Go beyond the canal to explore hidden Panama

  • Panama has the second largest Carnival celebration in the world.

    Welcome to Panama

    In spite of wildly diverse ecosystems, welcoming people, meticulously preserved historic areas, an engineering marvel, indigenous populations, trending neighborhoods, a capital city with vibrant nightlife, the world’s second largest Carnival celebration and flights from multiple U.S. cities, Panama remains largely under the radar for tourists. Most experience it only from the deck of a ship cruising the famous canal. That is an amazing experience, yet it bypasses the exotic heart of the country.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • The Panama City skyline across the Gulf of Panama, viewed from Amador Causeway.

    Sailboats and skyline from Amador Causeway

    Panama City curves along the 160-mile-wide Gulf of Panama on the Pacific Ocean. Its striking skyline, viewed from Amador Causeway, features soaring glass and steel towers, some pushing the boundaries of contemporary design. The causeway offers cafes, cycling, a museum, fishing and sailing.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Playa Bonita's beaches are just 25 minutes from downtown Panama City.

    Exquisite beaches and no crowds, just minutes to downtown

    There are excellent hotels in Panama City, but Playa Bonita, 25 minutes from downtown and home to Westin Playa Bonita among others, is ideally located for city, beach, canal and rainforest exploration. Go fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, try beachside cafes or simply walk the sand far from crowds.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Two ships pass through the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks, closest locks to the Pacific Ocean.

    From the Pacific to the Caribbean in 48 miles

    Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal exacted a staggering toll: 25,000 lives and more than $350 million. It is one of the world’s great engineering feats, and in 2017, the long-awaited expansion opened, doubling capacity. Panama Canal Museum at Miraflores Locks provides a riveting look into canal history.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • To ride the aerial tram in Soberania National Park you must be accompanied by a guide.

    Rise above the canopy in Soberania National Park

    Just 16 miles from Panama City, Soberania National Park is a lush tropical forest with exotic vegetation, sloths, monkeys, jaguars and 525 species of birds. In addition to several hiking trails, one way to view the park is via the aerial tram, which rises nearly 2,000 feet, passing through the forest canopy. 

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Rio Chagres, Panama Canal's largest watershed, supports the canal, indigenous people, ecotourism and recreation.

    Rio Chagres meets the Panama Canal

    From a tower accessed by the tram, a dense rainforest spreads to the horizon, intersected by the Chagres River and the canal. Rio Chagres was critical to the creation of the canal and remains integral to its operation. As you climb the tower, look for birds and sloths slumbering in the trees.  

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Several species of monkeys live on Gatun Lake including howlers, tamarins and white-faced capuchins like this one.

    Spot monkeys on islands in vast Gatun Lake

    Gatun Lake formed when a dam was erected on the Chagres River between 1907 and 1913. Today, it's part of the canal route and an important ecosystem and recreation area in its own right. Gatun's forested islands are home to several species of monkeys, often viewed from boats touring the lake.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Gamboa Rainforest Lodge offers guests elegant lodging and amenities surrounded by jungle and nature.

    Sleep in the rainforest

    Located deep in the tropical forest along the Chagres River, almost midway between Panama City on the Pacific Ocean and Colon on the Caribbean Sea, Gamboa Rainforest Lodge is an ideal base for eco-tours, birding, visiting the Miraflores Locks and cultural experiences with local indigenous tribes. 

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • The situation for Jaguars in Panama is critical, making saving Fiona a huge success for vets and researchers.

    Fiona, ambassador for one of Panama's most endangered species

    Mangled by hunting dogs, tiny Fiona was rescued by vets at the Wildlife Rescue Center at Gamboa Rainforest Resort. Only 200 jaguars remain in the wild in Panama. In April, Fiona left for Florida's Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, where researchers hope she'll aid jaguars by having her own cub. 

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Biomuseo's dramatic architecture sets the scene for the compelling stories told within its galleries.

    A celebration of nature and architecture at Biomuseo

    Frank Gehry's only design in Latin America, Biomuseo on Amador Causeway interprets 3 million years of change on the Isthmus of Panama. Every gallery tells a remarkable story, but don't miss Panamarama, a video extravaganza of Panama's natural wonders, with huge screens above, below and all around.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Most restored buildings in the old city must preserve facades and other exterior elements, keeping history front and center.

    Photogenic ruins in Casco Viejo

    Not far from modern Panama City, tiny Casco Viejo is much older, a place where preservation efforts and neighborhood pride are transforming historic landscapes. Striking facades and abandoned homes stand beside trendy hotels and boutiques, a visceral vision of the city's past, present and future. 

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • The seawall around a portion of Casco Viejo provides a charming place to stroll, take photos and check out vendors.

    Stroll along the seawall

    Vendors crowd the seawall in Casco Viejo, and views across the water to the modern skyline are photo-worthy. This is the place for trinkets and ubiquitous indigenous crafts, or simply to stroll and enjoy the views and vibe. Better boutiques are down the seawall steps along Casco Viejo's stone streets.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Traditional baskets created by Embera artisans make a fine memento and help support indigenous culture.

    Eye-catching crafts of the Embera people

    Several indigenous tribes live in Panama, including Kunas on the San Blas Islands and Embera in the Darien jungle and Gamboa Rainforest area. Galleries and upscale shops in Casco Viejo sell high-end, authentic crafts, such as these traditional Embera baskets and masks at Reprosa on Avenida A.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Gang graffiti in this hotel stairwell is a reminder that gangs and crime once reigned in this historic neighborhood.

    Secret stairwell in the American Trade Hotel

    Photos of gang graffiti line a locked staircase in this hotel, snapshots of a not-so-distant time in the past when gangs ruled here. Today, former gang members run Fortaleza Tours, thanks to Esperanza Social Venture Club's inspired program giving them a second chance and providing tourists with a unique perspective on this neighborhood.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Cafe Unido in the old city serves up freshly roasted coffee and delicate pastries to satisfy today's travelers.

    Beat the heat in a contemporary cafe

    All along the winding streets of Casco Viejo are inviting cafes where whatever trending coffee concoction you desire is waiting. Many are air-conditioned, including chic Cafe Unido, with several sites around the city. This one, tucked at the back of the American Trade Hotel, is a fine choice.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • 360-degree views from CasaCasco's rooftop lounge is just one reason locals and visitors gather here at sunset.

    Old & new from CasaCasco's rooftop bar

    Multi-level CasaCasco opened on Plaza Tomas Herrera in 2016. Five artfully restored levels house three restaurants, a disco and a rooftop bar with stunning sunset and city views (arrive early for a seat). Enjoy cocktails, then mosey to nearby Ocho Y Medio with its secret garden ambiance and excellent menu.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Nightlife in Casco Viejo is trending these days, including here at CasaCasco where bartenders wear Panama hats.

    Nightlife in the city

    Once a dangerous neighborhood for tourists at night, Casco Viejo is now a dining and entertainment hot spot late into the evening, especially on weekends. Come sunset, cafe tables appear along some of the historic plazas and many restaurants offer outdoor dining areas or gardens. Cabs are easily arranged.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Panama hats are really from Ecuador but are widely available in Panama; opt for the best quality.

    They're not really from Panama, but buy one anyway

    Historically from Ecuador, this universally misnamed hat gained global popularity when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing it in Panama in 1904. The traditional Ecuadorian woven straw hat is on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Buy the best quality if you want your hat to last.

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis

  • Day and night, 24/7 ships float on the horizon, waiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal.

    Ships wait in a haze on the horizon

    An endless stream of yachts to mega container ships hover like ghosts on the horizon, waiting to enter the Panama Canal. The largest pay nearly $1 million to cross. Cruising the canal is a bucket list voyage for many, but exploring on land reveals Panama's hidden gems, an equally evocative experience. 

    Photo courtesy of Christine Loomis