Few cities in the world have a history, fortune, and character so intimately and singularly related to their geography. Permanently marked by the canal and the commerce it brings, not mention a century of partial US occupation, Panama City is unlike anything else you’ll find in the country or in the rest of Central America. It’s a surprising and welcoming combination of the historic and ultra-modern, where Spanish and indigenous traditions coexist with immigrant cultures from the world over. The result is a metropolis that defines “cosmopolitan.”
Panama City’s location, a calm harbor on a narrow bridge between two continents, has made it a transit point for people and currency for over 300 years. Originally the gateway for all the gold from Spain’s Pacific colonies, the first Panama City, known as Panamá Viejo (Old Panama), was founded by the Spanish in 1519 on the site of an Indian village. In the late 17th century, pirate invasions, infertile swamps, and numerous fires forced residents to move 8km west, to modern-day San Felipe. There, the city flourished under Spanish, French, and American occupations. During the California Gold Rush, hordes of prospectors flowed in from North America, fattening the pockets of steam-ship barons and resulting in the construction of the first railway joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The French dreamed of more ambitious inter-oceanic connection; their attempt to build a canal at the end of the 19th century ended in failure. By the early 20th century, US plans for a water passage were complete. During the canal’s construction the city began to expand and spread eastward, moving to its current site. The first ship passed through the canal’s Miraflores Locks in 1914. Since then, Panama has gained control over the canal, and its favorable tax regulations have made Panama City an international banking and commercial center. Today, Panama’s relative stability compared to other Latin American countries continues to attract people and money. The low cost of living here has drawn retired Americans by the thousands. This influx of wealthy residents is reflected across the city, from the international cuisine to the rapidly expanding skyline.
With its first-world infrastructure, diverse population, continuing international influence, and lively nightlife, Panama City boasts all the advantages of a large, modern city. Be sure to take time and explore Panama’s rainforests, Indian villages, and beautiful beaches, which are all just an hour from the city.
Parts of Panama City are laid out in grids. Many streets have two or three names: one is often a person’s name, the second some a combination of numbers and letters (i.e. C. 49A Este). As such, directions in the city are generally given in terms of landmarks and blocks. The city sprawls west to east along the Bahía de Panamá (Panama Bay). The Peninsula of San Felipe (also known as Casco Viejo), on the west side of the bay, is home to magnificent crumbling old buildings, some of the swankiest new restaurants, and many of the city’s historical sites. At the heart of Casco Viejo is Plaza Independencia, from which the city’s largest street, Avenida Central, extends northeast into Santa Ana (often pronounced “Santana”). Between the Plaza de Santa Ana, just north of San Felipe and Plaza 5 de Mayo, in the heart of Santa Ana, Av. Central becomes a pedestrian mall lined with budget shopping. Beyond the Plaza, the road runs east through Calidonia before becoming Vía España. Further on, the road enters Bella Vista, which is quickly becoming the cosmopolitan center of the city. Avenida Balboa intersects with Av. Central in Santa Ana, and stretches along the bay with a new park on the right and the city’s fanciest skyscrapers on the left. Passing through Marbella, which borders Bella Vista, Av. Balboa continues through a bulge in the bay known as Punta Paitilla and Punta Pacífica, which are home to some of the most expensive apartment buildings and the best hospital in town.
Most travelers pass through Panama City to see other parts of the country, but for history buffs and art-lovers Panama City is the place to be. Casco Viejo has the greatest concentration of museums, ruins, and art galleries. With beautiful colonial churches, the fabulous Canal Museum, and splendid views of the new city across the bay, Casco Viejo alone deserves a day of wandering around. A trip to the new Museo Antropológico Reina Torres De Araúz, just a few minutes outside of the city, is also well worth the trip.
This bustling city is sure to keep you busy your entire stay. Here are our three favorite destinations to visit. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Given the variety of cultures that have left their mark here, it isn’t surprising that Panama City is the capital of international cuisine in Central America. Prices are diverse, from the cheap comida típica found in cafeterias, to the international flavors of Bella Vista, Marbella, and El Congrejo. Throughout the city, street vendors sell hot dogs, empanadas, frituras, fresh fruit, and chichas (a sweet fruit juice concoction). You can find most vendors around C. 13, the pedestrian mall, Playa 5 de Mayo, in the mercadito at Av. Perú and C.34, or at the grand market on Av. Alfaro.
Panamanian cuisine reflects the flavors of Latin America, with rice, beans, and tortillas serving as the basic ingredients for many popular dishes. Panama’s significant West Indian population has brought Western Caribbean influences to the cuisine, especially to the coastal regions. One of the most popular dishes is ropa vieja, literally “old rope,” which consists of shredded beef and peppers with plantains and rice. We recommend include gallo pinto, a dish of pork, rice, and beans.
Fresh chichas, or juices, include the ever-popular orange as well as more exotic varieties such as watermelon and pineapple. If you still want local flavor but juice isn’t exactly what you had in mind, try seco, an alcohol distilled from sugarcane and served over milk and ice. Beer fans will not be disappointed in the selection of Panamanian brands: Balboa, Atlas, Panamá, Soberana, and Cristal are all popular options.
Though indigenous people only make up a small piece of the Panamanian population, they are responsible for much of the country’s art. The indigenous Kuna, an Amerindian people who reside mainly in the eastern regions of Panama and on islands off the Caribbean coast, create beautiful and colorful, handmade molas. Molas are intricate, embroidered garments worn by women as part of the traditional wardrobe on the front or back of a blouse. Some molas take up to 100 hours to complete, and feature geometric designs that originated in the traditional art of body painting. Today, molas may also feature designs reflecting the local wildlife. Other indigenous crafts include hand-woven baskets, carvings, and elaborate masks.
Any account of the history of Panamanian literature must begin with the oral tradition, passed down to new generations through the ancient art of storytelling. The Kuna people in particular are well known for their myths, songs, and fables, many of which have now been compiled into books.
Panamanian literature came into its own when the nation gained independence from Colombia in 1903. Since then, Panamanians have produced an abundance of poetry, short stories, and novels. The Modernist movement took off in post-independence Panama and found a champion in the poet Darío Herrera. During the 1930s, under the leadership of the poet Rogelio Sinán, Modernismo gave way to new styles like Surrealism and magical realism. Much of the country’s 20th-century literature reflected the contemporary political and social situations in Panama, including the controversy surrounding the canal.
Rubén Blades ranks far above the rest as Panama’s biggest musical superstar. The popular salsa and Latin jazz musician has won multiple Grammy Awards for his Afro-Cuban rhythms and politically charged lyrics. On top of his wildly successful musical career, Blades has appeared in several films and actually ran for president in 1994, garnering 18% of the vote.
The Panamanian folkloric style of music is known as típico and features vocals and the accordion. Other styles of music, including Colombian vallenato and Puerto Rican bachata and calypso, are also quite common. Today, reggaeton and rock and roll can be heard alongside these more traditional styles.
Because the United States was politically involved in Panama during the construction of the Canal, Panamanians are familiar with North American customs and gestures. If you are a guest in someone’s house, make sure to bring a gift for your host, and when eating a meal, do not begin until all are seated and your host has started. Also, it is important to note that because Panama has a strong Roman Catholic tradition, dressing conservatively is always the way to go. Beachwear must be strictly limited to the beach, as even shorts are considered inappropriate in restaurants and on the city streets.
When greeting people, remember to address men as Señor, married women as Señora, and unmarried women as Señorita. If you do strike up a conversation, baseball is a favorite Panamanian topic. It’s best to avoid talking about politics, especially regarding foreign involvement in the construction of the Canal.