With an upcoming trip to Panama City in less than three weeks, our thoughts have turned to the tropics. Panama City is an energetic cosmopolitan city where you can enjoy fine dining, shopping and a plethora of city attractions. But take a quick trip outside the city and you are immersed in nature and you feel like you have entered another world.
Our top three things to do around Panama City
Monkeys are fascinating creatures and a trip to Monkey Island is an absolute must for any visitor to Panama. Located in Gatun Lake (which forms a large part of the Panama Canal), it’s about a one hour drive from the city. You can easily arrange a tour of Monkey Island through a travel agency in the city (and they will often include other attractions to make a full day trip) or you can drive to the boat launch on Gatun Lake and hire a local fisherman to take you out. Ironically, it is not an island at all but is comprised of a number of small islands and shoreline around Gatun Lake that are are home to a variety of species.
White-faced capuchins are very acrobatic and intelligent–they have learned what an approaching boat signifies as they have been fed by the locals and tour operators for years. Food is the universal unifier among all animals, including humans–providing some very close encounters with these curious animals! A simple offering of pineapple to this Capuchin and the expression on his/her face says it all…
Geoffrey’s Tamarin monkeys are really unique looking with a distinguishing white mohawk and goblin-like ears–they kind of resemble Gizmo in the Gremlins movie but are quirky and seldom seen. On this particular day we encountered a small troop of them and captured some cool shots! These monkeys are only found in Panama and Colombia and are also known as the Panamanian Tamarin, Red-crested Tamarin and Rufous-naped Tamarin. This little guy had some serious attitude sticking his tongue out at us!
Insider Tip: Go early! Like most animals they are most active in the morning and are lazy in the afternoon after all the boats have exchanged their fruitful bounty for photo ops.
Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the old historic district of Panama – and it’s got quite a spicy history too! Built and settled in 1673, after Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan sacked the original city, Casco Viejo went into a state of disrepair and by the 1950’s it was in pretty bad shape; however, starting approxamitely 20 years ago, the old town has being painstakingly revitalized one building at a time.
Casco has a vibrant atmosphere, narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture that is a mix of Spanish, French, Colonial with a pinch of Neoclassic design thrown in. While walking the streets you feel as though you could be in a European city or New Orleans, but all the while it has its own special latin Panamanian vibe.
There are many plazas with large beautiful trees, park benches, small cafes, boutique hotels, and chic restaurants lining the perimeter. The main square is called Plaza de la Indepencia and it features the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral.
Casco is an eclectic mix of traditional and modern culture. Plaza Francia at the very tip of Casco Viejo, has many arts and crafts on display by various indiginous groups, such as this lady from the very colorful Guna group from the San Blas islands on the Caribbean side of Panama.
Casco Viejo stands in stark contrast to the very modern skyscraper studded skyline of Panama City. We took this photo on our very first trip to Panama in 2006, before the ring road around Casco Viejo was built and before many of the skyscrapers were finished.
Insider Tip: If you are a first-time visitor to Panama, take a taxi or the red hop-on hop-off busses if you plan to visit Casco Viejo. The maze of narrow one-way streets and lack of parking can make it a stressful experience to drive!
The Panama Canal
We have been to the Panama Canal at least half a dozen time over the past 10 years and it never gets old – many guide books rate this the top “must see” in the country. The Canal is the economic lifeblood of Panama and it is an amazing feat of human engineering.
There is nothing like standing on the observation deck at the Miraflores Locks watching a massive ship squeeze into the locks with only a few feet to spare on either side. Even better is to have dinner at the Miraflores locks and watch the ships enter and exit the locks all night long.
With the opening of the new larger locks and widened canal only a few months ago, we are excited to visit the canal on our next trip to see ships with 2.5x the tonnage transiting the canal!
Insider Tip: Get there before the tour buses deposit hoards of people and lines swell!
Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader