How to live like a Local in Panama City

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The tropical landscape of Panama City is home to Lonely Planet Local Martina Gili, who loves the way the metropolis surrounded by jungle offers the best of both worlds to a young family like hers.

Besides the rooftop bars, artisanal markets and gourmet restaurants, Martina is always looking for the best road trip destinations to the rainforest, the Pacific coast or through hundreds of Caribbean islands.

A container ship is completing its passage through the Panama Canal. The ship is headed to the Pacific ocean. Mitchell Christopher/500pxA container ship completes its passage through the Panama Canal © Mitchell Christopher/500px

When I have friends in town… I take them to the Miraflores Visitor Center to check out ships as they transit through the Panama Canal. Cycling on the Amador Causeway is a must to get a 360-degree view of the city’s skyline, ocean and the Bridge of the Americas which connects to city to the hinterland. Nights out are best spent rambling through the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo’s historic district.

For me, the best place to live with a family… is Clayton. Neighboring the jungle, it’s the greenest area in town, with residential houses, playgrounds, schools and the Kiwanis Sports Center which provides access to all sorts of outdoor activities including tennis, volleyball, football, baseball and swimming. I love it because it’s one of the few neighborhoods in Panama City where I can shop, go to a yoga class or grab a coffee without taking the car.

LP Local Martina Gili and her son enjoy some free time at the Kiwanis pool Martina Gili/Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Local Martina Gili and her son enjoy spending time poolside at the Kiwanis Sports Center in Clayton © Martina Gili/Lonely Planet

I have a toddler… and we love to spot animals in the city, especially the hundreds of pelicans diving into the sea by the Amador Causeway or the ñeques (agouti) at the City of Knowledge industrial park. These cute cartoon-like rodents with no tail eat nuts and mangoes and hop on the grass all over the neighborhood. The outdoor pool at the Kiwanis is great for spending a sunny afternoon, followed by a fresh pineapple juice and quesitos (sweet cheesy pastries) at Pan y Canela Café.

For a night out I recommend… bar-hopping in the beautifully renovated district of Casco Viejo. Book a table at Ochoymedio for an intimate dinner with cocktails. With lanterns hanging over the lush green tropical patio, above a huge mural of the Virgin Mary, the restaurant offers the best of Latin-inspired fine dining. For a view of the city’s skyline at night have a mojito on the rooftop of Casa Casco, or head over to Danilo’s Jazz Club inside the American Trade Hotel to hear live music from some of the world’s leading jazz artists.

The lush plants, overhead lighting and large mural of the Virgin Mary make for a cozy and intimate atmosphere at Ochoymedio Restaurant in Panama City. Ochoymedio Restaurant Ochoymedio Restaurant’s intimate setting makes it a perfect spot for dining © Ochoymedio Restaurant

When I want to get out of the city… I go to Gamboa Rainforest Resortand rent a kayak. Rowing along the Chagres River while spotting howler monkeys and tropical birds humming along the shore is the most relaxing getaway and it’s only a half-an-hour drive from the city center. The resort also features immense swimming pools and offers numerous excursions to the jungle, including a trip to visit the Emberá indigenous tribe.

Casco Viejo ruins in Panama City Martina Gili/Lonely Planet The ruins in Casco Viejo provide a glimpse into Panama’s history © Martina Gili/Lonely Planet

To understand the rather complex Panamanian identity… I recommend watching the documentaries of Panamanian award-winning director Abner Benaim. First ruled by Spain, then by Colombia and finally occupied by the U.S., Panama needs to be understood before you can love it. Invasion tackles the controversial U.S. invasion of Panama of 1989, whereas Bosses and Maids draws a touching and humorous portrait of Panama’s social structure by focusing on the relationship between the upper class and their maids.

On a typical weekend… I’m either chilling by a pool (most condos have one) or I’m away for a one or two-day trip. Typical weekend destinations include the fresh mountains of El Valle, Contadora Island in the Pearl Archipelago, or the Caribbean Isla Grande, right off the coast of Portobelo, with coconut trees, crystal waters and colorful houses on stilts.

For cheap eats… I recommend having lunch with the locals. Visit The Fish Market (also known as the Mercado de Mariscos) and have a delicious ceviche at one of the outdoors stands while spotting fishermen unload freshly-caught seafood from their boats. For a more rounded menu, try the iconic restaurant El Trapiche (either on Via Argentina or at Albrook Mall). Order a ropa vieja (pulled beef with rice and vegetables) and a big chicha (a fresh fruit juice with water).

A street art image of a green man opening his eyes in the area of Casco Viejo Martina Gili/Lonely Planet Street art only adds to the unique vibe of the renovated district of Casco Viejo © Martina Gili/ Lonely Planet

One thing I hate about Panama City… is the traffic. Not only are there endless queues at rush hour, but you also have to learn to maneuver like a Formula 1 driver amongst potholes, unruly taxis and the ‘diablo’ buses. These old-school buses are redecorated with flashy spray paint and famous characters ranging from Amy Winehouse to Jesus Christ and they spit out clouds of black smoke while they cut you off.

I know I’ve become a Panamanian… when I take shelter in one of the humongous malls of Panama City on a rainy day and that I spin my kid around a giant carousel while feeding him popcorn and ice cream as we wait for the storm to pass.

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