Welcome to Panama. This is the first in a series of posts in which we will explore Panama. Panama has been receiving a lot of press lately as both a travel and retirement destination. My wife I first traveled to Panama in February 2008 and again this past February 2012.
If you are not familiar with Panama, you may want to check out the Panama Tourist Map. It provides a quick overview of the country and points out many of the key sights. You will also find Pananainfo.com very useful.
Panama is probably best known to many for the Panama Canal, often referred to as the Eight Wonder of the World. The Panama Canal has a rich and interesting history. There is however so much more to Panama than the Canal. While you can (and should) visit Panama City and the Canal you can also go to the relatively unspoiled Caribbean side, go to the moderately developed Pacific side and into the Chiriqui Highlands for views of scenic mountains and some of the world’s best coffee.
Panama is fast becoming a major tourist and retirement destination. There is much development underway to attract both tourist and retirees. Within Panama City itself you will see hotel, car rental and restaurant names that you recognize. They have major shopping centers that feature brands that are familiar, and of course many that are not. Outside of Panama City it is very different. Here you will not find many car rental locations, chain restaurants or hi-rise, all-inclusive hotels where the staff all speak English.
Panama is often described as the two Panamas; the modern city and the rest of Panama. Panama City itself could easily be described as two cities; the modern Panama City in and around the Canal Zone and Financial District, and Casco Viejo (Old Town). In this post, we will touch briefly on the modern Panama City. We will cover Casco Viejo in a future post.
If you wish to see the Panama Canal you should plan a day or two within Panama City. For a view of the modern Panama City I would recommend staying in the Financial District. We stayed at the Marriott, which is well located but other options are available.
In the Financial District you will experience a very cosmopolitan city that blends old and new, Latin culture and the influences of many other international cultures. There are plenty of restaurants and nightlife options but as always when travelling to a foreign destination, do your research and be safe. Panama City is after all, a city. As such it has all of the advantages and all of the ills of any major city.
From the Financial District, you can take a taxi to the see the Panama Canal. The Canal Visitor Center has 4 exhibit halls, and they are actually all worth seeing. Here is also where you will see the Miraflores Locks. The Panama Canal itself is an impressive political, economic and engineering achievement. Those that have travelled by boat through locks on a river however might be a bit underwhelmed by the locks themselves. Simply put, they do not appear as massive as one expects. There is a major Canal expansion project underway to enable the Canal to support today’s larger cargo ships.
Along the Amador Causeway you can enjoy spectacular views of the Bridge of the Americas and the many ships that are entering and exiting the canal at this point. If you would like to stay right on the Causeway, one convenient location is the Country Inn and Suites. During the day you can enjoy a poolside view of the Canal. In the evening watch the sunset while enjoying your favorite beverage on their expansive patio.
If you are not apposed to walking, you can cover a lot of ground within Panama City quickly and easily by foot. Being located near the equator, it is very hot so dress lightly and be prepared to make frequent stops to pick up a bottle of water.
If you prefer, taxis are plentiful. However, be forewarned that many of the taxi drivers speak little if any English. While many locals do speak some English, Spanish is the national language Panama. Please be a polite tourist and remember as the foreigner, the language barrier is your issue, not theirs.
We have touched only briefly on the glimmering, bustling and modern Panama City. One could easily spend several days or more exploring Panama City itself. But as we all know our travel time is always too short and we must move one. In the next post we will explore Casco Viejo (Old Town) section of Panama City.