To reach Panama City from the north you have to drive across the Bridge of the Americas which spans the entrance to the Panama Canal. That’s when we saw it–a shockingly familiar skyline that made us both sneak a sideways glance at the other. Did we just see what we just saw? If not for the line of traffic behind us we would have slammed on the brakes to oggle at skyscrapers, highways, joggers, and sports cars. These are just some of the reasons they call Panama City “Miami South”.
Welcome to Miami South
Panamanian officials have taken great pains in recent years to create a thoroughly modern city which offers Latin businessmen and businesswomen what they need to ditch Miami as the de facto meeting place for Latin American business transactions in favor of Panama City.
In 2006 a multi-million dollar expansion turned Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport into the only airport in Central America with two runways and even further expansion is going on right now. During the past few years, Panama City has experienced a hotel boom, including the opening of the only Trump International Hotel in Latin America (a second one is planned in Rio in 2016). In 2014 the multi-billion dollar Panama Metro began running, making Panama City the only city in Central America with such a transportation system.
The waterfront has also recently been renovated and turned into the Cinta Costera Park which includes miles of paths and areas for sports ranging from soccer to volleyball which Panama’s indigenous Kuna people are crazy about.
The Kuna also sometimes dance in Panama City’s waterfront park. Check out some traditional Kuna choreography and traditional Kuna clothes (on the women at least) in our video, below.
So Panama City is working up a sweat to Miami-ize and attract international business travelers and expats. When we interviewed Panama’s minister of tourism he pretty much told us leisure travelers are an afterthought at this point. But does this slick, steamy, skyscrappered capital city have anything to offer non-business travelers?
The answer surprised us. It’s not all business meetings and power lunches after all.
What to do in Panama City
After 10 years of construction, the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo partially opened. We got a sneak peek inside the museum during the final stages of construction to take a look at the impressive installations that await visitors inside the Biomuseo.
If that’s not enough science and smarts for you, continue down the Amador Causeway to the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Nature Center (US$5) to see marine life like sharks, turtles, and reef fish in tanks and displays including a touch tank. You can also walk along two short trails where iguanas, sloths, and armadillos can be spotted.
The Panama Canal is one of the most hyped things on the planet, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. You can explore the Panama Cana in a lot of different ways and we did it all including visits to all three canal-side observation facilities, Panama Canal museums, a dramatic drive over the canal, and aboard tourist boats which take passengers through the canal. Get a taste for the latter in our time-lapse Panama Canal video which takes you from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal and all of the impressive locks in less than 11 minutes.
Every January Panama City hosts the Panama Jazz Festival and while New Orleans doesn’t have anything to worry about, the event is star-studded, drawing names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Bill Frisell. It’s organized by Panamanian jazz legend Danilo Perez and we were impressed from start to finish, particularly by students of the Danilo Perez Foundation who brought the house down as they opened the festival.
The International Beerfest Panama was started in 2013 to showcases craft beers from around the world including some impressive beers being made in Panama right now by producers including La Rana Dorada which also has three brewpubs in the Panama City.
You wouldn’t know it to look at her shiny new trappings, but Panama City, founded in 1519, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the Pacific coast of the Americas. Standing like a sentinel to that history is the Panama Antiguo archaeological site and museum.
Not to be confused with Casco Viejo (which is the hippest neighborhood of Panama City and in all of Central America), Panama Viejo (sometimes called Panama Antiguo) is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a small but well-done museum (US$3, most displays are in English) where maps, artifacts, dioramas, and re-creations take you through the founding of the original Panama City by the Spanish to its sacking by Sir Francis Drake which was followed up by a devastating earthquake, pretty much ensuring the original settlement’s demise.
Beyond the museum, you can walk a short path through the remains of some of the original buildings. Panama Viejo is on the waterfront and the least smelly and most photogenic time to visit is during high tide.
Every visitor to Panama City also needs to spend time exploring the ultra-hip Casco Viejo neighborhood for its museums, restaurants, shopping, and the city’s best hotels.
Where to eat and drink in Panama City
You will not go hungry in Panama City and here are our foodie finds from the heart of the city. There are even more amazing places to eat and drink in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood.
The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Central America. One exception can be found in Panama City. It’s called the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) and after 10 years in the restaurant business, its eateries continue to draw locals, expats, and visitors.
HRG’s Market is a chic/casual bistro-style spot for gourmet comfort classics like sliders, fish and chips, and cheesecake (US$8 to US$38). La Posta has an Italian/seafood focus (US$15 to US$32) and a more formal look and feel. There’s a real wood burning pizza oven in the back garden and a fantastic wine list. La Chesa, the most elegant and upscale of the HRG trio where diners were historically welcomed with a glass of cava, is currently closed with a new location emerging shortly. Bonus: HRG co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously appearing in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series.
Swiss chef Willy Diggelmann (yes, that’s his real name) has another collection of restaurants in Panama City. Most are far less compelling than the HRG restaurants but there is one stand out. Pomodoro Ristorante Italiano delivers delicious Italian food (including homemade pastas) in a garden setting for a budget price. You can get a big plate of very good pasta for around US$6. We did that repeatedly.
Hotels in Panama City
While business class hotels and multi national chains are the dominant hotel options in Panama City, there are also quite a few hostals for the budget traveler.
For our money, Hostal Amador Familiar is the best budget hotel in Panama and we should know. We spent a total of more than 50 nights in this place over our many trips through the city and during one extended stay while we worked out the details of shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia.
Here’s why we recommend Hostal Amador Familiar to any budget traveler in Panama City.
- The place is spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point. We defy you to find a place this woman has failed to keep scrub. Go ahead. Check the tops of doors, or behind the toilet or in the tracks of the shower doors. We did. And we never found any gunk.
- There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen (kept spotless by the same cleaning woman who even religiously scrubs the fridge) which stocks paper towels and tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies.
- Breakfast is included.
- There’s a large and secure parking lot.
- Hostal Amador Familiar is in a multi story wooden building in the American Zone of the city. It was built as a home for US workers during the construction of the Panama Canal. It’s creaky and homey and atmospheric.
- At US$1 per load (to wash and dry) the guest laundry facilities at Hostal Amador Familiar were the cheapest we’ve seen so far.
- It’s in a quite neighborhood from which you can still easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.
- It’s cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan for US$30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it. Panama gets very, very hot.
If you have a bit more in your travel budget and want to hang out with the cool kids, the Casco Viejo neighborhood is bursting with amazing boutique hotels (one starts at US$97) and even a few innovative hostals.
Here’s more about travel in Panama