Panama City is modern. It is a glittering banking metropolis with the largest shopping mall in both American continents, excellent health care, expensive cars in the streets and drinks for $20.
Panama City is old. Run-down streets are littered with trash, and tourists are advised to avoid certain neighborhoods. Barbers and other service providers work in the middle of the street.
Panama City is the only capital in the world with tropical rainforest in the urban area. At the same time, it is located on one of the largest and most spectacular constructions of our time – the Panama Canal. Members of different indigenous peoples sell handicrafts in the streets. Glass skyscrapers form a breathtaking skyline. In front of them, fishermen on old wooden boats bring their catch ashore. Only here do luxury hotels stand right next to ruins.
Directly behind the silver skyline and the eight-lane traffic jams rises the tropical rainforest with a biodiversity that hardly exists anywhere else.
Tip 1: Panama Canal Locks
The Panama Canal is still considered one of the great engineering achievements of mankind.
In fulfillment of the treaties signed by Presidents Carter and Torrijos in 1977, the canal, opened in 1914, has belonged to Panama since January 1, 2000. Its operation is under the authority of the “Autoridad del Canal de Panama”, which watches over the artificial waterway. About four percent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the Panama Canal. The 80 km long waterway shortens the sea route from the east to the west coast of North America by 15,000 km.
The Panama Canal has three two-lane lock systems that function like water elevators. Their function is to raise ships to the water level of Lake Gatún, which is 26 meters above sea level, allowing them to pass through the continental divide. The lock chambers are about 33.5 m wide and 305 m long and up to 26 m deep. The Miraflores locks have the highest lock gates due to the large tidal differences of the Pacific (as opposed to the Atlantic). The narrowest part of the channel is the 12.6 km long Gaillard Cut, which is also called “the big ditch”. All the lock systems of the canal have visitor centers with observation decks from which one can watch the passage of the ships. Both the Miraflores and Gatun locks are rewarding.
The expansion of the Panama Canal was discussed for years and decided in 2006 after a referendum. Only with the construction of new locks (Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side and Cocoli locks on the Pacific side) can post-Panamax ships pass through the canal. These locks are 55 meters wide, 427 meters long, 18.3 meters deep and equipped with rolling gates.
Tip 2: Biomuseo
Its location could not be more spectacular. On the left, the skyline with its glass and steel office towers in the financial district. In front of it, the historic old town with its magnificent colonial buildings. Opposite is the wide Pacific Bay. The most famous waterway in the world begins on the right behind the headland. Every ship must pass this narrow point if it wants to enter the Panama Canal. Right here, at the Amador Causeway, a new building rises. The Museo de la Biodiversidad is dedicated to Panama’s unique natural history and is the only work by U.S.-Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry in Latin America. To date, the “Museum of Biodiversity” is the only one of its kind in the world.
The museum’s elongated shape is meant to represent a “bridge of life.” Seventy million dollars cost the expensive prestigious building. In Panama, the connection between North and South America was formed almost three million years ago. Volcanism and plate tectonics caused land to rise from the sea, islands to form and grow together. Numerous plant and animal species spread across this land bridge from north to south and vice versa. Frank Gehry’s museum aims to tell this story.
Since 2020, the Museo de la Biodiversidad has shone in all its glory. It is a child’s work and looks as if oversized, brightly colored toy building blocks had been wedged together. The roof resembles a wild jigsaw puzzle of red, green, yellow and blue interlocking surfaces – and is undoubtedly the museum’s big eye-catcher.
Tip 3: Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is the old town of Panama City and a stark contrast to the skyline with the glittering skyscrapers of the financial district. Most travelers in this small Central American country will visit Panama City, and a visit to the old town is an absolute must. Casco Viejo is Spanish and means nothing else than old town, the quarter is also called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe. After the original Panama was almost completely destroyed during a pirate attack, the quarter was rebuilt in 1673 and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
If you want to take a look at the old town while strolling through it, you should climb the Cerro Ancon, which is about 200 meters high. From the highest point of the city you have a magnificent view over the canal, the old town and the skyline.
Casco Viejo is a colonial gem like many in South America, such as Cartagena in Colombia or Salvador in Brazil.
You’ll find lavishly restored buildings with great boutique hotels, chic restaurants or cozy bars. Not to mention old churches on every corner and great boutiques selling objects by Panamanian designers.
The narrow streets alternate again and again with smaller or larger squares. Under the trees there are often benches where you can have a short rest from the sun.
Tip 4: Panama la Vieja
Panama Viejo (also Panama La Vieja, but not to be confused with Casco Viejo!) is a ruined city of the original capital of Panama, which was burned down by pirates. The ruins are located in Panama City’s urban area and are part of the Unesco World Heritage Site.
The original Panama City was built in 1519 and was the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. Its ruins are now an interesting sight for tourists and those interested in history. You will find in the ruins the stone remains of several houses, monasteries, a church and an old tower of a cathedral, which you can also climb up. There is also a modern museum on the extensive ruins grounds with lots of information about the history of the city and Panama.
Panama Viejo is a “must do” in Panama if you are interested in history.
Tip 5: Metropolitan Natural Park
The Parque Natural Metropolitano is a national park of 265 hectares located in Panama City. Here you can experience tropical rainforest right in the city. It is an oasis of thousands of shades of green and offers various hiking trails through the tropical habitat. You have the chance to see wildlife very easily and it offers a breathtaking view over Panama City on the Cerro Cedro Mountain.
The trails in the park are well developed and walkable for everyone. For jungle walks, the trails are easy, but more challenging than a walk through the city.
In the Metropolitano you can see tropical birds like toucans and hummingbirds, different species of monkeys, lizards, agoutis, coatis and both species of sloths. Rangers who stay in the park are eager to show travelers sloths, which usually hang high up in the trees. The Metropolitano is very exciting and definitely a Panama highlight because of the viewpoint on Cerro Cedro.
Hiking trails: We recommend you to combine the El Roble trail with the trails to the Mirador Cerro Cedro – the Mono Tití Trail and the La Cienaguita. Both Mono Tití and La Cienaguita take about an hour and lead uphill to Cerro Cedro to a unique viewpoint (“Mirador”) where you’ll have incredible views of the jungle and the Panama City skyline. Walking for an hour through the rainforest, surrounded by monkeys, sloths and tropical birds, and then – once on top of the mountain – having such an impressive (and unexpected!) view over such a metropolis and the Panama Canal is a very special and incomparable experience.