We had finished! Well, our South American leg of our trip anyways, it was now time to explore Central America. Leaving from Colombia our first stop was Panama City. I really knew nothing of this city except that it is a tax haven for many large corporations and it was where the famous Panama Canal was located. After only a couple days there I have a lot of Panama travel tips as well as this guide to help you visit Panama City.
My First Impression of Panama City
As I stared out the window of the bus from the airport I caught a glimpse of Panama City’s skyline – large skyscrapers covered the horizon and surrounding mountains covered in thick green rainforest met the city in a seemingly competing way. The buildings were that of large banks with no money spared on competing with each other to be the symbol of Panama City’s skyline.
We finally got to the bus station and jumped in a Taxi (after arguing for 5 minutes about the price) and we made our way to the Hostel. This is where I began to see another side of Panama City, the skyscrapers disappeared in the rear view and we headed through a small part of the city lined with colonial style buildings, all painted with beautiful colors. “Ahh” I said while smiling at Bailey, knowing full well that this is what Panama City really had to offer.
Panama City is a trade hub of the world with hundreds of ships passing through the Canal each year, saving them the 20 day trip around. The city is also the capital and economic centre of Panama. Panama City is overlooked by many travelers who miss out on seeing a culture with rich history and a country who fought hard for it’s own independence not that long ago. I believe that in other places like Bocas del Toro you won’t find as much history and this highlights the importance to visit Panama City. The Panama Canal is what their famous for, however, Panama City offers a lot more!
Panama Travel Tips
Currency – Panama does have their own currency (POB) however you will likely only use USD (ATM’s only dispense USD) unless you get some coins in change and in that case they are the same size and value as US coins. ATM’s – As far as we know, all ATM’s charge between $3 to $5USD to withdraw and have a limit of $500USD per transaction.
Language – Although Spanish is the official language of Panama in the city it seemed most people spoke at least a little bit of English.
Safety – Parts of Panama City are dangerous. However it is very easy to work out where you should and shouldn’t go simply by looking at your surroundings (streets quickly become run down)
How to get to Panama City
There is no way to get to Panama City or Panama by bus from Colombia. From Bocas del Toro there are overnight buses that cost $28USD and take 12 hours, we had no such luck booking in advance as we couldn’t find the tickets online and the lady at the station wouldn’t let us. The Albrook station is close to Hostel Casa Nativa (where we stayed, keep reading for details) and a taxi costs $4 to $5USD.
By Plane it’s easy, Panama City has a large International airport so flying in won’t be hard from anywhere. The challenge arose when we wanted to get from the airport to the old city and our hostel, in the end worked it out and it only cost $7.50USD for both of us (a taxi would be $30). From the airport there is a bus that takes you to Albrook station and costs $1.25USD (below is a map of where to get the bus from), at the bus stop just ask the drivers if they got to Albrook station. The journey takes 40 minutes and from there a taxi is only $4 to $5USD to the old city.
What to do in Panama City
Day Tour of the Panama Canal and City
Our time was limited in Panama City so to save time and get some good local information we decided to do a day tour with Barefoot Panama that covered the city, the Panama Canal and even stopped at a wildlife reserve located on the islands just off the coast. This was really great for us as we felt like it covered so much in the one day, the tour literally goes for 8 hours and by the time it had finished we had accomplished so much!
Visit the Canal
If you aren’t planning on doing the city tour it is still well worth your time to check out the Panama Canal. From the distance huge ships seem to be sailing over land which was really cool to see and from up close you can see how it all works and learn about how it came about. The history behind the construction is really interesting so make sure you sit through the video at the view point! Oh and as of 2016 the new Panama Canal was finished so check it out!
Hike up Ancon Hill
Around the corner from Hostel Casa Nativa is a park that leads to the top of Ancon Hill. From here we got the most amazing views of the old and new city. It’s only a 40 minute walk to the top and along the way it is likely to see a range of native wildlife like sloths or monkeys. The best thing about this activity is that it’s free
Walk the Old City Casco Viejo
This part of Panama City is beautiful, it’s also where the first flag of Panama is located in the Panamanian History Museum. There are so many beautiful cafes and places to enjoy some food, so take your camera and enjoy the day!
Hostel – We stayed at Hostel Casa Nativa, we loved this hostel as it had a real family vibe. Dorm rooms where very spacious and clean and the two kitchens were great for saving money (eating in restaurants in Panama can be expensive). The nature that surrounded the hostel was beautiful and the hostel puppy was so cute! It’s located only 5 minutes by cab to Casco Viejo and is at the bottom of Ancon Hill (where to lookout is).
Tours – Barefoot Panama is a great company for backpackers, they are the cheapest company that run the city and canal tour, however, the tour was high quality. The guide was super friendly and energetic which is great if history isn’t always your favorite subject.
Uber – Using Uber in Panama City is highly recommended. Taxi drivers are constantly trying to overcharge aren’t always very friendly.
What I loved most about Panama City is that I walked away with so much knowledge of the country as a whole. I spent the morning in the city and the afternoon in a rain forest. I met some amazing people from Panama and found out that the people (apart from taxi drivers) are very friendly and humble but also very proud – and from the outside looking in you wouldn’t see this so add it to the list and GO!
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