Do you like walking ? I certainly do ! Especially upon arriving in a new place. In my opinion, walking is the best way to discover a new neighborhood. Because it is slow, you have plenty of time to observe and spot all the places you need to identify : supermarket/grocery stores, hospital/doctors/other medical professionals, restaurants, bakeries, banks, schools… among a very long list. Also, it is the opportunity to learn about street names (if and when indicated!), flow direction and parking possibilities. It helps you form a mental map of your surroundings, making it also easier to find your way once you drive through the area.
Walking, an unusual thing in Panamá City
However, it is not always easy to walk your way around ! Walking in Panamá City, for example, is both unusual and reckless. Unusual in a country where you either have money and drive your own car, or don’t have so much money and opt for a taxi, or even cheaper, the bus. To be honest, when we settled in Panamá, we didn’t feel like investing in a car, but we were also determined to avoid taking the bus, the old-fashioned (but also just old and worn) school bus bought second hand from the US. Don’t get me wrong, they are absolutely beautiful, each owner redecorating them in bright colors and turning them into driving frescoes, real pieces of art, the famous Diablo Rojo. But it doesn’t make up for the old tired engines and the speedy and incautious driving habits, due to drivers being paid according to the number of passengers per day. So, that’s why, « no thanks », if I can find another way… Anyway, most Panamanians I met did not understand this need for walking, when I « could afford at least to take a cab ».
And the city is designed accordingly to this « all motors » culture. Wide, multiple lane ways, with little to no pedestrian crossing options. Rare, uneven and dangerous sidewalks. Drivers who are not used to pedestrians and who will not slow down (let alone stop!) when a pedestrian wants to cross the street, even if he/she finds one of the scarce crosswalks…
Would I recommend walking through Panamá City ?
Definitely. Despite the difficulties and risks, it is worth the extra effort. First of all, Panamá is a dense city, everything you need can be found within a walkable perimeter, you honestly can live there without any need for a car. Also, walking will provide you with an extraordinary view on the city. You will discover some gems, whether you prefer old colonial-style buildings or modern state-of-the-art skyscrapers, it will all be more accessible to your pedestrian viewpoint. And how else will you be able to stop at a corner and enjoy a natural sugar cane juice prepared on the spot by a street vendor ?
Tips to walk safely in Panamá City
Just follow a few tips :
→ Do Never, Ever, look up for too long
I know you want to admire the view, observe the buildings, do some window shopping… but for your own safety, look back down regularly, always keep an eye at where you are going to put your feet next. No, it is not about doggy poop but about a real danger of getting (seriously) hurt. There are a variety of hazards, pretty much everywhere, no matter the neighborhood, rich or poor, residential or commercial. A quick look around you, and you’ll see : missing manhole covers, holes in the road or in the sidewalk, random obstacles… and of course none of these are indicated by any kind of sign nor kept by a fence or tape. So really, watch your step !
→ Wear some good walking/sports shoes
Because walking on the sidewalks of Panamá City is a real sport ! In Panamá, the sidewalk is not a common good, like the rest of the street. It belongs to each building that bords it, which means each individual building owner is responsible for the piece of sidewalk in front of it. And for each new construction, a new coordinated piece of sidewalk… and by that I mean coordinated to the building, not to the rest of the street. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit with its neighbors. And not just in terms of style, but also in height and inclination. You can literally have a 2 to 3-step-high difference between two neighboring sidewalks. With no steps to go from one to another. So you have to climb on or jump off to the next one. Which is also one more reason to keep your eyes down on the sidewalk in front of you, to avoid any epic fall !
→ Locate safe ways to cross the street
You need to cross the streets ? Look carefully around you. If you are on a main street, like Calle 50 or Via España for example, every now and then you’ll see either a crosswalk at a traffic light or a big pedestrian bridge over the street. Choose between these options instead of trying to cross multiple lanes in the middle of traffic ! If you need to cross a smaller street, you should rather wait for an empty street to do so. If the traffic is too dense or regular, don’t expect drivers to slow down to let you through. Even in the middle of a traffic jam, drivers will not have the reflex or politeness to let you through, simply because they are not used to. Like I said earlier, Panamá is not a city of walkers, so drivers have little regard for them. The one thing they will however respond to, is if you put your hand up as to make a sign to stop. I’ve experienced it quite often, and I can assure you this will more likely make them stop for you.
Some pleasant walking areas
A few areas of the city are more adapted to walking. Avenida Central, for instance, has a pedestrian zone so you can easily shop in the bazaars of this popular street. The Causeway offers a long pedestrian and cycle path all along the water. In the same way, since 2009 the Cinta Costera is a great place for leisure walking ! You’ll walk along the water but at the same time you’ll enjoy a unique view on the city’s skyline.
In conclusion : yes, walking in Panamá City is somewhat hazardous, but if you adopt these few ground rules, and watch your step, you’ll be just fine! You’ll see it’s a very interesting way to visit the city, if not the best, and you will find out a lot more about the town, its features and its stores !
Enjoy your visit !