Panama City

Panama City is surprisingly modern in comparison to other Central American capital cities. With a strong American influence due to the Panama Canal, you will notice some similarities to American cities in the companies represented, the sheer size of buildings along the city line and service attitudes-this might just be the only place in Latin America where restaurants bring you a free glass of water with ice when you sit down. Featuring around 120 banks, Panama City is the home to much of the Latin American banking industry. Shopping is also exceptionally good due in a large part to low import duties and large volume; Panama City has also developed a taste for the American-style mall with monstrous complexes in and outside of the city.

With a city coastline on the Pacific Ocean, some of the cheapest and best shopping in Latin America, some great islands just off the coast and the Panama Canal less than an hour away, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy in Panama City. Here are some of the highlights:

Shopping along the 20 blocks from Avenida Central to Via España in the Bella Vista district. Much of this stretch consists of clean tree-lined pedestrian walkways.

Casco Viejo is a charming colonial district along the water, to the southern end of the Bahía de Panamá. It features narrow streets and colorful balconies loaded with flowerboxes. French Park is a monument to the French builders who began the Panama Canal at the tip of the district. There are some good museums like the Canal Museum, the Museum of National History and a small museum near the old cathedral which is dedicated to religious art. The Presidential House is a lovely building which can be toured on Sundays.

– There are a couple of museums in Panama city worth a look. The Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz has exhibits on Panamanian history, anthropology and archaeology along with a rare collection of pre-Colombian gold objects and ceramics. The Museo Afro-Antillano features an illustrated history of Panama’s West Indian community and their work on the Panama Canal. The Museo de Canal Interoceanico is a must for those interested in the history of the canal.

Miraflores Lock on the Panama Canal is one of the main tourist centers, where you can see boats slowly making their way through the canal. Complete with grandstands, exhibits and a running loudspeaker explanation, you can easily stay for an hour or two. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead and ask when a boat will be coming through; otherwise, you’ll find yourself staring at a lock filled with brown water. Buses run regularly from the huge intersection near the Legislative Palace. The trip is about 45 minutes.

Old Panama, Panama Viejo, is about two miles north of the center of modern-day Panama City and was the first capital, founded in 1519 and sacked by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Mostly colonial structures here were created by the Spanish and used as a base to invade the Inca Empire in South America. This was als a central storage and shipping port for the wealth stolen from the Andes region in South America. Because of the great storehouses of Inca wealth here, pirates like Henry Morgan were attracted to the city and led to its eventual end.

Islands just outside of the city like Isla Tabago can be reached by speedboat from the docks about half an hour outside of the main city and offer a complete escape from life in the congested city. The water is much cleaner out here than it is in the city. However, you will see large ships and oil rigs anchored in the distance, waiting to pass through the Panama Canal.

– Before the Panama Canal, the Panama Railroad was used to transport goods from one ocean to another through this skinny stretch of Panama. Recently re-opened, you can travel through the rainforest and pass parts of the Panama Canal. If you want to take a daytrip, there are daily trains from Panama City to Colon for about $20 round trip leaving at 7 a.m. and returning at 5:30 p.m.