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If you are not crossing by land and entering the North of Panama from Costa Rica or coming by boat from Colombia, then you will most likely be starting your Panama itinerary in Panama City. But what to do in Panama City?
It is the perfect starting point for making your way up through Central America! As well as the perfect stopover because a lot of flights into other parts of Latin America will layover in Panama, with Tocumen airport being the biggest in Central America.
With all its skyscrapers and banking districts and less than a million inhabitants, Panama City was definitely not how I imagined it to be like. It’s a lovely city to spend a few days in. You can recover from your flights and travels and see for yourself what Panama’s capital has to offer. Let’s get into it: I’ll give you an idea of what to do in Panama City when backpacking Panama!
1. Panama Canal
If you think about Panama, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Panama Canal. Connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic ocean, it is one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken, with a total of 10 years of construction time.
It is quite impressive watching all the big ships pass by on the totally crowed observation desks. But going to see the Panama Canal once in your lifetime is probably one of these things to tick off your travel bucket list.
Entry to the visitor centre is $15 for visitors and $3 for residents. It will include a short 10 minute movie as well as access to a little museum that gives deeper insides into the history of Panama and the building of the canal itself.
2. Casco Viejo
This is probably the most beautiful neighbourhood in Panama City. Old buildings, small streets and shops make this part of the city a must visit. It never gets boring to wonder around the streets in Casco Viejo and it is a big contrast to the rest of the busy city, a lot more quiet.
3. Cinta Costera
There is a great coastal walk to find in Panama City. Right at the waterfront and surrounded by greens and parks. Here you can see the locals go by their daily lives: training at the outdoor gyms, going for a run or just walking around with their families. It kind of connects the old part of Panama with the business district if you just follow the path. It’s the perfect place to take in Panama City’s beautiful skyline. You can also find the Panama sign around here to get that must-have touristy picture.
4. San Blas Islands
Not just one but 378 islands located in the Caribbean sea. Clear blue water, white sand and beautiful beaches: welcome to one of the most visited destinations in Central America. It is not located in Panama City itself but you can easily book a day tour or an overnight stay with arranged transport from the capital.
Spend the day snorkelling or getting a tan and just enjoy one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’d recommend scheduling a few more days before continuing your travels to also be able to make your way up to these islands.
5. Avenida Central
The part of town where you can see the real life of Panama’s inhabitants. Not as touristy as Casco Viejo and also by far not as pretty but again interesting to see the contrast. Just a few minute walk away and the whole environment changes again. Enjoy some street art as you stroll down the roads.
I’m sure there is more to do as well like try out Panama’s traditional dish “Ceviche” which can be found at the fish market alongside the Cinta Costera. I don’t eat fish though, so I did not include it in my list. I heard the nightlife is quite dashing as well. Most bar’s are located in Casio Viejo.
Like in all big cities make sure to keep an eye on all your belongings. Avoid wandering around in the dark by yourself. The transportation in and around Panama City is quite good but if you don’t want to take public transportation, then Uber is always a great idea. Especially take Ubers at night, since taking Taxis is not always save.
Let me know if you have anything to add to this list that I might have forgotten.
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