My initial research into visiting Panama indicated that it is one of the safest countries in Central America - always a concern in the region. Unfortunately, it was also said to be one of the most expensive ones, having the USD as their currency and a high number of expatriates residing there.
Panama City is a very big metropolis, and indeed one of the biggest in the region. It is a big centre for banking and trading, and hosts the headquarters of several multinational companies, bringing many foreign workers from all over the world. It all truly creates a city of different realities.
It doesn't take long after reaching the city for a visitor to notice its impressive skyline, filled by interesting skyscrapers and wide, multi-lane motorways. It reminded me of Dubai right away. But not too long after, the visitor will be reminded they are entering a Central American capital, noticing many of the usual poverty aspects most other metropolis in the region struggle with, creating a visible contrast.
From the moment I reached the airport I could feel the hospitality of the people in Panama. They were kind, unpretentious and seemed very friendly. I picked up my pack and went out looking for the bus stop, following the instructions I had gotten from my host and ignoring the many taxi drivers and their expensive fares.
The sun was really hot. I had been told I would wait for a long time for the bus, and that was indeed the case. I saw the first "Diablo Rojo" (Red Devil) bus go by, absolutely packed, and knew I was in for a quite a ride. A kind lady helped getting on the regular air-conditioned (but nearly just as packed) bus with her bus card, and it took me over two hours to reach the centre, even though it was not that far.
I slept and lost the bus stop I was supposed to exit the bus, but to my luck, just by one stop. Panama City didn't strike me as a very nice place at first. It remind me of Miami (but poorer and dirtier), with only cars passing by and no pedestrians at all.
But those first impressions would very soon change, as I left the posh residential area where I was staying and headed towards the city centre.
Another long bus ride for a short distance later, and I reached the 5 de Mayo Square area. It was a lively and authentically latinamerican area. There were many street sellers, rough looking buildings and a much poorer appearance than the areas I had seen up to that point. The authenticy excited me, and I immediately ventured into the seedy looking streets as locals observed me and approached me sort of advising me not to continue. I didn't go too far, and kept on walking towards the nearby and much more tourist friendly "Casco Viejo" (Old Centre) area.
I was happy. I felt I was in Central America. Reggaton music was playing on the streets, people were addressing me by calling me "mami" and the overall energy and rhythm of life was contagious. I felt rather safe, and everyone I approached to ask for information treated me extremely well.
Once in the nearby Casco Viejo I was blown away by the amount of beautiful Colonial Heritage that city hosted. Beautiful mansions, courtyards, churches and squares filled up the cobblestone lined, narrow streets. The area was going through massive renovations, but still boasted charm, making it a very attractive neighborhood. I walked around for a good while until I reached its end, by the water, where I could see the entirely different, super modern skyline of Panama City, on the other side of town. I enjoyed that contrast a fair bit, and took tons of pictures until sunset came, which was also quite neat.
I made my way back to the centre, remaining very aware of my surroundings and taking good care. I boarded a Diablo Rojo bus, which was an absolutely amazing experience one would expect from Hollywood movies: Neon lights on, crazy loud music bustling from inside the bus and a vibrant atmosphere that made it feel more like an actual attraction than a regular local transportation option for the many workers simply returning home from a busy day.
They are the non government buses, and riding them is quite a fun experience, as they drive like maniacs competing with one another for customer. It is what foreigners like to call the "chicken bus". They are old and crowded, but full of personality and simply incredible.
Panama's number one attraction
The following day started early, as it was time to visit Panama's most well known attraction: The Panama Canal. I started in the Miraflores Locks, the area of the Canal most visited by tourists, including a visitor's centre and lots of interesting information about the Canal's construction, history and economical impact in the region.
The Canal was rather impressive, specially having read a fair bit about it prior to the visit at the information centre. Without that, it maybe would not have been quite "wowing" for a visit, so properly understanding its concept and architectural marvel is well recommended, and really, if one is in Panama City, well, that is what one should do.
Later on, I went to visit "El Cangrejo" (the crab) area – a very different area, mostly inhabited by foreigners. It provided me with a chance to see how so many of the expatriates reside. It was full of major hotels, restaurants and shops in very pedestrian friendly streets. Later on, I checked the Casco Viejo at night, which felt like an entirely different area than what I had seen a few days before.
It was happening! A mix of places to go, some very local and some rather touristic, very busy indeed. My host Jose had invited me to go watch his band performing at an old courtyard, and it was absolutely packed by Panama City's youth, which was great!
The following few days were spent strolling around the Fish Market area, sampling delicious food, watching market life and taking long walks in the beautiful Costanera area - a rather impressive neighborhood architecturally wise. I never thought Panama City would bust such architecture! Many, many beautiful towers lining up the sea side avenue, one after the other, but somehow, maintaining a fresh atmosphere, rather than the concrete jungle maze that many big metropolis seem to foster with their constructions. . I was even more impressed by the Skyline view at night, and at the same time, a bit puzzled by it, as it was really not what I expected.
Most of what I came to see in Panama City was indeed not what I expected. Economical statistics were also full of surprises, such as having under 3% unemployment in the country – something certainly rare for the region!
I didn't quite venture into that side of the city, as my focus was slightly different, but Panama City is also a shopper's paradise, as the country is a known to be a Duty Free zone. From local craft shops to high end big name brands, shopping opportunities are endless, and that aspect of the city seems to occupy quite a bit of the time most visitors devote to it. Another big attraction are the many mega casinos, spread all around the city and attracting a large number of visitors as well as locals.
The nightlife is very busy and mixed, as previously mentioned, varying from top notch roof top night clubs to world class restaurants with nightly live music and entertainment. Panama has a very rich tradition in culinary arts, and when mixed with the culinary style of its many different neighbours, the gastronomical options in the city are endlessly exciting.
But Panama has a lot more to offer
My visit to Panama continued into the incredible San Blas archipelago, which was fantastic and worthy of an article of its own, but I should mentioned that there are plenty of other well known beaches not too far from the capital that host a very well developed tourism industry. From all inclusive beach front resorts towns, such as Coronado, to further beaches in the Bocas del Toro Province in the Caribbean side, that caters to several budget options, Panama has a lot to offer as a country.
For those seeking adrenaline filled activities, a visit to the country's coffee growing capital Boquete is well recommended, where rock climbing, zip lining and white water rafting are just a few of the many options available to adventurous travelers. Families might enjoy the Coiba National Marine Park by the Pacific Ocean, or Boca Chica, where great snorkeling is available and the atmosphere is a bit quieter.
What I took away
As a destination of its own or as a stop on route somewhere else, Panama City is definitely a city worth a stop, and of course, if one has more time to be devoted to the many stunning beaches and National Parks available in the different regions of this little talked about (when compared to some of its neighbours) country, one should take upon it, as Panama is unforgettably beautiful, safe and welcoming!