Few cities in Latin America can match the diversity and cosmopolitanism of PANAMA CITY: polyglot and postmodern before its time, its atmosphere is, surprisingly, more similar to the mighty trading cities of Asia than to anywhere else in the region. The city has always thrived on commerce; its unique position on the world’s trade routes and the economic opportunity this presents has attracted immigrants and businesses from all over the globe. With nearly a third of the country’s population living in the urbanized corridor between Panama City and Colón, the capital’s metropolitan melting pot is a study in contrasts.
Standing on a small peninsula at the southwest end of the Bay of Panama, the old city centre of Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) is the most picturesque and historically interesting part of Panama City and houses many of its most important buildings and several museums. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, it is gradually being restored to its former glory after decades of neglect. For views of the modern city and ships waiting to cross the canal, head for the bougainvillea-shaded Paseo Las Bóvedas, running some 400m along the top of the old city’s defensive wall between the Plaza de Francia and the corner of Calle 1 and Avenida A.
To the west, the Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) marks the entrance to the canal and the former Canal Zone, comprised of the causeway and the town of Balboa, which retains a distinctly North American character. East along the bay from the old city centre, the pulsing and chaotic commercial heart of the capital lies in the neighbouring districts of Bella Vista, El Cangrejo and Punta Paitilla, where the majority of banks, hotels, restaurants, shops and luxurious private residences can be found. Further east again, amid sprawling suburban slums, stand the ruins of Panamá Viejo, the first European city on the Pacific coast of the Americas
Casco Viejo and El Cangrejo are joined by Avenida Central, the city’s main thoroughfare. Running north of the old centre, its name changes to Via España as it continues through the downtown districts of Calidonia and La Exposición and the residential neighbourhood of Bella Vista. Isles of tranquillity far from the frenetic squalor of the city include Isla Taboga, the “Island of Flowers”, some 20km off the coast; the islets of the Amador Causeway alongside the Pacific entrance to the canal; and the Parque Natural Metropolitano, an island of tropical rainforest within the capital. Panama City is also a good base for day-trips to the canal and the Caribbean coast as far as Portobelo.
A growing number of budget travellers bed down in Casco Viejo. The restoration of many of the area’s colonial buildings makes it a pleasant retreat from the congestion and the pollution of the rest of the city – though there’s constantly some construction noise to contend with – and the nightlife is pretty good. The Calidonia/La Exposición area offers unexceptional but affordable modern hotels and residenciales, while further east along Via España, the districts of Bella Vista and El Cangrejo, the hub of the city’s nightlife and commercial activity, have a couple of hostels, some mid-range options and the expensive chain hotels. In high season (Dec–April) it’s highly advisable to book in advance no matter where you’re staying; hostels, in particular, are almost always booked up. It’s also best to exercise caution in all neighbourhoods after dark.
Two contrasting attractions provide welcome escapes from the frenetic pace of the capital: to the east, a short bus ride away, lie the ruins of Panamá Viejo, once the premier colonial city on the isthmus; to the southwest, and an hour by boat, tropical Isla Taboga provides a peaceful setting for some gentle hiking and beach-lounging.
Some 20km off the coast and about an hour away by boat, tiny ISLA TABOGA is one of the most popular retreats for Panama City residents, who come here to enjoy the island’s clear waters, peaceful atmosphere and verdant beauty. Known as the “Island of Flowers” for the innumerable fragrant blooms that decorate its village and forested slopes, Taboga gets very busy at weekends, particularly during the summer, but is usually quiet during the week.
Taboga’s one fishing village is very picturesque, with narrow streets, whitewashed houses and dozens of gardens filled with bougainvillea and hibiscus. Most visitors head straight for a section of beach, either right in front of the village or in front of the defunct Hotel Taboga, to the right of the pier as you disembark. The water is calmer here and the view of Panama City is magnificent, though the rubbish that frequently washes up on the beach is unsightly.
Behind the village, forested slopes rise to the 300m peak of Cerro Vigía, where a viewing platform on top of an old US military bunker offers spectacular 360-degree views. It’s about an hour’s climb through the forest to the mirador – follow the path some 100m up behind the church until you find a sign marked “Sendero de los Tres Cruces”, beyond which the trail is easy to follow. It’s a great area for spotting poison dart frogs and tarantulas, especially after some rain. The other side of the island is home to one of the largest brown pelican breeding colonies in the world and, together with the neighbouring island of Urabá, forms a protected wildlife refuge.
On the coast about 8km east of the city centre stand the ruins of PANAMÁ VIEJO, the original colonial city founded by Pedro Arias de Ávila in 1519. Abandoned in 1671 after being sacked by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates, many of its buildings were later dismantled to provide stones for the construction of Casco Viejo, and in recent decades much of the site has been built over as the modern city has spread eastward – another new major road was being built through the site at the time of writing. Despite this encroachment, a surprising number of the original buildings still stand.
The best place to start a visit is the museum on Vía Cincuentenario near the ruins, where exhibits explain the changes that have taken place since this was a tiny Indian village around 500 BC. Only one section of the ruins, the former Plaza Mayor, requires an entry fee. The major draw here is the three-storey square stone tower of the cathedral, built between 1619 and 1629. It has a modern stairway with a lookout at the top and is flanked by the square cabildo (town hall) to the right and the bishop’s house to the left. Nearby, and free to the public, is the site of La Merced, the church and monastery where Francisco Pizarro took communion before embarking on the conquest of Peru in 1531. La Merced was once considered Panama City’s most beautiful church, and survived Morgan’s burning of the city by his use of it as a headquarters.
Avenida Central runs north all the way from the waterfront in the old city centre, through the scary, off-limits barrios of Santa Ana and El Chorillo – so don’t venture down the side streets – towards the more modern portion of the city. The pedestrianized, ten-block stretch between Parque Santa Ana, a small park, and Plaza Cinco de Mayo is the liveliest and most popular shopping district for the city’s less wealthy residents. Blasts of air conditioning and loud music pour from the huge superstores that line the avenue, while hawkers with megaphones attempt to entice shoppers inside with deals on clothing, electronics and household goods. Nowhere is the diversity and vitality of the city more evident.
To the southwest of Calidonia and El Chorillo, Panama City encompasses the former Canal Zone town of Balboa, administered by the US as de facto sovereign territory from 1903 to 1979. Balboa retains many of the characteristics of a US provincial town: clean and well ordered, it stands in stark contrast to the chaotic vitality of the rest of the city, though it conceals a troubled past.
Along the border of the former Canal Zone runs Avenida de Los Mártires. An extension of Avenida 4 de Julio and often called by the same name, the road is named in honour of the young Panamanians, mostly students, killed by the US military during the flag riots of 1964. A sculpture by González Palomino, depicting three people climbing a flagpole, was erected here in 2004 as a tribute to the fallen; above it rises Cerro Ancón, crowned by a huge Panamanian flag that is visible throughout the city. An early-morning or late-afternoon walk to the top will reward you with great views of both the canal and the city and likely sightings of toucans in the treetops.
West of Balboa, the Calzada de Amador, originally designed as the canal’s Pacific breakwater, runs 6km out into the bay, linking the mainland with the tiny islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco. It’s a popular weekend escape for the city’s wealthier residents, who come here to jog, swim, stroll, rollerblade or cycle – you can rent bikes – and to enjoy the sea air and the views of the city and the canal. The northern sector of the causeway is being redeveloped into a complex – still under construction – which will comprise luxury bars, restaurants and hotels, and a marina, as well as the much vaunted Museo de la Biodiversidad (wbiomuseopanama.com), a “biodiversity exhibition centre” designed by architect Frank Gehry. Building began in 2004 but has been plagued with controversy, and there is still no opening date in sight.
At the southern side of Punta Culebra, a small promontory at the end of Naos, 4km along the Causeway, and next to the unexciting Punta Culebra Nature Center, is the departure point for passenger ferries to Isla Taboga and for some of the canal transit tours. Beyond, Perico and Flamenco are home to more shops, bars, restaurants and a marina.
On Gorgas Road in Balboa Heights, the Panama Canal Authority Administration Building was built during the canal construction and is still home to the principal administration offices. Inside, four dramatic murals by US artist William Van Ingen depict the story of the canal’s construction under a domed ceiling supported by marble pillars.
At the rear of the building, where a Panamanian flag now flutters, a broad stairway runs down to the Goethals monument, a white megalith with stepped fountains that represent the canal’s different locks, erected in honour of George Goethals, chief engineer from 1907 to 1914 and first governor of the Canal Zone. Beside the monument is Balboa High School, whose ordinary appearance belies the dramatic events it has witnessed. It was here in 1964 that Zonians attacked students attempting to raise the Panamanian flag, triggering the flag riots that left a group of young Panamanians dead. During the 1989 invasion, the school was used as a detention camp for Panamanian prisoners, some of whom were allegedly executed by US soldiers.
Panama City is a 24hr metropolis, and its residents like nothing better than to drink and dance into the early hours. At one end of the great range of places to go are the cantinas and bars around Av Central: hard-drinking dives where women are scarce. Most of the upmarket places are found around El Cangrejo – around C Uruguay in particular – Amador and Casco Viejo, though the colonial centre also has some less expensive, more bohemian spots. Nightlife in the Amador Causeway centres on the Zona de la Rumba – a secure, walled enclave of glitzy bars, restaurants and clubs, with pricey drinks and a none-too-cheap taxi fare to factor in. Once you're in a particular neighbourhood, it’s easy and relatively safe to walk between venues at night. Most clubs are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and don’t get going until around midnight. Cover charges, mostly levied on weekends and for live acts, tend to be high, but often include several free drinks.
Panama City’s cosmopolitan nature is reflected in its restaurants: anything from US fast food to Greek, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and French can easily be found, and excellent seafood is widely available. The most celebrated areas to eat out in are Bella Vista and El Cangrejo – along and around Vía España, Vía Argentina, Vía Veneto and Calle Uruguay – and Casco Viejo, with a handful of restaurants sprinkled along the Amador Causeway. Cheap hot and cold takeaway meals are available from the Rey supermarket (open 24hr) on Vía España, while the food courts in the city’s numerous shopping malls are popular at weekends.
Most theatre productions are in Spanish, and can be found advertised outside theatre buildings and in La Prensa. Rock concerts and the like happen at the convention centres of ATLAPA and Figali. Check the papers, as well as wquehacerhoypanama.com, wthepanamanews.com and wprensa.com, for entertainment listings, including live music and theatre.
On Avenida A at the corner with Calle 8 is the Iglesia de San José. Built in 1673 and since remodelled, the church is exceptional only as the home of the legendary Baroque Golden Altar, one of the few treasures to survive Henry Morgan’s ransacking of Panamá Viejo in 1671 – it was apparently painted or covered in mud to disguise its real value.
One block west of San José, Avenida A emerges onto Plaza Herrera, a pleasant square lined with nineteenth-century houses. This was originally the Plaza de Triunfo, where bullfights were held, but was renamed in 1922 in honour of General Tomás Herrera, whose equestrian monument is at its centre. Herrera was the military leader of the short-lived independence attempt in 1840; he went on to be elected president of Colombia, but was assassinated in 1854. Note that beyond the plaza lies the no-go slum area of El Chorillo, which was devastated during the US invasion of Panama, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
On Avenida A stands the ruined Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo, completed in 1678 and famous for the Arco Chato (flat arch). Just 10.6m high but spanning some 15m with no external support, the Arco Chato was reputedly cited as evidence of Panama’s seismic stability when the US Senate was choosing whether to build an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua or Panama.
Even if you don’t smell the fish market from a distance, the vultures circling outside are a sure indication that you’ve reached the city’s seafood hub, on Avenida Balboa close to the entrance to Casco Viejo. Inside you’ll find a fantastic selection of Panama’s marine life on ice, with lime, and ready to consume. The market is open daily (6am–5pm) but closed the third Monday of the month for fumigation.
At the corner of Avenida Justo Arosemena and Calle 24 is a wooden former church, now the Museo Afro-Antillano, dedicated to preserving the history and culture of Panama’s large West Indian population. It’s very small, but the exhibits – photographs, tools and furniture – give a good idea of the working and living conditions of black canal-workers.
Some five percent of Panama’s population are Afro-Antillanos – descendants of the black workers from the English- and French-speaking West Indies who began migrating to Panama in the mid-nineteenth century to help build the railroad and canal. Widely considered second-class citizens or undesirable aliens, Afro-Antillanos worked and lived in appalling conditions under French and American control. Most of the twenty thousand workers who died during the French canal attempt were West Indians, and the mortality rate was four times higher among black workers than white during US construction.
Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, successive Panamanian governments have ignored the needs of Afro-Antillanos, and they remain among the most marginalized segments of the population. In spite of this, they maintain a vibrant and distinct culture whose influence is widely felt in contemporary Panamanian society. Many second- and third-generation Afro-Antillanos still speak the melodic patois of the West Indies, and the street Spanish of Panama City and Colón is peppered with Jamaican slang. Unique Protestant beliefs imported from the West Indies continue to thrive, heavily spiced Caribbean dishes permeate Panamanian cuisine, and the music, from jazz in the 1950s to “reggaespañol” in the 1990s, has made an indelible mark on the region.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, just off Gorgas Road and housed in a former Masonic temple, has a small collection of modern paintings and engravings by Panamanian and Latin American artists, as well as temporary international exhibitions.
The excellent Museo del Canal Interoceánico, on the south side of the Plaza Catedral, explains in great detail the history of the country’s transisthmian waterway. Photographs, video footage and historic exhibits – including the original canal treaties – document everything from the first Spanish attempt to find a passage to Asia to the contemporary management of the canal.
On the seafront two blocks north of the Plaza Catedral along Calle 6, the Palacio Presidencial, built in 1673, was home to several successive colonial and Colombian governors. In 1922 it was rebuilt in grandiose neo-Moorish style under the orders of President Belisario Porras, who also introduced white Darién herons to the grounds, giving the palace the nickname of “Palacio de las Garzas”. The birds and their descendants have lived freely around the patio fountain ever since and have now been joined by a couple of cranes, donated by the South African government. The streets around the palace are closed to traffic and pedestrians, but the presidential guards allow visitors to view the exterior of the palace between 8am and 5pm daily (except Tues) via a checkpoint on Calle 4.
A couple of kilometres north of central Panama City, the 2.65-square-kilometre Parque Natural Metropolitano is an unspoilt tract of tropical rainforest that is home to more than two hundred species of birds and mammals, including Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys, white-tailed deer, sloths and agoutis. It’s possible to complete the four main trails in just a few hours; the best of these is the combined La Cienaguita and Mono Titi trail (3km), which leads to a mirador with views across the forest to the city. As elsewhere, the best time to see wildlife, particularly birds, is early in the morning – there’s nothing to stop you from coming in earlier than the official opening time. The park office and main entrance are on Avenida Juan Pablo II.
Two blocks east of the Palacio Presidencial is Plaza Bolívar, an elegant square dedicated in 1883 to Simón Bolívar, whose statue, crowned by a condor, stands in its centre. Bolívar came here in 1826 for the first Panamerican Congress, held in the chapter-room of the old monastery on the northeast corner of the square, now the Salón Bolívar, a small museum whose centrepiece is a replica of the Liberator’s bejewelled ceremonial sword. The whole building has been beautifully restored and currently houses government offices but you can visit for free.
Next door stands the church and monastery of San Francisco, built in the seventeenth century but extensively modified subsequently. Since the impressive tower is collapsing, the place has been closed for years awaiting unforthcoming restoration.
Elderly men chat amiably among the shaded benches and gazebos of cobblestoned Plaza Catedral, which sits at the heart of Casco Viejo and the old city. It’s also known as Plaza de la Independencia, in honour of the proclamations of independence from both Spain and Colombia that were issued here. The western side of the plaza is dominated by the classical facade of the cathedral. Built between 1688 and 1796, it was constructed using stones and three of the bells from the ruined cathedral of Panamá Viejo.
Across the square from the cathedral towers the half-restored facade of the Hotel Central, built to replace the Grand Hotel, which was, in its time, the plushest hotel in Central America. Southeast of the cathedral is the Neoclassical Palacio Municipal, whose small Museo de Historia Panameña offers a cursory introduction to Panamanian history.
As Avenida Central emerges onto Plaza Cinco de Mayo, the pedestrianized section ends and the maelstrom of traffic takes over again. The plaza is actually two squares rolled into one. The first has a small monument to the volunteer firemen killed while fighting an exploded gunpowder magazine in 1914; bomberos occupy a revered position in a city that has so often been devastated by fire. To the south of the plaza stands a forlorn Neoclassical building that was once the Panama Railroad Pacific terminal. The second square, Plaza Cinco de Mayo proper, borders the legislative palace compound, identifiable by a black, monolithic monument.
The Plaza de Francia lies at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, a couple of hundred metres from the theatre, and beyond the ruined shell of the Club de Clases y Tropas – the former recreation centre for Noriega’s national guard, which was bombed during the US invasion. Enclosed on three sides by seaward defensive walls, it’s the site of a monument dedicated to the thousands of workers who died during the disastrous French attempt to build the canal. The Neoclassical French Embassy building, fronted by a statue of former president Pablo Arosemena, stands on the north side of the square. The elegant building to the east is home to the National Cultural Institute. During the colonial period the square was a military centre, with the now restored vaults under the seaward walls – known as Las Bóvedas – serving as the city’s jail; built below sea level, it is claimed that they would sometimes flood at high tide, drowning the unfortunate prisoners within.
There are several souvenir shops lining Vía Veneto in El Cangrejo, and a handful of shops catering to tourists clustered along C 1 in Casco Viejo – the best is the Galería de Arte Indigena. Av Central. The pedestrian zone running between Plaza Cinco de Mayo and Casco Viejo is the place to go for low prices on any type of goods.
Just south of Plaza Bolívar on Avenida B is the Teatro Nacional, designed by Genaro Ruggieri, the Italian architect responsible for La Scala in Milan. Extensively restored in the early 1970s, the splendid Neoclassical interior is richly furnished and decorated in red and gold, with French crystal chandeliers, busts of famous dramatists and a vaulted ceiling painted with scenes depicting the birth of the nation by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis. Official opening hours are rarely adhered to, but if the door is open, you can usually take a look around; alternatively, try to catch a performance here.