Panama City Unmasked [PHOTO ESSAY]

Panama City Skyline

Modern Panama City Skyline

Panama City is not like other cities in Central America. A unique mixture of modern skyscrapers and crumbling neighborhoods full of history.

I spent a couple months living in Panama City, giving me plenty of time to explore it’s diverse streets. Central America’s biggest metropolitan area is growing rapidly. It’s often called “The Miami of the South”. But many of the high-rise skyscrapers you see are actually empty or not yet finished.

The city center has moved a few times over the centuries after pirates like Henry Morgan destroyed it. In the past Panama City was also used as a Spanish base for gold exploration and the conquest of many countries, including Peru in South America.

In 1989 the United States invaded Panama, destroying parts of the city with bombing. The invasion’s aim was to get rid of Panama’s dictator General Manuel Noriega, who had worked for the CIA under President Bush for over 20 years as a paid informant (supporting foreign dictators seems to be a common theme for the United States).

In this photo essay I attempt to reveal the many different sides of Panama City. Enjoy! :)

Panama City Home

Beach Front Property

Panama City Casco Viejo

Old Casco Viejo Neighborhood

Panama City Police

Panama City Police Force

Panama City Diablo Rojo Bus

Diablo Rojo Public Bus

Panama City Lottery

Wildly Popular Panama Lottery

Panama Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace

Panama City Fish Market

Panama City Fish Market

Panama City Skyscrapers

New Skyscraper Construction

Cathedral Metropolitana Panama City

Cathedral Metropolitana Panama

Fishing Boats Panama City

Panama City Fishing Boats

El Chorillo Panama City

War-Torn El Chorillo Neighborhood

Panama City Alley

Squatter Buildings with Character

What Do You Think?

I’m interested in your opinion. Which of the above shots is your favorite & why? Let me know in the comments!

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Comments & Questions

  • Bob R

    Nice shots. I really like the bottom two. Second from the bottom could be lots of places; have seen similar building in eastern Europe. Same uninspired utilitarian design. :)

  • Jade –

    Great photos! I love the contrast between the modern high rises and the more delapitated buildings

    • Matthew Karsten

      Panama City is an eclectic place! :D

  • Juan

    Amazing photos. Love the one of the Diablo Rojo. I wrote a post about them recently. Having lived there for two years, what are your thoughts on the Diablos getting phased out?

    • Matthew Karsten

      Makes me sad. I always jumped on a Diablo Rojo before one of the newer buses. Panama City has so much character, I’d hate to see it turn into Miami.

  • Emily D.

    Wow, it took me ages to load your post, but it was worth it! :) I love your colorful photos!

    • Matthew Karsten

      Thanks Emily! Yeah, I need to work on speeding my site up.

  • debbie


  • Dean Forrest

    These are some of the most amazing photographs I’ve seen. I’m so tempted to visit Panama City.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Trish and Shawn

    I love the contrast of the city in the background with the older fishing vessels in the front. Nice job Matt, always love the photos. Now get out of that redneck bar in NH and start snapping. = )

  • Lanaya

    Very amazing shots indeed. You have very interesting pictures of Panama City.. From modern buildings to old ones! :)

  • Mark

    Nice pics, Matthew. thanks for sharing. Very colorful lobsters!


  • Anji

    I wasn’t aware of the fact that Panama had such a huge gap between the rich and the poor. It kind of reminds me of a cleaner and less populated version of India. I found the lottery tickets extremely curous as well as the police car!

    • Matthew Karsten

      Yeah, it’s pretty drastic. I didn’t get many photos of the rich side either. There are bay areas filled with fancy yachts and restaurants, and then there are the squatters that live in the old city.

  • Traveling Ted

    I would not have expected Panama City to be this beautiful. Great shots.

  • Ryan at Travel and Graphs

    Best. Public Transport Bus. Ever.

  • Claudia

    I like the one of the diablo rojo best, hope they are still there when I go next year to Panamá.

    • Matthew Karsten

      Me too Claudia! It would be a shame to get rid of such amazing works of art.

  • Simon

    Beautiful photo essay. I particularly like the Old Casco Viejo Neighborhood and the last picture of the Squatter Buildings.

  • Maria Bustanante

    I’m from Panama, it will NEVER be another “Miami” if anything simply because of its people. “The Diablo rojos” from the stand point of people having to use them daily weren’t always a fun pleasant experience. Progress is many times unavoidable, things that don’t stay the same can be better. Panama is and will always be a country of many contrasts and a few visits can’t tell the tell of being born in that blessed land and capturing what Panama and being Panamian is, and I think that applies most countries one visits. By the way a lot of those buildings are occupied. Gracias.

    • Matthew Karsten

      I’m sure you have a completely different take on Panama growing up there Maria. It was just my observation after living in the city for a few months. I’ve also lived in Miami. Miami has plenty of great people too, and fun local Cuban & Haitian neighborhoods. But big-business & developers have taken it over, I just hope the same doesn’t happen to Panama. Wouldn’t want it to loose its charm.

      I met Panamanians who were also sad to see the death of the Diablo Rojo buses. New buses are fine for those who want them, but I hope they don’t completely wipe out the other ones.

  • Amanda

    I like the fish market photo best, because the composition is so elegant, yet most of us don’t conventionally associate a fish market with elegance. Reminds me of Susan Sarandon in the movie Atlantic City. A good reminder to keep our eyes open and appreciate what’s around us! Lovely photos, must be a great place.

    • Matthew Karsten

      Glad you enjoyed that one Amanda. I think that’s one thing photography has taught me, to keep my eyes open and really look for interesting moments that I might otherwise miss.

  • Raul

    I wonder how expensive Panama City is. I have been to Costa Rica many times and I know it is not cheap any more.

    • Matthew Karsten

      It really depends what your limits are. I stayed at a decent hostel called for $13 a night. The colorful local buses are crazy cheep. It’s possible to hang out there on a budget for a while.

  • Marysia @ My Travel Affairs

    Great pictures, I was thinking about visiting Panama but wasn’t too sure! But after those pictures I will definitely visit!

    • Matthew Karsten

      Panama is a very colorful & diverse country. Definitely check it out Marysia!

  • Roberto

    The Fish Market is my favorite. Beautiful colors and fantastic sea creatures and bored saleslady contrasts. Taking the standard canal tour next month. Will drop a few lines about that and maybe some notes from a Nicaraguan diary…

    • Matthew Karsten

      The fish/lobsters there was all so fresh and delicious. I love how the local boats just pull right up and you can watch the whole process.

  • Aura

    You failed to show the various neighborhoods where most people live. You chose to only show shanty towns and poor people. By the way, every country has them. You said that you would show the real Panama; however, the photos are a poor representation of panama.
    Cost of living is high, food is superb, people are warm, beaches are great, and it is HOT. For those of you who plan on visiting Panama, expect the very opposite of these pictures. You will be very surprised.