There is more to Panama than a canal and structured shell companies. Panama’s ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the world. The isthmus was a key pathway for both human and animal migration ages ago and is still used by many species of birds that do not handle long-haul flights well over the ocean. The country has two beautiful coastlines on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as fairy-tale archipelagos including Bocas del Toro and the idyllic San Blas Islands. It also has a number of world-class surf breaks and national parks dense with all sorts of unique flora and fauna.
And then there is Panama City, a vibrant city of 1.5 million that feels a lot larger. It is a very modern city compared to other major cities in Central America.
We spent a few days in the city, and it was a perfect amount of time to check out the canal and some of the surrounding national parks as well as spend some time in the downtown area to experience the city vibe. Panama City is not as developed as some cities in South America (such as Lima, Medellin or Buenos Aires) (but more developed than other cities in Central America), and it has a lot of gritty areas. However, it is an interesting spot nonetheless, and the outdoors are very accessible via a short taxi ride or even the train.
The city surrounds a beautiful bay and most spots are never too far from the waterfront. There is a beautiful promenade and walking path that runs the length of the city and is a great spot for a run, a bike ride or just a stroll to check out the scene. It can get really hot and even more humid in Panama City so heading out early or later in the day is a good call. Check out Avenida Balboa for maps and details.
Casco Viejo is an older part of town that is a bit out of the away from the modern city center but has a lot of character and worth a visit. You can hop on a bike or walk from downtown along the waterfront for 3-4 kms. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants, bars, colonial architecture, churches and squares. It is a little raw, but they are working on it. At this point, there are not a lot of hotel or hostel options that offer good value, but there is a lot of building and renovating activity. Casco Viejo could be a very nice spot in a couple years. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth a visit especially for the Panama Canal Museum which is much better than the one at the canal.
Slightly farther afield is the Biomuseo, a stunning, Frank Geary designed museum set on reclaimed land (they had to put the dirt from the canal digging somewhere) out in the bay. The design is classic Geary and a sight to see, even if it feels a bit out of place. Apparently he married a Panamanian woman who may have done a bit of lobbying for its building. The museum has a great set of exhibitions that provide details on Panama’s geographic history as well as its historical and present ecosystems. The Biomuseo is another spot which is definitely worth checking out.
Panama has a fascinating ecosystem as it connects both North and South America and the Atlantic with Pacific. Creatures that roamed this land in the past are truly horrifying and include the giant sloth bear and the massive shark, Megaladon.
For years, Panama City has been regarded as one of the best spots for retirement for US citizens. A mostly modern infrastructure, lower cost of living, cheaper real-estate, good healthcare and great weather put it on the retiree radar. However, prices have been increasing. We found it a bit more expensive and less charming than other cities in the area such as Cartagena, Medellin, Colombia, Antigua, Guatemala or even Mexico City. But if you are in the area or heading to one of the Panama coasts, it is worth a stop in the city for a few days.