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Panama City is the cosmopolitan capital of Central America, located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. The city is a vibrant metropolis with a dense skyline of high rise buildings, in contrast to the peninsula of Casco Viejo, a thriving colonial neighbourhood. Panama City is the gateway to tropical and rainforest escapes, sandy beaches (Pacific or Caribbean), the Panama canal and lush rainforests of howler monkeys, toucans and sloths.
Things to do in Panama City
The great thing about Panama City for Backpackers is the fact that there are so many free, or cheap things to do.
Explore Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is the historic district and cultural gem of Panama City, built by Spanish colonialists around 1673. The vibrant and colourful neighbourhood is filled with homes, churches, cathedrals, museums, restaurants and shops. Spend a day exploring the streets and admiring the architecture built through many different historical phases. Come back at night to enjoy a great selection of restaurants and nightlife.
Take a walk along the Boardwalk – Cinta Costera
Connecting Casco Viejo to Panama City, Cinta Costera offers amazing views of the Panama City Skyline and Casco Viejo bay area.
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering. Many visitors choose to explore the canal by visiting the Miraflores Locks Museum. The museum has a wealth of information on the construction of the canal and has a video explaining how it was developed and its plans for future growth. From the restaurant located on the top floor of the museum, visitors can watch transiting vessels in the canal below. It is possible to take a full canal crossing, but this takes 4 – 8 hours so most visitors choose to watch from Miraflores locks. Entry is $15.
Located at the Southern End of Panama Canal and stretching three kilometres into the Pacific Ocean, Amador Causeway is a great place to watch ships exiting and entering the Canal. There is a path connecting the causeway to the mainland that is ideal for biking. You also get great views of Panama City.
Ancon Hill offers one of the best views of Panama City, nestled amongst the jungle, however still in the middle of the City.
Hiking in Metropolitan Park
As a nature lover, this was right up my alley. Within Parque Metropolitano, there are 5 interconnected trails with an estimated 4+ hours of hiking. The park is well maintained and informative signs help you choose a trail based on what you’re after: an easy walk, a challenging hike, a great view, birdwatching, etc.
The entrance fee is $ 4, making a morning in Metropolitan Park great value.
Explore Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo was the original heart of Panama City, but a pirate attack meant a relocation to what is now known as Casco Viejo.
Panama Viejo is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
San Blas Islands
If you didn’t just arrive on a boat through the San Blas Islands, I highly recommend organizing a tour of the San Blas Islands from Panama City. The San Blas Islands are paradise. I recommend a 3-day tour of the islands. Your days will be spent sailing, drinking rum from coconuts, snorkelling, eating fresh fish and swinging in hammocks.
Isla Taboga is located 20 kilometres from Panama City and is a popular place to escape. On Isla Taboga you can relax on the sandy beaches, ride jet skis or take a fishing charter. First settled by the Spanish in 1515, Isla Taboga has a charming village with the second-oldest church in the western hemisphere, a few narrow streets with restaurants and great views to Panama City from the top of the Island.
Cathedrals, Churches and museums
Are popular attractions in Panama City. I didn’t visit any so can’t make recommendations other than doing a Google search to find the best ones.
If you’re in the mood to shop, head to Albrook Mall. It is one of the largest shopping malls I have ever been in. If you don’t want to spend money, I would stay away because you will undoubtedly see something you want to buy.
Recommended length of stay in Panama City
I recommend staying in Panama City for 2 -3 nights. You could easily spend up to 5 nights, I just personally prefer to spend my time outside of the city in other places around Panama such as Boquete and Bocas Del Toro.
Getting to and around Panama City
If coming Internationally, you will fly to Panama City Airport. From the airport, you can get a taxi to Panama City or Casco Viejo for around $10.
A popular way to get to Panama from South America/Colombia is sailing through the San Blas Islands. This costs between $375 and $550 and goes for 4 nights and 5 days, all-inclusive. This is the same cost as flying from Colombia to Panama so if you are coming from Colombia I recommend this option. The San Blas Islands are amazing.
In Panama, I found that most things are within walking distance. If it isn’t within walking distance you can take a bus for 50 cents or get a taxi for a couple of dollars. YOU MUST make sure you agree on a price before you hop in and if they are saying it’s more than it should be, walk away. The taxi drivers in Panama City were terrible.
Where to stay in Panama City
I recommend staying in Casco Viejo, the old town in Panama City.
Luna’s Castle is popular amongst backpackers and renowned for its party scene. I didn’t stay here but I walked past and checked it out. It was in a great location.
I stayed at Hostel Villa Vento Surf, located in the banking district of Panama City, so not the most scenic location. It was a 40-minute walk along the Broadwater to Casco Viejo. This hostel had a pool which is why we booked here but would have preferred to stay in Casco Viejo as it was much more scenic and central.
Search for cheap accommodation options here
Travel Insurance for Panama City
Safety in Panama City
Panama City felt relatively safe, but there are some safety precautions I recommend exercising:
- Avoid flashing your valuables
- Keep an eye on your belongings at all times
- Lock your belongings in the hotel safe
- Remain aware of your surrounding
- Avoid unknown streets at night
- Don’t drink too much
Language in Panama City
The official language in Panama is Spanish. Some locals will speak English.
Vaccinations for Panama
Check the Travel Doctor website to find out what vaccinations you need when backpacking to Panama. If you have any further questions regarding vaccinations required for Panama, I recommend consulting a doctor.
Overseas Travel Checklist
Pin this Backpackers Guide to Panama City
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