Panama City Unmasked [PHOTO ESSAY]

Panama City Skyline
Modern Panama City Skyline
Panama City, Panama

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 City
Fishing Boats Panama City
Panama City Fishing Boats
El Chorillo Panama City
War-Torn El Chorillo Neighborhood
Panama City Alley
Squatter Buildings with Character
Travel Planning Resources for Panama City

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Book cheap flights on Skyscanner, my favorite airline search engine to find deals. Also read my tips for how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Cars is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent local apartments on Airbnb ($35 discount!). Read my post for tips on booking cheap hotels.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.


I hope you enjoyed my photos of Panama City! Hopefully you found the information useful too. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Which of the above shots is your favorite & why? Let me know in the comments!


Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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Comments (37)

  1. Those are some really awesomes pics bro……i’m from india and hey why does everydone think of india as a country of shantyy towns and snake charmers???..think about it everyone….

  2. When I look at the amazing skyscrapers I find it hard to believe that they are paid for entirely by american junkies. I also see a very rich Jewish neighbourhood, other super-wealthy middle-easteners and notice that almost all the grocery stores thoughout the country are owned by Chinese and so on. Also, it seems that many of the skyscrapers sit empty.
    Yes, I’m sure there’s money laundering, but I bet it isn’t all drugs. Anybody got an inside angle?

    • Panama Papers! Lots of fachade companies from other illegal activities (like corruption), or legal ones, but to avoid paying taxes.

  3. Panama City is a crazy place! Some parts look kinda like Dubai, others look like a slum in India… Some streets are filled with expensive, refurbished mansions, but you turn a block and you’re in the ghetto. The people were some of the friendliest that I met in Panama though… pretty unexpected for a big city!

  4. Es tan divertido como quieres publicar cosas bonitas pero nunca publicar las cosas verdaderas. Las mujeres en Panamá son putas y dormirán con los hombres estadounidenses de forma gratuita y o por dinero. Sé que es un hecho robaba Carmen Librada Bernal Cortes edad 27 lo hace para mi marido cada vez que vaya por ahí. ¿Por qué no decirle a ambos lados?

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

    • 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.

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

  8. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

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

  11. 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!

    • 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.

      • I appreciate the contrast, makes life interesting :-) I lived in Mexico City for 8 years and really enjoyed the diversity, of course with that came certain challenges. I would love to see some pics of the modern Panama to get a sense for what day-to-day life looks like if one were considering moving there …

        Cheers & thanks for he essay,


  12. 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. = )

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

  14. 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?

    • 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.

  15. 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. :)