Panama City

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
Trip End Sep 04, 2011

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Flag of Panama  ,
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Here I was on the night bus to Panama City. To get some extra leg room, the bus attendant put me into the first upper deck row. I thought it would be a winner, but not that much. As the first upper deck seat row was right behind the front window, any frontal traffic accident with any of those hundreds of tracks using Interamericana highway would be most likely fatal for me. Therefore instead of getting a deserved goodnight sleep, I was sweating in my seat while observing the bus driver's fearless night ride. Luckily the driver did fine reaching Panama City at around 6 am.

As advised by the Dutch girl I met in Boquete, hostel Panama by Luis was my number 1 lodging option in Panama City. What she liked about the place was a nice and very helpful owner, and people staying there. Not to waste any time, I hit Panama City streets right after check-in to explore its sites. My first steps led to Panama Viejo which is a historical site full of 17 century ruins of old Panama town. At those times the city was a major trading hub for a silk and spices which were imported from the Orient. The city was plundered by a pirate, Henry Morgan, in 1671, and since then this part of the city was left untouched. The whole site is dominated by a cathedral with a stone tower from which you can see the entire city, its surroundings, as well as, lined-up boats waiting to enter Panama Canal. Generally, I am not a big fan of historical points of interest, but, without any doubts, I enjoyed visiting this one.

A drawback of  this beautiful and interesting site is the fact that it is located on the city outskirt being enclosed with problematic neighborhoods. To keep tourist out of troubles the most of the site is monitored by a camera system. As I was not aware of this security risk, I strayed away to an unmonitored part of the site. Fortunately for me some local women was just driving by, so she stopped at me to warn me not to walk around with an expensive camera. The word she used a lot to get me out of that area was PELIGROSO (dangerous). Her message was quite clear, and as my camera is together with a passport something I can not afford to lose, I did not wait a second and promptly left that part of the site. 

From Panama Viejo, I headed west, closer to the city center, to visit another historical site called Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo was a new city center after Henry Morgan destroyed Panama Viejo. Over the time even this neighborhood deteriorated and turned into urban slum. If you walk around you will still find tens of buildings, or rather ruins, which were not touched for almost hundred years. Nowadays, the site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and most of the buildings are being renovated. Also a residence of Panamanian president is located in this area. Due to this reason, and also due to very high criminality rate in the past you will find a policeman on almost every corner. To be able to see the President Palace you must go through a metal detector.  Alike Panama Viejo, this part of the city offers some excellent views on the Panama City downtown, and its skyscrapers. As  there is no public transportation to this neighborhood, you must either sacrifice a few dollars for a taxi ride, or walk for 5 minutes through quite dodgy area. Obviously I picked the second variant which allowed me to take a few pictures of the life on the local streets.

What was funny about visiting Casco Viejo was an interest of  local high school girls visiting the site to take a picture with me. By the time I left this place, I had taken picture with approximately 5 Panamanian girls. By reading the upcoming paragraphs you will see that I somehow was very popular with girls in Panama City.

Walking around the historical sites starved me to death, so I decided to stop at one of numerous street food booths. I was offered a big plate of chicken with rice, lentils, and a glass of coke all that just for $2.5. For sure they are not used to seeing foreigners eating there, as all customer, including the owner, were staring at me with a surprise. Nevertheless, the food was excellent, and  I went there again the next day. I really enjoy eating at these places, as they are cheap, food is tasty, and you can experience the local way of dining . To me, going to a fast food, or a regular restaurant is the last resort option. 

Staying at Panama by Luis turned to be a right choice. The place is really cool with very helpful owner, plus it is located just next to the main city road (Avenue Balboa). It is also seems to be very popular with South Americans allowing me to meet some Venezuelans, Colombians, Bolivians, and Chileans. All together we bought a few bottles of rum in the evening, and were chatting late to the night. Once the rum was over, the a few people decided to drive to a local disco using a car of one Venezuelan guy living in the city. I really wanted to go as well, but the guy (driver) drank a lot so I better stayed at the hostel. I behaved as a mature person for once. My decision disappointed the Colombian girl who evidently liked me a lot. Ok, before anybody starts to giving my lectures....the girl did not speak a word English, smoked weed a few times a day (her room was next to my dorm, so I could smell it easily), plus some Colombian plastic surgeon boosted her "bumpers" with a few liters of  silicon. Meeting her gave me a clear idea how direct Colombian girls can be. It really could not be more obvious what her intentions were...really funny situation. She originally was not going to the dance club, but when she learned that I am going, she slipped into very short red dress, and made here "bumpers" even more visible. I was said in the morning that she was very disappointed that I did not join them at the end. But really, she looked like one big problem. 

Instead, I was having a great conversation with a cute and fun Lithuanian female backpacker that night. She lives in Munich, and have been traveling with her German girlfriend who unfortunately (fortunately for me) had got sick a few days before. I was going to do the second round of city sightseeing the next day, and as she was alone, she asked me to go with me. We took one of those crazy and cheap ($0.25 for a ride) buses to get to the city center where we strolled around. At some point we again crossed the "safety line" and walked into one of those dangerous neighborhoods. As in Panama Viejo, one of a local women immediately came to as, and started to use to me already well know word PELIGROSO. On top, she was also putting two fingers to her temple. It was more that clear that we could be gun-robbed, so we better hopped into a first taxi to get the f*** out of there. 
Our next stop was a lovely palm tree-lined causeway connecting four Panama city nearby islands. Over there we walked and talked for a few hours. I must say it was very enjoyable to be spend the time together. She was leaving the hostel the next day very early in the morning, so in the evening, she came down to my dorm to say goodbye. She also mentioned that she was concerned that I would not come to say good bye to her. My response: " I had a really great time with you, and if we were back in Europe, or have more time here, I would definitely ask you out ". As I said, Panama City was very kind to me in respect of getting attention :-)

Now, let me come back to the topic of public buses cruising streets of Panama City. Unlike in other Panamanian towns and cities, buses here are very packed making it very difficult to get off from them - especially, if you are sitting somewhere at the end. Every entrepreneur owning/running these buses usually paint them with some theme pictures, so they look like being sprayed by graffiti. A story of its own are local bus drivers who seems to mistake the city streets with a racing track. They accelerate as if they were driving F1, and then having to break brutally. If I managed to find a seat on those buses, my mine task was to get off before the bus driver leaves the bus stop, and not to bruise my knees during  his violent breaking maneuvers.

The city by itself is very diverse with numerous residential or business skyscrapers (many of them being under construction), some very luxurious malls, or expensive German cars running around. On the other hand, you can see very dodgy areas where you can not walk in without putting yourself in a risk of an armed robbery. I have stopped counting how many times the locals were showing/telling to me to watch carefully my day bag. I must admit that I am very attentive with my day bag on which I always keep my hand on (literally). Overall, you can feel that Panama City and some of its parts are not that safe yet. Still, I love the city and its vibe, and if I got an offer, I would not hesitate a minute to move here.

The 3rd day of my stay in Panama City was dedicated to see one of the technical marvels of the mankind, Panama Canal. The canal is composed of 3 sets of locks from which Gatun one, located nearby Caribbean town of Colon, is the biggest ones. As most of travelers usually decide to visit Miraflores locks located close to Panama city, I picked to undergo 2.5hr each way trip to Gatun. Arriving to Gatun and seeing huge cargo boats being maneuvered with precision of a few centimeters is truly amazing and breathtaking experience. The whole Gatun lock process takes around 2 hrs. In those 2 hrs,  a boat is raised by 29.5m from Caribbean waters to the level of Lago Gatun. For your information, there are just 60 cm of spare room between each sidewall of the lock, and a body of the biggest boats allowed to sail through the canal.....absolutely impressive. For a fee of $5 you get an English speaking guide,  which explains the entire lock process. Visiting the canal is definitely must-not-a-miss experience!!
A lot people I have spoken to were very surprised to hear that I visited Gatun locks, as to get there you must go through town of Colon, which is know for its bad reputation, and is apparently the best to be avoided (at least according to the Lonely Planet guide). I spend only half an hour at Colon's bus station, but I never felt less secure than that time. The town is really hard-core dodgy place, and some town streets I could see from the bus taking me to Gatun locks were scaring a shit out of me.

Gatun locks trip was a whole day experience, so nothing else was on my agenda for that day. Anyway the next day (Saturday) at 5 am, I was about to once again, but this time for the last time during my RTW trip,  pay a visit to Caribbean Sea to explore and experience uniqueness, and beauty of San Blas archipelagos...............

Greetings from Panama City, Panama

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Frau Walther => Gertrud on

Generally, I am not a big fan of historical points of interest, but, without any
doubts, I enjoyed visiting this one.

I guess that you are a big fan of "Muschilappen"??!

Gertrud on

"she looked like one big problem. "

Ha ha ha what´s that.... you are so marvelous.... good that I was drunk reading

luxguy on

She is. Yesterday evening, she started talking about taking cocain! I will not end up in any drug problem!

luxguy on

I have tons of them here, do not worry :-))

Benjamin on


This is a f****** interesting article, Panama City, peligroso, Canal and stuff, and the comment discussion is solely evolving around the firls. That is just such a pity. Should tell you something about your entourage Petr, so sorry for you, so sad.

Btw, I probably would have accepted the invitation to visit Colombia...

luxguy on

Dudu, it is not my falt! Freu Walther started talking just about girls. I think that this blog entry was nicely balanced between visiting the city, and girls talking.

Vince on

Really nice pictures + nice description of the places......really nice, keep on going and stay away from dangerous places.........
I am behind schedule, so going to visit the next entry in the blog...

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