The entrenched free-market economy and easy lifestyle of Panama City have drawn an increasing number of American corporate headquarters to what was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. With more than a million metropolitan residents, the city is now a big international banking community, as well as home to a large number of service employees affiliated with the nearby Panama Canal. Nevertheless, Panama City is still, on the whole, a reasonably priced travel destination. Here are some smart ways to enjoy this vibrant city without blowing your budget.
When to Visit:
Panama's capital lies along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, and enjoys a warm, tropical climate with cooling sea breezes and little variation in temperature throughout the year. Daily highs usually range from 80F to 90F degrees, and it rarely drops below 70F degrees at night. A moderate rainy season from May to December makes afternoon showers a good possibility. During this "green season," which is considered the country's low season for tourism, many hotels reduce their rates, making it an ideal time to visit for families with children on summer break. The far drier period between December and April is considered Panama's high season, when rates are at their peaks. Find flights to Panama City
Where to Eat:
Budget travelers can eat very well in this city, which offers a wide variety of excellent international ethnic cuisines, from Chinese to Middle Eastern. Panamanian food is somewhat similar to that of many Latin American countries and generally inexpensive. You can choose from tasty variations on tamales and empanadas, often accompanied by rice and beans and fried plantains. A spicy chicken and vegetable stew called sancocho is widely considered to be the national dish. Fresh local fruit is plentiful, and regional seafood is found on most menus. The tap water in Panama City is safe to drink.
Where to Stay:
Yes, Panama City has its share of expensive luxury hotels, but a search can turn up reasonably priced mid-range chains, as well as atmospheric little bed-and-breakfasts, can be much gentler on your wallet. The city also has plenty of all-suites lodgings, often listed as "aparthotels," with multiple beds and kitchen facilities that are great for families and budget travelers. Some of the most charming can be found in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood.
Walking is not ideal in Panama City, except in the colonial old city, Casco Viejo. The city's public transportation system is currently being modernized; brand-new buses are replacing the roughly 2,000 colorfully painted American school buses known as "Red Devils." For now, the best way to get around efficiently is to take taxis, which are easy to find and very cheap. Note: Tipping cab drivers is not required, but a small gratuity is always a good idea, especially if service is exemplary.
Panama City Sights and Attractions:
Tourism in Panama City is a burgeoning phenomenon, but business is king, and emblematic of that, the city is growing up, up, and up. A building boom is fashioning a modern city of glittering high-rises. Donald Trump, who is developing a 68-story mixed-use tower just outside the city, and architect Frank Gehry (who designed the new Museum of Biodiversity) will leave their footprints here. A visit to the Panama Canal, just 30 minutes from downtown, is a must. The Miraflores Visitor Center, on the east side of the Miraflores Locks, contains exhibition halls, a theater and a restaurant with great views of the canal. The entry fee is reasonable, too: $8 USD for adults, $5 for students and kids 5-17, free for kids under 5. A stroll or tour through Casco Viejo is also recommended. This once-derelict neighborhood, founded in 1519, is being revitalized and has been named a World Heritage Site.
More Panama City Tips:
- Speak the language. Spanish is the official language of Panama, but many people do speak English. Still, it's always a good idea to learn some key Spanish phrases before you go to better make your way around and connect with the locals.
- Pay with dollars. Although the Balboa is the official currency of Panama, U.S. dollars are accepted practically everywhere at a 1-to-1 exchange rate.
- Take a combined city/beach vacation. Panama City is just an hour away from lovely Pacific coast beaches where a number of American retirees are settling, among them Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, Rio Mar, Santa Clara, and Playa Blanca. You can get there by driving a rental car, hiring a taxi (around $50 USD), or taking a bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal.