Often compared to Miami and nicknamed ‘the Dubai of Central America’, Panama City boasts an impressive sky line that can be seen from all areas of the city.
With a population close to 900,000, Panama City is a large metropolitan centre that sits on the pacific side of the Panama Canal. Undoubtedly, the main attraction and the reason people have heard of Panama is the canal. It currently has three locks (entrance or exit points) and one of these (miraflores) is located just outside of the city centre.
The Panama Canal was a massive project undertaken by the French government starting in 1881. After 20 years of arduous and unsuccessful work (i.e clearing the impenetrable rainforest), the French abandoned their initial plan by pulling out of Panama. The United States took over the operation in 1903, completing it 10 years later!
As you can see (above), there are two thin passageways, barely the width of a large ship.
The entire process of a ship passing through the locks takes about 30 minutes, as the underwater drainage system works as a sort of water elevator. (Check out the difference in water levels on each side of the gate, above) Once the levels are properly adjusted, the locks open and a ship is able to pass through. Quite cool to see!
Everyday, between 35-40 ships pass through these locks and the journey from the Pacific to the Caribbean takes eight to ten hours!
In 2000, Panama finally gained full control of the canal from US ownership and they are currently in the process of adding two additional locks to generate more revenue.
When visiting, make sure you arrive before 11:30am to see boats coming through, as it’d be a little boring otherwise. The entrance fee is 15USD which is a tad steep in my opinion – but hey, you’re in Panama so you kind of have to go right!?
Casco Viejo is the historic district of Panama City, and second on the list of popular tourist attractions. Built in 1673 after the city was almost entirely destroyed two years prior, Casco Viejo offers a nice mix of old historic buildings with re-built and renovated areas.
Casco Viejo is full of cafes, shops and groups of tourists and I wasn’t as impressed with the area as others I talked to. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth checking out for a few hours.. And don’t forget to pick up a Panama hat!
Outside of the two main attractions, Panama City doesn’t offer a whole lot of must-see sites. However, there are plenty of super nice walking/running areas in the newly made Balboa district which is located on the water.
The track even loops around to Casco Viejo, about a 2 hour walk from the beginning of the path, giving lazy people like myself an excuse to get some exercise ; )
My overall impression of Panama City was a positive one! A huge emphasis on development has permanently changed the city and its modernity definitely makes it a more appealing option for tourists. The city even has a new metro system, although the stops aren’t very frequent and I didn’t get a chance to try it out.
I’d recommend staying for 2 to 3 days but there are plenty of areas outside of the main spots that could keep you busy for a while longer. Hostels can be found for around 15 USD and meals are difficult to find for less than 7 USD making Panama City relatively expensive compared to the rest of Central America. Nevertheless, if you’re in the area, it’s a city worth visiting!