Panama City highlights: A guide to Panama’s capital city. Things to do, how to get around, where to stay and where to eat.
We kicked off our 3 months of backpacking through Central America in Panama. Our decision to travel during the low season was made with a lot of consideration. Of course, there were some great perks for travelling at that time of year: fewer tourists and crowds, more flexibility with travel plans, cheaper transport and accommodation prices. But of course, travelling in the low season also meant more rain! For that reason, we only spent a week in Panama before moving on to Costa Rica. Generally shying away from big cities, we were pleasantly surprised by the countries capital. A big, vibrant, organised city with a good mix of new and old and perfect for people who love to be outdoors.
We spent a few days in the country’s capital and these were our Panama City highlights:
1. Wandering around Casco Viejo
The old town of Casco Viejo was a great place to base ourselves whilst visiting Panama City. We took some time to explore the streets and admire the old buildings, cathedrals, cafes and of course the waterfront.
2. Hire a bike to see the city
Panama city is surprisingly well designed for enjoying the outdoors with well-established bike/walking tracks available to use. Cycling was the perfect way to see the city and its surroundings. Our accommodation offered free bike hire, so it made sense to us to grab a bike and go for a cruise around the town. We loved the Cinta Costera track which offered great views back on the city.
Tip: Why not finish your ride at the Mercado Mariscos (Fish Market). Located right by the waterfront, the fish market had a great local vibe and was a perfect place for lunch, dinner, a snack or even just for a beer.
3. Exploring Parque Metropolitano
Just a 10 minute drive from Casco Viejo, was Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan National Park). There was something quite surreal about visiting a National Park right in a major city! There’s a mirador with lovely views of city, which was also where we saw a beautiful Keel-Billed Toucan.
Offering a few walking circuits and a range of wildlife including sloths, monkeys, agoutis, toucans and Geoffroy’s Tamarin just to name a few, we happily spent a couple of hours cruising the circuits. Sadly, we didn’t see too much, as we arrived a little later in the morning (jet lag was wreaking havoc with our body clocks!)
Entrance to the park was only US$4p/p. A taxi only set us back $9 return to/from Casco Viejo.
Tip: Get there early if you want to increase your chances of seeing any wildlife. And, although it’s hot and humid, we recommend wearing long, lightweight clothes and taking insect spray with you, as there were LOTS of mosquitos!
We loved our time in Panama City. As people who generally avoid big cities on our travels where we can, we were very pleasantly surprised with Panama City. It didn’t feel too big and crowded. There was lots of different things to see and do and it was a great introduction to Central America for us. Nest stop Ilsa Bastimentos – Bocas Del Toro.
Other things to see & do
- Visit the Panama Canal. See one of the most famous canals in the world and watch the ships rise and lower to sea level at Miraflores Locks.
- Visit the Parque Soberania. If you’re after more nature, check out the walking and jogging trails at this nearby National Park.
- Visit the San Blas Islands Panama City is a great base to head to San Blas and see some of these beautiful Islands. You can easily arrange a trip a hostel tour desks.
Getting to & around
Wetook a taxi from the airport to Casco Viejo, which was fast and easy. It’s worth asking your accommodation how much you should be paying in advance to avoid being over charged. Taxi drivers in Panama will charge extra if there’s more than one person in the car.
- Taxis are available everywhere and are cheap.
- Uber is even cheaper.
- A lot of hostels offer free bike hire (as did ours). We highly recommend grabbing a bike to see the sites.
- Of course, walking is a great way to get some exercise in and see the sites. But make sure you check which areas are tourist-friendly and safe.
Getting to Bocas Del Toro
- We caught a taxi to the bus station in Panama City and purchased an overnight bus/boat combo ticket for US$33.60p/p. Best to get to the bus station early to ensure you get a ticket, especially in high season, or consider buying the day before.
- The bus departed Panama City at 6.30pm and was very comfortable and safe. It stopped once for 30mins for food/drinks/bathrooms. We arrived in Alimantre at 3.30am.
- From Alimantre bus stop, shared taxis were waiting to take us to the boat dock – 5mins US$2p/p.
- The first boat to Bocas Town departed around 6am and took about 45mins.
- From Bocas Town, we caught a water taxi to Bastimentos, which took about 10mins and cost US$3p/p.
There are loads of accommodation options in Panama City. We stayed at Lunas Castle which was a great option. The hostel offered helpful and friendly staff, free unlimited pancake breakfast, free tea/coffee/water, great kitchen with self-catering facilities, free bike hire, tour information and bookings, great location, clean and comfortable rooms and facilities, cheap beer!
Panama’s cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African and Native American ingredients and dishes. Local dishes generally incorporate rice, meat and vegetables which are lightly flavoured. Expect to pay higher prices at restaurants in and around Casco Viejo. We self-catered in order to save our budget. But we still indulged in a few cheap eats and beers at Mercado de Mariscos. Some typical Panamanian dishes include:
- Sancocho – Chicken soup with corn on the cob, potatoes, coriander, vegetables with a serve of white rice.
- Ceviche del Mercado de Mariscos – Ceviche from the Seafood Market.
- Guacho de Mariscos (Seafood Guacho) – A thick rice soup with yucca, yams, mixed vegetables and mixed seafood.
- Ropa Vieja y Arroz con Coco – Shredded Beef and Coconut Rice.
The official currency in Panama is USD. ATM’s and money exchange booths were available at the airport, bus stations and in Casco Viejo.