Where the rainforest meets the city: an inside guide to Panama City
Quietly cool Panama City fits the bill for travellers in search of sun, sea, rainforests, reefs and ruins. Redraw your travel map to behold Panama’s most miraculous feats — natural and manmade.
The Isthmus of Panama — a slender ribbon of land joining North and South America — changed the biodiversity of the planet by creating a land bridge for animal and plant migration. It also revolutionised shipping with the inter-oceanic Panama Canal, for which the country is most well-known. Its stylish and biodiverse capital, Panama City, however, remains the country’s beating heart. This skyscraper-filled metropolis — which boasts a tropical rainforest and two UNESCO World Heritage sites — is a pleasant mix of regal structures, paint-stripped mansions on cobblestone streets, stylish rooftops with a continuous hum of Latin music and much to please nature lovers.
Sauntering through the old town that bears three monikers — Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo and San Felipe — is a popular starting point for first-time visitors. Spend some time ambling among the narrow streets of the historic, UNESCO-designated district, which, despite consisting of just four avenues and four main plazas, packs a strong cultural punch. As you stroll, look out for exposed ruins and walls lacquered with patriotic art, as well as nods to Panama’s often forgotten French ties. From 1881 to 1904, two separate French companies attempted to construct the Panama Canal. The US may have taken over, eventually succeeded and had a stronger influence on the country, but traces of this Gallic past can still be found in everything from the language to the plazas and parks. Plaza Francia, situated at the southern tip of Casco, has a whitewashed obelisk and marble plaques commemorating the French efforts.
Over on the Amador Causeway, you can learn about Panama’s miraculous emergence from the ocean at Latin America’s first museum dedicated to biodiversity. The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo showcases the richness of the region through striking permanent and temporary exhibits. Be sure to peruse them all to pick up little-known snippets of wisdom, including details of Scotland’s fruitless attempt to colonise Panama’s Darién region.
To satisfy any shopping needs, head to the vibrant neighbourhood of Plaza Nueva in Casco Viejo, where you’ll find everything from traditional Basque stores and high-class shopping plazas to quintessential souvenirs. Be sure to look up at all the charming, wrought-iron balconies on route. For an impromptu Spanish lesson, Casco Antiguo Spanish School, located in the heart of this gothic quarter, provides authentic cultural and language immersion experiences, such as half-day courses and longer, small group sessions.
As a UNESCO creative city for gastronomy, you’ll want to sample some of the city’s many flavours, with dishes and ingredients that derive from Panama’s African, Spanish and Native American influences. Fonda Lo Que Hay is unmissable for its visually arresting, modern take on traditional Panamanian cuisine — the signature dish of toasted yuca with tuna carpaccio and onion ceviche is a must-try. Cocktail connoisseurs should head to Pedro Mandinga, the country’s first artisanal rum distillery, to enjoy an extensive rum-based cocktail menu, including their spiced and silver house rums, which are traditionally made from pure sugar cane, before rounding off the evening at Tantalo — one of the city’s many sleek rooftop bars.
The Parque Natural Metropolitano, a tropical rainforest within city limits, is one of the most exhilarating experiences Panama City has to offer. This 573-acre park is home to more than 200 bird species, including keel-billed toucans, which are the ultimate symbol of paradise. There are various trails for solo exploration and a rewarding viewpoint (mirador) at the highest point. Cerro Ancon is another nature-filled hike within the city, where monkeys, agoutis and sluggish sloths roam free. Visit in the morning for milder weather or at sunset for impressive panoramic views of Casco, downtown and the Bay of Panama.
Panama City’s waterfront facade leads many to believe it has swimmable beaches, but it’s actually along a bay. But Playa Veracruz, the closest sandy shore, is just a 15-minute drive away. Panama has more than 1,000 idyllic islands and the capital is the perfect base from which to enjoy them. Take the fast ferry and spend a day on nearby Isla Taboga or embark on the trip of a lifetime to the San Blas Islands. Mother Nature’s generosity in Panama is most visible at this 365-strong archipelago with starfish-sprinkled waters, snorkel-friendly shipwrecks and perfect white sand beaches — one of the most popular being a tiny islet with a solitary coconut tree.
Top five wildlife-spotting trips from Panama City
1. Soberania National Park
Journey 45 minutes outside the capital to reach Soberania National Park, where as many as 357 birds have been spotted on a single day. Don’t miss Pipeline Road to catch sight of the highest number of feathered friends, or the 32-metre-high canopy at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre.
2. Escudo de Veraguas
Located in the Province of Bocas del Toro, Escudo de Veraguas is perhaps not the easiest place to get to. A trip to this mangrove-rich island is well worth it, however, to encounter pygmy three-toed sloths — the world’s entire population of these creatures lives there.
3. Isla Bastimentos
Bastimentos is the largest island in Panama’s Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Beaches like Red Frog, the Nivida Bat Cave and Playa Larga (where hawksbill and leatherback turtles nest) make this a veritable paradise for wildlife enthusiasts.
4. Coiba National Park
The very best of Coiba National Park lies beneath the surface. Panama’s top diving destination is on the same corridor as the Galápagos Islands and the opulent underwater world there includes hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and humpback whales — the latter can be viewed from July to October.
5. Barro Colorado Island
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution earmarked Barro Colorado Island as the world’s most intensively researched tropical rainforest — formed when the Chagres River was dammed during the construction of the Panama Canal to create Gatun Lake. It’s also an incredibly rich territory in which to meet butterflies, with more than 500 species fluttering about.
Plan your trip
Where to stay
Situated five miles from the Tocumen International Airport (PTY), The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort offers an urban oasis near local attractions such as historic Panama Viejo, the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo. For scintillating views, book the sail-shaped JW Marriott Panama, which is one of the most recognisable structures in the city’s skyline. Sun-worshippers should opt for the The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort Panama for its close proximity to world-class beaches such as Playa Blanca and El Faro beach, or W Panama to make use of its Wet Deck, which has a Panama Canal reminiscent shipping container reimagined as a bar to toast to your Isthmian adventure. For more information on where to stay in Panama City, visit marriottbonvoy.com
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