Panama City, Panama
Central America, Panama

Quick & Dirty Panama, Part 2: Panama City

Part 1 of our Quick & Dirty Panama Tour took us to the glimmering white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Bocas del Toro near the Costa Rican border.

After 5 days of aquatic adventures and fun in the sun, we sought a change of pace in the form of the bustling urban metropolis that is Panama City.

A chilly, 10-hour bus ride later, and we were there.

Casco Viejo – Historical Charm

Panama City, we would come to learn very quickly, is a city of contradictions.  Our chosen haunt, the neighborhood of Casco Viejo (literally translated to “Old Town”), is quaint, charming and colonial–here, street vendors, street art, street food and street dogs are par for the course.  Travel just 10 minutes away to the other side of the bay, however, and you’ll find a pulsing concrete jungle where super malls, skyscrapers and multi-lane freeways rule.

The Panama City skyline

The downtown skyline as seen from Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo, Panama City

Well-preserved historical buildings in Casco Viejo

Even within Casco Viejo striking contrasts can be found.  An overwhelming police presence in Casco Viejo can mean one of two things: either you are wandering near the Presidential Palace, the official residence of the Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, or you are wandering into impoverished areas where excessive gun violence is an unfortunate reality and where tourists are turned away forcefully for their own safety.Casco Viejo, Panama

Casco Viejo was settled in 1673 by Spanish colonialists following the near total destruction of the original city, Panama Viejo, by the pirate Henry Morgan.  It sits on an isolated peninsula where defensive walls could be built on all sides.  Many parts of the neighborhood have been painstakingly restored over the years while others sit in crumbling disrepair, a nod to the district’s tumultuous history.  Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and now houses many boutique shops, gourmet restaurants, museums and upscale residences alongside the many buildings still in ruins.Casco Viejo, Panama City

A culturally and historically rich neighborhood, Casco Viejo makes for a perfect home base when visiting the city. You have your choice of Panamanian cuisine (and coffee) or any number of international restaurants a mere stone’s throw away, not to mention a spectacular view of the downtown skyline (see photo above).  Reaching the city center is a short bus ride or an inexpensive taxi ride away, or during the daytime if you’re feeling ambitious, a stroll along the water will take you there in under an hour.

I enjoyed meandering the brick streets, snapping photos of the colorful building facades and street art, and sampling the dishes and Panamanian coffee at the neighborhood restaurants and cafes.Bright colors in Casco Viejo. Park in Casco Viejo, Panama CityStreet art in Casco Viejo, Panama.

Downtown Panama City – The High Life

While we spent much of our time relaxing in Casco Viejo, we would have been remiss to not explore downtown as well.  Feeling ambitious one morning and in need of some retail therapy, I hoofed it all the way from our hostel in Casco Viejo to Multiplaza Pacific, a mega mall located somewhere north of the Trump Ocean Club and somewhere east of F&F Tower, arguably two of Panama City’s most recognizable skyscrapers (the latter a green swirly thing resembling a giant strand of DNA).

The frosty conditioned air inside the mall was a major draw (Panama City boasts some rather oppressive heat and humidity) and I spent a few hours losing myself in the vastness and marveling at the mall-wide free WiFi connection.

On one of our final nights in the city, we decided to indulge in a few fancy cocktails 62 stories above the city at Bits Rooftop Lounge in the Hard Rock Hotel.  We threw on our [relative] best and dragged a few hostelmates along with us.  The views were pretty spectacular from that vantage point and the mango martinis were strong.

VIew from the Hard Rock Hotel, Panama City, Panama

The view from 62 stories above the city

Hard Rock Hotel, Panama City, Panama

Feeling fancy

The Panama Canal – An Engineering Marvel

“He probably won’t be able to start it again if he turns the engine off,” we surmised as we sat at a gas station on the outskirts of Panama City, engine humming as our taxi driver topped up.

We had our doubts that this car, the filthy, crumbling, practically-held-together-with-duct-tape, scented-with-no-fewer-than-12-air-fresheners taxi we’d hailed outside the hostel was capable of getting us safely to the Miraflores Visitors’ Center at the Panama Canal as promised, much less back again.

But the taxi driver chatted away enthusiastically giving our front-seat companion a full if not partially fictional history of Panama City (none of us in the back seat could hear him over the sound of traffic or the noisy engine) as we careened along the highway to our destination, cheerfully unaware of the nervous side glances being exchanged just behind him.

As we lurched to a halt in the parking lot and spilled out of our vehicular death trap, we could already see a massive freighter making its way past the viewing platform.  “Let’s go, we don’t want to miss it!”  My shouts fell on deaf ears as I went bounding up the steps to the building entrance.

Once inside, I realized my haste had been for nothing.  The locks were slow to fill (faster than you can fill a bathtub though–the system is capable of transferring 101,000 cubic meters of water in just eight minutes raising a ship an impressive 26 meters, or 85 feet if you’re in America) and with two separate transit lanes, we had plenty of time to watch the canal in action.Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

We crowded up to the front of the fourth floor viewing platform like anxious school children.  The enormity of the ships from such a vantage point was suddenly the least impressive of what we were seeing.  The excitement peaked a few minutes later when an alarm buzzed loudly, signaling the opening of the gate.  Electric cars on rails began working to haul the cargo ship dubbed MSC KIM into the second lock (the ships rarely operate on their own power once inside the canal).  Excitement faded after several minutes of this snail-like process and I realized I would never re-watch the world’s most boring video, which I had just shot.Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Excitement peaked again, however, during the 3D movie depicting the Panama Canal’s history, and yet again at every fascinating turn in the four-story museum–my favorite part being the simulation of a cargo ship’s wheelhouse as it cruises through the extensive canal system.Panama Canal Panama Canal Museum Panama Canal simulation

Chilly from our two-hour stint in heavily air-conditioned quarters, we stumbled back into the warmth of daylight to find our faithful taxi driver waiting to escort us back to his, ahem, faithful steed.

Overall Impression – Understated Appeal

Panama City, despite the stifling heat and humidity, impressed me far beyond expectation. From the excellent cuisine in Casco Viejo, to the vibrant energy after-dark, to the fascinating and eye-opening achievement of the Panama Canal, the city won me over in every regard (well, minus the bed bugs in my hostel, but you can’t win ’em all).  I would recommend Panama City as a must-see destination in a heartbeat.  Its close proximity to some pretty gorgeous islands doesn’t hurt either.

Visiting a place with low or no expectations usually leaves me pleasantly surprised.  Do you prefer to research extensively or wing it like me?

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  • Reply Justine January 7, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    I’m definitely a wing-it type of traveler. I feel like all of my travel decision are so last minute and random that I never have the chance to do proper research. But I guess that’s part of the fun! I’ve always wanted to go to Panama City and based on your photos and description I really think I would love it! The views from that bar are amazing!!
    Justine recently posted…Making the Most of My Time in JakartaMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 9, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      I’m with you Justine, that definitely adds to the fun! I’m starting to panic about my upcoming travels to Europe though and I think for once in my life I’m actually going to sit down and do some proper, extensive research. I feel like in developing countries it’s easier to wing it since travel is fairly inexpensive but I’m worried traveling to Europe without a plan might result in some costly (literally) mistakes!
      LaMochilera recently posted…Friday Snapshots: Street Scenes and Beach Scenes in Santa Marta, ColombiaMy Profile

  • Reply Anna | The Blonde Banana January 8, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    I’m thinking about traveling to Panama City to take a Spanish class this summer and am glad to hear of another positive experience in the city. Although bed bugs…. eeek! I’m not down with that!
    Anna | The Blonde Banana recently posted…Vote To Win: December’s Best Instagram PhotosMy Profile

  • Reply Katie January 11, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    Unfortunately for me, I’m a researcher/planner. It NEVER works out when I try to wing it, haha! In this case, seems like it worked out well, you got to see a lot! I’ve always wanted to visit Panama, but SE Asia just keeps calling to me. We keep saying, next time we will head to Panama, and then never end up there. I loved Costa Rica, but the one thing it was missing was a great big city, so I really think I’d love Panama! All that history and quirkiness in Casco Veijo looks perfect!
    Katie recently posted…2 weeks in Indonesia: Roundup and ItineraryMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera January 12, 2015 at 6:44 am

      I’m going to confess something to you…I only really research plan when I absolutely HAVE to, like if I’m traveling during a peak season and I at least need to have accommodation booked…and in Central America, I had the luxury of letting Mak do all the planning for both of us! I totally slacked off because I knew he’d do it. So I can’t truly say we didn’t plan anything, he totally did. I personally, however, just went with whatever he wanted to do, and it was really nice to not have that pressure haha.

      You’re right, Costa Rica doesn’t have any good cities! We were in and out of San Jose in less than 12 hours and I didn’t mind in the least, I don’t think there was anything there to see! You’d love Panama City!

  • Reply Rodrigo January 12, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I somehow always manage to vanquish my OCD and choose winging-it over overplanning. So I just read some safety tips regarding the place I’m planning to visit. and when there I simply wander around aimlessly until I inevitably end up in the ghetto. I can get lost inside a studio apartment, but if the goal is to find the most dangerous part of town, then I’m the man for the job. My valuable 6th sense shall lead us there!

    Panama city seems like a good addition to my ever-growing travel bucket list. At least I’d have the policemen signaling where NOT to go. 🙂

    • Reply LaMochilera January 12, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      If you’re going to learn anything about a place before you go, safety tips are a smart choice! Wander anyplace long enough and you’re bound to end up in the ghetto, that’s just science 🙂 Panama City IS a great addition to your bucket list!

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