Panama City has experienced a nightlife boom in recent years, concentrated in a handful of streets and neighborhoods around the city.
The most popular area is a densely packed grid of restaurants, clubs, cafés, and bars bounded by Bella Vista and Marbella. The center of this area is Calle Uruguay. Businesses come and go overnight but there’s always someplace worth visiting. At least for now, that is: Skyscraper construction is putting the future of the clubs, bars, and restaurants in this area in doubt.
Calle 53 Este, the main street through the upscale business district of Marbella, draws young singles and couples to its music clubs. The names of the clubs change, but the venues themselves have stayed pretty much intact for some years now.
There is some evidence more and more action may move north to Vía Argentina, an older and traditionally more sedate area near El Cangrejo for an evening out. If the long-awaited Buddha Bar franchise ever opens an outlet in Panama, it will instantly be the hottest nightspot in the city. It’s allegedly going up on Vía Brasil, but though it was originally supposed to open in 2010 the latest estimate is end of 2011.
The renovation of Casco Viejo has made it an ideal place for clubs, sidewalk cafés, bars, and seafood restaurants, at least on the weekends.
The newest entertainment area in Panama City is not actually in the city proper but along the Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway) in the old Canal Zone.
What to Expect
Clubs start late in Panama City. Very late. Most don’t really get going until midnight and others don’t reach their stride until 2 a.m. The partying often lasts all night. There has recently been an attempt to legislate a bar and disco closing time of 2 A.M. It’s hard to imagine Panamanians standing for that, though.
Cover charges at prominent clubs on a big night can be US$10–20, though there are all kinds of promotions to offset this. Many clubs don’t charge a cover during the week or early in the evening, usually before 11 p.m. Often women are admitted and/or drink free at least once a week, and some clubs have all-you-can-drink “open bar” specials before 11 p.m. Less-trendy spots typically charge US$5 or less.
Oddly, in a country where kids learn to dance to salsa and merengue as soon as they can walk and where partying is virtually a civil right, it’s not unusual to see little or no dancing at a Panama City club these days. Even if the place is packed and the music deafening, most people may just be talking, flirting, and drinking. Music is generally played at ear-shattering volumes; bring earplugs.
Note: Don’t ask a taxi driver to take you to a good “nightclub” unless what you’re looking for is a strip club or brothel. What gringos call “nightclubs” or “clubs” are still usually known as “discos” in Panama.
Clubs and bars come and go fast in Panama City, and what’s popular one week can be dead or out of business the next. That’s why it’s best to aim for a neighborhood rather than a specific bar or club. If all you want is a nice quiet bar, five-star hotels are a good option. The Sparkles Bar, on the fifth floor of the InterContinental Miramar, has a terrific view of the skyline and Panama Bay.
Internet entertainment listings in Panama are getting a bit better, but including addresses, hours, and phone numbers is still an alien www.cocoas.net, www.dealante.com, www.buscapanama.net, or www.elcuara.com.
A popular place for salsa lessons is Bohío Florencia (Vía España near ULACIT and Hospital San Fernando, tel. 221-7582), but it’s in a busy industrial area that’s a bit of a haul from downtown. Lessons are given Thursday 6–10 p.m. and cost US$3, but call ahead of time to make sure the schedule hasn’t changed. The place can also sometimes arrange private lessons at a place of the students’ choosing. Friday and Saturday are the hottest nights for actual dancing. The area can be intimidating at night, and you may be the only foreign visitor. But it’s certainly an off-the-beaten-path option for those who want an urban adventure away from the touristy parts of Panama City. Be alert, dress neatly, and leave the bling behind.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition