Panama City

Shutterstock/34042132/Cienpies DesignPanama City is a curious blend of old Spain, US-style mall developments and the bazaar atmosphere of the east. Hardly surprising then that it has a polyglot population unrivalled in any other Latin American city. Beyond the new developments and skyscrapers that mushroomed along the southern end of the Canal, the palm-shaded beaches, islands in the bay and encircling hills still constitute a large part of Panama City's charm. And its cabarets and nightlife are an added attraction for any self-respecting hedonist.

Getting there

Tocumen International Airport is 27 km from the city centre. Set-price taxis, cheaper if shared (
compartido
) and buses are available for getting into Panama City. The bus journey should take one hour but can take up to three in rush hour. Car rental companies also have offices at the airport. The city is well served by international buses from countries throughout Central America, with offices in the centre of town.

Getting around

The old part of the city, Casco Viejo, can easily be toured on foot. There are old, usually crowded and very cheap buses for getting to other districts. The reasonably priced taxis charge on a zone system and can be shared if you wish to economize. Taxis can be hired by the hour for a city tour. At night, radio taxis are preferable. Many
avenidas
have both names and numbers, although locals are most likely to use the names, so asking for directions can be a bit complicated. Also, because there is no postal delivery to homes or businesses, few buildings display their numbers, so try to find out the nearest cross street.

The wider metropolitan area has a population of approximately 720,000. Adjacent to the city, but constituting a separate administrative district, is the town of San Miguelito, a residential area for over 330,000 people. Once a squatter community, every available square inch of hillside has been built on and it is increasingly considered to be a part of greater Panama City.

Tourist offices

Information office of the
Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT)
, www.ipat.gob.pa,
have good lists of lodgings and other services.

Safety

Tourist police on mountain bikes are present in the downtown areas of the city, recognizable by their broad armbands. Panamanians are generally very friendly and helpful. Accustomed to foreigners, they are casual about tourists. However, as in any large city with many poor people, certain areas can be dangerous after dark and reasonable precautions should be taken at all times. Attacks have been reported in Casco Viejo (although this area is now well patrolled by police during the daytime) and Panamá Viejo. Marañón (around the market), San Miguelito (on the way in from Tocumen Airport) and Calidonia can all be dangerous; never walk there at night and take care in daylight, too. Poor districts like Chorillo, Curundú and Hollywood are best avoided altogether. Probably the safest area for budget travellers to stay is Bella Vista, although it is deserted after dark and street crime can take place here at any hour. Taxis are the safest way to travel around the city and drivers will give you good advice on where not to go. If concerned, lock the doors of the taxi.

Background

Modern Panama City was founded on its present site in 1673. The capital was moved from Old Panama (Panamá Viejo), 6.5 km to the east, after Henry Morgan looted the South American treasure chest depot of Golden Panama in 1671. Today, it is a thoroughly modern city complete with congested streets and noisy traffic. Uncollected trash mouldering in the tropical heat and the liberal use of razor-wire are other eyesores but, despite its blemishes, the city does possess considerable charm. The old quarter, called Casco Viejo or San Felipe, massively fortified by Spain as the era of widespread piracy was coming to an end, lies at the tip of the peninsula at the eastern end of the Bay of Panama.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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