Panamá City Travel Guide: 483 reviews and 1,126 photos

Though different people in David and Chiriqui province may think differently, Panama City, in many ways, is Panama. Economic and political power are both centered here. The city is an interesting mix of peoples and their cultures which have blended together, for the most part.

The city has a long history going back to 1519. It has always been an important transit center - in Spanish times, the treasures of the Incas passed through here, en route to the coffers of the Spanish throne, fueling their many European wars. The original townsite is located a few miles east of the present city. Panama Viejo was sacked by a pirate force under the command of Henry Morgan. The town was thereafter moved to the more defensible peninsula of Casco Viejo near the base of Cerro Ancon. That was the extent of the city for a long time until the coming of the Canal. The latter part of the 20th century saw the town then metamorphopsize far beyond its old confines, mostly to the east, but with the building of the Puente de las Americas in 1962, also to the west in Arrijan and even La Chorrera.

Seen from afar - the Amador Causeway, a cruise ship, atop Cerro Ancon or from a plane - Panama City presents a very dramatic picture. High rises line the eastern shore, glittering in the torpid sunlight. It is a picture of vibrancy and high living. Only when you come off the hill, ashore from your boat, down from the air or back from the Causeway, do you begin to see that all is not what you thought it was. One example I witnessed which would have made an interesting picture if I had remembered to bring my camera was one I witnessed from Avenida Balboa - the seaside boulevard - near sunset one evening. The sunlight shimmered goldenly off the high rises of Punta Paitilla - a former US military installation site given over to Miami Beach-style real estate. The in-your-face wealth of the towers stood in spectacular contrast to the heaps of garbage strewn about along the little beach - and the stench - beneath the boulevard.

Panama City is touted as a World business center and there is wealth in visual abundance, but as in many Latin American capitals, there is also large areas of poverty. The rich, here, are very rich and the poor, very poor - there are many more poor, as well. Vast differences can be seen in the city’s different districts - life in Bella Vista seems a long ways away from Curundu or Chorrillo. Two of Panama’s most famous presidents, Arnulfo Arias and Omar Torrijos, had built up the semblance of a social democratic state complete with a social security net for the many. In counterpoint, Aria’s wife, Mireya Moscoso, bankrupted the social security program with wasteful spending - including $10 million alone ot bring the Miss Universe Pageant to Panama. Fraud and corruption sapped the economy driving unemployment to over 30%. Martin Torrijos, Omar’s son, took over the sad state of affairs and has imposed the infamous Ley 17, which increases the age of retirement (it had already been increased before) and makes it impossible for many to even think about qualifying for retirement. Other provisos allow for increased benefits for legislators. The law, imposed from above, has led to massive unrest, protests and strikes. The magnificent Centenario bridge remains only a pedestrian bridge at present, until access highways can be completed - work that had been stopped by strikes for over a month when I visited.

Other large contrasts that used to exist here can still be tasted in muted form - that of the living conditions of those who lived in the City versus those who lived in the Canal Zone. Canal Zone housing has been sold off and old Zonians - those who used to live in the Zone, including over 50000 Americans - would, and do, cringe at what has become of their old haunts, but much of the differences remain. Walk across the Avenue of the Martyrs at the base of Cerro Ancon from the old Zone into Calidonia or Chorrillo and you are entering an entirely diferent World.

The longtime US-influences pervade the city - remember, Panama’s currency is the US dollar. The Latin core remains, but here, at only 9 degrees north where a siesta would really come in handy, the workday is 9 to 5 - or longer - for the many who are lucky enough to be employed. American fast food chains are popular making much larger inroads than even in Mexico - which is saying something. I met several Americans who were looking at Panama as a place to retire to - a story featured in most tourist magazines - incidentally, the Minister of Tourism was Ruben Blades, a salsa singer from the late ‘70’s. No property tax and other advantages are some of the features enticing potential retirees to come here and live, along with the medical infrastructure of Panama City which is found in much more evidence for the pay-as-you-go crowd than in other Central American regions - an important factor for many retirees. Every trip brings new towers to the scene, but many have yet to be filled.

With all of the contrasts, the people of Panama City remain a welcoming people. They try very hard to please and are proud of what they have. To stay on the cruise ship, experiencing only the Canal is to have missed out on Panama. History, cultures - and different cultures mean an exotic array of restaurants - and the melange of peoples make Panama City a fascinating destination.

  • Last visit to Panamá City: Sep 2015
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (19)

Comments (9)

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Dec 29, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    Thanks for explaining the infamous Ley 17. I have seen references to it, but never took the trouble to google it. I didn't realize the US dollar was the currency in Panama. Don't they have any currency of their own?

  • mirliya's Profile Photo
    Nov 27, 2008 at 5:54 AM

    Hope you are having a good time in Colombia. Greetings from Istanbul.

  • balhannah's Profile Photo
    Oct 24, 2008 at 2:16 PM

    Excellent views from Ancon Hill. How did you get there, drive yourself? Would like to go there if possible.

  • 88Starflite's Profile Photo
    Jun 28, 2007 at 5:47 PM

    ABC had a show on that said that there are some 70+ hi rises going up in and around P-city in the near future and it's a great place to retire, is this true?

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Aug 19, 2005 at 10:41 PM

    La Estancia looks like the perfect place for me - if I visit Panama one day :-)

  • Aug 13, 2005 at 3:03 AM

    Like Bwana_Brown, I too found the information detailed on this page extremely helpful & interesting.

  • karenincalifornia's Profile Photo
    Jun 29, 2005 at 8:15 AM

    Again, I could draw some parallels to the social security fiasco in Panama, but will refrain... :-/ Hope that corvine wasn't Chilean corvine. Enough of the left wing commentary - your Panama City page is excellent and the mix of cultures looks fun!

  • Bwana_Brown's Profile Photo
    Jun 28, 2005 at 6:52 AM

    Mark, wow a really great page! You have some amazing views of this city and fantastic information as well. That tour boat looks quite dilapidated, but interesting!! Beautiful spot there in the jungle admiring the view and watching the birds!

  • XenoHumph's Profile Photo
    Jun 24, 2005 at 1:19 PM

    Very interesting place! Excellent start.


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