Panama City is a mixture of the old and the new which is especially apparent in Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. It was deemed a World Heritage Site in 1997 and with old buildings, churches, ruins all set near the water. It survived a pirate attack and since has become a ‘must see’ for tourists travelling in Panama. Casco Viejo has a bunch of restaurants, cafes, bars and hostels. A popular hostel is Luna’s Castle (USD$16/dorm), which has a bit of a party scene and a bunch of funky artwork. It seems to be a big hit amongst backpackers as it was booked out when I arrived. Alternatively, Magnolia inn hostel (USD$15/dorm) is cheaper, chilled and has a bunch of friendly people.
What really struck me about Casco Viejo was the separation between the rich and poor which is extremely stark and apparent. On one side of the street there are hostels, fancy restaurants, cafes and bars while 100 metres down all windows and balconies are barred. As you walk down the street, you can see the difference in people walking down the streets, the difference in houses and in infrastructure. It seems as though the poorer people have just been pushed to the side rather than helped. When we first arrived we were given a map, our hostel crossed out a huge portion, telling us not to go there, that it was too dangerous. Esperanza Social Club is a group of reformed gang members who provide tours telling you about Casco Viejo before it was gentrified. If you want to hear more about the nitty gritty, it's a great cause..
Close by is the fish market. Inside, the fish and seafood is raw and smelly. With huge mallets, knives, gum boots and fish guts splayed around the market, it's a cool insight into fishing in Panama. Outside is a much less raw (pun intended) take on Panamanian seafood with reasonably priced ceviche and various other seafood delights.
Panama Canal entrance fee is about USD$15. Something we weren’t really interested in paying. Our taxi driver took us to a free ‘lookout’ which was really just the side of the road. Perhaps it was because of this that we found it underwhelming. There is a museum there that’s apparently really great. But for those on a budget, there's definitely ways around the entrance fee. Alternatively, you can go diving there. Gatún Lake is a man made lake where you can see abandoned buildings, a train and everyday life on the lake floor.
Parque Natural Metropolitano is basically a short walk through some jungly area. It has a really beautiful view of the city at the end. You’ll more than likely see others walking through as it’s pretty touristy. So if you’re looking for a virgin forest kind of deal, you’re in the wrong place. I kept reading that you could see sloths, rare birds or monkeys there, but for us, no such luck. Keep your eyes to the trees though.
Old Panama, today is an archeological site made up of ruins. It was abandoned during the 17th century and Panama City was rebuilt as what’s now called Casco Viejo. Like Casco Viejo, it too was deemed a World Heritage Site in 1997. Entrance is $8.