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Visit the Panama Canal – The heart of Panama City

The Canal is the pulse of Panama and what makes the city tick, feeding it with a steady (and tremendous) source of income and international respect and fame. The canal cuts 51 miles east to west through the country, the impressive Miraflores locks are the first set of locks closest to Panama City, and are by far the most visitor-friendly, with a large visitor center, a museum detailing the canal’s history and a small cinema which shows a short film about the construction of the canal.
Miraflores locks Panama canal
Once outside, there are several terraces to view the colossal container ships being raised or lowered through the locks. Ships carrying over 4,400 containers squeeze through the canal, paying per pound upwards of $400,000 each time to pass. In the mornings, ships heading from the Pacific to the Atlantic go through, the direction is then reversed in the afternoons. There are excellent explanations in English and Spanish over the speakers while the ships pass through, and you leave feeling very informed about how the Panama Canal (and international shipping) works.
Miraflores locks container shipThe locks are an easy 10-minute taxi ride outside of town. There is also a bus, leaving from Albrook Bus Terminal, which drops you off at the street leading to the docks (about 100m walk).

Miraflores Locks – $8 all-inclusive ticket.
Taxi from Panama City – $5-$6
Bus from Albrook Mall – $0.50

The Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano): A jungle in the city

The Metropolitan Park is so much more than just a park. It’s an entire rainforest in the city, home to hundreds of animals and an oasis of peace and quiet in an otherwise very busy city. On a hike you can spot monkeys, anteaters, pacas, toucans, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, turtles, ‘jesus christ’ lizards, butterflies, snakes and many more.
Anteater at Parque Metropolitano Panama City
There are four trails leading up to Cedar Hill, which offers fabulous views over the city, and during the week you have the entire park to yourself. We spotted more animals in this jungle than in some National Parks, and here we were right in the city, just a 15 minute walk from a shopping mall to rival any large American mall.
Panama city skyline from Parque Metropolitano Panama City
Park entrance – $2.00

Bus ride – $.025 – $.050

Casco Viejo – A stroll through Panama City’s colonial quarter

Casco Viejo is may be Panama City’s historic heart, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Many of the colonial buildings lining cobblestone alleys and grand-tree filled plazas for this reason have been restored, and the colonial churches and architecture make this part of Panama City feel more like Europe than anywhere else in Central America.
casco viejo panama city
Take time to stroll through this beautiful quarter, which was even featured in the James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’. Although the true center of the city with time has shifted to the financial district 2 miles up the waterfront, Casco Viejo, has several excellent restaurants and cafes, cheap eats, and easily the best views of the stunning Panama City skyline.

A walk along the promenade – Skyscraper watching

Starting in Casco Viejo and ending at the Multicentro Shopping Center in the Bella Vista area of the city, there is a two-mile long promenade along the waterfront which is perfect for enjoying the skyscraper skyline set on the Pacific Ocean. You will walk toward this impressive architecture passing the famous fish market, the yacht harbor and dozens of freights ships lined up and waiting to pass through the Panama Canal. The promenade is well-paved and easy on the knees, and hundreds of joggers weave around you as you walk.
Panama City skyline & yachts
If you’re looking for a place to stay fit in Panama City, jogging here is perfect, just make sure to get up early, as the heat in the afternoon can be oppressive at best.

Be a beach bum – A day trip to Taboga Island

Panama City can get hot, extremely hot! If you have a few days in the city, Taboga Island makes for the perfect day trip. 12 miles off the coast, this little island does not have much more to offer than a small sandy beach and crystal clear water, but that’s all we needed to escape the bustle of the city just a 30-minute ferry ride away. If you get bored lying at the beach, this tiny island paradise also have hiking trails and the small village center has a couple of cheapish restaurants with excellent seafood and ice cold beer.
Taboga Island beach and Panama City in the background

…And an extra tip for long-term travelers:

See a movie in English & go shopping!

We know that for backpackers, a shopping mall is not high up on the list, but if you have been on the road for a while, a visit to one of Panama City’s malls is like being teleported home. We had been travelling for over six months through Central America and welcomed the chance to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater (did we mention Panama is hot?) watching current and cheap ($3) Hollywood blockbusters in English at the Albrook mall (also the main bus terminal). And sure, we know you don’t want American fast food, we’re backpackers, right? Well… we scarfed down Taco Bell at the huge food court which has everything you could possible crave – Subway, Mickey D’s, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, Popeyes, Wendy’s … you name it!
Panama City Mall food courtA last tip for long-term travelers: if your clothes need replacing (and not just in the form of traveler pants), the malls here are great for that. Not only do they have clothes that are more North American or European in style, they also have sizes to fit us non-Latinas out there!

Tags : casco viejopanama canalpanama citytaboga island


  1. Another post full of great tips. I’m actually really excited for Panama City and to see the Canal (I still have no idea how it actually works…only a matter of time!).

    Did you find it a relatively safe city?
    Megan recently posted..Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal

    1. Yeah, relatively safe. In Casco Viejo there is a very large police and tourism police presence, as that area is up-and-coming and used to be unsafe but not so much any more. When we first got to Casco Viejo, some of the worse-off areas were a bit shocking, but actually, this area really is well-renovated, we hung out outside at night and the locals were really friendly, too. There are your typical crazies, and Panama City is a big city, so there are a few more than in other places, but nothing unlike any major city. When you are in some of the ‘richer’ areas, you’d think you were smack dab in the middle of suburban America, and we felt pretty safe there, too.

    1. Hi Denise, glad you found our blog 🙂 Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about Panama, or need recommendations for places to stay, eat, etc. We had a really good time in Panama – hope that you get to visit Panama soon!

  2. jess and dani! i’m going to panama in march and, of course, am already obsessively researching. your site is helpful! hope you both are doing well! we still have yet to try your chicory coffee. <3

    1. Hi Eleanor – awesome that you are going to Panama! When, where and why? let us know if we can help at all with planning or ideas. Don’t worry about not trying the chicory coffee, it’s a novelty but not necessarily the first thing you want to drink in the morning, especially Meg who doesn’t drink that much caffeine. Maybe it’ll still be there next time we’re around to drink together! 🙂

  3. Hi Jess and Dani! Thank you for the great post about Panama. I’m going there in a little more than a week (for only a few days) and have just ruled out the train ride because of your post. (I had planned to take it for the train experience). I am trying to make the decision of taking day trips from the city for my four full days or of hopping around and coming back to PC to fly out. What do you recommend? As for me, I love to explore, meet locals (who want to be met), hike and learn about history…Can it be done in four days?! 😉

    1. Hi Heather! Four days is a pretty short time – I’d probably spend the entire time in Panama City. I don’t know if Portobelo is doable as a day trip from Panama City, but we’ve heard good things about the city and wish we would have time to visit when we were in Panama. Colon seemed a bit dodgy, I am not sure if it’s a good place to spend the day in. We enjoyed our day trip to Taboga Island, and we met quite a few locals there, but there is not an awful lot to do except for enjoying the beach – the town on the island is pretty, but tiny. If you are in town during the weekend, you should head to Parque Metropolitano on Saturday or Sunday, and you’ll find tons of locals hanging out there (it is also a great jungle-like park with superb views over the city). I think Casco Viejo is also a nice place to spend at least a few hours in, strolling through the old streets and chatting with some of the friendly locals, and there are always some Kuna ladies on a little market there (right by the water). P.S. Even though we stayed in Casco Viejo the whole time and had no problems at all, we read about pickpockets and muggings there, so I would be careful with my belongings. Enjoy Panama City!!



  5. Hi! Thanks so much for your enjoyable blog! We are going to panama mid may and planning to spend a week there. Do you have any recommendations of good places to stay and the best things to do in that week? We want to see as much as we can!

    1. Hi Naomi, great to hear that you’re heading to Panama! Are you only spending time in Panama City or also in other parts of the country? We’d definitely recommend staying in the old part of town (Casco Viejo) – we stayed in a pretty awful places there, to be honest, but we had looked at the Luna’s Castle hostel which was fully booked though – otherwise we would’ve stayed there.

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I am in panama city right now and I didnt know about isla taboga so thats now on my list. Having a great time here its so different than all the other central american countries, going to the vie amador tomorrow to do some biking, super excited!

      1. We had a really good time in Panama City! Unfortunately time didn’t play out on our side to go to Taboga Island because we are leaving tomorrow and we had to see the canal today. We also wanted to see Isla Perlas too but that was WAY expensive. Oh well, next time! We already went to San Blas and we’re heading to Bocas del Toro next so we’ll get a good taste of island life at least.
        Samantha recently posted..Cinta Costera – Where everyone goes to workout

  7. Hi Dani and Jess,
    I am coming to Panama December 29-January 5 for a family reunion. My Mother was from there and we all want to go back to see our family there. We are staying at the Hilton in Panama City, but I would like to go to the beach and outside the city the January 2-5. Want to do the San Blas and Taboga Island as well as a over night getaway with my Man. Can you suggest a good place for one night and day get away from the family (Romantic!)
    We are Doing the Canal and the Colonial District as well as Coronado Beach 12/29-1/1. My cousin owns Habibi’s and we will be there New years eve.

    1. Hi Molly, thanks a lot for getting in touch! I’m afraid I don’t really have a suggestion for a romantic getaway.. I would just check what has to offer in Bocas for example – I am sure there are some nice romantic hotels on the more secluded islands, that’s probably your best bet?

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