After visiting many of the Central America countries, Panama City (Location Map) is not what I expected . It is a modern thriving metropolis with a downtown skyline that can rival many large US Cities and so unlike the capitals of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Belize or Guatemala. It is amazing what the commerce from the Panama Canal did for the city.
Within a half hour of leaving Panama, however, you can enter areas that probably have not changed much in 100s of years. (See Embera Tribe Page).
The natural beauty from the mountains down to the beaches of the Pacific Coast is awesome. We did not make it to the Atlantic Coast but heard good things about the beach towns there. Panama is one of the most diverse countries we have visited and Panama City is a great place to both hang out and use as a launching pad to visit the rest of the country.
Summary of our Trip
We crammed a lot into our eight days in Panama. Here was our journey.
Days 1 to 3 – Balboa Inn, a bed and breakfast style Inn in a residential area close to the Panama Canal and next to Ancon Hill.
Days 3 to 4 – We took a 2 hour bus ride with a small group and then a 1 hour ride in a canoe type boat to a remote village to stay with the Embera Tribe.
Days 4 to 6 – For total culture shock, we left the Embera Village and went downtown to stay in a 62 story highrise at the upscale Hardrock Hotel.
Days 6 to 7 – We rented a car and drove to the mountain and volcanic crater town of El Valle. After a day in the town, we drove down to the coastal town of Santa Clara and stayed at a bungalow on the beach.
Days 7 to 8 – We stayed in a really neat resort near the airport known at the Riande Aeropuerto Hotel, Casino & Resort.
Summary of Things to Do in Panama City
The entrance to Ancon Hill is walking distance from the bed and breakfast, the Balboa Inn, where we stayed for three nights. If you want a good workout, the hike to the top of the hill takes about 1.5 hours. Ancon Hill overlooks the area that has traditionally housed the workers of the Panama Canal. The hill is 654 feet in elevation and offers terrific views of Panama City.
According to Wikipedia, Ancon Hill is a 654-foot hill that overlooks Panama City, Panama, next to the township of Ancón. It was under US jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone for much of the 20th century and therefore was never developed like most of the surrounding urbanized parts of the city. As a result, it became a kind of an “island” of jungle in an urban area, where wildlife still survives, cut off from other jungle areas.
This is a very vigorous hike due to the elevation and the steepness of the slope. Take plenty of water. There are some vendors at the top that may have water but don’t count on it. We purchased some handmade items from vendors at the peak.
The old town of Panama City is the place for both the social scene and for the local culture. In the late afternoon and evening this is a prime destination where locals and tourists visit the many restaurants and bars. By day, you can enjoy the museums, art galleries and the distinct architecture of one of the oldest areas of Panama. Active renovation is ongoing but the government and developers have made a nice start on revitalizing this area.
Miraflores Lockes – Panama Canal
After reading about the Panama Canal all my life, I was thrilled to finally experience it in action up close. At the Miraflores Lockes viewing area, you pay a $10 fee to see …………
1) A museum
2) A fabulous simulation of the view from a giant cargo ship navigating through the locks
3) 3D movie of the history of the canal
4) Various viewing platforms
5) Optional giant buffet
6) Souvenir shop
7) Snack bar with cervezas!
According to Wikipedia, Miraflores is the name of one of the three locks that form part of the Panama Canal, and the name of the small lake that separates these locks from the Pedro Miguel Locks upstream. In the Miraflores locks, vessels are lifted (or lowered) 54 feet (16.5 m) in two stages, allowing them to transit to or from the Pacific Ocean port of Balboa in Panama City.
Here is a good shot showing the differing depths of water on each side of the lock.
Around 3 PM in the day, the big ships arrive and everyone scrambles for a good view. The cargo ships are right on top of you.
The museum has a virtual video that gives you a feel for the experience of captaining a ship through the canal complete with audio and sensory movements.
We were so close that I could have thrown a rock and hit the ship
Summit Zoo and Botanical Gardens
The Parque Municipal Summit (Summit Municipal Park) is a botanical garden and a zoo of about 625 acres. The botanical gardens make up about 140 acres. This is located on the outskirts of Panama City at about kilometer 18 on the road leading to gamboa (Wikipedia)
This is a beautiful park that is worth the effort to visit. It has an interesting mix of plant life and local animals that can be found in the country. We spent about 2 hours here which is enough time to see most of the site. We paid 10 bucks a ticket.
The Amador Causeway is a road that connects the mainland of Panama City with four close by islands in the Pacific Ocean. These islands are Naos, Perico, Culebra, and Flamenco. The road begins in an area near the southern entrance of the Panama Canal, near the township of Ancón. This area is a lot of fun and is a great place to hang out day or night. The heat is a little more tolerable in the day due to the constant ocean breeze. (Wikipedia)
This causeway was built in 1913 with rocks excavated from Snake Cut during construction of the Panama Canal. The site was originally part of a U.S. military complex known as Fort Amador, established to protect the entrance to the canal.
We ate an early dinner at Lenos and Carbon. The seafood was locally caught and very good. The view was great.
Go to the Amador Causeway toward the end of the day and you can see views like the one below.
Places We Stayed
We crammed a lot of traveling into this trip and probably more than I would recommend. However, all of it was worth it.
I found the Balboa on bedandbreakfast.com The prices in Panama City tend to be on the high side. The Balboa was about $90 a night which was reasonable in Panama City. The host and hostess (Bill and Mieke) who were from England were very friendly and accommodating. They helped suggest places to go and gave us excellent advice on visiting areas along the coast. As we always recommend, stay at places where an employee can speak in your native language and help you with planning excursions.
Bill and Mieke fed the wildlife every morning. We got close ups of the agouti, humming birds, and lots of colorful birds. Nice stay. I recommend it for a few nights. The downside is that the only eating place within walking distance was a cafeteria type place a few blocks away. We liked the mini-buffet breakfast and the freshly cooked eggs and breakfast meat each morning.
Hard Rock Hotel
The Hard Rock Hotel doesn’t fit the normal model of our adventure travel but we thought it would be a great contrast to leave the Embera Village and walk into the plush Hard Rock Hotel. The view from the rooftop is worth the stay. Unfortunately, it was closed during week days.
The Hard Rock is worth it for a couple of days. The price was about $180 a night. The place has a nice outdoor pool, hot tubs, and cabanas. There are about five bars and a couple of restaurants. It is next to a decent size mall. The rooftop bar on the rooftop of the 62nd floor has a terrific view. Dollar Rental brought us a rental vehicle. This was the most professionally run rental car place I have experienced in Central America
Riande Aeropuerto Hotel, Casino & Resort
The Riande Resort was booked because it is close to the airport for the flight we were taking the next morning. It turned out to be a great deal at about $90 a night. It has a combination swimming pool and bar that is top-notch. We did not try out the casino or the restaurant but the restaurant was crowded and the crowd seemed to be having a good time. If you want a relaxing stay before flying home from Panama, this place is highly recommended.