See the views of Panama City from Ancon Hill
This could be a good thing to do on your first day in Panama City if you are tired and want to do something easy and scenic. Ancon Hill is the highest point in the city at 654 feet and is easily reached by taxi. You can also hike up from the base but that looked unnecessarily strenuous to Blonde and Ginger (stand-in for Brunette on this trip). Even with a taxi you will have to walk up a lot of steps to get to the top. Have the taxi wait for you as otherwise you may not be able to get one back to town .
We used (several times) a very personable driver and former tour guide, Jay Williams, who is fluent in English and Spanish. You can reach him at email@example.com. Tell him Kay and Deb sent you and if he doesn’t remember us, he might be willing to help you. He charges $25 an hour and has a nice, new car with working seat belts and everything (nothing to assume in Panama).
If you are a brave soul with a rental car, know you can drive up Ancon Hill seven days a week, from 6:00 am to 5:45 pm. The road is narrow and you have to wait for a guard to signal that it’s time for vehicles to go the direction you want to go. There isn’t any fee to go to the overlook.
Spend a couple of hours at the Biodiversity Museum
The museum took 10 years to construct and opened in October of 2014. Some people say its multicolored metal canopies are folded and staggered to evoke Panama’s local vernacular of tin roofs and colorful facades. And that the origami-like roofs help protect the interior from the region’s wet-season downpours and wind gusts. Others say the building’s colorful canopies were designed to represent the richly diverse flora and fauna of Panama, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. And then there are those who say it looks like a parrot from the air. You are welcome to believe any of these things or make up your own logic for the architecture, but we just thought it was very cool. We are not architects.
The permanent exhibition at the museum is called The Bridge of Life and tells the fascinating story of the natural creation of land over an exceedingly long time that concluded in the creation of the “land bridge” of Panama which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Eight galleries and other exhibits — including a short, visually gorgeous panoramic movie — will leave you amazed at the breadth and depth of biodiversity in Panama.
For museum hours and prices check here. Included with the admission fee is an excellent audio guide available in English or Spanish. The museum is along the Amador Causeway which is a lovely place to walk or ride a bike after you’re done at the museum.
What word comes to mind after “Panama”? Is it “canal”?
If you go to Panama City and do not go to the canal you may be deservedly sentenced to eternity in Tourist Hell.
From downtown Panama City’s main hotel area (we stayed at the Waldorf Astoria), it’s about a 30 to 45 minute drive depending on traffic. (We had Jay transport our pampered butts.)
The Visitor Center has a theater, four floors of exhibitions, three observation terraces, two snack bars, a restaurant with a panoramic view (and the prices you expect to pay for that view) and a small gift shop.
We were surprised to learn that you should call before you plan to visit and find out when the ships will be going through the locks at Miraflores. Contrary to our assumption that ships are going through all the time, there can be several hours when there aren’t any ships. We got there about two and a half hours ahead of when our concierge said the ships would be going through. We saw two levels of the museum, the film in its English version and had brunch ($48 for a buffet and champagne that annoyingly didn’t seem to contain alcohol). We watched from the restaurant’s terrace as the ship in the photo went through the locks at an astonishingly slow rate.
For hours and admission fees for the Miraflores Visitors Center click here. Your options for getting the ship schedule for the day you want to visit are to call (507) 276-8325 or (507) 276-8449 or contact them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or be lazy like we were and have your concierge get the information for you.
Stroll around in Casco Viejo, Panama City’s Historical Sector
We are keen on UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the Casco Viejo is one. This area is the Spanish colonial sector built in 1671. A vibrant. colorful neighborhood, it’s been undergoing a massive renovation for about the last 15 years. You will see hotels and restaurants in handsomely restored buildings side by side with crumbling old buildings. If someone buys a building there they have to renovate it within ten years or the government will take it away from them. Facades in Casco Viejo have to be maintained (by all of us really, to some extent), but the interiors can be gutted and completely redone. Some extremely serious money is being spent on the renovations.
Casco Viejo has a promontory with pleasant sea breezes and sweeping ocean and bay views. Blonde had a lot of fun buying linen clothes, handmade necklaces and other things she does not need.
We were repeatedly told that Casco Viejo is Panama City’s hottest night life sector. We confess that although we went to a fancy schmancy restaurant for dinner there one night, we failed at nightlife 101. We didn’t think those young Latins could handle us.
Take a day trip to Gamboa Rainforest Preserve
This is another place (like the Miraflores Locks) where you need to get information before you go so you have the best experience. It’s about an hour’s ride from Panama City and the activities offered have specific times. We had our concierge make a reservation for the aerial tram and viewing tower (be prepared to walk up ten stories to get to the top which is worth it). That one hour tour was supposed to leave at 9:00 a.m. In Panama “supposed to” is a fluid concept but this was on-timish. We bought combination tickets for both the tram and a boat ride in Gatun Lake to see Monkey Island which apparently is – Spoiler Alert – full of show-off monkeys.
The aerial tram through the rainforest was slow and enjoyable and the views from the tower were beautiful. We returned to the hotel (base for the tours) expecting to hop right on the boat, but we were told we were going to have to wait an hour and a half for the next boat trip. We were not told that when we bought our tickets. They refunded our money for the boat portion and we left and returned to Casco Viejo for a second walkabout.
It would probably be fun to see Monkey Island but killing an hour and a half in a hotel lobby with no wi-fi was a non-starter for us. To avoid making that mistake, you might want to book a tour or go to their website and get the hours and times for what you want to do so you can plan accordingly. If you could use their really beautiful pools, read a book, have lunch in the restaurant or pass the time in some enjoyable way you might not mind waiting.
But even with our snafu we enjoyed the experience of the rainforest, the views and the soft breeze that kept everything at a perfect temperature.
Panama City is a lot of fun, has interesting history and funny stories/legends in the category we call “Important if True”. We did the activities listed here and a full day snorkeling trip (that we don’t recommend) over the span of four days to give you a sense of how much time you might want to plan for your visit.
The best months to visit are during Panama’s summer which is from January to mid-May. All other months are in rainy season with some months being significantly more rainy than others.
And just to correct an inaccurate perception we may have somehow created, Blonde is a swinger (if a tad close to the ground).