Panama was a country we had only read about in school books, and neither of us thought we’d ever get the chance to visit. On this never-ending journey, we at least knew we wouldn’t regret having another stamp in our passports. Since Panama uses the United States dollar, we also knew it could be expensive. Therefore, we spent 24 hours in Panama City before making our way to the sleepy coastal town of Pedasí.
As it turns out, it’s quite easy to see some of the main sights in Panama City within a day. This is mainly because the metro line is exceptionally efficient, and rides are only .35 cents per ride making it fast and easy to get from place to place. The routes are also very easy to figure out, which is always a plus!
STOP #1: WANDERINGS IN CASCO VIEJO
This amazing little section of Panama City holds history true and dear to the heart of the city. Colonial and neoclassical buildings line the narrow streets, colorful flowerbeds spill over balconies, and stunning old cathedrals have their doors open to visitors.
If you stand just on the edge of Casco Viejo facing northeast, you can see the modern skyscrapers of the city not too far in the distance. Most of the buildings date back to the late 1600s, and were constructed after the area was nearly demolished by pirates. However, Panama City has been a significant international trade city since the early 1500s.
Our favorite piece of history in Casco Viejo was from the Iglesia San José Cathedral. We love pirate history and steampunk-related things, so when we stepped into the doors of the church and saw the very intricate, gold-covered altar, we had to learn more. The coolest part was its backstory.
At the time the famous pirate Henry Morgan was invading Panama City in 1671, the priests of the church were desperate to protect their cathedral from being destroyed. So, they painted the original altar black to hide its gold, and moved it to another location. There’s also rumors the original altar was dumped into the ocean to keep it from invaders.
When Captain Morgan came around looking for pillage opportunities, the head priest told him the church was just being built (hence no altar) and asked him if he would like to make a donation for its construction. The captain was so impressed by the priest’s audacity that he ordered his men to leave the church be! He also made the donation. After the pirates left the city, the altar was replaced.
STOP #2: MERCADO DE MARISCOS (FISHERMAN’S WHARF)
Just a short $1 taxi ride from Casco Viejo, the Mercado de Mariscos is the perfect spot to have a snack and a cold brew after exploring Casco Viejo. Though small, there’s plenty of cevicherías and seafood stands located across the street from the docks.
If you haven’t had it, ceviche is a must try and is common in Panama and throughout Mexico, Central America, and much of South America too. It’s fresh fish chopped into cubes, marinated in lemon juice (sometimes with cilantro or other spices), and mixed salsa-style with onions, diced tomatoes, or diced mango. The view of the bay across the street can leave a little something to be desired during the day though!
At first, we thought it was some crazy global warming side effect after witnessing the boats stuck in the mud! When we asked our friendly waiter about it, he informed us it was just low tide until about 3pm. Though we’re not exactly sure how they transport themselves (maybe with the small motorboats), the fisherman leave their boats in the bay every day when the tide gets low.
They all head across the street to the wharf to drink beer the entire afternoon until the tide comes back. (Our kind of fellows!) When the tide returns, the boats are lifted from their muddy pits naturally. Then, the fisherman make their way back out to their boats and carry on with their day!
STOP #3: THE PANAMA CANAL
This really was the grand finale of our sightings in Panama City, and the furthest distance to travel out of the center. Though it’s touristy, we had to see this world-famous engineering feat in person, and had to nerd over all the museum exhibits as well! To get there, we hopped on a public bus from the Albrook Mall. The mall not only houses one of Panama City’s airports, but also serves as the main bus terminal for the entire city.
Once we arrived at the terminal from the metro, we had to ask several people where to catch the bus to the Miraflores Visitor’s Center – the building that overlooks the canal. Signs in the bus terminal are sparse, and the place is enormous. There’s multiple levels, and literally hundreds of buses. It was hard to know where to begin looking. We finally located the stop after 15 minutes or so at the ground level. For those of you who need to find it too, it is at the very front of the pick-up line on the north side. We could even use our metro card to pay the .40 cent fare!
Twenty minutes later, we made it to the Panama Canal, and the bus dropped us off right in front. Seeing the canal in action was a treat, despite it being packed with people. The museum was super interesting, and is a multi-level maze of information, with detailed models of the machinery. Bug collections show the types of insects that have been discovered in the area, and there’s even a virtual simulator where you can drive a cargo boat into the canal!
Learning about the workers who built the canal, and the machinery that was invented to aide it’s construction was fascinating. To this day, the Panama Canal is one of the most significant engineering accomplishments in the world. The trade brought on through the canal has also allowed the economy in Panama City to thrive.
STOP #4: ALBROOK MALL
Since we didn’t want to pay for overpriced tourist food at the canal, the Albrook Mall was the perfect place to have dinner after we arrived back at the terminal. With two full floors of restaurants to choose from in the food court, we knew we could find something good!
Albrook mall is gargantuan. That’s the most accurate way to describe it. In fact, it is the largest mall in all of the Americas. There’s so many stores to shop in that you can even find a few repeats of the same stores throughout the entire mall. It has 700 stores in total, and covers over 4 million square feet (380,000 square meters).
In addition to having the attached airport and bus terminal, Albrook Mall houses a full-sized merry-go-round on the lower level of the food court. There’s dozens of restaurants and cafes, and also grocery stores, pharmacies, dentist offices, spas, cinemas, and a bowling alley. It’s definitely worth a wander, and even with a full day there it would be impossible to see it all.
We were very satisfied with our day of exploring, and needless to say we slept like babies that night! Panama City is a magnificent place, and is well worth the stopover. If you have more than just 24 hours to explore, there’s also Gamboa, Plaza de Francia, or Panama la Vieja to check out.
Though Panama City wasn’t necessarily the most budget-friendly destination (due to the USD), it was a great place for us to stop and stock up on the things we didn’t have access to in Nicaragua. Also, it’s safe, and easy to get around. We’re sure you’ll enjoy your trip there just as much as we did, and even more so if you get to spend a little more time in this vibrant city!
Questions about Panama City? Let us know in the comments!