Panama's

PANAMA CITY & THE CANAL

Global Mark : 12.15

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
 4 2 5 3 5 2 5 2 14.00

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
10 60%(6) 60%(6) 60%(6) 2 to 18 10.30


Description :
 A contrasting city with high towers facing colonial churches, Indians in colorful costumes walking the busy pedestrian streets and greeneries cutting the concrete arteries. 

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).  


Where to stay ? 
 

- In San Felipe area : the most charming area and the cheapest prices but an environment that requires caution and should be avoided at night :

  • Hospedaje Casa Grande (2113316), Av Central, W of Cathedral / without shower $7 per room / Go there for the charming building, the acceptable rooms w. balcony & the relatively secured area / What you may not like : the rooms are basic, the thin walls do not go up to the ceiling and it is not spotless
  • Hotel Central, by the plaza Cathedral, was closed for renovation. It should re-open as a luxury hotel.
  • Hotel Foyo (2628023), C6 Av. A / Sgl $5.5, Dbl w. shower 8.8 / Free internet in the future / Go there for the charming blue building, the nice big Dbl w. some view, the relative cleanliness, the lovely communal balcony w. rocking chair  and the good prices /  What you may not like : the Sgl aren't too good, some rooms are dark (no window) and depressing (ask to see a few) and it is located in one of the dangerous area (go with the police during the day and avoid at night)
  • Pension Tropical (no phone), Av A, East of San Jose Church / Dbl $6.6, w. shower 8.8 / Go there for the correct rooms at good prices / What you may not like : the nicest upstairs rooms are often full and the location also requires caution.
  • ® Hotel Herrerra (2288994), C9, Parque Herrerra, same owner as Foyo  / Sgl $5.5, Dbl 7, w. shower 7.7, w. two beds, TV, fridge & lavatory but no shower 10 / Free internet & cheap restaurant scheduled for July / Go there for the charming building with carved stairs and ceilings, the good rooms w. shower and the nice view toward the plaza from the relaxing balcony / What you may not like : not all the rooms are equal & some aren't too nice. The environment is better but caution is still required. 

- Near Plaza Cinco de Mayo : a relatively safe & very central area but a rather busy & noisy atmosphere

  • ® Hotel Internacional (2624930, hint@latin1.net), by the plaza / Dbl w. HW shower, cable TV & AC $20 / incl. breakfast / Add 10% tax / Go there for the bright, comfortable & spotless rooms, some with a great view toward the plaza / What you may not like : the TV is small and prices may increase to $25 when more busy. 
  • ® Hotel Centrico (2624103), Av Central, C 21, 5mn west of Plaza / From Sunday to Thursday : big bed $8, w. AC 10, two beds 11, w. AC 13 / Frid & Sat : 10, 16.5, 13 & 19.8 / Add. 10% tax / All rooms w. HW shower, cable TV & tel / Go there for the excellent location by the pedestrian street, the great view from the upper rooms w. balcony, the huge comfortable rooms and the excellent deal during the week / What you may not like : the Sgl have no view and prices raise during WE

 - On Av 3 Sur, C34 :

  • Hotel Centroamericano (2274555), near Hotel Roma / w. AC, HW shower, big cable TV & tel $18(1), 20(2) or 30(3) / Add 10% tax / Go there for the spotless & comfortable rooms, a few w. sea view / What you may not like : not getting a room w. a view nor a very central location.  

- In the N-E part of town near Plaza Edison (bus direction "T. Muerto", 20mn from center, $0.15) :

  • ® Voyager International Hotel (2605913, hostelpm@orbi.net)  / Dorm (6) $8.8, dorm (4) 9.9, Dbl with or without shower 15, w. AC 17 / Rates incl. small breakfast and one hour internet per day / Go there to meet most of the other backpackers, the nice, clean & friendly atmosphere, the safe & quiet residential area, the proximity to PN Metropolitano and the free services (kitchen, TV, book exchange, etc) / What you may not like : paying more for a dorm than a room w. shower and the relative remoteness from the city center, attractions & small restaurants.


Backpacker's Tips : Arquimedes Ramirez, Panama (May 05)
« Buses fare are now 0.25 USD and not 0.15 as it shown. Also the hotel foyo you mentioned, does not exist anymore! Internet access only 0.50 an hour, evrywhere around Via Venetto or Via España.» 


Where to eat ? 
All the western fast food have a couple of branches in town and, no, they do not serve rice & beans there ! Otherwise, there are a number of very cheap restaurants on Av Central : Comida Casera Rina (C18) is probably one of the cheapest at $0.75 for vegetable meal or $1.35 for meat. For a treat, head toward La (Av Balboa, C24) : this is the biggest, most original & most arrogant restaurant in Panama with 572 different dishes !  The setting is quite nice in a garden w. a waterfall & carp pond ("the sky as a roof and the stars for lamps" as they say), prices reasonable (meal from $4.25 up), portions are huge and quality, well, acceptable for those tariffs. If you aren't too hungry, pay $0.75 more and share the plate of your friend. Pastries can be found at nearly every corner. A good inexpensive one is located near Hospedaje Casa Grande

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. 


A busy day in Panama City ?

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 Canal of Panama ?
Constructed between 1904 and 1914 by the United States (and 75,000 people), this 80km long canal is one of the most impressive works of engineering in the world. Over 200 million cubic yards of material had to be removed : enough to build 63 pyramids of the same size of the Great Pyramids of Egypt ! Since its opening on August 15, 1914, over 825,000 ships have passed through its three sets of locks and three artificial lakes. About 197 million liters of fresh water are used for each lockage and since this water is ultimately flushed into the sea, the frequent rain in the area is seen as a benediction. On average, a vessel will pay $45,000 in tolls to transit the canal. The smallest toll was paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton to swim the canal : 36 cents ! The maximum toll paid was reached in January 2000 by a cargo : $184,114.80 ! 

The Canal of Panama

 << Discover a few aspects of the capital


Backpacker's Tips : Angelene Kiel, USA (Feb 05)
 
« I would like to recommend Lyon´s House...a Casa familiar in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City which is currently being restored and improved to attract tourists. Lyon´s House has 15 clean rooms in an old colonial building that rent out at $10-night and includes use of a kitchen, shared bathroom, commons area with TV and guidebooks as well as a clothes washer and the friendliest owners I have yet met in Panama. Juan and his co-owners are more than willing to sit down and chat with you or give information about the surrounding areas. It is in a great location on Calle San Felipe, near the old district and near Central Ave, which is filled with shops. Lyon´s House is directly above a cheap internet place and also above two small grocery stores and two cheap Panamanian-style restaurants. »

 

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