All of Panama’s major tour operators have their headquarters in Panama City, and they all offer Panama City tours. They’re more of an afterthought for the ecotourism outfits, though, so those looking for a group tour might consider going with a more traditional tour company that offers city tours as a more or less daily business, or simply book through your hotel. However, those planning an adventure outside Panama City with an ecotourism operator may want to add on a city tour with the same group for simplicity’s sake.
Because Panama City is a relatively compact place, half-day and full-day tours typically give an overview of the entire city, including the ruins of Panamá la Vieja (Panamá Viejo), parts of the reviving colonial district of Casco Viejo, and at least a drive through the major sections of modern, central Panama City. The full-day tours in particular usually find time for a visit to the area of the Panama Canal close to the city.
This part of the tour inevitably includes a visit to Miraflores Locks and sometimes throws in stops at the handicrafts market next to the YMCA in Balboa and the Panama Canal Authority’s Administration Building, a historic structure perched on a hill that has impressive murals depicting canal construction days in its rotunda and offers dramatic views of the former Canal Zone. All three canal stops are worthwhile, so look for tours that include more than just Miraflores Locks.
Pesantez Tours (tel. 223-5374, 263-7577, or 366-9100, www.pesantez-tours.com) is a long-established tour operator with a reputation for dependable service.
Other possibilities include Panoramic Panama (tel. 314-1581 or 314-1604, www.bedandbreakfastpanama.com), which is affiliated with La Estancia, a popular bed and breakfast in the former Canal Zone; Ecocircuitos (tel. 324-0068, fax 314-1586, www.ecocircuitos.com); and Gray Line Panama (tel. 323-2333 or 323-3328, www.graylinepanama.com).
Whoever you go with, expect to pay US$80–100 per person for a half-day tour and US$110–165 for a full day tour. Larger groups pay less per person. Lunch is sometimes included. The exception is Panoramic Panama, which charges the same rate, US$110, for half-day city and canal tours for either one or two people, which is more reasonable. The company also offers a half-day tour for those just passing through Panama with a layover of at least seven hours. The rate for one or two people is US$180, including pickup and drop-off at the international airport.
Average rates for city tours have nearly doubled in the last couple of years. Given that some tour guides are often no more knowledgeable than the average taxi driver, you may be inclined just to negotiate an all-day rate with a cabbie that suits your personality instead.
Revelers may be interested in the chiva parrandera, a party bus that roams some of the city’s scenic spots at night with a murga, a traditional Panamanian band that plays Panamanian folk music and salsa. The trip includes local booze, and the bus is thoughtfully outfitted with cup holders so your drinks don’t tip over even if you yourself do.
Parranda, by the way, means both “strolling band of musicians” and “to go on a binge.” Whether this all sounds like heaven or hell is obviously a matter of taste. Most tour operators who offer city tours can arrange for seats for about US$40 per person. Bring earplugs and a spare liver.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition