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Panama City & Panama Canal Complete Travel Guide
2017-08-03

The cosmopolitan Panama City and the marvelous Panama Canal are the two most popular attractions in Panama; mainly because they remain as unique infrastructure works in comparison with the standard of the rest of Central America.

But beyond the beautiful skyline and the interesting journey through the Panama Canal, there are thousands of things you need to know about the city, the climate and the points of interest that can be visited and discovered during your Panama vacations.

A variety of accommodation for all tastes and budgets, plenty of dining options, and very good connectivity with other destinations, are just some of the advantages that Panama City offers to its visitors.


Ciudad de Panama

Panama City History

The Panama City we all know today has an interesting past and a rich history. The city passed by three different settlements until becoming the modern, attractive city that is now.

The first city was founded on August of 1519 by Pedro Arias de Ávila (aka Pedrarias Dávila) – a Spanish colonial administrator that led the first great Spanish expedition in the New World. After a few years of its founding, the city became an important transit point for gold and silver headed back to Spain through the Isthmus; and for this reason, in 1671, the famous pirate Henry Morgan attacked and looted the city, which was afterward destroyed by fire.

The ruins of this first city still remain and are a popular tourist attraction known as the Old Panama or “Panama La Vieja”. The site was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.

The “second” city – now commonly called Old Quarter or “Casco Antiguo” – was rebuilt in 1674 by Alonso Mercado de Villacorta, a Spanish conquistador, about 5 miles southwest of the Old Panama. This new city was built with a reinforced walls system in order to avoid a new attack of the pirates; but despite all these efforts to keep the city safe from external dangers, the new city was victim of three fires during the XVIII century that destroyed and modified its initial structure – allowing the incorporation of colonial, neoclassical, afro-Antillean and small samples of art deco buildings.

The Old Quarter was declared World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1997; and at this moment is one of the most popular attractions when visiting Panama City – to walk around and discover its historic churches and plazas, its typical and international restaurants and cafés, and its colorful markets, streets, and alleys.

In 1903, when Panama declared its independence from Colombia, Panama City became the capital of the new country and started a continuous growth in its infrastructure.

Then, altogether with the construction of the Panama Canal and the railroad boom the city expanded; and at the end of the 70’s and during the 80’s the city transformed in a banking center – and today remains as one of the largest banking centers in the world.

Before the 2000 there were hardly four buildings that exceeded the 150 meters high, but from that moment and on, the construction of skyscrapers in Panama was accelerated. It is estimated that more than 182 buildings across the city measure more than 100 meters high, most of them facing the Pacific area.

The tallest building in Panama is the Trump Ocean Club with 284 meters high and 70 floors.



Panama Canal History

The Panama Canal is considered a marvel of the modern engineering; but beyond its commercial reputation nowadays, the history of this waterway dates back more than 500 years.

The idea of a water passage crossing the isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans started with King Charles I of Spain in the 1500s; but at that moment the construction of this route was impossible.
It seems like the idea remained just as an opportunity until 1880, when France decided to attempt the task.

The count Ferdinand de Lesseps – builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt – led the construction team; but soon, all of them realized the monumental challenge they had ahead.

After battling with the incessant rains, the heavy landslides, and the spread of yellow fever and malaria, De Lesseps finally realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult to build and abandoned the idea.

The team then started to plan a locks canal, but in 1888 funding was retired from the project due to all the difficulties suffered. At least 22.000 workers are estimated to have died during the period of French construction.

At this same moment, the United States of America were considering the importance that establishing a canal across the isthmus would have for the commercial growth of their country, so the news about the failed attempt of France were received as a great opportunity.

Since Panama was still part of Colombia, U.S. and Colombia negotiated a treaty for $10 million and an annual payment that granted the United States a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia on the land proposed for the canal. Afterwards, this treaty was not ratified by the Senate of Colombia so the negotiation failed; and for this reason, Theodore Roosevelt – the president of the United States at that moment, supported the independence movement of Panama in 1903.

After the independence statement of the Republic of Panama from Colombia was recognized, both countries (Panama and USA) signed the Hay – Bunau – Varilla treaty in 1903, which guaranteed rights to the United States to build and administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses. Since then, and until 1914, the construction works of the Panama Canal were in charge of the U.S.

The Panama Canal formally opened on August 15, 1914. In total, the project cost to the U.S. almost $375 million – the equivalent of $8.6 billion today; and for the first several months of its operation was closed to warships as World War I began in Europe.

In 1977, after years of negotiations and some regrettable episodes, Jimmy Carter – President of the United States, and Omar Torrijos – President of Panama, signed the Torrijos – Carter treaty. This agreement led to a full Panamanian control of the Panama Canal effective as of December 31, 1999; when the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) assumed command of the waterway.



Panama Canal Expansion

The Panama Canal expansion is the largest project at the Canal since its original construction. The construction of a new set of locks that doubled the original waterway’s capacity started in 2007 – after a popular election realized in 2006 where 78% of the Panamanians voted in favor of what they called “a chance of a lifetime”; and ended in 2016, having a direct impact on economies of scale and international maritime trade.

The Panama Canal is the most important tourist attraction in Panama, and can be experienced visiting one of the Visitor’s Centers – Miraflores in the Pacific or Agua Clara in the Atlantic, where it’s also possible to observe the expansion works. Besides, making a real Canal transit aboard a ship that crosses partially or completely the Panama Canal is another way to enjoy this marvel of the modern engineering.



Panama City Location

Panama City is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Panama; and it’s located in the east central part of the country. The city stands in Central America as the only capital located on the seashore, and the most developed regarding infrastructure and commercial growth.

Unlike the rest of Central America, Panama City time zone is Eastern Standard Time – 05:00 hours (UTC-5:00).



Panama Canal Location

The Panama Canal is an artificial waterway of 50 miles (80km) located in Panama, Central America; and connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The Canal runs from the city of Colon on the Atlantic side to Balboa on the Pacific side.

To visit the Panama Canal touristically, there are two visitor’s centers, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic.
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center – the one in the Pacific – is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Panama City. Its located approximately 20 minutes from downtown and with the complete entrance it’s possible to visit the museum of history of the Canal and the open lookout that has broad view to the ships crossing by the Miraflores Locks.

The Agua Clara Visitor Center is located in the Atlantic side, near the city of Colon. This visitor center offers panoramic views of the Gatun Lake and the Agua Clara Locks – which are part of the expansion work ended on 2016. Besides, there are two ecological walking trails through the surrounding forest and some exhibition rooms with information about the expansion project.



Panama City Weather & Climate

Panama City is only 2m (7 ft.) over the sea level, and under the Koppen climate classification has a tropical savanna climate – with 1,900mm of annual precipitation and average temperatures around 27 C (81 F).
The city only has two climate seasons: summer and winter. The short dry season or summer is from January to May, while the prolonged rainy season is from May to January – despite this, Panama is completely outside the hurricane belt and very few natural disasters affect the city.

Normally, the rainiest months are October and November, but during the whole season the rains last no longer than two hours.

In Panama City, there are 11 hours of day light and a humidity of almost 100% all year round.



Panama City Airports

One of the strengths of Panama City is the air connectivity that offers, with three international airports available for both international and domestic flights. Most of the Panama vacation packages begin and end in Panama City due to this.

Undoubtedly, the city is a connection point with other Panama destinations and other countries in the region; no wonder why it’s called “the Hub of the Americas”.

Tocumen International Airport
IATA: PTY
Location: Approximately 17km (11 miles) east of Panama City – 30 minutes’ drive approximately.

Tocumen International Airport is the largest and busiest airport in Panama, and serves as home base for Copa Airlines – the Panamanian international airline.

The airport is the regional hub to and from South, North and Central America, the Caribbean and some major European cities; receiving direct flight of airlines including Aeromexico, Avianca, Copa Airlines, Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, Air France, Iberia, KLM, Turkish Airways and Lufthansa.

Amongst the services available within the airport are ATMs, several dining options, variety of shops, and duty-free outlets, and free Wi-Fi internet access (for up to 2 hours).

Marcos A. Gelabert “Albrook” International Airport
IATA: PAC
Location: Approximately 2km west of downtown Panama City, on the former Albrook Air Force Station.

Albrook International Airport is the home base for Air Panama – the domestic Panama airline that offers internal flight to and from the most popular destinations in the country such as David, Bocas del Toro and San Blas Islands. Besides, Air Panama also offers international flights to and from Costa Rica and Colombia, so Albrook International Airport also receives direct flights from San Jose, CR and Medellín, Colombia.

Services within the airport are limited, including only the basic facilities for short waiting times like equipped bathrooms, a coffee shop, information desk and waiting gates.

Panama Pacifico International Airport
IATA: BLB
Location: Approximately, 10km (6 miles) southwest of Balboa, at the southern (Pacific) end of the Panama Canal. Most of the area around it is uninhabited and forms part of the Panama Canal Zone watershed, although Panama City can be reached by crossing the nearby Bridge of the Americas.

Panama Pacifico International Airport, previously known as Howard Air Force Base, is the former United Stated Air Force base located in Panama. Its operations as a commercial airport started in 2004 when Viva Colombia started flying from Bogota; and nowadays, this airline and Wingo operates normally on it.

Panama Pacifico Airport receives direct flights from Bogota, Cali and Medellin – Colombia, and from San Jose – Costa Rica.



Panama City Points of interest

Panama City is full of tourist attractions; and regardless the budgets and tastes of the visitors, there is something for everyone!!
If you are wondering what can you do during your holidays in Panama City, here you can find a short description of some of the most popular points of interest:

Panama Canal

The most popular attraction of Panama City is the world-known Panama Canal. Visiting this marvel of the modern infrastructure is, in some cases, the main reason of visiting Panama.
There are two options to experience the Panama Canal during your vacations: it’s possible to visit the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center – located approximately 20 minutes from downtown; or booking a partial or complete Canal transit. Choosing the best option depends on your budget, your time and the interest you have for this attraction.

Casco Viejo

After the Panama Canal, the Old Quarter or “Casco Viejo” is one of the most visited attractions in the city.
This historic town was built in 1673, after Panama Vieja (the first Panama City) was destroyed by pirate Henry Morgan. Its predominant architectural style is a combination of Italian, French and Spanish colonial.

When visiting the Casco Viejo, it’s possible to discover beautiful streets, plazas and churches including the impressive Cathedral and the famous San Jose Church – which survived the plundering of the pirate Morgan and has an outstanding golden altar made of carved wood and covered in gold flake.

On the other hand, Casco Viejo is also one of the main nightlife spots in the city for locals and foreigners, due to the variety of dining options, rooftop bars and discotheques located around. Lots of people visit Casco Viejo in the afternoon to take photos, explore the small shops and souvenirs and eat ice creams; and stay there until night to taste a local beer or a glass of wine enjoying the beautiful views of the city skyline.

Panama Vieja

The ruins of the Old Panama are known as “Panama Vieja”, and remain as a heritage of the first Panama City - the first city founded by the Spanish in the Central American Isthmus.

The city was founded in 1519 and destroyed in 1671 - by the English pirate Henry Morgan. All the history hidden in the ruins and the small museum located in the visitor’s center are part of the Panama’s culture; so, visiting this attraction is a highlight for those interested in knowing more about the past of the country.
Panama Vieja was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.

Biomuseo

The Biodiversity Museum in Panama (aka. Biomuseo) is located in the Amador Causeway, at the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Pacific Ocean.
The colorful museum design was a donation of the world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, and is his only work in Latin America. Fun fact: Gehry’s wife is Panamanian.
Besides, the site where the museum is located was donated by the Panama government and its construction was completed through donations from private businesses and individual donations.

The main theme of the museum is the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its gigantic impact on the planet’s biodiversity.

Important: Biomuseo is closed on Mondays.

Ancon Hill and “Mi Pueblito”

Ancon Hill stands as the highest point in Panama City – at 650 feet; and it’s the perfect place get some exercise, spot variety of wildlife and enjoy outstanding views of the modern city, the historic Casco Viejo, the Bridge of the Americas and the Panama Canal.          

The hike is best done at early morning to avoid a little bit the heat, the humidity and the afternoon tropical rains; and it takes about 1.5 - 2 hours to go up and down.

You can either go up to the top of the hill by car and just make a short hike, or do the entire hike to the top - recommended for anyone in good physical condition.

On the other hand, located at the southeastern foot of the Ancon Hill, “Mi Pueblito” is a mock village depicting three Panamanian cultures: Afro-Caribbean, the interior region, and the indigenous groups.

If you are planning to visit Ancon Hill, the combination with “Mi Pueblito” is a good option to explore a little bit more the folklore of Panama.

Important note: Mi Pueblito is closed on Mondays.

Metropolitan Natural Park

The Metropolitan Natural Park is the nearest National Park to the city – approximately 15 minutes’ drive. The park has more than 200 hectares and is home to a rich biodiversity: more than 250 species of trees, 50 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, and several species of reptiles and amphibians.

This natural park is the perfect option for those looking for a place – close to the city - to have contact with nature and make a soft hike.

In addition, the park boasts two lookout points, ideal for bird observation and to have amazing panoramic views of Panama City, the Canal, and some other attractions.

Amador Causeway

One of the favorite attractions in Panama City for both foreigners and locals is the Amador Causeway. This causeway is the second longest boardwalk in the city, and offers to the visitors a variety of facilities to enjoy outdoor activities like walking, bicycling, roller skating, and many more.

In the Amador Causeway is also located the Biomuseo – the Biodiversity Museum in Panama of Frank Gehry.
Besides, the Amador Causeway boasts a varied selection of dining options with incredible views of the skyline and the largest marina in Panama City.



Panama City Hotels & Resorts

Panama City is one of the most popular destinations in Panama, and the lodging options are so varied as budgets and tastes! From charming boutique hotels to all-inclusive resorts, the city has an option for everyone!
If you are looking for the best place to stay during your next Panama vacations, here are our recommendations:

Best Western Plus Zen Panama Hotel

Located in Via Argentina – close to restaurants, bars, entertainment centers and the Metro Station. The hotel boasts a beautiful rooftop terrace with heated swimming pool, perfect for freshen up after a day tour or enjoy the panoramic views of the city.

Its 90 rooms are equipped with convenient amenities including complimentary Wi-Fi, air conditioning, 40-inch TV, safety box and buffet breakfast. Besides, the hotel offers a fully-equipped gym, a coffee shop and a charming restaurant with local and international menu.

Hilton Panama Hotel

Hilton Panama is one of the preferred hotels in the city, due to its unique view of the bay. It’s located in Balboa Avenue, giving easy access to some of the most popular attractions in Panama including the Casco Viejo and the coastal beltway.

Hotel’s 347 rooms are equipped with high-quality amenities, and amongst its general facilities are an outdoor pool, a 24-hour fitness center, a first-class spa, and several dining options including the first Ruth Chris Steakhouse in Latin America.

Las Americas Golden Tower Panama

Brand new five-star hotel, designed by the renowned architect Carlos Ott – the same who created projects such as L’Opera de la Bastille in Paris and the Dubai National Bank.

Its 285 luxurious rooms feature premium amenities and offer beautiful views of Panama City. Besides, the hotel boasts unique facilities including the first and only Flotarium in Panama – with mineral salts resembling the Dead Sea, and the Erre de Ramón Freixa Restaurant - the only tasting menu in the city by a two-Michelin star chef.

American Trade Hotel

American Trade is one of the favorite boutique hotels in Panama City, due to its privileged location in the historic Casco Viejo. The restored landmark building is located in front of Plaza Herrera and just few steps away from the Cathedral.

The hotel features 54 carefully decorated guestrooms and suites, an outdoor pool and sundeck, the largest rooftop in Casco Viejo, and three specialized dining venues including Café Unido – a great place to taste a cup of the world-famous Panamanian Geisha coffee, and The Lobby Café & Bar – with a cocktail menu that harkens back to the Panama City of the 1920s and '30s.

Bristol Panama Hotel

Bristol Panama is a five-star boutique hotel – the perfect place to enjoy a truly bespoke experience.

The property is located in the prestigious Financial District, and boasts 125 luxurious rooms distributed into 5 categories ranging from charming deluxe rooms to fully-equipped condominium-style suites.       

The highlights of the hotel are its Spa - located in the 25th floor, and the famous Salsipuedes Restaurant – which offers a unique gastronomic experience that combines the exquisite Panamanian gourmet cuisine, with quality products and an impeccable service.

The Westin Playa Bonita

Playa Bonita is located approximately 20 minutes away from Panama City, and is the perfect option for people with short travel times but wanting to stay in all-inclusive beach resorts.
From the hotel, it’s possible to visit all the city attractions including the impressive Panama Canal.

The Westin boasts 611 guestrooms with forest and ocean views; and features all the facilities of a luxury resort including four beachfront swimming pools, a fully equipped fitness center, six restaurants and three bars.
Besides, the resort offer more than 65,000 sq. ft. of multiuse meeting spaces.



Panama City Dining Options

Panama City has plenty dining options, ranging from typical Panamanian cuisine to exclusive international restaurants. Besides, the city also offers a variety of coffee shops, bars and markets where locals and tourists can enjoy delicious meals and drinks.

Some of the suggested restaurants in Panama City are:

Salsipuedes Cocina & Bar

Location: Bristol Panama Hotel
Hours of operation: Monday to Sunday - 11:00 to 23:00
Salsipuedes Cocina & Bar is a gourmet Panamanian cuisine restaurant that features fresh, local ingredients and first-class service. The restaurant offers a colorful menu that enlivens traditional regional dishes with modern infusions and local ingredients.

Market Restaurant

Location: 48th Street, between Uruguay St and Aquilino de la Guardia St.
Hours of operation: Monday to Friday – 7:00 to 23:00
Saturday – 11:30 to 23:00
Sunday – 11:30 to 21:00

Market is the perfect place for meat lovers! This steak house offers an impeccable menu including steaks, chops and some of the best burgers in Panama; besides an extensive wine list and an excellent service.

Segundo Muelle

Location: Balboa Avenue, within Balboa Boutique Plaza – 2nd floor.
Hours of operation: Tuesday to Sunday – 12:00 to 23:00
Mondays closed.

Segundo Muelle is a Peruvian restaurant specialized in seafood. The restaurant is elegantly decorated and boasts a charming atmosphere and beautiful views of Panama City.

The franchise has restaurants in Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Spain and Portugal.

Ocho y Medio Panama

Location: Casco Antiguo. Jose de la Obaldia St, between 8 & 9 Streets.
Hours of operation: Monday to Saturday – 19:00 to 23:00
Sundays closed.

Ocho y Medio is an international cuisine restaurant, located in the famous Casco Antiguo of Panama. More than a typical restaurant, it’s a place to enjoy a modern gastronomic experience based on classic dishes.

The Dining Room

Location: American Trade Hotel in Casco Antiguo
Hours of operation: Everyday – 11:30 to 16:00 & 18:00 to 23:00

The Dining Room offers an innovative version of classic meat and fish dishes that are distinguished by the commitment to fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant combines this delicious menu with an impressive international wine list, a selection of desserts and a warm atmosphere.

Caliope

Location: Central Avenue, Casco Antiguo. Amador Theater Building, 3rd floor.
Hours of operation: Mondays to Saturdays – 19:00 to 23:00
Sundays closed.

Caliope is the first farm-to-table dining experience in Casco Antiguo. The restaurant offers an international fusion menu featuring fresh and delicious local ingredients. Caliope accepts reservations and holds a limited number of tables for walk-ins.

Veggie Moon

Location: Casco Antiguo. 1st Street West.
Hours of operation: Every day – 11:30 to 23:00

Veggie Moon is very nice restaurant that in addition to its vegan/vegetarian menu, offers delicacies of fish, seafood and a delicious selection of pastas. Besides, the restaurant is also a charming place to enjoy a glass of wine or an exquisite dessert.

Casa Blanca Panama

Location: Casco Antiguo. 4th Street, in front of Plaza Bolivar.
Hours of operation: Every day – 10:00 to 02:00

Casa Blanca is an international cuisine restaurant with an ample indoor seating area and a beautiful outdoor area – perfect for a relaxing afternoon cocktail or a romantic dinner under the stars.

The restaurant offers a wide variety of delicious dishes, including ethnic mixtures of the Pacific and the Caribbean and a varied selection of wines

Panama City’s Seafood Market

Location: Coastal Beltway
Hours of operation: Every day – 08:00 to 22:00

The local seafood market isn’t a fancy place, but a recommended attraction to visit for the seafood lovers. More than a restaurant, the seafood market is home to multiple casual seafood stands.

Their specialty is ceviche - raw fish “cooked” in citrusy juices - served in cups, accompanied with “patacones” or fried green plantain and a cold local beer.

Tinajas Restaurant

Location: 51st Street, N 22, Bella Vista
Hours of operation: Monday to Saturday – 11:30 to 22:30
Sundays closed.

Tinajas is a typical Panamanian restaurant, offering a menu based on local and international dishes. What makes it different from the rest of the restaurants in the city is the folk-dancing shows that are presented from Tuesdays to Saturdays at 9:00pm.

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