -- not to mention the most popular tourist attraction -- in this historic city. The ruin site covers 23 hectares (57 acres) on the city's eastern edge, where visitors will find crumbling buildings sprinkled about and connected by paths with interpretive signs in both Spanish and English. The good view from this part of the city sweeps east to the Casco Viejo peninsula, and beyond Panama Viejo's significance as a culturally unique attraction it is also a pleasant park and recreation area that provides visitors with a chance to get out and stretch their legs. Some people come here for a sunrise jog along Panama Viejo's path, which hugs the seafront.
In 1519, Pedrarias Dávila arrived with his Spanish expedition; he found a village, which was called Panamá by the cueva-speaking indigenous group that lived here. Historians agree that Panama means "abundance," but whether it is abundance of fish, butterflies, or some other plentiful flora or fauna is still open to debate. Not much is known about the cueva except that their language was spoken among different indigenous groups all the way to the Darién (near the present-day border with Colombia). In 1521, the Spanish king, Ferdinand of Aragon, bestowed Panama with formal city status in an effort to secure the mainland of the Americas, then called Tierra Firme. Within 40 years, the cueva were wiped out. To this day, not much is known about them, but recent archaeological digs have unearthed artifacts shedding light on this ancient culture.
It is not clear why the Spaniards chose to build atop this swampy area with no clean drinking water -- perhaps it was because the cueva represented an available labor force. The Spaniards first erected huts, followed by stone buildings around the end of the 16th century -- these are the ruins you see today. In 1671, the famous buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked the city, and it burned to the ground. Panama City was then moved to what is now known as Casco Viejo, on the western side of the city.
This is the best-funded archaeological site in all of Panama and, accordingly, you'll find here a superb Panama Viejo Visitors' Center & Museum (tel. 226-8915; Tues-Sun 9am-5pm; $6/£3 adults, $5/£2.50 seniors, and $3/£1.50 students; entrance fee includes admission to both the museum and the Cathedral Tower ruin site). The two-story museum offers a thorough historical account, but is the right size so as not to overwhelm visitors with too much information (exhibits are in English and Spanish). There are handsomely displayed pre-Columbian artifacts dating from 700 to 500 years before the Spanish arrival, a model of the city in its 17th-century heyday, interactive video displays of what archaeologists imagine the buildings' interiors to have looked like, and colonial furnishings, clothing, pottery, and more. The best way to see the ruin site is to begin at the center, visit the museum, then walk to the Cathedral Tower. The visitor center and museum are located about 6.5km (4 miles) east of downtown Panama City, on Vía Israel. To get here, take a taxi from downtown for $2 (£1). Another transportation option is the blue minibuses that leave on the hour from the Albrook bus terminal and that cost 25¢ (15p).
After 5 years of labor, the renovation of the site's most important relic, Torre de la Catedral (Cathedral Tower) is now complete, with a steel interior staircase that visitors can climb for the first time in 335 years; at the top are expansive city views. The tower is too fragile to bear the weight of a replica of the old bell that rang out across the city during colonial times, so a speaker, which chimes at 6:30am, 12:30pm, and 6:30pm, has been installed. Tip: Visit the tower in the afternoon, when the morning tour buses have gone. Otherwise, you might find yourself waiting up to 20 minutes to enter. Spanish-speaking guides offer free tours of the tower. If you skip the museum, the cost to get in the area around the tower is $4 (£2) for adults, $3 (£1.50) for seniors, and $2 (£1) for students; it's open Tuesday to Sunday, 8:30am to 6pm. The cathedral is a good 15-minute walk from the museum.
One of the city's best handicrafts markets is at Panama Viejo, and has recently been relocated to the visitor center (no phone; call the visitor center for information; daily 8am-5 or 6pm). Note: Even though the Cathedral Tower and museum are closed on Monday, you can still visit the ruins and walking paths.
Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter, is also referred to as Casco Antiguo or by its original and formal name, San Felipe. No trip to Panama City would be complete without a visit to this quintessentially charming neighborhood, with its narrow streets; its turn-of-the-19th-century Spanish-, Italian-, and French-influenced architecture; its bougainvillea-filled plazas; and its breezy promenade that juts out into the sea. Visitors often compare Casco Viejo to Havana or Cartagena. The neighborhood's historical importance and antique beauty spurred UNESCO, in 1997, to declare it a World Heritage Site. Because Casco Viejo provides such an ideal place to wander around and lose yourself in the antique splendor of the city streets, I've included a walking tour. Within the walking tour are dozens of points of interest, and you can really begin and end wherever it suits you.
For the past century, Casco Viejo was nothing more than a run-down neighborhood whose antique mansions were left to rot after wealthy residents moved to other parts of Panama City. With the drop in land value, squatters and low-income families moved in, many of whom continue to live here but are being pushed out by a public and privately funded large-scale gentrification project. This is most evident along the southeastern tip of the neighborhood, where lovingly restored mansions line the streets; elsewhere renovation isn't happening as fast as was hoped when the project began more than 10 years ago. To combat the housing shortage, the government is offering funds to help resettle poor residents. Foundations such as the Oficina Casco Antiguo are working on a plan, slated for completion in 2009, that will invest heavily in tourism, expanding services and even reinstalling the old street car that once ran along the city streets.
Safety Note: In spite of Casco Viejo's renovation projects and the fact that both the mayor and the president's offices are located here, tourists should say alert and protect themselves from theft. Generally speaking, the peninsula of Casco Viejo, starting at Calle 11 Este and heading east and away from the Santa Ana neighborhood, is safe. There are two principal entryways into Casco Viejo but both pass through poor ghettos, so always take a taxi to get here. Taxis for a trip out of Casco Viejo can usually be found around the Plaza de la Independencia, or if you are dining here, have the restaurant call one for you. Once, during a holiday, I could not find a cab for love nor money, and so I visited the Estación de Policía de Turismo (Tourism Police Station) and an officer shuttled me in a little scooter-car to a busier thoroughfare, where he waited with me until I got in a cab. Of course, I wouldn't do this unless you're in a pinch, but the tourism police are very polite and helpful, and they do a good job of patrolling the streets of Casco Viejo. The station is on Avenida Central at Calle 3a Este (tel. 211-2410); the office is open 24 hours, and from Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm, there is an English-speaking attendant.
Most important in this area is to tone down the "gringo look" if possible, meaning no shorts or ostentatious clothing like Hawaiian shirts. Also, do not wear flashy jewelry or walk the streets brandishing your top-of-the-line camera.
Money Matters in Casco Viejo -- There is only one cash machine here in Casco Viejo, and it's located within the National Theater (enter through the door on Calle 3A, not through the theater's main entrance). There is a restroom here as well. If the door to the ATM is locked or closed (Sun), enter through the Ministro de Gobierno y Justicia on the back side of the theater on Avenida Central, and ask the security guard to let you use the cash machine.
This conspicuous forested hill that rises 198m (650 ft.) above the city is another "reverted" property from the canal days that is now open to the public. The hill is bordered in the north by Heights and Culebra streets, and avenidas Arías and de los Mártires in the south. At the entrance to the office of the environmental organization ANCON, at Calle Quarry Heights, a winding, pedestrian-only road provides for a brisk uphill walk to a lookout point, with 360-degree views of the city center, Casco Viejo, and the canal. The hill is home to tiny Geoffrey's tamarins, ñeques (agoutis), and migratory birds. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo is here.
Parque Natural Metropolitano
The Natural Metropolitan Park is the only protected tropical forest within the city limits of a major urban area in the Americas. In other words, one 5- to 10-minute taxi ride and you can delve into the earthy environs of thick jungle with a surprising array of fauna, more than 200 species of birds, and 40 species of mammals. Expect to see mostly birds and the occasional blue Morpho butterfly fluttering by. The park, roughly 265 hectares (655 acres), is located on the northern edge of Panama City, hemmed in by a few rather busy roads including the new and noisy Corredor Norte, which runs the eastern flank of the park. The park is overseen by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which carries out scientific studies here, and by the city, which maintains an administration center with maps, educational exhibits, and a bookstore. If you're planning to visit any regional national parks such as Soberanía, skip this attraction; if your visit to the country is limited to Panama City, this park is a must-see.
Three short trails give visitors a chance to get out and stretch their legs. Los Momótides trail is the shortest (30 min.) and therefore the most appropriate trail for young children and visitors in a hurry. It begins at the administration center, but you must cross busy Avenida Juan Pablo II, so be careful. Mono Tití Road heads up to Cedro Hill and a lookout point with sweeping views of the city; alert hikers occasionally catch sight of Geoffrey's tamarins, a pint-size primate, along this trail. The most difficult trail, and the longest at 2 hours round-trip, is Cienequita Trail, which begins just up the road from the center. It is possible to connect with Mono Tití Road after reaching the lookout point. If you'd prefer something more adventurous, Ancon Expeditions recently launched their Metropolitan Nature Park and Smithsonian Rainforest Canopy Crane tour, perfect for nature lovers and bird-watchers alike, especially if you won't be venturing far from the city. The tour consists of a 50-minute ride on the Smithsonian's 42m-high (138-ft.) research crane plus 2 hours of nature observation at Parque Metropolitano Natural's hiking trails. The guided tour is limited to groups of 4, costs $99 (£50) per person, and includes transportation to and from any hotel in Panama City plus an English-speaking guide. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The park is open daily from 6am to 6pm; the visitor center is open Monday to Friday 7am to 5:30pm and Saturday 8am to 1pm. Adult entrance is $2 (£1) per person. English tours are $5 (£2.50) per person with a reservation made at least 24 hours in advance (tel. 232-5516 or 232-5552; www.parquemetropolitano.org). There are also trail maps available for a small fee.
Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway)
The Amador Causeway is a series of three small islands -- Naos, Perico, and Flamenco -- connected by a road and pedestrian walkway that projects out into the Panama Bay, offering spectacular views of the glittering city skyline and a consistent breeze. The islands, once the haunt of pirates, were connected in the early 1900s with rock and dirt excavated from the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal to form a breakwater for a protective harbor for ships waiting to enter the canal, and to prevent the buildup of sediment. Later, the United States militarized the promontory and fortified it with ordnance for protection during the two world wars. The causeway remained off-limits to Panamanians until 1999, when the canal handover opened this prime spot of real estate, much to the delight of walkers, joggers, bike riders, and diners. There is nothing like jogging or walking along the causeway early in the morning with the sun rising over the Pacific and casting its pastel hues on the glittering high-rises of downtown Panama City. The causeway is packed on Sundays.
Large-scale, multimillion dollar real-estate projects are on the horizon for the causeway, including a grand hotel, a casino, condo development, and new marinas.
By any measure, Panamanians are most excited about the opening of the new Bridge of Life Biodiversity Museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry (who is married to a Panamanian), which features high-concept exhibitions about the relationship between nature and man. Check the website, www.biomuseopanama.org, for more information. The museum wasn't quite ready at press time, but should be opening up to the public soon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.