But first, let me pinpoint five interesting things that stuck with me during my visit:
1. Prices in Panama City are actually quite high, very similar to the ones in US or Canada. Food is almost the same, while drinks and clothing, for example, are a bit cheaper.
2. There are Police patrols everywhere, including in the darkest corners of Panama City. One or two soldiers are planted almost every second corner, which made us feel safe despite the dangerous-looking neighborhoods.
3. Panama City is split into two different worlds. Beautiful luxury and cultural buildings one street, EXTREME poverty 400 meters away. There are amazing areas of town mixed with very scary looking neighborhoods, tied to each other.
4. People in Panama are extremely polite, from every single Uber driver (we had over 30) to clerks, neighbors, kids, etc.
5. Time in Panama is a bit slower if you know what I mean. It always takes longer to get everything you order. One restaurant on Amador Causeway, called Pencas, probably holds the record for the slowest service ever. It was the first restaurant that I went to in my life where the drinks came out 30 minutes later after the food was ready. And no, the waitress didn’t forget about them, as she acknowledged the fact that she has to bring them during our wait.
Now let’s take a look at what to do in Panama City:
What To Do In Panama City? Start With Casco Viejo And The Best Restaurants
The question every traveler in this country has is: What to do in Panama City and where to go? One place I really liked was Casco Viejo, which is the old town. It has great patios and bars, beautiful cobblestone streets, and great views of the city.
The neighborhood is surrounded by extreme poverty areas, so don’t be surprised if during your Uber ride you will go through some scary streets, populated with garbage and dubious looking characters. It’s not as dangerous as it looks, though.
Where To Dance: Panama City Nightlife
If you want to dance, go to Teatro Amador (jazz on Thursdays, salsa/Latino beats on Fridays) or Zaza. I also like a patio on Zaza’s rooftop.
The best patios are Acentos and, located right in front of Hard Rock Cafe Hotel. Tell your Uber driver to take you to the Multicentro Mall and drop you off at the Hard Rock Cafe doors. Cross the alley and walk up the stairs, there are four different great patios tied to each other.
Breathtaking Views Of Panama City
One last recommendation is to go to the Trump Tower rooftop, to a restaurant called Panaviera, for amazing views of Panama City.
The best time to go is around 5 or 6 PM for the magic hour, right before it gets dark (it depends on the time of the year), but obviously, you can do it anytime.
The restaurant also has an infinity pool (smaller, just for design, not for use) that looks amazing.
Prices here are a bit expensive – you pay for the view.
Last but not least, someone recommended us to go to Calle Uruguay, as they said it’s a touristy spot. Although popular, I didn’t like it one bit. I got a weird vibe.
F&F Tower: “The Screw.”
The most recognizable building on the Panama City skyline is BBA (242.9 m), also known as the “Screw” or the “BBA building.” BBA is a Panamanian bank that resides in this modern shape building. Although not a place to visit per se (inside), BBA is a majestic work of art that needs to be seen from the very bottom up. Emporis selected the F&F Tower amongst the Top 10 best skyscrapers in the world, in 2011.
This amazing building below is Biomuseo. It was designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Biomuseo is located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, on the Amador Causeway. Its purpose is to change the way the world see, understand and preserve our environment.
The cost for the building 95 million dollars project. The funding was received from over 100 local companies and the government. The Panama Tourism Authority, which also helped finance the museum, was hoping for an “instant icon” – an it certainly happened.
You can visit Biomuseo’s official website HERE for more information.
Panama City Beach Tours
Unfortunately, there are no amazing beaches within Panama City. The Bay in Panama City (Cinta Costera) and Amador Causeway, also in the city, are apparently polluted – say some locals like Paul K. Apart from that, there’s no sand. There’s a small beach in Casco Viejo which is also polluted and not safe.
To the East of the city is a large new residential area with mangrove (no beach) and highways (rocks), to the west is the Panama Canal which has no beaches either.
Playa Bonita is not great but is about 30–45 minutes driving from Panama City. It’s safe but just not too nice.
Veracruz is a beach and local village nearby Playa Bonita that apparently doesn’t have a good record. Some locals say there have been quite a lot of robberies and it’s unsafe here, due to the shacks and people living in this place.
Relatively good beaches are Gorgona and Coronado (1.5 hours by car). Some have black sand, but they aren’t too busy with people on weekdays, and it’s green around. On weekends without rain, it gets busy with families doing barbecues.
However, if you look for awesome unspoiled beaches with pristine clear waters the best “nearby” option is Ilha Grande up North, but it will take you 2+ hours to get there. By bus or boat, it probably takes you over 2.5 hours.
Along the way, you can visit the historical place where Columbus had his fortification. Note that in rainy season that coast gets a lot of rain, make sure to check the forecast the same day.
If you have more time and money to spend the island group San Blas is your best choice. It’s expensive and isolated to get there because native inhabitants are the only ones that are allowed to organize the trip.
Another option nearby is taking the boat to Isla Taboga from Panama City. It is the most affordable beach tour. It is a 30-minute ferry ride for $20US. The ferry leaves at 8 AM, 9.30AM, 11 AM, and 3 PM from the Balboa Yacht Club. You can return on the same day at 8.45AM, 10.15AM, 2.45PM, 4 PM or 5 PM (the 5 PM departure is added only in the weekends).
You can stay overnight if you want. Taboga has only one main beach, but there is not much to do there otherwise – if you are looking for other activities.
Panama Canal Tours
I spent my birthday in Panama City and that day my desire was to be on a ship, a speedboat, or a yacht. The best deal I found was a 45-minute tour of the city on water, on a speedboat. And boy, you can see a lot in that time when you go with 80km/h.
It costed $250US to rent for four people, but we saw an amazing view of the downtown, the Trump Tower up close, the Panama Canal, and went under the American Bridge and got a great little history of the city and the Canal from our guides, Charlie and Alberto (photo above).
Not to mention that we stopped to have a birthday champagne on the boat, with the music blasting, right in the heart of the Panama City-bay.
If you are interested in renting this speedboat you can call Dennis, the owner of Pana Thriller Speed Boat Tours, at (507) 6934-1546. I don’t get any commission from him, so do whatever you want or ask him what else he can offer.
Fishing In Panama City
If you are still wondering what to do in Panama City, here is another option. If you are into fishing trips, there are a few companies in Panama City that take you offshore if you don’t have your tools with you. My friend Raz (photo below) found the best deal at $250 for a full day, from 7 AM to 3 PM.
The actual fishing trip was $100, but to get to the lake, he had to pay $120 for a driver, as the location was an hour and a half away from the city. A part of the road was also in very bad condition, with a bunch of potholes.
In terms of the captures, they were fishing for Bass (photo below) and Oscars. Oscars (Raz is holding one in the picture above) are a bit sweeter if you can say that about a fish taste. We cooked it on our grill at the house we rented and came out delicious.
If you want to go out with the same people you can call Dennis (a different Dennis from the speedboat) at …***
The next best deal Raz found was for $375US, for the same amount of time. However, unlike the first company, this one would pick you up from home and offer you lunch and drinks (beers) during the day. You can take this deal by calling ***.
Prices in Panama
I was surprised to see that prices are higher than I thought. A dish at pretty much every restaurant we were eating was between $12-30US ($15 for a Cordon Bleu, $30 for a high-end steak), while the drinks were a bit cheaper. For example, a local beer is $2-3, and import is over $4.
We preferred to stick with Panamanian beers for the whole trip: Balboa, Panama and Soberana, which we could buy from the grocery store for $0.65 a pop.
On the other hand, a little airport souvenir (mini statue of a landmark, for example) that you would buy in other countries for $4-5 is from $10 up in Panama City.
Check this panel here for a good understanding of the prices in Panama.
The average salary in Panama is around $33,000US per year.
Weather in Panama
I visited Panama City at the beginning of April, so the temperature was always between 31-36 Celsius during the day, and just about $22-28 during the night.
Make sure the place you rent (if you use Airbnb) has air conditioning system. Ours broke a day before we left and the last night was horrible. However, we loved where we stayed, as the place had two pools and a hot tub (not hot 🙂 ) – see below, view from our balcony.
In four of the eight days we spent there, it rained but only for a half an hour. Needless to say, it evaporates quickly, so don’t worry about being rained on, unless you have a video camera or laptop that you are using in an open space (like I did).
I went to Cinta Costera 3, which is a beautiful strip facing downtown offering amazing views of the city. While I was recording a time-lapse of the skyline (and the picture of this article), it started pouring. The closest roof was about 5 minutes away walking distance, so I got soaked with my camera and gimble under my shirt.
Random Immigration Issues
A very bizarre incident happened while we were having drinks at Acentos, a great patio by the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel. It must have been 1.30am or even later when I went to pay my bill.
As I walked into the bar to use my credit card and use my PIN, all of a sudden all the waitresses started running around like crazy. It was like switch that generated an unprecedented chaos.
They were stepping on each other’s toes (including mine), and although I picked on some Spanish, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The bar staff and even some ‘familiar with the bar’-looking patrons (or maybe owners – you know, those who always have a reserved table by the bar) were also agitated.
My waitress asked me to sign the bill in a huge rush and left me there for a few seconds. Then she came back as she forgot to give me my copy. When I asked, what’s going on, she said with a grimace on her face: “Immigration is here.”
What that means, I could only imagine, so I am not going to share an uneducated opinion on the topic, but my Uber driver said that many workers in Panama City are illegal immigrants from countries like Venezuela or Costa Rica. There are definitely a few more layers deep down, so I will try to find that out.
Panama, The Fiscal Paradise
Many people say that Panama is the best when it comes to saving on taxes, yet legal. I was curious to find out if anything has changed after the Panama Papers scandal. What is the aftermath of that? Here is what Vishal, a financial guru from Panama City, says:
“Nothing has changed so far, and like everything that comes on the media, this will too fade away. It’s tough for me to believe this is a conspiracy against someone specific because there are many tax havens or fiscal paradises around the world. If a person is using an offshore company to hold assets, he/she would most likely spread the risk between different jurisdictions, depending on the size and value of his/her assets.
Before passing of law 18, on 23rd April 2015, Panamanian law did not require disclosure of the names of shareholders of a corporation. It means pre-2015, you could have issued bearer shares, and the corporation could be directed by people assigned by shareholders. Directors of a corporation, and owners are different people. Since they were bearer shares, the shares could change owners, without requiring disclosure or a person, trust or corporation’s name on the shares.
What Mossack Fonseca did pre and post-2015 was within the legal limits. They built companies and sold them to corporate clients such as other law firms or banks. Mossack Fonseca was not directly responsible for who owned these corporations and their shares, but, unfortunately, this big scandal broke out and made the law firm look like it was engaged in some evil business, which was not the case.
In fact, there were thousands of law firms or lawyers doing the same business, but Mossack came into attention, when after Law 18 passed, the names of shares bearers came to light, and because the number of registered companies was staggering for the size of our country.
What people don’t realize is that Panama is truly international, it has parties conducting business with people from all around the world. What is legal in this jurisdiction, might not be legal in other jurisdictions. All countries have different tax codes suited for their major industries, but not designed with a specific purpose of facilitating criminal businesses.”
Thanks for taking the time to read my article. As I mentioned, in Panama I threw a dart at the world map and will travel (very soon) wherever it landed. If you want to see my next destination feel free to subscribe to my newsletter using the form on this page.