With a colorful cocktail in hand, I lean close to the edge of the balcony and watch the show beginning to unfold before my eyes. Towering buildings begin to gleam, flash yellow, then orange and finally fade to black. As the last rays of sunlight dip below the hill, a million electric lights flare into existence. I sit in wonder, order another imaginative cocktail, and gasp as one of the best skylines in the Americas come to life.
When the Panama Canal was returned to Panamanian control in 1999, the city was still recovering from the U.S. Invasion that ousted Manuel Noriega from power a decade earlier. Overnight, Panama became a trading powerhouse on the world stage and foreign investment quickly followed. The economy took off, leading to a building boom that resulted in a magnificent skyline. Panama City’s biggest attraction remains the Panama Canal. Whether sailing on a Panamax vessel or smaller leisure crafts, the canal is a sight to behold. Visitors not on a cruise ship can join several tours that navigate daily through the locks, while the museum at the Miraflores Locks will satisfy your canal curiosity.
The Casco Viejo, one of Panama’s five UNESCO Heritage listed sites, was –to put it plainly– a dump not too long ago. Now Casco is home to some of the city’s hottest hotspots. Restaurants and clubs bring the ultra-hip Latin scene to newly renovated 17th and 18th century colonial buildings. Narrow, sometimes maze-like streets lead past the city’s cathedral and older Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus ruins. Cafes, shops and galleries abound, making Casco Viejo beckon you to tarry a little longer. The nearby Malecon, Panama City’s bayfront walking park, connects Casco Viejo to the busy downtown area of Punta Paitilla. Walkers and joggers make use of the pathway at all hours of the day, and the setting sun brings out street vendors and performers in droves.
A scenic southwesterly drive along the Amador causeway passes the Bio Museo, arguably Frank Gehry’s most colorful design, en route to the city’s islands by land bridge. The biggest, Isla Flamenco is filled with shops and restaurants and offers even more stunning views of the city’s skyline and the perfect place to people watch.
Just east of Panama City’s center and a short Uber ride away, the ruins of Panama Viejo offer the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast, and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 1519, the old city was sacked by captain Henry Morgan, along with 1400 other pirates that trekked to the rich port from the Caribbean coast. The resulting attack destroyed the city and the new Panama was built just a few kilometers west, now the Casco Viejo.
As I sit on my rooftop balcony watching the final rays of sunset, Panama City bustles. A modern city, with half a millennium of history, well on its’ way to becoming my favorite modern cosmopolitan city in the world.