Put Panama City on your Bucket List!

Article and photography by Steve Gillick

Most travelers don’t expect to see Blue Morphos, Howler Monkeys and Broad-billed Mot Mots in the morning and then sip on a fashionable Hendricks Tonic cocktail at an upscale fusion restaurant in the evening, but then again, this is Panama where the senses are overwhelmed with fascinating sights, tastes, smells and experiences on a routine basis.

After a comfortable Copa Airlines flight to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, and checking into the equally comfortable Holiday Inn Express in the Financial District (see page 68 for hotel review), we set out to explore. Around the corner of an area filled with shops, banks, restaurants and the iconic ‘twisty building’, lies a veritable forest of sky-scraping residential towers, extending around Panama Bay and along the length of Avenida Balboa, the main thoroughfare that connects new Panama with Casco Viejo, the old city.

And on the way, the Mercado de Mariscos, boasts a large courtyard where speakers blare bouncy Panamanian tunes and a dozen or so small restaurants sell Panama’s delectable specialty: ceviche. We sat down to savour a $3.00 cup full of raw fish, squid, octopus, conch, scallops and clams, marinated in flavorful citrus juices, and accompanied by an icy cold Balboa beer.

And this was only a taste of what was to come, as Panama City is a culinary hotspot showcasing extraordinary dishes, created by passionate millennial Chefs. Chef Martino Pace of Caliope, is a great example, where an appetizer of delicate carpaccio of sea bass readies the palate for the main dish of grilled octopus and a decadent dessert of chocolate stuffed with mascarpone mousse crumble and warm cardamom vanilla sauce. Other restaurants, such as Cabana, Segundo Muelle and Tantalo, pamper the taste buds with cocktails and creative temptations of seafood, chicken and beef.

While foodie pleasure abounds, so do opportunities to explore, shop, chat with locals and take photos and selfies. Casco Viejo is a relatively small area that promises the pleasure of getting lost in the narrow streets and public squares with balconied houses, historic buildings, statues, hotels and shops.

Not far away, what appears to be a colorful jumble of boxes on the Amador Causeway is in fact, the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo that showcases Panama’s biodiversity. The Causeway, featuring the city’s best ice cream shops, is a land bridge connecting the mainland with four islands near the area where ships enter the Panama Canal.

But a much closer look is available at the Miraflores Visitors Center, where both huge vessels and tiny pleasure craft are lifted or lowered 54 feet (16.5 meters) as they go through the Miraflores locks on their journey from ocean to ocean. A movie and museum in the Center explain how the Panama Canal changed the world upon its completion in 1914.

Outside the city, wonders never cease. A visit to Soberania National Park provides encounters with electric blue butterflies, known as Blue Morphos, along with monkeys, 80-90 species of birds, anteaters, caiman, rainforest and fresh air. And further, island life is front and center at San Blas or Isla Grande.

The variety of activities in and around Panama City make it one of the more exciting, adventurous and culinary places to visit and one more addition to your list of must-visit destinations.