In the city: Panama City
2014 marks the 100 year anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. Panama specialist Sarah Powell offers her tips on the canal-side capital.
Casco Viejo, Panama City
In August this year it will be exactly 100 years since the opening of the Panama Canal. This famous icon draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city each year, however, the vast majority will be travelling for work or will pass through on giant cruise liners and relatively few actually stop to scratch the surface.
Those who do are rewarded with a wealth of experiences: from sailing alongside canal ships, to kayaking to remote indigenous communities, birdwatching in one of the world’s ornithological hotspots and exploring beautifully restored colonial centres.
Panama City is also a convenient hub, not only for Central America, but for trips inland to the cool highlands, and out to the country’s beautiful Pacific beaches and tropical islands.
No trip to the city is complete without at least a taster of the canal. Our favourite way to experience it is to board the Pacific Queen for a partial transit through the impressive locks, alongside luxurious yachts and huge ‘Panamax’ vessels, with the rainforest visible just behind. Real enthusiasts can take a full transit of the canal right through to the Caribbean, returning by road. The canal is currently being expanded so expect even bigger ships in future. The visitor centre on the Miraflores Locks is worth visiting for a fascinating insight into the history and engineering of the canal.
Panama City is a place of contrasts and a day exploring with a guide is the best way to get a feel for the four main areas of interest. To the northeast are the ruins of the original city (Panama Viejo), founded in 1519 and an important post of the Spanish Empire until it was sacked in 1671 by Henry Morgan. Following this devastation the city was moved further south, and this is where you now find colonial Panama, the UNESCO-protected Casco Antiguo with its elegant façades, balconies, squares and cobbled streets. This area now houses a growing number of excellent museums, restaurants and hotels.
To the far south of the city is the canal zone and the Amador Causeway (built on material excavated from the construction of the canal) – a cosmopolitan area where you will find restaurants and museums, including the Museum of Biodiversity, designed by Frank Gehry. Arguably the least interesting area is the modern financial centre – with its towering skyscrapers, offices, banks and malls, you could be in downtown Miami.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the city is all concrete and canal, but just 15 miles from the centre is the Soberanía National Park, a densely forested swathe of pristine rainforest where caiman, birds, sloths and monkeys keep an eye on the nearby canal activity. For the birder, the Pipeline Road (which borders the park) is an absolute haven, with over 350 birds spotted here in one day! You may not see quite this many on an early morning tour from the city, but expect to see antbirds, flycatchers, trogons, toucans and hawks.
Something of an institution in the Casco Antiguo. The prix-fixe tasting menus change daily but expect 5-7 courses of fresh, local produce with a creative flair, set in an atmospheric restored colonial building.
Just off the lively Calle Uruguay, La Posta is one of the city’s most popular restaurants, with a blend of modern Latin American and Italian cuisine – think fresh seafood, pastas, risottos and meats, in an elegant colonial-Caribbean setting.
El Trapiche/ Mi Ranchito
With such a mix of cultures in the city, typical Panamanian food is often overlooked. At El Trapiche, in the commercial area of El Cangrejo, try the Fiesta Panameña, a tasting plate of local specialities including sancocho, ropa vieja and fried yucca. Mi Ranchito, set in a traditional-style bohio (hut) on the Amador Causeway, offers a relaxed spot for seafood and a cool beer with great views of the city skyline.
Great Value: Country Inn and Suites
It won’t win any style awards but for a comfortable, convenient and good value base, the Country Inn is a great option. Best used when you’ll be out and about exploring all day, with the added bonus of canal views from some rooms.
Splurge: Las Clementinas
This lovingly restored 19th-century mansion only opened its doors in 2010 but is fast becoming one of the city’s most popular hotels. The six spacious suites combine all mod cons with original features, antiques and bold artwork, and the rooftop terrace is the perfect spot for a sundowner.
Located in downtown Panama City, the DeVille combines classical European décor with friendly service and modern rooms; a great boutique option for those looking to be in the heart of the city.