If you’re from the United States when I mention Panama City, your immediate thought might take you to Florida. While that Panama City invokes thoughts of Spring Break and beautiful beaches, the Panama City to which I refer is in Latin America. Located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, Panama City is the capital and largest city of Panama. As such, it tends to be a much more welcoming and accepting bastion for LGBT travelers than some of the country’s smaller cities. It’s also essentially a tropical paradise with beautiful ocean views, beaches, and delightfully warm weather year round. With a relatively short flight from the United States, Panama City is an easy jaunt and perfect for an affordable, tropical getaway. If you’re considering a trip to La Ciudad de Panama, as it is known in Panama, then this Panama City travel guide has all the information you’ll need to help you get started with your planning.
Is Panama City Gay-Friendly?
Is Panama City gay-friendly? The answer to this question for Panama City, just like many other destinations, is “it’s complicated.” On the one hand LGBT relations are not legally recognized in Panama due to a number of factors, not the smallest of which is the influence of the Catholic Church on the country. Attitudes within the country can be all over the place from general acceptance of homosexuality to outright hatred. Therefore, if you plan to travel to Panama City, exercise caution. However, Panama overturned its anti-sodomy laws in 2008 which means homosexuality itself is not illegal. Furthermore, same-sex marriage is likely to be legalized in the foreseeable future due to a 2018 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling that stipulates and mandates the recognition of same-sex marriage.
Despite this, you can log onto Grindr or other dating apps when you arrive to Panama City and find plenty of gay men online. Many of these men are slightly closeted but they are definitely out there. It isn’t difficult to meet gay men and quickly learn what the LGBT Community is up to on a given night. But, again, exercise caution.
Read more about our experience with Panamanian Customs here!
Panama City Travel Guide: Entering The Country
When you enter the country of Panama, you must go through customs which quite the normal process. Fill out your customs forms ahead of time, wait in line, get your passport stamped, and be on your merry way. It’s no different than when you enter any other country…unless you’re gay. Alfred and I are married and, as a married a couple, we usually fill out one customs form since we are a family. We asked our flight attendants if we should fill out separate forms and she told us we should have no problem with just one. So we went ahead and filled out one form. When we arrived at the front of the customs line, the customs agent asked why we only had one form. I explained to him that we are married. The customs agent told me “We don’t allow that shit here. You’re not a family.” Then he instructed me to leave the line and fill out my own customs form if i wanted to enter the country. Of course, I complied but it was still mortifying. Imagine being married and treated differently then all the other married people going through customs. It was not a very good experience.
This was the only resistance we met, as gay people, while we visited Panama City. Other than this one experience, everyone seemed rather open and accepting. The fact we are a couple didn’t even seem to phase most people. But, as I’ve said, the government’s official policy towards gay marriage isn’t positive. We didn’t let this ruin our trip and are so happy we experienced such an incredible city…in fact, I will definitely return to explore the rest of the country. But be weary of this and if you’d like to avoid such a situation, just fill out two customs forms. It shouldn’t be this way but unfortunately that is the reality for now.
Panama City Travel Guide: When To Visit?
So here’s the thing…Panama, as a country, is always hot and humid. Temperatures in Panama range between 75°F-85°F (24°C-29°C) with rainfall varying depending on the region your visiting. With it’s position not too far from the equator, its climate is tropical which makes it the perfect vacation destination year round. Nevertheless, there are basically only two seasons in Panama; dry and wet seasons.
Dry Season: This is the perfect time to visit Panama City because it doesn’t rain very much so you’re beach days won’t be ruined by storms. This season is known as the summer season and lasts from December to April. As a result, tourists tend to flock to Panama City during this time period. That means, prices will be at their highest. So if you want perfect weather than you’ll likely pay a bit more for it.
Wet Season: From May to the end of November, you’ll encounter Panama’s wet season. It’s marked by, you guessed it, plentiful rain. However, if you’re on a budget, the wet season might be a perfect time to visit since prices are typically at their lowest. During the wet season, the day usually starts out with plenty of sunshine but is marked by sudden, short thunderstorms in the evenings. The amount of money you save could make the wet season worth it.
National Holidays: Panamanians LOVE their national holidays and take them very serious. During holidays, everything shuts down and most locals head to beaches. A month you should potentially avoid traveling to Panama City because it is jam packed with holidays. There are other holidays throughout the year including, the most popular, Carnaval which takes place the 4 days before Ash Wednesday. If you plan to travel during a Panamanian holiday season, make sure you confirm your reservations arrange everything far in advance.
Panama City Travel Guide: Where To Stay?
One of the great things about Panama City is how very metropolitan the city is with its incredible skyline, vibrant nightlife, relaxing beaches, history, and great cuisine. In order to enjoy it all, you’ll absolutely need to find the best place to relax and unwind. The city has a wide range of choices when it comes to hotel rooms and most are fairly affordable. Even hotels considered high budget aren’t overpriced.
Choose a Neighborhood: Panama City has a variety of areas ideal for the traveler to temporarily call home while on holiday. So if you don’t know where to start, consider conducting your research based on the area you’d like to stay. Areas that typically interest tourists include: El Cangrejo, known for plenty of restaurants and bars; Downtown Panama City, close to everything but the most expensive area; and Casco Viejo, the UNESCO World Heritage site and historic district of the city. You might also consider a beach resort outside the city if you are looking for something more relaxing.
In this Panama City travel guide, I recommend 4 great hotels that will help you recover from a day of adventuring around the city.
Waldorf Astoria Panama: When you hear the name Waldorf Astoria, you probably immediately think of luxury and you are not wrong. The Waldorf Astoria is where we stayed during our visit to Panama City and it was perfect. With a great buffet breakfast, awesome heated pool, and luxurious rooms, you can’t really go wrong. We were upgraded to an apartment at the top of the hotel’s skyscraper and the views were incredible. Our apartment had a sitting area, kitchen, sleeping area, and a massive bathroom and closet. It was definitely a great stay!
Panama Marriott Hotel: Marriott International is the largest hotel chain in the world they know a thing or two about excellent service. It’s also an American company and, as such, LGBT travelers have nothing to fear when staying at Marriott properties. The hotels offer standard American style hotel rooms and a buffet breakfast. Located downtown, the Panama Marriott Hotel is near everything you’ll want to see.
American Trade Hotel: Located in Casco Viejo, the American Trade Hotel receives high reviews for the service they offer guests, price, and its amenities. It’s the perfect hotel situated so you can explore the historic district of Panama City and then relax without going too far. It also offers a legendary brunch and has a roof top pool which is rare for Casco Viejo!
Cost: Approximately $250+/night
Panama City Travel Guide: Gay Bars
Panama City is not known for its gay culture and nightlife due to the staunchly conservative views of the majority of the country. As I’ve already stated, you can easily log onto Grindr and chat with locals who will let you know anything going on within the Panama City LGBT Community. That being said, there are a number of bars that are rather gay-friendly.
XS Club: XS Club is Panama City’s only official gay club but you should be careful if you plan to head here for a night out. The neighborhood where it is located is a bit dicey so grabbing a taxi of some sort there and back is advised. Other than that, make sure you have proper identification with you or else you won’t be permitted to enter. This means you need to carry your passport with you…personally, I don’t enjoy that aspect. Other than that, it’s great for cocktails and other drinks. It’s your typical club.
Location: On Tumba Muerto across from Siglo XXI Shopping Center
El Apartamento y El Sotano: This bar is known as being the only one in town without a sign which might make you think it’d be hard to find? Wrong! The bar is set in a two-story house near the Intercontinental Hotel and is very LGBT-friendly. Upstairs you’ll find plenty of artwork and great Panamanian cuisine. Downstairs you’ll find the party zone with its space set up for entertaining and hosting live music.
Location: Avenida Federico Boyd, Panamá, Panama
360 Rooftop Bar: Who doesn’t love a good rooftop bar? Get some nice views, fresh air, and have a drink! What could be better. Well, at 360 Rooftop Bar, they serve up some tasty snacks to top it off! They also offer 2 for 1 happy hour between 6 pm and 8 pm on Wednesday.
Location: Plaza de La Independencia and Calle 7a in Casco Viejo
Relic Bar: This bar is located inside one of Panama City’s most popular hostels, Luna’s Castle. From Thursday to Saturday, the bar hosts a Happy Hour starting at 3 am and then the party keeps going until 3 am. The atmosphere is very social and your sure to meet some new friends.
Location: Calle 9na, Panama
Panama City Travel Guide: Best Restaurants
As a visitor, you might have a preconceived notion of Panama as an underdeveloped, small country but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The country is small yet diverse and offers a great fusion of cultures from around the world. Panama City is a large capital city and, as such, is home to many great restaurants covering a wide variety of cuisine. Of course, you cannot compare Panama City to New York or Paris but it still has so much to offer. If you love locally sourced food then Panama City is the place for you. Most restaurants source their ingredients from within the country so you’re guaranteed to enjoy fresh fish, produce, breads, and juices. Within the city, you’ll find many of the restaurants located in the same areas where you’ll find hotels, Casco Viejo, Downtown Panama City, and El Cangrejo. Here are a few restaurants that I highly recommend you give a try. But really, be adventurous and choose a place to eat at random and see how it goes.
El Trapiche: We really enjoyed our dinner at El Trapiche and I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re hoping to get a taste of authentic Panamanian cuisine. The staff dresses in traditional Panamanian garb and the food is excellent. You can order the “Fiesta Panamena” which allows you to try a little of many different typical Panamanian dishes. That’s what we did and it was delicious! With three locations, you won’t have a problem getting a seat at a table.
Location: Via Argentina [0r] CC Albrook Mall [or] Calle 71 San Francisco
La Rana Dorada: La Rana Dorada is a great place to get a beer and enjoy some American style food. So, basically, if you’re really craving pizza or a beer then this is the place for you. I wouldn’t say I am rushing back to this place when I visit again but it was well worth the price…especially when I was craving American food.
Location: Local 1 20, Vía Argentina
Mercado de Mariscos: If you want some of the freshest fish around then you need to head to Panama City’s Mercado de Mariscos. This place is where locals go to purchase their fish which is brought in from the sea fresh everyday. There is a restaurant upstairs that serves a variety of seafood dishes and downstairs you can get some delicious ceviche. If you really want something fresh, choose a fish downstairs and they’ll cook it upstairs however you choose. Yum!
Location: Avenida Balboa & Calle Eloy Alfaro
Cafe Coca Cola: For a simple yet hearty meal of traditional Panamanian faire, head to Cafe Coca Cola. It’s considered one of the oldest restaurants in Panama City having opened in 1875. The restaurant is laidback and super affordable with a great ambiance. It’s rumored to have been a place where the revolutionary Che Guevara once dined. Popular with locals and backpackers, you can’t go wrong here.
American Trade Hotel: For an epic brunch filled with delicious food and endless Mimosas, you need to head to The American Trade Hotel’s dining room. The restaurant is pet-friendly so you probably will make a furry friend as you feast on excellent faire.
Panama City Travel Guide: Things To Do
Panama Canal: You cannot visit Panama and not visit the Panama Canal. A incredible feat of modern engineering, the Panel Canal was built by the United States employing workers from Panama and the Caribbean. The canal splits Panama in half and as a result also splits the Americas in half. It is a must-see. The best way to see the canal is to take a Panama City Canal tour. Otherwise you can also see it by visiting the Miraflores Locks which include a museum, visitor’s center, and a viewing area.
Casco Viejo: Panama’s historic district is known as Casco Viejo and is quickly undergoing a revitalization in order to preserve many of its historic buildings. You can enjoy wandering around this area of Panama City looking out for Spanish Colonial architecture and it’s fantastic squares. There are great views of the sea from this area as well as many shops and local vendors catering to tourists. Casco Viejo is also listed as part of a Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage site.
Panama Viejo: The other part of Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage site is Panama Viejo. This is the original site of the founding of Panama City and, consequently, the first city founded by the Spanish on the Pacific coast of the American continent. The historic site includes many ruins which you are free to walk through and around. You can also see some remains of the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the region. The city was sacked and burned to the ground by, rumors have it, Captain Morgan. Don’t forget to climb to the top of the restored bell tower for great views of the historic site as well as sweeping views of modern day Panama City.
Try Geisha Coffee: In my opinion, drinking Geisha Coffee is a an absolute must-do if you’re visiting Panama City. It’s considered the best coffee in the world. Outside of Panama, a cup of this rare coffee can cost you as much as $75US. That’s because disease has reduced this particular variety of coffee to small quantities and demand is high. But in Panama City you can get a cup for $9US, which is a steal in comparison. With it’s delicate, floral flavor profile lacking the sour or bitterness of most other coffees, you’ll quickly realize it’s the best cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.
See the Iglesia San Jose’s Golden Altar: As you walk around Panama’s City’s Casco Viejo, you’ll eventually come upon the Iglesia San Jose, which was constructed in the year 1673. After Captain Morgan sacked the original Panama City location in 1671, the altar was painted black so it wouldn’t be stolen and moved to the new church. It was restored and is now available for all to see. The altar is massive, carved of mahogany, and covered in gold leaf. It’s definitely worth a visit!
Visit the Biomuseo: This museum is dedicated to the biodiversity and natural history of Panama. The BioMuseo basically a science museum which is very interesting in and of itself. But I think the real draw to the museum is the building in which the museum is housed. It is the only building designed by Frank Gehry in Latin America. The architect designed the building as a gift to Panama in honor of his with who happens to be Panamanian. The building is stunning and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Visit the Panama Sign: You see colorful signs spelling out the names of destination everywhere you travel so this is a pretty touristic activity to do. However, the signs are quite pretty and set against beautiful backdrops. Check out the Panama City signs and snap that Instagram photo!
Cinta Costera: The coastal beltway of Panama City is known as Cinta Costera and serves as a walking/running path following the coast. The land reclamation project covers 64-acres (24 hectares) and features excellent views of the ocean and the city. You can use the free gym equipment along the way or just walk/jog/bike the entire length.
Panama City Travel Guide: Day Trips
San Blas Islands: The San Blas Islands are not very well known by foreigners but are definitely a place you need to visit. Located in Northwest Panama, the San Blas Islands consists of 378 islands spanning an area of about 100 km. The majority are uninhabited but you can find the native population called the Kuna residing on Guanidup Island, Chichimei, El Porvenir, Yandup Island, and Aguja Island. The native people of the islands actually control all the islands and you will need your passport to visit. It’s a tropical paradise and you definitely don’t want to miss it.
This is a full day trip if you plan to do it in just one day. I’d suggest taking a few days for your visit.
Monkey Island: Located on Lake Gatun, Panama’s Monkey Island is home to four species of monkey including the Mantled Howler, Geoffrey’s Tamarin, Lemurine Owl Monkey, and the White-faced Capuchin. The island is accessible by boat and is easiest accesible by booking a guided tour.
This day trip can be done in about 2-3 hours. It’s perfect for a day trip.
Embera Indigenous Community: The Embera are a group of indigenous peoples and you can visit one of their villages to learn about their culture and way of life. You can combine this with a visit to Monkey Island for a very full day trip or spend the night in the village for a more immersive experience.
This is definitely close enough to Panama City to be a day trip. You can also extend this to a multiple day experience.
Soberania National Park: Want to visit a rainforest? Well Soberania National Park is definitely for you then. Located along the banks of the Panama Canal, this rainforest is protected and features a plentitude of wildlife including monkeys, toucans, and sloths. You can also enjoy the immense natural beauty of Panama in the park and discover new and diverse flora.
This trip takes, on average, about 6 hours. You will need to allot a full day in order to have the best experience.
Porto Bello: If you’re a fan of history, nature, or the ocean then the port city of Portobello is a can’t miss destination. It was the last place Columbus visited in the America’s during his fourth voyage and it’s Spanish Colonial ruins constitute Panama’s second UNESCO World Heritage Cultural site.
You can do this trip in one day by driving or book a guided tour.
Check out this video of Panama Vieja for a little travel inspiration!
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