9 Surprising Facts About Panama City

Not to be confused with the popular spring break destination in Florida, Panama City is the capital of Panama and the largest city in the country. It’s home to about 1.8 million people and is a popular destination for tourists from around the world due to its tropical climate and natural surroundings. Here are nine surprising facts you might not have known about the Central American Panama City.

It Was Founded in 1519

Ancient Spanish fortress
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Over 100 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Pedro Arias Dávila led the first Spanish expedition to North and Central America to establish permanent colonies. He established Panama City in 1519 as a port to ship gold back to Spain. It’s one of the oldest European established cities in the Western Hemisphere.

The City Was Destroyed by Privateers

Historic ruins of Panama Viejo old city, crumbling walls and towers of stone
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Panama City flourished for more than 150 years until pirates started to invade Caribbean waters and throw a wrench into trade. In 1671, a pirate named Henry Morgan amassed a 2,000-man buccaneer crew and led an attack on the city. The siege was successful and resulted in the total destruction of the city.

A new city was built in 1674. The new city, called Panama Nuevo, or New Panama, was located about five miles away from the old one, which was then called Panama Viejo. You can still visit the ruins of the old city.

It Boasts Modern Architecture

Aerial view of modern Panama City skyline showing architecture and buildings
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Despite its age, Panama City has had no trouble keeping up with the times. Its skyline boasts some of the most modern buildings anywhere in the world. There aren’t many places where you can visit historical sites from the 16th century sitting next to a 600-foot glass skyscraper.

It Has Half of the 10 Tallest Buildings in Latin America

City view on water in Panama
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Panama City has eight buildings that stand over 240-feet tall, the tallest of which is a hotel: the J.W. Marriott Panama. This massive hotel sits right on the water and features a unique fin-like design.

The Canal Brings in Lots of Money

Panama canal
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The thing that Panama is most famous for is its canal. The Panama Canal was built by the United States government in 1914 as a faster way for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Before the canal, to transport goods from California to New York, ships would have to travel all the way around the tip of South America. The Panama Canal shortened the journey by more than 9,000 miles.

Because the canal is so efficient, it’s used by a lot of ships, and they all pay tolls. The money made from the canal makes up 40% of the entire country’s economy.

It's the Only Capital City to Have a Rainforest

Rainforest in Panama
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There are many rainforests in South America and Latin America, but Panama City is the only capital city that can boast a rainforest within city limits. When visiting, you can take a day trip away from the metropolis of modern Panama City and adventure into the tropical forest.

The birds of the Panamanian rainforests make up 10% of all the known species in the world. The country of Panama is roughly the size of South Carolina but has more bird species than the entire United States.

It Features the Oldest Continually Operating Train Station

View from train going through jungle in Panama
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The Panama Canal Railway Company laid its first track in 1850 just as the California gold rush was underway. The railroad hasn’t stopped operating for over 150 years, making it the oldest continually operating railway in the world.

Today, the railroad is still used for shipping but can also be used by tourists who want to travel the length of the canal. The endpoints are in Colon, on the Atlantic Ocean, and Panama City, which sits on the Pacific.

Panama City Uses U.S. Dollars

Up close view of U.S. currency, green bills stacked in a pile
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For travelers who don’t love exchanging money, Panama City might be the place for you. The official currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar. Many economists believe that the economic success of Panama in the past few decades has been a result of using the U.S. dollar. Because the country can’t just print more money, the currency can’t inflate or deflate like it can in many other countries.

You Can See the Sun Rise Over the Pacific and Set on the Atlantic

Sunset on beach in Panama
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At its narrowest point, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are only 30 miles apart in Panama. Just outside of Panama City is one of the highest peaks in the country. Fun Fact: Travelers who want a truly unique experience can travel there to see the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic from the same spot.

Since the two bodies of water are so close, it’s also one of the few spots in the world where you can swim in the Atlantic and Pacific in the same day.

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