Panama, located in Central America is world famous for the engineering feat that is the Panama Canal, but few foreigners know much further. Its capital, Panama City is a fascinating metropolis with gleaming skyscrapers near dilapidated colonial buildings, colorful street art among litter-strewn beaches, and safe, well-manicured boulevards around the corner from violent stretches of the old city.
Upon arrival at the airport, ask for a cheaper shared cab to reach your destination. A trip to the city undoubtedly needs to include a viewing of the canal that has become such an important crossroads of trade, culture and diversity. An hour is more than enough to wander around the viewing area of the Miraflores Locks to see the ships lining up to pass through, as well as the small museum.
A short cab ride away is a small area called Mi Pueblito. This is a recreation of the villages of the indigenous Embera people. Despite being a bit touristy, the opportunity to buy the woven baskets and bracelets they are known for, among other trinkets is worth it.
America has obviously played a large part in the development of Panama, and American influence still resonates. Despite the use of American currency and anecdotes how more English is spoken here than in Miami, consistently finding English speakers proved difficult, yet is all part of the adventure. One glaringly apparent American influence is the shopping mall. The famous Albrook mall is a monolith mostly filled with American stores interspersed with some local boutiques; just be sure to skip the food court.
One of the most interesting and sought out sights here is Casco Viejo, the old town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was established in the 1670′s by the Catholic Church and Spanish colonialists as a walled city to protect its settlers. Since then, this area has experienced unbelievable neglect, leaving buildings crumbling in disrepair and a devastating slum. After driving through the sadly neglected area of Casco, there is a growing area full of vibrancy and serious restoration. It is important to be aware of your surroundings here and not wander out of the tourist-friendly areas, as muggings and violence are still rampant.
Begin taking in the sights with the gorgeous 17th Century Baroque Altar de Oro (altar of gold) in a small church. An entire day can be spent wandering the streets, popping into small artisan shops and galleries, admiring the street art (from murals to grafitti) and sampling local treats. Construction is ubiquitous and don't be surprised to find armed guards patrolling the streets. Among the classic colonial buildings are new boutique hotels and gorgeous multi-million dollar looking homes; quite the juxtaposition from the squalor a few blocks away. For some good food and relaxation stop in to the Tantolo Hotel. There is a restaurant in front of the hotel but a much more satisfying option is rooftop dining, offering a breathtaking view of the city.
Another popular district is Marbella which is known for being very safe and a nightlife hot spot. Calle Uruguay here is famous for its numerous bars and restaurants. The scene ranges from casual and hip artsy bars to full on dance clubs with bouncers out front choosing who is allowed to enter. After some indulgence, it is a bit disappointing to be left with practically no late night dining options though.
Panama boasts amazing beaches, and a trip to Bocas Del Toro or San Blas should be worked into any itinerary. But if time or money are limited, there is a lovely alternative; Isla Taboga (The Island of Flowers) is a short ferry ride from the city and a beautiful spot to relax. Find some empty sand on the beach and doze off, after, wander around the very small and picturesque town. There are quite a few restaurant options and one with a lovely ocean view should not be missed.
Panama City is undoubtedly the most metropolitan city in Central America yet still considered off the beaten path for many travelers. It's lively atmosphere and historic culture offer a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of the world.
Kate Mayer is a travel professional for Travcoa and serves as the National Manager of Membership for Millennials in Travel. Contact Kate for more information.