5 Pros and 4 Cons of Visiting Panama City, Panama – Is it Worth the Visit?

The divider between North America and South America, Panama City, Panama, is an easy-to-get-to destination for travelers in the Americas, offering a tropical feel in a heavily modernized urban area. If you’re looking to visit Panama City, you should know what you’re getting into beforehand – both the good and the not-as-good.

Continue reading to the end of the post to see my recommendation on visiting this Central American hub.

Pro: Old Town Panama City (‘Casco Antiguo’, or ‘Casco Viejo’)

Admittedly, certain Panama City neighborhoods will not blow visitors away, but the same cannot be said for the Old Town neighborhood (in Spanish, ‘Casco Antiguo’ or ‘Casco Viejo’).

This district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located right on the water and is one of the most unique neighborhoods in Central America. With 17th century Spanish colonial and neoclassical architecture, plus walkable, narrow streets and fantastic nightlife, Old Town (Casco Viejo) is can’t-miss if you’re visiting the country of Panama.

Casco Viejo (Old Town), Panama City

It can be crowded, especially on weekends or holidays, albeit for good reason. So if you want a quiet, relaxed environment – you can still find that in Old Town – but I would highly recommend you time your visit so that your stay does not fall on Friday and/or Saturday.

While here, I stayed at Selina Casco Viejo Hostel. If you like nightlife, this is the best place to stay. However it can get loud, so while they do provide earplugs, I would recommend visiting during the week rather than the weekend to avoid the noise if you like a more calm environment.

Con: Humidity and Unpredictable Weather 

No matter what time of year you visit, it’s going to be very humid in Panama, which is no different from the rest of Central America.

In the dry season from December to March, the humidity won’t be quite as unbearable,
so that might be the best time to visit. But regardless, expect to sweat.

Thunderstorms are frequent and you can expect it to rain for a brief period nearly every day outside of the dry season, which can be very frustrating for planning purposes as a sunny day will turn into a torrential downpour in 10 minutes.

Don’t let the wet, humid weather deter you from visiting Panama, just make sure to always
have an umbrella on you and be prepared for not-so-comfortable weather from early afternoon to early evening.

Pro: Panama Canal Adventures

Yes, it’s the most “touristy” activity, but taking a boat ride on the Panama Canal is truly a liberating experience.

Most tours leave from a launch point about 30 minutes from Panama City – and many operators will pick you up from your Hotel/hostel/AirBnB.

If you’ve chosen a tour with a monkey experience (highly recommend), your boat will continue from the canal into Gatun Lake, which is dotted with islands home to four different species of monkeys – the Mantled Howler Monkey, the White-Faced Capuchin Monkey, Geoffroy’s Tamarin Monkey, and the Lemurine Owl Monkey.

Hanging out with monkeys who live in small islands off the Panama Canal was unforgettable!

These islands are where you’ll boat up close enough for the monkeys to hop aboard and onto your lap! They’re used to visitors feeding them bananas and nuts (which your tour guide will provide) so they’re friendly.

The best part of the canal + monkey experience tours is that you can do all of this in just a few hours round-trip, thus not taking up much of your day. But you can expect to get your money’s worth!

Tip: Viator (owned by TripAdvisor) offers some great Panama Canal + Monkey Isle tours!

Con: Loss of Cultural Identity

While Old Town gives a taste of classic Panamanian culture, the same unfortunately
can’t be said for much of the rest of Panama City.

You might be shocked when to find out Panama City has 73 skyscrapers, 16th-most in the world and 3rd-most in the Americas, only behind New York City and Chicago. Think Miami, but on an even larger scale.

While it’s unique and makes for picturesque backgrounds, it felt like a façade in that it’s not what Panamanian culture is really about. If you want to get a feel of historic Panama, I would suggest making a stop to another smaller city or town on your trip, such as Boquete.

Pro: Metropolitan Natural Park

One of the best parks I’ve explored, Metropolitan Natural Park is a 573-acre wildlife refuge right on the doorstep of the center of Panama City!

The hiking is fantastic for being in the heart of a large urban area, with over 3 miles (5km) of trails, including one that leads atop a hill with a superb view of the city. On your hike, you’ll feel more like you’re in the jungle than a city of over 2 million people.

The park offers some of the best views of Panama City

No matter what hike you choose, there’s a good chance you’ll spot exotic animals such as sloths, anteaters, and monkey species like marmosets and Geoffroy’s tamarin. This park is home to 284 types of trees and protects 245 species of birds, 45 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles and 14 species of amphibians.

Con: Bugs

With the humidity brings mosquitos, which are absolutely ruthless especially if you’re walking through the Metropolitan Natural Park or near the Panama Canal. Bug spray is an absolute must, or else you’ll leave Panama with welts covering your legs, arms, and ankles.

For those reasons, most Panamanians wear long sleeve shirts and jeans at all times – despite the hot weather. It really protects from bug bites. If you’re visiting, feel free to wear T-shirts and shorts for comfortability, but just beware that you’ll stick out as a non-local and the bugs may get you!

Pro: Ease of Transportation

As mentioned, Uber and Lyft are fantastic in Panama City. There are many drivers available and you’ll never have to pay more than $10 – in fact, a few of our Uber rides were less than $5!

Cabs are plentiful, too.

If you really want to blend in with Panamanian people, you can take public transportation, which is pretty reliable and obviously cheap. The Metro bus system runs 24 hours a day and is available for 35 cents per ride. There are also regular buses that run out of the city to other areas. While some streets have a pothole problem, highways are modern and well-paved and navigating is pretty easy if you, or someone you’re with, can speak or read a bit of Spanish.

Overall transportation in Panama City is some of the best in Central America.

Con: Infrastructure

As mentioned, there are plentiful skyscrapers in Panama City, but I’d guess the material they’re built with is not the best.

The more pressing problem is that in certain parts of town, only a couple blocks will separate those towering new modern skyscrapers from entirely run-down buildings and housing, much of which looks like the building is falling apart completely. Additionally, the sidewalks are often uneven and in desperate need of repair, and roads (aside from the highways) are littered with potholes.

While there’s fortunately clean drinking water in Panama, frequent power outages will cause operations to temporarily shut down, and it could make for brutal nights if you’re trying to sleep with no working air conditioning.

Pro: Cost

Ubers and Lyfts are very reliable across Panama City, and for an incredibly reasonable price. My Uber from the airport to Old Town – about 12 miles – was less than $10!

Food in Panama City will always involve rice, and prices are usually reasonable to cheap.

You can find fairly expensive clubs, bars, or cafes, mostly in Old Town, where lattes are $5 and cocktails $10, but it’s pretty easy to find places to eat or drink for half the price you would in much of North America, Asia, or Europe. Just make sure you’re aware of your surroundings and you know the reputation of the neighborhood you’re in/headed. While crime isn’t a huge problem in Panama City, it definitely exists, and you’ll likely encounter people looking to take advantage of foreigners.

Is It Worth the Visit?

Yes, if…

you’re planning on staying for 48 hours or so as a layover pitstop on your way to South America or if you’re trekking through Central America.

No, if…

you’re thinking of making Panama City your main, or lone stop (for anything longer than two or three nights).

While I had a fantastic time over the course of ~36 hours in Panama City, I felt like I got almost all the city had to offer despite being there such a short amount of time. A night or two out in Old Town, a morning walking its beautiful narrow streets, a few hours strolling through the beautiful Parque de Caroline, a half-day excursion of the Panama Canal and its breakaway monkey-invested islands, and a half-day exploring the rest of the city was the
perfect 2-day itinerary.

Panama, and Central America overall, offers mountains, rainforests, and beaches that can make for a fantastic extended trip for the adventurist. But I don’t think its biggest cities – such as Panama City, Managua, and San Jose – offer enough unique activities for an entire week-long+ holiday.

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