Arriving to Panama city, especially coming from European winter, can be an overwhelming thing. This city is so hot, humid and tropical but also unexpectedly big and urbanized. When imagining a tropical holiday one of the things on my list is definitely not steel and glass skyscrapers in a bustling megalopolis. We did however choose to visit Panama City to visit a dear old friend Fabio and the famous Panama Canal. Planning to scuba dive in one of the most bio-diverse locations on earth, we had to fly into Panama City anyway.
So here we were, with two days to spare and not too much of a plan. The first thing we did after Fabio showed us around the neighborhood was visit the fish market. Being the food nerds that we are we were eager to see what Panama has to offer. Although we arrived late (around 1 pm) there was still plenty of choice and we got acquainted with corvina, which we later saw on many menus.
One fun thing at the market is that you can purchase the fish you like and then climb up to the first floor, where there is a restaurant in which they will gladly prepare it for you.
After lunch, still a bit disoriented as to what to do in this humid, hot and loud town, the decision was made to visit the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is a must for all ship/geography/history lovers and everyone who wants to indulge the child in themselves. Yes, it is a super famous tourist attraction, but so well worth it. To get a glimpse of its magnitude, I recommend reading more about the interesting history of the construction of the Panama canal and its many phases, failures and successes here.
For a few quick fun facts that are not easily found elsewhere:
- The Panama Canal is less of a canal and more of a set of artificial lakes with three locks allowing the boats to pass through the changes in water level. This is part of the success of the engineers who designed it. While the French attempted to dig a canal and reciprocate what they did at the Suez and failed, the American endeavor took a different approach and managed to get it work.
- The price the ships pay are enormous and calculated by their length and cargo/passenger amount. One cargo ship can easily pay 500 000 USD for passage, which they gladly do and makes you wonder about the cost of navigating around South America.
- The canal is not only used by large cruise and cargo ships though – small private boats can also use the canal. Two sailboats passed through Miraflores while we were there and they paid $800 each (prices do rise a bit if your boat is over 50 feet, but then again, if you have a boat that big, it won’t be too much of an obstacle :)).
There’s a lot to do at the Miraflores locks, which is also a visitor center for the Panama Canal. You can chill on one of three decks overlooking the locks and watch the ships passing through, have lunch at the restaurant, have some pretty good ice cream at the gelateria on the first level or try to sail a ship through the locks in the simulator in the interesting and detailed Panama Canal museum.
On the list of overwhelming things in Panama is definitely the public transport, especially the subway. With only one line throughout the city it can be either the best or the worst experience :D. The best if you catch it outside of the rush hour and explore the city by its convenience (super cheap ticket as well). The worst if you’re, like us, coming back from Miraflores at rush hour.
One thing to mention to all Panama City visitors is to definitely be careful with taxi drivers. Although this is a given in most tourist places, at the Miraflores visitor center it is overwhelming. You’ll have taxi drivers trying to get you on a ride back to the city at 5x the normal price. They’ll try to tell tales about the public bus that is either non-existent or comes every 2 hours. None of these are true, obviously, there is a direct bus from Miraflores to Albrook subway station. And if you happen to come to the subway stop at rush hour (5-6 pm) when the queues to enter the subway extend to 300 m (no kidding) you can kill some time browsing the mall, the largest shopping mall in the Americas (!)
Day two – Food and history
The second day in Panama City proved to be much more pleasant and relaxed, as it usually is after a good night’s sleep. Though first being disappointed by the look of the city, it was proven once again that having a local show you around is the best. Although it was still hot AF, it didn’t stop us from wandering through the streets of Panama’s older neighborhoods around Avenida Central. Strolling down the avenue, don’t miss glimpsing into the side streets – as they hide some of the most interesting street art . It’s almost like a contest which of the corners will boast the most eye-catching graffiti. As you walk all the way down the avenue, you enter Casco viejo, Panama’s Old Town.
Charming with its colonial architecture, this former ghetto is most now being remodeled into high-end restaurants and hotels, which I truly hope won’t take away too much of its charm. If you get lost in its streets, you can still finds authentic corners of local life. Casco is also a bustling foodie haven, with its many gourmet spots, two of which we visited in our interviews with the movers and shakers of the Panamanian gastro scene. Read more about what makes up the melting pot that is the Panamenian culinary scene in these two articles:
- Taco heaven in Casco Viejo
- From farm to table or how the new generation of chefs is shaping Panamenian cuisine
Having spent the day in great company with amazing food, we felt sorry to leave the next day. The decision was made we have to come back. Also, a lesson learned again and again, don’t let first appearances fool you.