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I first became enamored with Panama City when, as a young girl, I saw pictures of the beautiful Panama Canal in National Geographic and endeavored to learn some Spanish and travel to the region one day. Little did I know then that the city was such a vibrant place. Today, as an older, wiser, and more budget-minded student traveler, I find myself drawn to Panama City for different reasons. Full of life and character, the city also happens to be one of the best places for an inexpensive but exotic getaway. Here’s a quick guide to experiencing the best that Panama City has to offer without spending a fortune.
In the past, many great world powers vied for control of Panama and its prime location as the guardian of one of the world’s most important trade routes. Today this rich history has translated into Panama becoming one of the most culturally diverse nations in Central America. Panama City is certainly as cosmopolitan as any major city you might find elsewhere, but it also retains an old-world charm which only adds to its appeal. One of the best museums in Panama City is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, explaining in great detail the long history of the Panama Canal. All the exhibits are in Spanish, but for a small fee you can hire an English-speaking guide to give you a tour. For about USD$2, you can pass a whole afternoon learning about the fascinating history of this important place. Also worth a visit is the Teatro Nacional. Panama’s National Theatre is located in a gorgeous building in the Old Town with a truly luxurious interior, complete with a red and gold upholstery scheme and crystal chandeliers from France. The ceiling of the theatre is decorated with interesting paintings depicting key moments in Panamanian history. Afterwards, for a taste of the more modern Panama City, head to Avenida Central, a pedestrian boulevard that is the city’s main shopping drag. Running through the centre of Panama City, you’ll find both brand name designer shopping and independent artisan merchants hawking their wares here. Avenida Central and most places in Panama City can be accessed by riding a public bus (diablos rojos, or red devils, colloquially) which cost a quarter and run all day.
Thanks to its diverse population, Panama City is a great place for one-of-a-kind gastronomic adventures. If you’re looking for some cheap but authentic food from the region, check out the Boulevard Balboa restaurant, which serves dishes likepollo y arroz (a giant platter of chicken and rice) and ceviche for around USD$5. Alternatively, the best bang for your buck is at La Casa Vegetariana, a Chinese vegetarian buffet that costs around USD$3 per person. Panama City also has a great nightlife scene. As with all cities, it has its fair share of celebrity-endorsed rave clubs, but you can still have a great night out without blowing your entire travel budget on bottle service. La Casona de las Brujas is where the artsy hipsters of Panama City hang out to enjoy live music and cheap drinks (under USD$5). If you’re looking for the university crowd, check out Anemos (yes, it sounds like “animals”), where they have no cover charge and incredible drink specials before midnight. Finally, Panama City’s gay community hangs out at BLG, where your USD$25 cover charge will get you unlimited access to the open bar. BLG is, hands down, my recommendation for the best place in Panama City to party. Dance to the beats mixed by some of the world’s best DJ’s and feel the vibrancy of this amazing city.
Check out StudentUniverse’s awesome tours of Panama here!