Beyond the world’s most famous short cut and the classic brimmed straw hats (which are actually from Ecuador), most peoples’ knowledge of Panama is probably fairly limited. But travel to Panama City is booming, as it rapidly becomes one of the favourite stops on the newest backpacker bucket list route of Central America.
Indeed, while the region’s capitals are often to be avoided (a weekend in Managua or Guatemala City, anyone?), Panama City is a genuine highlight – beautiful, cultured and keen to party.
Previously written-off by many as simply too American, plus lacking the colourful markets and Mayan ruins found further north, Panama is now enjoying a serious renaissance. While the economy grows faster than anywhere in Latin America, the wealth of sights in the capital ranges from the World Heritage-listed old town, or Casco Viejo, to the Miami-esque modern city, all via one of mankind’s greatest engineering feats, the Panama Canal. Just beyond that famous waterway, meanwhile, is a country slightly smaller than Scotland, a nation as wild, varied and unexplored as any on the continent, complete with Caribbean islands and impenetrable jungle.
Things to do
It’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which Panama is defined by its canal. Its proposal helped the country secure independence from Colombia in 1903, while its creation led to massive immigration, mainly from the Caribbean, plus almost a century of tension resulting from Panama’s effective transformation into a US colony (US dollars are still the main currency). The canal’s 1999 return to Panamanian control, meanwhile, has led to a dramatic increase in the state coffers. To properly experience the canal, jump on a boat tour, such as those run by Canal and Bay Tours (trips from £81). Watching the giant container ships, often paying a quarter of a million dollars to make the 10-hour trip, squeeze through the huge locks, with views of skyscrapers to one side and jungle to the other, is an unusual sight to say the least. This year is also being marked by numerous festival events building up to the canal’s 100th birthday on August 14, 2014.
Panama’s World Heritage-listed old town is among the most stunning in the Americas, up there with Colombia’s Cartagena and Cuba’s Havana. Currently the subject of a massive restoration program, this once crime-riddled neighbourhood has endured years of scaffolding and noisy drills, but the plastic sheets are starting to come down, revealing the cobbled streets, architectural wonders and sun-soaked plazas once more. Cafes, bars and hostels homed in Spanish colonial buildings now jostle with museums, churches and boutique hotels, while a sufficient number of crumbling structures remain, meaning the area has lost none of its antique charm. Escape the heat with a trip to the fascinating Panama Canal Museum (entrance £1.20.).
Central Panama City:
An old joke about Panama City is that it’s like a Miami of the south, but with English being more widely spoken. It doesn’t take long to see why. Bustling, traffic-clogged streets dissect a spectacular skyline of high-rise glass, reflecting the greeny-blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Among the skyscrapers lurk the occasional remnants of shanty towns, but also Central America’s most sophisticated eating and drinking scene. Take the steamy walk along the waterside esplanade linking Casco Viejo and the centre for great views of the skyline and ocean.
About 8km north of Casco Viejo lie the partially restored ruins of the original Panama City – a place founded in 1501 that became one of the first great American capitals, a colonial outpost that grew fantastically wealthy by being Spain’s gateway to the riches of South America. It was those riches, however, that proved its downfall, thanks to a certain Welshman. In 1671, British pirate Henry Morgan (yes, who the rum is named after) sacked the city, burning it to the ground after nabbing the gold. As a result, the locals abandoned the ruins and rebuilt the city in a more defendable location – Casco Viejo. The World Heritage-listed site, an easy cab ride from the city, costs £3.60 and is a good place to lose a few hours.
Get out of town:
If visiting for more than a few days, take advantage of Panama’s small size, plus relatively good (and cheap) transport network, to explore the country.
An overnight bus gets you to the Bocas del Toro region, where rainforest-clad Afro-Caribbean islands kick back by the Costa Rican border. Escape the growing tourist crowds and search for crazy frogs at Isla Bastimentos hideaway Beverly’s Hill Guest House (rooms from £8.45).
Alternatively, drive a few hours north and grab a boat to the San Blas Islands. These desert island-style dots of sand, in an autonomous region run by the indigenous Kuna people, are a regular stop-off on the boats linking Panama and Colombia. They’re as close to a shipwrecked vision of paradise as anywhere in Latin America, but communications are at a minimum, so it’s easiest to arrange your stay once in Panama City.
The truly adventurous should head south-east to the Darien Province, the often dangerous jungle that leads to the no-go zone that is the border with Colombia. If you do your research, only go where advised and pay for a good guide, you’ll experience some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet.
Where to stay:
The newish Panamericana Hostel has super-cool design, a great location in the centre of Casco Viejo and a fantastic roof terrace. Beds cost from £7.20. Quirky backpacker institution Luna’s Castle has beds from £7.80 and the always-popular Relic Bar, all in a sprawling old mansion at the entrance to Casco Viejo.
Rent your own lavishly decorated apartment, in a renovated Casco Viejo colonial house, through Los Cuatro Tulipanes, from £75 a night.
Where to eat, drink and party:
Crammed with locals and tourists, Casco Viejo’s Mojitos sin Mojitos is an atmospheric open-air beer and rum bar selling top BBQ grub for around £3.
Just around the corner from the often pricey clubbing hub Calle Uruguay, in the central Bella Vista district, is Tomate y Amor, a chic but reasonably priced eatery with pork ribs to die for.
Dig out your best threads for old school salsa club Habana Panama, a 50s throwback in Casco Viejo, complete with leather booths, live music and an always-packed dancefloor.