Panama City, Panama: Top 5 Things to Do

Cool Things to Do in Panama City

By Jeanine Barone

The asphalt road climbs up Cerro Ancon that's lined with jungle-like flora
The asphalt road climbs up Cerro Ancon that’s lined with jungle-like flora.

Panama City is pretty much defined by the Canal, an engineering feat that’s been in operation since the early 1900s. But I opted to search out the city’s other treasures, which ended up satisfying my need for cultural and nature-focused delights. Here are eight cool things to do in Panama City, aside from transiting the Canal.

1. Amador Causeway

One look at Amador Causeway and I’m hooked. Here I find welcome breezes in otherwise stifling Panama City, as well as long rows of palms and benches that are perfectly positioned allowing me to gape at the Panama City skyline.

Better yet: my Panamanian paradise isn’t far from downtown. I’m determined to rent a bicycle and cycle the flat paved path that accompanies this three-some-mile roadway that juts into the Panama Bay.

Amador Causeway with its palm-lined biking/walking path in Panama City, Panama. Jeanine Barone photos.
Amador Causeway with its palm-lined biking/walking path in Panama City, Panama. Jeanine Barone photos.

I have my choice of three bike rental shops and choose Bikes and More that are set at the beginning of the causeway, which is really a breakwater the U.S. created as a way to protect the Canal and the ships waiting to enter it.

Pedaling along, I find joggers, bladers, walkers and other cyclists sharing the path where tall street lanterns light the way at night when this venue transforms into a popular nightspot.

No wonder, considering the Causeway connecting four petite islands has plenty in the way of restaurants and cafes as well as clubs and bars.

But even during the day, I have some difficult decisions to make: take in the views of the anchored sailboats and immense container ships waiting to enter the Canal; munch on ice cream sold at a roadside shop; stop for a sea bass lunch in one of the waterside eateries; or simply pedal along and enjoy the breezes.

2. Metropolitan Natural Park

Getting up at 5:30 in the morning isn’t the way to start my day. But it is if I want to hike and do some bird watching in the only urban jungle in Central America. Metropolitan Natural Park may be only 15 minutes from downtown but even from the parking lot, I feel like I left car chocked Panama City far behind.

The air is dense with chirps, peeps, buzzes and squawks and a multitude of other bird sounds. Among the five trails that wander through this 700-acre wilderness, I first tackle the Los Caobos path with its towering mahogany trees for which the trail is named. Yellow warblers, barn swallows and Baltimore orioles are some of the species that can be seen or heard along this trail. (The park sits along a key bird migratory path on the way to North America.)

Though I know it’s past sunrise, some parts of the trail are so dense with foliage that it seems like night has fallen again. At the trail’s 240-foot highpoint, a window suddenly opens in the forest revealing a surprise: the Panama City skyline.

A statue of Amelia Denis de Icaza on the Cerro Ancon in Panama City.
A statue of Amelia Denis de Icaza on the Cerro Ancon in Panama City.

My proximity to the city is even more apparent when the sounds of traffic break into my consciousness as I meander towards the El Roble trail with its small tree farm and arboretum growing bonsai.

I spot an agouti racing across the path that borders a small pond with turtles. I have the trails to myself until two mountain bikers, hoping to get in some miles before heading to work, zoom past.

All the activity doesn’t disturb a miniscule brown frog that hops beside my feet. But the trail soon ends, after a mere 50 minutes. There are longer and hillier trails, including the popular Cienaguita Trail leading to Mono Titi Road that offers even better views of the city from its viewpoint.

3. Cerro Ancon

I could’ve walked to the top of city’s tallest hill, Cerro Ancon, at any time of the day. But I find that trekking just after sunrise is the ideal time for animal sightings. Ah, yes, another 5:30 a.m. wakeup call. The single-lane paved road first wanders through Quarry Heights, a placid residential historic neighborhood that had long been a command center for the U.S. Military.

But to access the section of the asphalt that threads to the top at this early hour when cars are not allowed, first I crawl through a hole in a barbed wire fence.

I’m immediately confronted with a wild landscape of lush foliage, strung with vines and dappled with brilliant-colored blossoms. Even at this early hour, I’m not alone. In this woodsy nature preserve, I spy a sloth and an acouti.

It’s only 30 minutes to the 660-foot summit and along the way, I pass several boldly-painted benches emblazoned with such green mottos as respira profunda (breathe deeply) and embraza un arbol (grab or hug a tree).

A jogger passes me, as does a mountain biker who struggles with his gears. Behind me, a couple of bird watchers are hoping for sighting of parrots and parakeets.

On the roadside are signs displaying passages from “Al Cerro Ancon,” Amelia Denis de Icaza’s poem dedicated to this picturesque hill. All the effort pays off at the top where I find the best panoramic views of the city, the entrance to the Canal, the Miraflores Locks, and the Bridge of the America that’s part of the Pan American Highway.

4. Cinta Costera

The ruins of Panama Viejo are a link to the city's past
The ruins of Panama Viejo are a link to the city’s past

Finding one pleasant pedestrian path in Panama City was a surprise, but two? Now that’s a dream.

Cinta Costera or the Coastal Strip is a long swath of land newly constructed from tons of landfill that includes spacious landscaped meridians, curvy red skywalks across multilane Avenida Balboa with its chaotic traffic, and, most importantly, walking and cycling paths that parallel the Bay of Panama.

The only oddity is having to jaywalk across a hair-raising multi-lane highway — the traffic lights change infrequently at the few crosswalks — just to get to the pedestrian bridges. Apparently the current budget hasn’t allowed for an expansion of the bridges.

With nowhere to rent a bike nearby, instead of cycling, I walk for forty minutes along the path that I share with families pushing strollers, couples strolling hand in hand, and older folk wielding umbrellas against the intense sun’s rays beating down on the asphalt. Plenty of junk food temptations await as vendors sell sausages, candied apples, flavored ices and more.

I bypass all of these distractions and continue on my workout, gazing into the distance where the giant Panamanian flag flutters high above the city atop Cerro Ancon.

The Original Panama City

The original Panama City from the 16th century stands in tatters, thanks to the siege on the city led by pirate, Henry Morgan in 1671. But the stone ruins lie on a fine patch of land surrounded by water — oh, so scenic, but obviously not easy to defend — that I delight in exploring.

But it’s easy to spend too much time indoors in their museum that’s chock full of artifacts, which set the tone for examining the ruins. Some of my favorite findings are a bone flute carved in the shape of a human playing a flute, and a ceramic whistle shaped like a bird. Masses of riches from South America once made their way to Spain via this once thriving city.

But there’s evidence of goods transported in the other direction too, like decorative glazed ceramic dishes and bowls. Once I pry myself away from the myriad displays, I walk part of the almost 60-acre landscape to check out the ruined archways, walls, foundations and remains of churches, convents, and houses.

Rising some 70 feet high, a solitary tower with clinging vines is much of what remains of the cathedral. I climb the wooden stairs to the top, stopping along the way to gaze out through the arched portals piercing each level that reveal an increasingly absorbing view of the Canal and downtown Panama City that’s dabbled with sky-reaching buildings.

The pirate Henry Morgan, who sacked Panama City in 1671
The pirate Henry Morgan, who sacked Panama City in 1671

6. Casco Viejo

After Morgan torched old Panama City, the citizens relocated five miles away on a piece of land extending into Panama Bay that was easier to defend. Much has changed since the 17th century, but one thing that conjures up the past is the evidence of the disparity between the rich and the poor in this landscape.

Once surrounded by walls to protect the elite, the city would relegate the lower classes and slaves to the area outside the fortifications. I ride a taxi through the decrepit dark alleys now netting the lower reaches of Casco Viejo after countless people warned me against walking through this crime-ridden barrio.

But surprisingly, the ominous shadows soon give way to leafy plazas. Sure, there are scores of dilapidated three-story tenements with balconies hung with laundry. But this just lends to the quaint charm of the warren of narrow lanes with convent ruins and restored Colonial structures.

This UNESCO World Heritage site has been seeing quite a bit of renovation lately, making the neighborhood a bohemian day and night hang out. I grab a scoop of ginger ice cream at Granclement, an artisanal shop.

Then I wander to an eclectic array of stores: Café Per Due serving more than a dozen types of memorable pizzas and flavorful espressos; Diablo Rosso selling funky t-shirts; and Las Bovedas, a former dungeon turned stylish eatery with French-inflected seafood.

Jeanine BaroneJeanine Barone is an independent travel and food writer and consultant who specializes in off-the-beaten-track travel. Visit her blog: The Travel Authority

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