Panama City is the diverse and cosmopolitan capital of Panama, and it’s the perfect spot to start or finish your Central America trip. Head to Casco Viejo to see old meet new, climb Cerro Ancón for amazing views, and of course you need to visit the world famous Panama Canals.
Casco Viejo is the old part of downtown, and it’s the most popular place to stay, even in dead season most hostels were fully booked, so you might need to book ahead to avoid disappointment. We tried to stay at the extremely popular Luna’s Castle but they were full, so we settled for the Hospedaje Casco Viejo. It was ideal until the power cut out for 12 hours and the only entertainment was a guy playing his guitar non-stop, you know… one of those people.
Take a stroll through the streets of the old town, you’ll see a shocking mix of derelict buildings and boutique hotels, colourful graffiti lines almost every street and from the waterfront you’ll have incredible views of the city skyline. Head to the Plaza de Francia at sunset to see the Cinta Costera light up like a rainbow.
If you head to the Amador Causeway you can rent four-person-buggies to explore the area, which cost $10 an hour and are an absolutely hilarious way to get around. 10/10, would recommend. You can relax in the sun and watch the ships line up in the lush turquoise water before they enter the Panama Canal.
For more wonderful views take a walk along the Cinta Costera, the highway that bends around Casco Viejo to avoid the congestion. You can look across to the skyscrapers of downtown and look behind you to the crumbling buildings of the old town. It’s a great way to escape the city and just enjoy the view.
If your up for a walk I would recommend climbing Cerro Ancón. The hill itself is safe to walk up, but the walk there from Casco Viejo goes through one of the most dangerous parts of the city, it’s patrolled by armed guards and we had no idea until one of them cornered us and advised us to leave straight away. Better take a taxi… just to be safe.
If you look out to the south you are rewarded with views over Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway and downtown Panama City. If you look to the north you’ll see the beginning of the Panama Canal, watch these giant ships slowly navigate their way into the river as they start to cross the country from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.
Panama Canal by Railway
Crossing the country by ship is not cheap, but it saves these companies hundreds of thousands of dollars and also months and months by avoiding the long journey around South America.
A cargo ship or cruise ship can expect to pay up to $300,000. A small ship or private yacht will pay up to $2,500. You can make the journey as a passenger on board an 11 day luxury cruise for the small price of $9,500.
You do have the option of just taking a day trip into the entrance of the canal, these will usually set you back a few hundred dollars but it limits you to what you’ll actually see.
In my experience, getting the Panama Canal Railway to Colón is a great way to see the full length of the canal, and the locks as you steam by them, with a chance to get off and explore at the end.
A one way ticket costs $25, and I would only recommend going one way if you want to save money. Once you arrive into Colón (I wouldn’t recommend hanging around) you can hop on a local bus back to Panama City for $3. The train is luxurious, and has a panoramic viewing car that allows you the best views of the canal.
However, it was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a man made canal all the way through, but it’s really just a river with three Locks; the part that raises and lowers the ships to the next level. If you really want to see something impressive then visit the observation decks at one of the Locks.
From the Panama City end you can catch a bus to Miraflores Locks, the tallest in the whole system, the observation deck only costs $5. From Colón you can visit Gatun Locks, but take a taxi because it’s a pretty dangerous city. If you go between 8am and 11am you’ll be close enough to the passing ships to say hello to the passengers, and it only costs $5 too.
Getting to and from Panama City
It’s actually so easy to get to Panama City no matter where you are, if there isn’t a direct bus there it will only take you an hour or two to the closest town that will then give you a direct bus.
From Santa Catalina it was a two hour bus to Sona for $4.70, and then a direct bus to Panama City for $9.65 that took 5 hours. The problem was getting to Casco Viejo from the coach station, I’m sure there is a cheap local bus but we got ripped off with a $7 taxi. If you’re flying out of Panama City you can take a shuttle from downtown straight to the airport for $9.
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