Costa Rica may be known as Central America’s LGBTQ-friendly hotspot for nature-based adventures, but Panama is a destination that wows on multiple levels, from its shimmering, modern capital city to its many natural wonders, fascinating indigenous cultures & lively LGBTQ scene.
I’ve visited Panama nearly a dozen times since my first trip in 2000, and every trip gives me new reasons to return to this multifaceted nation of nearly 4.5 million.
The logical base for exploring the region, Panama City, is a city of superlatives. This stunning metropolis is home to Central America’s tallest building (JW Marriott Panama), Latin America’s largest shopping mall (Albrook Mall), Central America’s first modern metro rail system (the Panama Metro,) and Latin America’s first work by star architect Frank Gehry (the Biomuseo). A visit to Panama City can easily generate a lot of visual stimulation.
These impressive claims to fame, of course, are all secondary when compared to the destination’s most legendary attraction: the Panama Canal, which continues to be one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering. Panama City’s modern developments are just one side of the city, however. The city shows its historic roots in Panamá Viejo, the 16th-century ruins from its first colonial-era settlement, and the Casco Antiguo, a now-hip historic neighborhood dotted with wonderfully eclectic architectural styles.
Panama City is also attractive because of the easy access it provides to the wonders that await just outside. It’s easy to create a vacation that combines big-city sophistication (and lots of LGBTQ-friendly nightlife) with excursions to pristine natural parks and indigenous communities that practice centuries-old traditions. Panama’s ecological and cultural diversity are indeed remarkable (there are seven indigenous groups that call Panama home).
NEW WAYS TO ARRIVE IN PANAMA
Panama’s largest international gateway is Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, which in 2022 welcomed a major expansion with the debut of Terminal 2. I flew on Copa Airlines, the Panama-based carrier that offers more nonstop flights from North America than any other airline, as well as highly attentive business class service.
I appreciated Terminal 2’s futuristic design and giant windows, but what I loved the most was the new Copa Club, a luxurious, 20,000-square-foot airline lounge with everything from a bar and food service to showers and a business center (the original Copa Club still operates in Terminal 1, in case that’s your point of arrival or departure).
In 2023, a new Metro rail line extension will connect Tocumen with Panama City, but most international travelers will likely still opt for a taxi, Uber, or a transfer arranged by a hotel or tour operator. The fact that Panama’s official currency is the U.S. dollar (although they sometimes call it a Balboa) means there’s no need to worry about conversion rates as you compare transportation options. The ride into Panama City takes 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic, and the approach into the city is certainly memorable; the skyscrapers that rise above both sides of the highway might make you think you’ve arrived in Miami, except there are more high-rises in Panama City.
TOP TOURISM SITES IN PANAMA CITY
While Panama’s modern sheen certainly dominates the skyline, if you want to learn about the area’s history, you need to visit the historic sites, too. Uber is the fastest and easiest way to get around Panama City, especially since almost no buildings have numbered addresses. In general, you can enter the name of the attraction, restaurant, bar, or hotel on the app, and the location will pop up (this even works for LGBTQ nightclubs and bars). Alternately, you can sign up for a guided tour with companies like Kensington Tours (a company that operates in more than 100 countries and has extensive local connections in Panama) to make the most of your time in the city.
To understand Panama City chronologically, the first stop should be Panama Viejo (Old Panama), the ruins of the first Spanish settlement that date to 1519 and were destroyed in 1671 by the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan. Residents fled to a nearby peninsula to found the next settlement, which today is known as the Casco Antiguo (or Casco Viejo).
In recent years, this now-trendy neighborhood has become a hub for stylish shops, small luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and design-conscious nightlife, but it’s also home to several noteworthy historic attractions, including the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), which has towers dressed in mother-of-pearl, and the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), an Italian neoclassical beauty that hosts theatrical and musical performances. The Iglesia de San José (San José Church) is another must-see site; it displays a golden altar that was rescued from
Also in the Casco Antiguo is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá (the Panama Canal Museum), which provides a worthwhile overview of the legendary canal, and Las Bóvedas, a former fortress that is now perfect for strolling and photographs. Along the waterfront promenade you’ll also find a variety of indigenous street vendors selling beautiful items, including handmade baskets made by the Emberá and Wounaan people, and colorful, embroided cloth molas created by the indigenous Guna people. Several boutiques in the Casco Antiguo also stock handmade indigenous items as well as contemporary art, home
décor, and clothing.
If you’re a true shopaholic, you may want to tap into the local mall scene. Panama City is home to Latin America’s biggest shopping complex, Albrook Mall, which even has its own hotel (the Wyndham Panama Albrook Mall Hotel & Convention Center). For a greater concentration of upscale retailers, however, head to MultiPlaza Panama, where retailers include Longchamp Paris, BCBGMazAzria, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera and Cartier, to name a few.
Architecture and nature lovers should be sure to head to the BioMuseo, a natural history museum, which is the first work in Latin America by the architect Frank Gehry. Its jagged, multicolored façade offers lots of great photo opportunities. The museum sits near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, and for our latest excursion to that famed attraction, we joined Kensington Tours as part of a bespoke tour itinerary that included two separate one-day excursions, each of which offered its own unforgettable experiences.
SIDE TRIPS AND TOURS IN PANAMA
“No offense, but the clothes you’re wearing look very uncomfortable,” a young man named Kevin said, smiling as he glanced at the T-shirts and shorts that my husband Angel and I were wearing.
Panama is a destination that wows on multiple levels, from its shimmering, modern capital city to its many natural wonders, fascinating indigenous cultures and lively LGBTQ scene
I certainly took no offense. After all, we were seated in a thatched-roof hut in the oppressive heat, wearing our city summer clothes. Kevin, a member of the Emberá community, was wearing nothing more than a beautiful loincloth accented with tiny beads, as well as several beaded necklaces and a number of impressive tattoos. He was certainly dressed more practically than we were.