PANAMA CITY & THE CANAL
Global Mark : 12.15
Ratings by criteria :
Ratings by backpackers :
Comments : This is by far the most interesting capital of Central America and travelers are often surprised to spend more time here than expected.
What to do ? Walk the bay of Panama, spotting the whole spectrum of the city, from colonial churches in San Felipe to modern skyscrapers in Punta Paitilla / Admire the decorations (in lights & colors) of the local buses / Walk among may ruined churches / Cultivate yourself at museums / See Indians in colorful traditional costumes / Spot the presidential palace's white crane / Make friends with the mountain-biked tourist police / Feel in Europe at the splendid Teatro Nacional and possibly enjoy free concert / Pay tribute to the thousands of workers who died trying to build the French canal / Discover a few hundreds years old golden altar / Watch the bustling city life, from the height of your room's terrace or the core of the pedestrian street / Shop around and save money / Diversify your diet / Enjoy the sophisticated nightlife / Get hired as a linehandler on one of the private yachts crossing the canal / Alternatively, enjoy an 8mn cruise on a luxury vessel / See a massive ship being lowered to sea level / Walk a forest toward miradors, listening to many birds along the way / Relax in a botanical garden / Jog on a 6km causeway toward tiny islands / Meet many backpackers in a great family atmosphere / Smell the relaxed "Island of Flowers"
What you may not like ? The sacking of Panama Viejo by Henry Morgan in 1671 / The safety issues (see below) / The traffic and consequent pollution / The higher cost of accomodation / Some crowded bus / The dress code in some disco / The crowd on the islands during WE / The limited jobs available on ships for the canal crossing / The disconcerting city layout / Visiting on Monday : most museums will be closed / The taxi costs to the international airport
How long ? At least one full day for the highlights. Two or three days for a better exploration. The time it takes to find a ship for the canal crossing...
How unsafe is it ? As you probably know by now, Panama City is one of those few places in Panama where safety issues have to be taken seriously. Things are scheduled to improve within three years but, for the time being, you are still warned against walking San Felipe in the middle of the day with... a compact photo camera ! Quite a few travelers nowadays take no chance and head straight to Voyager International Hotel's safe environment. It would be however very much possible to stay & enjoy other places as only a few area are reputed dangerous. A few advices : 1/ Avoid Chorillo district at all time 3/ Avoid walking on or south of Av A in San Felipe with any valuable (the remaining of San Felipe is quite safe during the day as heavily patrolled by the police) 4/ When arriving in San Felipe with your big bag, approach the police tourist and ask them to accompany you to your hotel 5/ Use a reputable taxi to travel by night and avoid spending any time in quiet or poorly lighten environments (disco excepted).
- In San Felipe area : the most charming area and the cheapest prices but an environment that requires caution and should be avoided at night :
- Near Plaza Cinco de Mayo : a relatively safe & very central area but a rather busy & noisy atmosphere
- On Av 3 Sur, C34 :
- In the N-E part of town near Plaza Edison (bus direction "T. Muerto", 20mn from center, $0.15) :
Internet ? A number of guesthouses have or will have free internet access for their guests. Otherwise, a number of cafe charges around $1-1.5 per hour.
If you stay in Voyager International Hotel, you could start your day early by walking the short trail of Parque Nacional Metropolitano toward the few miradors. The parque is only 20mn walk away but those unfortunately aren't 20 nice minutes as you need to walk partly by an highway. Those roads are quite recent and they raise controversy, considering their damage to the fragile ecosystem of the forest. As for you, any fresh air that you will breathe in the park will be counterbalanced by the polluting cars. Still, the trails are nice, you can hear a lot of birds and the three miradors at 150m offer a good view toward the city, the bridge of Americas, the Canal and the surroundings parks. The park sign indicates that you need two hours walk for the mirador and back but this time is for very serious birds watcher only. It took me 20mn up. You can go down even faster via another route, stopping on the way to spot the Tower Crane for Canopy Watch (the first one built in the world, unfortunately reserved to scientists).
Back at the guesthouse, take your time to have your breakfast as the roads are usually congested until 9am. Just when I was ready to leave, the charming GH owner spotted my bags : "You can not walk San Felipe with those bags. It is too dangerous !". She picked up her phone and called the police office. After 10mn spent with a dozen persons, after dialing 5 or 6 different numbers, she eventually got the right department and arranged for a policeman to show me around. I was a bit puzzled by those precautions : after all, San Felipe (also known as Casco Antiguo or Colonial Panama) is the most visited area of Panama City and a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997 ! Anyway, I followed her advise and called the police guy to pick me up from Plaza Cinco de Mayo. A friendly and athletic policeman showed up on a mountainbike...
San Felipe was a great place to walk around, with many churches and colonial buildings. The walk toward Plaza de Francia on the sea avenue offers a great panorama toward modern Panama. More to the North, ask to visit the San Francisco church at the Parrish office on Av. B and possibly go up to the tower (if someone has got the key). Other places not to miss include the interior of the Teatro Nacional (rush in to avoid the $1 entrance fee), the white crane at the Presidential Palace (a very safe area !) and the baroque Golden Altar of San Jose Church (one of the few treasure to escape Henry Morgan's sacking of the city). The highlight of the area, beside the colonial & relaxed atmosphere was however the Museo del Canal Interoceanico. It is best to visit it before spotting the real thing, to grasp the many different aspects of this engineering wonder and the numerous related exhibits. Unfortunately, all the captions are in Spanish only and the audio guide in other languages cost $5 extra. The entrance fee is $2 or $0.75 for students.
Going to the Canal at Miraflores Locks should be your second priority. If you show up after 1pm, there will be most certainly a few ships to spot. Traffic is more limited in the morning. Get a bus straight to the visitor center from the station north of Plaza Cinco de Mayo (some buses heading to Gamboa may leave you at the main road, from which it is a 10mn walk up, ask to be sure). Seeing those huge vessels processing toward the different locks is certainly an amazing sight and a guide will explain you the whole process, in Spanish & English (good leaflets also available). He should then invite you to watch a movie : do not miss it ! Actually, there are a few movies. The one most visitors see is in the freezing model room. It is very interesting but there is a much better one : a movie that will show you the whole 9 hours trip from the Pacific to the Caribbean in just 8mn ! A bit too fast maybe to enjoy the scenery but a great show anyway. Problem with this movie is that most people do not know about it as it is displayed in priority to people with a reservation and nobody really advertise for it. What is more, "normal" travelers can not make any reservation ! If the room is free, it should be ok but you will have to ask around. You could also call 2768325 to inquire about the afternoon possible screening. All this should improve with the opening of the New Visitor Center in June 2002 : a better viewing platform, a bigger cinema and a monument with a nearby mirador. And it will still be gratis !
From the canal, the logic would be to continue 10km further north toward the Summit Botanical Garden. That is of course if it is not too late : buses go every 40mn and the garden is open from 9am to 4:30pm only. As for me, I preferred to get another 8mn cruise along the canal, this time in French !
The trip to Tocumen Airport : S / where you find a seat / $0.3 / 1 hour
I had been offered a ride by the lovely owner of Voyager Hotel : she was going into town and would drop me on the airport bus route. Actually, there are three different buses routes, running from 4am to 12pm. They are all very cheap but not too fast nor comfortable. The route via Av Sur is the fastest but buses aren't as frequent. Expect at least 1.5 hours from Plaza Cinco de Mayo to Tocumen Airport or, more exactly, the roundabout on the main road, 5mn walk away. Beware therefore not to forget to get off !
A taxi is a more comfortable, faster & safer option (especially late at night) but it will cost at least $10 (and even more the other way).
See also the trip from Boquete