Panama City Up Close

Dispatches from the Road, Panama — By on January 24, 2012 at 6:00 am

by Nancy Yeomans

LG Air Travel Editor

As cool as it would be to actually traverse the Panama Canal – and I hope to someday – the city is much more than just the canal. The building and tourism boom over the last 10 years has brought this city onto the radar of savvy travelers. The balboa is the currency, but as it’s interchangeable with the US dollar, exchange rates are not a concern. Amazing restaurants abound and sangria, mojitos and caiprihinas are everywhere if you’re in need of some thirst quenching.

Panama City is a large, spread out city and the attractions that you’ll want to see are not  all easily accessible on your own, so the best bet is to take a day tour with someone who will transport you in comfort. Not to mention avoid the nightmare that is Panama City traffic.

Kevin at Barefoot Panama tours – discovered through Local Guiding –  has the best tour offerings in the city. His comprehensive City Tour is a bargain at $79. For a full 8 hours Kevin will drive you all around the city in comfort, pointing out interesting and important sights along the way. While this is a comprehensive tour that will get you to all corners of the city, if you’re looking for something else just ask. Kevin has a plethora of pre-packaged tours including all of Panama, not just the city. If none of those are to your liking, he’ll customize one for you.

One of the highlights of the City Tour that I wouldn’t have even known about on my own is Cerro Ancon, the highest point in Panama City. We made the hike up the road and from the top viewed the large – and ever expanding – city skyline on one side and the Panama Canal complex on the other. Along with a non-stop explanation of what you’re viewing, Kevin gave us nuggets of information about the local flora and fauna; for example, did you know that raw cashews are toxic? Any you’ll ever see are pre-roasted.

The formidable Miraflores Locks – one of 3 that form the Panama Canal – were next on the tour agenda. After a short drive we had about 1 1/2 hours to explore the visitor’s center and watch the ships passing through the famous locks. For having such a significant impact on world history, they are deceptively simplistic. The vessel enters, the doors are closed, water pours in to raise (or empties to lower, depending on the direction) the vessel to the next level, the next door is opened and so on. Ok, it’s probably a little more complicated than that…

Next up was a drive along the Amador Causeway, more of a local destination than one for tourists. The causeway itself was built from materials excavated during canal construction. Now the 1 1/2 mile palm tree lined road is packed with bicyclists, joggers and walkers. We stopped here for lunch where I had some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted washed down with cold Balboa beer. After lunch we strolled over to the Punta Culebra Nature Center, operated by the Smithsonian Federation of Panama. During our walk around the property we were lucky enough to see a sleeping sloth far up in a tree and cross paths with an iguana. Don’t miss the chance to rest your elbows on what used to be Manuel Noreiga’s bar.

The final stop on the tour was the Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo – the old city. A contrasting mishmash of dilapidated rundown structures juxtaposed with beautifully restored buildings, this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Part European, part Caribbean and part South American in feeling, this community pulses with the lifeblood of the country. The two main squares are lined by cafes and restaurants perfect for sitting and enjoying a bite and a drink while people-watching. The flower canopied oceanside walkway is the place for a stroll and the best views of the modern Panama City. Kevin won’t let you leave here without a stop at Granclement  for the creamiest gelato this side of Rome – try the basil flavor for a taste treat you won’t soon forget.

Tip: If you decide to stay a while, Luna’s Castle  is the most happening hostel, not only in the Casco Viejo, but in the entire city. Visit Relic, the downstairs bar to mingle with locals and other travelers alike.

Tags: , , , ,