The first things that might come to mind when thinking of Panama are the hats and canal which bear the country’s name. You may also think of the country’s less than flattering reputation for money laundering, or of the US incursion there a few decades back.
Of course, there is much more to the country than these few stereotypes (although in the case of Panama hats there is less - these actually come from Ecuador). Panama is not a huge country, but it does have a few good beaches and other natural attractions knocking around. Of its urban centers, it is the capital, Panama City, which is most visited by outsiders. Is it worth you heading there too?
A Handful of Attractions…
Panama City is by no means an unpleasant place. You can happily spend a bit of time in this modern city, without finding it overly disagreeable. In particular, the city caters well to the business travelers that make up the majority of its international visitors. Scattered roundabout are a host of familiar western brands, five-star business hotels and conference centers. The weather is warm, the city feels safe and there is a decent level of development and infrastructure.
You can happily spend a bit of time in this modern city, without finding it overly disagreeable
For such visitors, or anyone else in town for a short period, there is probably enough to keep you entertained for a few days. There is a selection of pretty decent restaurants, especially in the casco viejo (the old town), and prices still compare quite favorably with international standards. The old town is also a pleasant area to take a stroll around and admire the range of rustic, historical buildings and houses that it hosts.
A good day-time activity would be a visit to the Panama Canal; worth going to mainly just to say that you’ve been, rather than because it’s especially visually stunning. In fact, the actual crossing point of the canal is surprisingly small, but a visit does provide the opportunity to glean a few surprising tidbits and stats about the waterway and the costs involved in using it.
Given the waterside location, there is plenty of sea front and long stretches of concrete promenade
Given the city’s waterside location, there is plenty of sea front and long stretches of concrete promenade. Do not expect much in the way of beach, however, as the shoreline is comprised mainly of (somewhat smelly) mud and stones. Within the city itself, luxury white sands are notable by their absence, but if you have the time and the inclination, there are some more pleasant beach options about 20 minutes outside the city.
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…But Are They World Class?
So, the city does have a few points of interest. However, it falls down mainly because it lacks any real standout attractions and does not have sufficient charm to recommend it outright as a great place to visit. Overall, the capital feels a little soulless.
While it does boast a Manhattan-like skyline made up of huge apartment complexes, hotels and businesses, in Panama City this has not translated into a buzzing atmosphere at street level. Partly, this is because many of the huge buildings seem to be unoccupied much of the time. Gaze up on these constructions at night and you will perhaps see only about 20% of the rooms have lights on.
While Panama City does boast a Manhattan-like skyline this has not translated into a buzzing atmosphere at street level
Perhaps this is because a lot of these properties are owned by external entrepreneurs who visit the city only irregularly. Yet it seems more likely that the low physical occupancy rates are related to the iffy financial transactions which have historically blighted the local banking system.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that many of the most upmarket areas and establishments often appear eerily empty. This has proved particularly detrimental in terms of nightlife in the city center, with many of the supposed ‘best spots’ lacking clientele. More popular destinations include the large discotecas located slightly out-of-town. These establishments are certainly busier, but – given their location within malls on quasi-industrial estates – they are hardly overflowing with character.
Some of the best reasons for visiting Panama City are for business, or because you are using it as a stop-off point on the way to more attractive destinations, such as the San Blas Islands. Backpackers coming down from a long trip through Central America may also find it to be a refreshing oasis of development compared to the more-difficult travelling experienced in some of Panama’s less affluent northern neighbors.
If you are travelling purely for your vacation and in search of entertainment, Panama City is a reasonable place to visit, but is unlikely to blow you away. In short, visit if you have some business or travel reason to do so; otherwise you’d do better spending your time in any one of Latin America’s more interesting and charming cities.