9 minutes reading time Panama
Usually Panama City is the perfect place for US citizens when travelling for a quick stopover, layover or even 2/3-day weekend particularly due to its location, affordability and convenience. Some travelers may even arrive in Panama City with low or literally zero expectations, however what they find out when they leave is that Panama offers something simply unique and is truly diverse and different compared to other Latin American countries that will turn a layover into a trip of a lifetime.
If there was ever a debate about which country/city in Central America is the best to visit then Panama may not spring to mind at first for most tourists, however what is most spectacular about Panama City is that Panama is deemed to be the most diverse and cosmopolitan city in central and Latin America.
Normally Panama City would be the starting point for many when visiting here for a few days, however when you see that this metropolis is surrounded by a green rainforest with amazing wildlife then you might just be tempted to explore further what this laid-back city has to offer.
Panama City, which is a regional hub for trade and immigration, offers tourist travelers a vibrant city, wonderful nature and a world-famous canal.
Due to its benefits with immigration, here in Panama many worlds co-exist helping shape the capital as a metropolis with many different worlds living together. Because of its cultural and dynamic mix this develops a “happy go lucky” attitude that creates a very unique lifestyle that’s much different to its neighboring countries.
Panama City, east of its world-renowned canal (Canal de Panamá) is located on the Pacific coast where many skyscrapers are found amongst its beautiful rainforests. Panama also enjoys a handsome environment including also being one of the most strategic transportation hubs of the world. Due to the 82km long Panama Canal, Panama continues to play an important role considering its at the heart of the connection point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for shipping, international affairs and world commerce.
However, in recent years Panama City has become a major tourist destination among tourists especially for retirees (Again due to its immigration benefits & also a big hub for international banking). With its wide variety of culture and charm, Panama is unquestionably a must go see city.
From undertaking a Day-trip to the striking white beaches (Pacific or Caribbean), doing a tour of the famous Panama Canal, or even exploring the lush rainforests occupied by monkeys, toucans and sloths, Panama has something for everyone.
When to visit Panama City
With Panama being mostly covered by rainforests, rain pretty much happens all year round however if you are keen to avoid rain as much as possible the peak time to travel to Panama is between December and April. Furthermore, if you prefer travelling off-season then you might experience a few showers here and there but only for an hour or so before the scorching heat reappears.
Currency in Panama
While Panamanians use their local currency “Balboa”, USD is also used throughout the country. Equal to the “Balboa” USD is even used more commonly than “Balboa”, if using a local ATM you will get Dollars in return rather then “Balboa”. If your someone who likes to buy small items from local markets then you could receive Panamanian coins that you can use together with along with USD.
- Carry small coins – Taxi drivers and shop assistants will not accept larger USD bills to pay for inexpensive items. Be sure to carry coins especially when buying smaller items.
- Eat at the local street vendors – Meals at local market stalls cost between 3-4 USD. You’ll get rice, chicken, beans, and maybe another side plus a drink. A cost-effective way whilst travelling in Panama.
Added tip – eat what the locals eat (if you’re on a tight budget and want to save money).
- Avoid taxis – Taxi’s in Panama can be very expensive. As a local will tell you especially if you are a “Gringo” (An American). Taxi’s in Panama are far more unwilling to negotiate than other places like Asia. Try to avoid them if at all possible.
- Use tap water – In most of Panama, you can drink the tap water, it won’t kill you or make you ill. It’s not necessary to buy new water bottles daily, so save yourself a few dollars by using the tap water at your convenience.
- Stick to beer – Beer is usually 0.50-1 USD during hostel happy hours. Otherwise, a local Panama or Balboa is around 2 USD. Mixed drinks will cost more, so stick to beer. You’ll be able to save money without cutting into your good time.
What to do in Panama City
A trip to Panama wouldn’t be complete without a trip to see the Panama Canal, Panama Canal is one of the worlds most famous water projects of all time. To see this iconic attraction, you don’t need to take a packaged tour (I would recommend doing this individually also to save money) you can simply take an Uber to the Miraflores Locks and purchase a ticket.
The history here is simply incredible which educates you from how the canal began to how the canal continues to be the hub for international trade. When reaching the visitor center, you also have a chance to watch a short documentary about the history of the Panama Canal.
If you’re someone like me who is not the most avid fan of ships then maybe an hour or so might be enough for you to enjoy the Panama Canal at the observation viewpoint for you to enjoy the experience.
Added tip – If possible, try doing a little research about what time the ships will arrive before visiting the Panama Canal. This way it allows you to fully utilize your time visiting there as the ships move very slow so you cannot actually see them moving at first.
The Casco Viejo region provides some nicely preserved structures from its colonial days. The Casco Viejo area fell into decay until recent generations focused on preserving the history and the architecture. It is worth a visit, not only for the historical lesson, but also for the views of the canal entrance along the Almador Causeway and the city’s impressive skyline.
Here in the historical quarter area in Casco Viejo lies narrow red bricked streets, a beautiful colonial historic charm and delicious local Panamanian food. You will discover many of the streets here are lined with local nightclubs, bars and fine dining restaurants.
Casco Viejo ultimately is absolutely worth a visit due to not only the beautifully designed streets, food and beach but also due to its culture and historic significance that was essentially recognized in 1998 by UNESCO and as a consequence was deservedly placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Metropolitan Nature Park
If you’re a nature lover and love to explore everything nature related then most certainly check out the Metropolitan Nature park in Panama City.
The park offers a world class experience for nature and bird lovers who are welcomed to the tropical research institute in Panama to study the remarkable Bio-Diversity. With this tour you will be taken to the highest point of the forest and will get breathtaking views above the forest (about 35m high) of Panama City.
To enter the Park the entrance fee is $5 for adults, also the trail around the nature park lasts approximately 3-4 hours so if you are someone who is looking at visiting this beautiful park make sure to bring some water.
Food prices in Panama City are tremendously cheap here, however again due to Panama City being extremely cosmopolitan there is a wide range of variety food to cater to budget friendly travelers, mid-range and fine dining for tourists who like a bit of luxury.
Prices can differ considerably, for instance a bottle of beer on average in Panama City is ($3) somewhat more expensive than maybe other cities across Panama.
Local Panamanian food is also extremely cheap where for $3-5 you can find some amazing local Panamanian cuisines that your taste buds will relish.
Here in Panama the food is slightly Caribbean influenced meaning you will find the local street food vendors serving delicious chicken rice and peas with some great flavor.
If you prefer something more westernized then western restaurants in Panama might set you back around $10 dollars or so. If you like to enjoy fine dining along with a polished bottle of wine then check out also some of the more prominent fine dining options in Panama City that may set you back maybe $40 dollars a meal.
Panama City is such a fascinating place yet fun to travel with remarkable wildlife which possesses a laid back and stress-free lifestyle that enables you to travel freely, safely and cheaply.
Embracing the local history and colonial architecture whilst consuming mouthwatering wonderful Panamanian food is something many tourists here are found enjoying whether for a few days or longer.
With so much more then just Panama City to see Panama is convincingly the most unique country to visit in Central America. Whilst its not heavily overpopulated with tourists or overpriced Panama provides a unique experience to everyone.
With its pristine beaches along the Caribbean or Pacific coast, its eco-wildlife, Spanish architectural structures or even some of its more cultural run down towns, Panama couldn’t be a better destination to explore also thanks to it relative ease with immigration.
With incredible biodiversity that is home to nearly 1000 bird species, Panama City is the only city in the world with a tropical jungle within walking distance. Such uniqueness makes this beautiful country a trip of a lifetime.
Considering everything, Panama might be your finest introduction to Central America.