Panama City

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Founded nearly five centuries ago, Panama city is steeped in history, yet much of it is remarkably modern. The baroque facades of the city's old quarter appear frozen in time, while the area around Punta Paitilla (Paitilla Point) is positively vaulting into the 21st century, with gleaming skyscrapers towering over the waterfront.

Panama City is home to races, religions, and cultures from around the world. Whereas the high-rises of Punta Paitilla and the Área Bancária (banking district) create a skyline more impressive than that of Miami (really!), the brick streets and balconies of the Casco Viejo evoke the French Quarter of New Orleans. The tree-lined boulevards of Balboa are a mixture of early-20th-century American architecture and exuberant tropical vegetation. The islands reached by the nearby Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway) are full of bars and restaurants and a marina.

The city's proximity to tropical nature is astounding, with significant patches of forest protected within city limits on Cerro Ancón (Ancón Hill) and in Parque Metropolitano, and the national parks of Camino de Cruces and Soberanía just to the northwest of town. You could spend a morning hiking through the rain forest of the Parque Metropolitano to see parrots and toucans, then watch pelicans dive into the sea while sipping a sunset drink at one of Amador Causeway's restaurants. There are plenty of spots in and around the city to view massive ships moving in and out of the Panama Canal.

An array of restaurants, an abundance of shops and handicraft markets, and a vibrant nightlife scene round out Panama City's charm. Panama City can also serve as a base for a bunch of day trips, including Panama Canal transit tours, a boat ride to Isla Taboga or Isla Contadora, a trip on the Panama Canal Railway, a day exploring the colonial fortresses, beaches, and coral reefs of Portobelo, or hikes through various rain-forest reserves.

Included in Panama City's colourful contrasts are many of the unfortunate aspects of urban life in the developing world. It has its fair share of slums, including several around must-see Casco Viejo. Traffic is often downright terrible, and the ocean along its coast is very polluted. Crime is a problem in some neighborhoods. Be careful where you walk around alone, especially at night. The city as a whole is quite safe, especially the downtown area, where you'll find its bustling hotels, restaurants, and bars.