Tourists. We’re selfish creatures really. We want to see new cultures, but want them served up easily; we love an historic old town, but crave the energy of a modern metropolis; want to feel we have experienced something other than the urban, but balk at the difficult travel required to get there. Throw in great food, an iconic structure, and beautiful beaches and that’s us covered.
But what if you could have it all? Or almost all? Welcome to the world’s next great city break – Panama City, Central America.
It’s not perfect – but where it isn’t, it feels like there’s work in progress to address that. Despite being situated on a stretch of tropical Pacific coast, it’s the best part of an hour’s drive to reaching somewhere where swimming is in any way possible. Polluted mud flats are out front in the heart of the city, but sewerage and drainage works should restore the waters over the next decade. Roads get heavily congested, but a new metro system hopes to take this Miami-like skyline away from Miami-like traffic. Bus services in any event are frequent and cheap, although sadly the iconic diablo rojos or red devil buses – each uniquely painted and blaring out music of choice – are being phased out.
Nonetheless, this city really does seem to have an extraordinary mix, making it easy to have the familiar comforts of a modern city alongside an atmospheric casco viejo. We stayed in the relatively new Hilton Panama, a bus or (also inexpensive) taxi ride to the old town. Or, take a bike along one of the best urban bike paths anywhere in the world arguably – linking new to old, and beyond along the Cinta Costera bringing you close to the Bridge of the Americas. The only thing that holds it back somewhat is a scarcity of bike hire options in the old town, though just at the entrance to Casco Viejo there are a number of options.
In the old town itself, a myriad of excellent bars and restaurants are on hand – from the backpackers just as you walk in, to the idiosyncratic Mojitos Sin Mojitos (mojitos without mojitos – yes, they don’t serve mojitos, with the exception of specific occasions!). Panama hats (originally from Ecuador!) aplenty, but also boutiques and craft shops down back streets that range from wonderfully restored to ongoing urban residential.
And of course there is the colonial architecture, and coastal setting. Just at the meeting point of old and new Panama City is the Mercado de Mariscos, the working fish market with a plethora of cheap seafood joints outside. At weekends in particular, it’s a vibrant scene and lets you immerse yourself in a Panamanian family weekend.
Back on the bike, you’ll pass any number of free sports courts along the waterfront, progressive facilities in a city that still houses considerable poverty. Sunday mornings from 6.30am to about noon also sees a large section of Avenida Balboa, from the high rise hotels down, closed to traffic to allow safe cycling on the front.
And we haven’t even mentioned the canal yet. From Panama City, a taxi ride will bring you to the (the phrase almost seems trademarked) engineering wonder that is the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks are busy, are touristy and there are calmer areas to go, but you will get to witness the canal at work, and see a fascinating museum which brings you through its history, operations and environment.
That environment extends to the rainforest which sits in the city limits of Panama City – the Metropolitan National Park, seemingly a world away but with the skyscrapers peeking through.
And we haven’t mentioned the other attractions. Great clubs in the new town hotel strip? Check. Great shopping at the Albrook Mall and others? Check. Recap what we have mentioned – Rainforest? Check. Colonial city? Check. Wonderful outdoor facilities? Check. On and on it goes.
I truly believe that a swimmable beach would put Panama City in the Rio de Janeiro and Miami league. That of course will bring its own challenges, but for now there is an energetic and exciting central American city that demands your attention, yet is only on the brink of fulfilling its potential. Go.