Fun things to do in and around Panama City
Whether you love nature, wining and dining, exercise, or like me, all three, you will find something to enchant you in this tropical paradise with skyscrapers.
Just a short drive from the city, ten minutes along the Cinta Costera coast road, past the high-rises and hotels, lies Amador Causeway. This thin strip of land, created with left over soil from the construction of the Panama Canal, links several small islands which extend into the Pacific. The Panama Canal with the spectacular Bridge of the Americas is on one side, and the city skyline and Pacific on the other. What an idyllic location.
Visit Punta Culebra, where you are virtually guaranteed the sighting of a sloth or iguana. I have been here many times, and have never left without seeing one of these, and usually both. This is a great place to take children, nature lovers and anybody visiting Panama for the very first time. All the cruise ships which stop at Panama moor just off Amador, so this is an easy way to experience Panama’s amazing wildlife if you are here for a short stay.
There are many hire shops along the causeway where you can pick up a wide variety of forms of transport – from roller skates and bicycles right through to mopeds and Segways. Plus there are many nice restaurants with beautiful outlooks, either onto the Pacific, or onto harbors filled with picturesque boats. Amador Causeway is a great place to sip your favorite tipple and eat the biggest langoustines you have ever seen, while watching the pelicans dive for fish. Check out more on The Causeway
The colonial part of Panama City, Casco Antiguo, (often called Casco Viejo) is full of beautiful Spanish-style buildings, including Panama Cathedral and the Presidential Palace. This area is undergoing a large-scale regeneration with many buildings being immaculately restored. As a result, there is a lot of upheaval here at present, but there are so many interesting walks, restaurants and cafes to visit, I definitely recommend you visit this neighborhood to get a feel for how Panama used to be, before it started turning into the modern, sky-scraper filled place it is today.
There are two main markets in Casco Antiguo where indigenous Panamanians, most of them from the Kuna tribe, sell their wares, which include the intricately stitched molas. One market is in the main plaza in front of the cathedral, while the other is near the tip of Casco Antiguo, under a walkway covered by bougainvillea whose super-bright tropical flowers that really stand out against the cobalt-blue sky. This is about the most refreshing place to walk in this neighborhood, as the leaves provide a lot of shelter from the sun. The walkway is lined with stalls up and down where you can buy molas, little papier mache diablos (‘devils’ - these are very cute) and even hand-crafted little turtles which nod their heads. There are great places to eat dotted around Plaza Bolivar, which also has the St Francis de Assisi church, a pastel-yellow and white confection of a building. Check out more on the Casco Viejo
Not to be confused with Casco Antiguo (often called Casco Viejo), Panama Viejo (often called Panama La Vieja), is the area richest in history in Panama City. I mean, it is confusing, isn’t it? I have even known locals to get muddled up as to which particular ‘Old Panama’ they are referring to.
Panama Viejo is the site of the very first settlement here, erected by the conquistadors. Unfortunately, most of the original city was destroyed by fires and an earthquake and then was pretty much obliterated by the cannons of Welsh Pirate Henry Morgan way back in the 17th century. There remain, however, the cathedral tower and ruins. The tower has stairs, so if you are able to manage a fairly short and quite safe climb (believe me, I wouldn’t do this if it were dangerous!) you can experience the thrill of reaching the top and seeing the Bay of Panama stretch out before you in one direction, and the cathedral ruins in the other. There is free parking at the nearby, strongly recommended Artisans’ Market.
These are just a few ideas to get you started in this stunning gem of a city, I hope you enjoy your time here as much as I do!
Photographs and text, Jane Ellis