i've been in Panama for almost two weeks now, on vacation, and posting about it over at atlas(t): galleon trade edition, where this is cross-posted. And I've been looking around since I got to Panama, but the internet has failed me: I haven't been able to find any blog posts telling me what to do in Panama City.
So in the interests of public service--I is a good netizen--here's a wrap-up of what I've been doing in Panama City since I got here: the good, the bad, the don't-bother, and the WTF? (I'm probably going to be too lazy to give you links to these resources, though, so deal with it. XO.)
- Decameron Resort: this is a Pacific-side beach resort about an hour and half's drive west (i.e. up the isthmus towards North America) from Panama City. If you're spending any time in Panama, do go to the beach! Remember, this is an isthmus with beachfront on both the Caribbean and the Pacific. I can't find anything wrong with that scenario.
Decameron is decent, if resorty. The rooms are tile-floored and very clean; the restaurants aren't any good, but the food is abundant, self-serve, and included in the price; the beaches are spectacular, very clean, very comfortable, and not at all crowded (by my Californian estimation; my Panamanian cousin found the place very crowded.) There are: palm-frond shade structures on the high-tide line every few feet or so, with lounge chairs; a swimming pool that runs the length of the 2K-long beach, which draws off the kiddies and parents, leaving the beach to the less shrieky patrons; bars every 500 feet serving fruity drinks (also included in the price); a beach massage cabana; plus horseback-riding, jet-skiing, sailing, etc. etc. etc.
Did I mention that because of low season (it's rainy season so we got a storm every afternoon) we paid $110 per night, everything included (except the activities)? Insane. This is really relaxing and very silly, but so worth it if you need a vacay.
- Panama Viejo: the ruins of the old Spanish city. I didn't go with my family so I didn't get the run-down on what's what here. If you like ruins, these are majestic. But go with a tour guide, because otherwise, you'll go, look, and then want to go home again.
- Casco Viejo: not to be confused with Panama Viejo, this
is the old town, not ruins, still functional. Apparently, it looks like
Havana, and is the part that's being heavily, outrageously
reconditioned and gentrified. Naturally, the streets are a warren and
it's hard to find your way around, but there are a lot of sights here,
so take a day or two for this part of town. And bring your camera.
- The Presidential Palace is here, administrative center and intended residence of the president ('though the sitting prez doesn't live here). We got to tour because my cousin knows someone, but most people don't get to. It's pretty cool, if you get a chance, and if you don't, swing by anyway to stick your head in the gate. The place is called the Heron Palace--because of a couple of historical herons given as gifts--and it's guarded, they tell us though I'm not sure if they're there as guards or decoration, by a couple of humongous, live grey herons. Worth seeing but don't poke at them. They peck.
- Cultural Institute is the government agency for managing museums and such. They have a small gallery of Panamanian art in a repurposed jailhouse, but it was between exhibitions when we swung by, so we didn't get to see it.
- There's shaved ice in the courtyard in front of the Cultural Institute. Get the limon flavor with condensed milk and malt. Yummy!
- The State Theater is here and I wasn't terribly impressed. It's loudly decorated, like all state theaters. If you get a chance to see a performance here, though, go. Apparently, they do folk art performances and such. In fact, we saw part of a rehearsal of one here.
- Church of the Golden Altar. Big tourist destination. As with everything, only go if you have a tour guide who can really explain what you're looking at. We didn't so all I did was take some pictures of an ornate altar that meant little to me.
- Museum of the Inter-oceanic Canal is a terrific museum. You'll need two hours here at least. However, it's all in Spanish so if you don't speak it, and you don't have enough Latin, French, and native intelligence to figure stuff out, bring a tour guide or leave it alone. This is probably the closest Panama has to a museum of history.
- I couldn't find the Museum of Religious Art! Most people simply didn't know where it was, and the directions I got from people who supposedly did, were bad. If you really want to see this, ask a proper tour guide.
- Shopping: there are curio and crafts shops here. These are a bit more upscale than elsewhere, and more expensive, but you can still bargain, and if you want really good quality stuff, go here. I'm really glad I did because this was the only area I was able to find the really beautiful baskets, the high-quality version of the cheap-ass baskets you see everywhere and say to yourself, "Why would anyone buy stuff like that?"
- Eating: there are a lot of restaurants around here to have lunch, catering to visitors. It's easy to find something decent to eat here so plan on having lunch.
- Mi Pueblito: this is a weird sort of amusement park,
where an early 20th Century Afro-antillean village is simulated. It was
open today, but just barely. I don't know if there are normally
supposed to be people wandering around acting like villagers, but it
was deserted today. I got there just in time for it to rain like crazy,
trapping me in one of the buildings. There are crafts shops there, but
nothing very good. I also only went to part of it. I couldn't make it
across the street in the rain to the other part. Not recommended,
unless you can find out that there's more to the experience than this.
Maybe don't go on a Monday afternoon during rainy season.
- Mercado de Buhonerias Y Artesanias: this place is a warren of small kiosks selling traditional crafts and souvenirs. These are the cheap versions, so don't expect very high quality stuff. But this is where you buy gifts for friends. I'd recommend you buy the molas here, the colorful cloth patterns sewn out of several layers of cotton, leather sandals, framed butterflies (if you like that sort of thing) and shirts and purses. There are also a lot of really cheap and tacky souvenir-type stuff, if you like that.
Come prepared to bargain. This stuff isn't worth much so decide what you want to pay for it and work up to that. Don't budge off of your price. If you do your job right, they'll get more than the stuff is worth and you'll pay less than you expected to. Everybody wins. Maybe bring along a native to bargain for you, if you can.
This a somewhat sketchy area, so take a taxi and have the taxi wait for you while you're there. Give yourself an hour or two and don't go on a Sunday, since most of the kiosks are closed then. Also, don't bring a wallet and be sure any purses or bags you bring have nothing valuable in them. Bring your cash in a pocket that buttons or put it in your jeans hip pocket where you can keep track of it. This place is close and crowded and full of pick-pockets, although, again, if you go on a Sunday, you'll be unmolested.
- Diablo Rosso: a hipster contemporary art gallery, cafe, and DIY clothing 'n' stuff shop. I posted about it here. If you want to connect to the young and cosmo, this might be the place to do it. In the San Francisco neighborhood.
- Calle Uruguay: my young cousin took me there during the day when there was nothing going on, but this is the nightlife capital. Along two or three square blocks there are more nightclubs than you can shake a booty at. I didn't go there the night my cousins went out (too tired), but you can find live and canned music. Just get in a taxi and tell them where you want to go. They all know it.
- Gaucho's: also on Calle Uruguay, it's the only really good restaurant I ate at in Panama City. Argentinian cuisine, fantastic steaks and very good Panamanian ceviche. A little pricey, but worth it.
- Radisson Decapolis Spa: apparently the only good spa in
the city. I'm going for a massage with my cousin today. I'll report
back later. ETA: fabulous. It's small, but really nice and relaxing.
Get the deep tissue massage, though, because I got the "relaxing"
Swedish and it was, well, relaxing, but they didn't dig into the knots.
Give yourself a package deal (around $130 for a massage and facial or
wrap, which includes sauna, steam room, whirlpool) and bring a bathing
suit so you can go outside to the pool afterwards (inside is nekkid).
- Amador Causeway: a causeway built to connect several small islands out in Panama Bay and to serve as a breakwater at the head of the Canal so that the Canal opening doesn't ever need to be dredged. There's a restaurant out there called Mi Ranchito, which isn't fantastic, but has the best view, ever. Do lunch there. Then, in future years, you can visit the Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Biodiversity, which is still under construction right now. Also a good place to take a walk ... early in the morning or late at night.
- Partial Transit of the Panama Canal: this trip takes most of the day and I'd really only recommend it for people who are fascinated by the canal, and/or who have really fun company to go with. You take a bus from the causeway about 40 minutes up to a launch, ride down the canal through the Pedro Miguel lock, Lake Gatun, and the Miraflores Locks, and then finish up back where you started on the causeway. It's expensive (about $100), and rather boring, and very crowded. There's a lot of waiting around--waiting for the bus to take off, waiting for the boat to take off, waiting at the locks--and a lot of the canal is not very interesting to look at: just an unbroken wall of jungle. Also, the locks are much more interesting to observe from land, except for the going up and down inside the locks part. You get on the bus at 9 or 9:30 and get back to the causeway around 3:30.
If you don't want to do this--and I wouldn't recommend it to most people--I'd definitely recommend driving to the Miraflores Locks on land, and spending half a day there. There's a good, and comprehensive, museum at the locks in English and Spanish, where you can easily kill an hour or two. There's also a restaurant there that overlooks one set of locks, and you can get great pictures and video of the way the locks work and the ships that go through them. I'd recommend going in the morning, viewing the museum, having lunch there, and then taking your pics of the locks. This is really all you need of the canal.
If you really want to get on the canal, I'd recommend getting a group of people together--through a travel agent, maybe?--and renting a private trip through the canal with a tour guide, if possible.
- Canal Zone: again, get a tour guide or a taxi driver and drive up to the canal zone area near the city. Not a lot of USians have been to an actual US colony, so here's your chance (assuming you aren't so politically situated that you think the entire country is a US colony. There's an argument to be made for that). I was surprised how much the place looked like the Presidio in San Francisco, although I suppose I shouldn't have been. You don't need to spend much time there, just drive through and get a glimpse of what US imperialism looks like. There's also a school there where some Panamanian students staged a protest in 1964, insisting on raising a Panamanian flag alongside the US flag. They started a riot that lasted several days and spread throughout the Zone, and four people were killed, but it was a milestone along the way to true Panamanian self-determination.
- Day Trips: talk to travel agents and tour guides about these. I didn't do any day trips but there's a rainforest about 45 minutes away where you can fly through the canopy and see monkeys and toucans. There's also an Indian tribe on the Chagres River you can canoe to who show you around their village.