While not really on the top of most people’s travel radars, Panama City (Ciudad de Panama) definitely has enough to keep even the most seasoned traveler interested for a few days. The national carrier,COPA airlines is extremely well-connected, and compared to Central American cities like Guatemala City, San Salvador or Tegucigalpa, Panama City is honestly a more comfortable place to stay and has more finesse, making it a good hub to explore Panama.
Day 1 – A Rainy Introduction to the City
The wonderful part of this journey was that Copa Airlines does a direct JFK-Panama City (PTY) flight that leaves New York City around 1:00am, landing in Panama City early in the morning, and saving me hours of travel time.
I did not understand the concept so much before landing, but once I saw it in action, it made sense – Panama’s currency may be the Balboa, but the dollar is what is really used here. Occasionally, you will get change back in Balboas that are modeled after existing US coinage, but otherwise, there is no reason to look for an ATM after you land.
Barring a traffic jam, getting from Tocumen International Airport to downtown Panama City or Casco Viejo is a short trip. My first glance at the city’s amazing skyline was the sailboat-inspired Trump hotel, which greets you on the bridge into downtown.
For my three night/four day trip, I based myself at the TRYP Wyndham Panama Centro, located in downtown Panama City’s El Congrejo district. For backpackers out there, the word I was given was that Luna’s Castle in Casco Viejo is really the place to be. While Toscana Inn was higher rated and nearby the TRYP, the TRYP was less expensive and looked really new.
Aside from a few issues with the water temperature, I could not complain for the price (About $80US for a regular room). The rooms are new and nicely-finished with huge windows look out at the Panama’s downtown in the distance. El Congrejo is a safe area to walk around, even during the night, and offers plenty of restaurants around, but it was clear that the best nightlife is reserved for other parts of the city. Arriving extremely early in the morning, I was offered a room, but probably for my only time as a traveler, told I would have to pay a $20 early check-in fee. If it was between that or waiting 8-10 hours to check-in, I was paying the $20.
• Early December in Panama is hot and humid, ranging up to about 90F during the day. Hold high expectations of becoming a sweaty, sticky mess – plan on some escapes back to your lodging or to an air-conditioned cafe or restaurant to cool down during the day.
• For this trip, I used Moon Guide’s Panama. While not colorful or graphic, there is a ton of valuable information in Moon Guides and I have used them for trips to South Korea and Mexico City.
• If you have unlocked phone, there are a few major providers with which you can get a SIM card at one of the many mobile shops around. It’s easy, fast, and for maybe around $10, I got a week of unlimited data and enough talk time to make calls in the area.
• Taxis – Taxis are ridiculously plentiful in downtown. In El Congrejo, Via Veneto is a popular spot for passing cabs. If you don’t speak Spanish, I would learn some basic numbers and a couple of expressions for asking how much the fare will be before getting in. Technically, nothing within the city is supposed to cost more than a few dollars, but I was willing to to pay a couple more if need be. If they tell you a price that is too high, just walk away.
• More on taxis – Don’t be surprised if you get in and another passenger is there. It happened to me a few times, and it’s just a way for the drivers to be able to survive with such low fares.
Speaking of taxis, my first trip of the day was off to Panama La Vieja, the ruins of Panama’s first colonial city. The driver who picked me up immediately began negotiating and we came to a reasonable price (in my eyes at least) of $30 for the day to drive me to Panama La Vieja, then to the museum, then to Casco Antiguo, Cerro Ancon and back to my hotel. While getting a taxi in Casco Antiguo or El Congrejo might be easy, getting one near Panama La Vieja or on top of Cerro Ancon will not be fun.
Panama La Vieja is worth a visit of an hour or two. It is an open site which requires some walking.
Most of the site consists of ruins, but the church building and the tower are decently-preserved. You could easily wander off here and not see a soul around, which is part of its charm. I particularly recommend taking the stairs up the tower, where you get some wonderful views of the Panama City skyline and the ruins around you.
Although small and not exactly next door to the ruins, I appreciated the surprisingly well-maintained Museum of Panama La Vieja. The museum includes displays of what the original city would have looked like with all of its churches and squares, and some very interesting reading material which takes you through all of the colonial history of Panama, mostly in word. There are only two rooms open, so I did not need to budget a lot of time. The added bonus was escaping from the sudden downpour outside.
My next stop was Casco Antiguo, although many Panamanians referred to it as Casco Viejo. There is a lot of similarity between Panama City’s old Spanish colonial section and those of other cities in the America’s, such as that of San Juan, Puerto Rico. If I am drawing a parallel, it ends in the fact that Casco Antiguo’s does not feel too tourist Disneyfied. While the colonial-style buildings are beautiful, the area has plenty of rough edges and is not overwhelming or in-your-face with a souvenir shop every five feet. The area still houses working-class families and while some buildings may be impeccably maintained, some others are tattered. I made two separate visits to Casco Antiguo, besides returning for a night out on my last night in the city. For most people, this is understandable the most interesting part of Panama City to be in.
• The area is built around a main square and cathedral. You might catch
some performances in the square, or more likely, an open-air flea market with souvenirs.
• I enjoyed simply taking a walk up and down the different streets and appreciating the beauty of the colonial architecture. There is no lack of decent restaurants and cafe’s around here, serving up every cuisine possible.
If we are talking attractions, the one I will remember most is the Museum of the Panama Canal. If you even have some interest in history, this is worth the admission and is only one block from the main square. As you move from floor to floor, you will journey through the history of the canal: How the French originally tried to build it; How the Americans made it happen; What life was like in the original canal zone; all the way up to the handing back of the canal ownership to Panama, and the current expansion project aimed at accommodating larger vessels.
There is plenty of written word, but photographic and videographic exhibitions are there, too.
• I also loved the walk out to the southeast end of the zone (the tip). Around the Plaza de Francia, there are stairs up to an elevated walkway around the tip, offering views of the Bridge of the Americas, Casco Antiguo, as well as Panama City’s skyline – there are many spots you get a great view of it, though. This is also a spot where many vendors line-up with better prices than the shops around, if you are on the look-out for things to bring home.
My driver was a little aggressive in trying to get me to finish up in Casco Antiguo, suggesting that he would come to pick me up in an hour. You need at least a few hours, if not a full afternoon, in Casco Antiguo, to enjoy its architecture, visit the Canal Museum, grab something to eat, and even do some shopping if you will. These are the times its worth it to get the local SIM, besides being able to freely look things up and use map apps – just my two cents. Sadly, my first day in Panama was super-rainy and the occasional downpours left me smacking myself for not bringing along an umbrella (The day started out deceptively sunny and beautiful). Unfortunately, as we made our way to my last stop – Cerro Ancon – it was closed to due to the torrential downpour. After a short break,
I made my next foray out to the neighborhood around Plaza Cinco de Mayo. The taxi and pedestrian traffic was at a snails pace on this Saturday, but this was a great place to get a feel for working-class Panama City during the daytime. This is an area I highly recommend people to dress down, try to blend in, and don’t bring out the fancy camera – you will look even more out of place. While the Moon Guide highly recommended this place, I would not put it on a must-do list. I think its worth it to take a bit of a walk and do some people-watching, especially on the weekend.
El Congrejo itself is not terribly interesting, a mix of mid-range residential and commercial establishments. I tried a few different restaurants in the area.
- Of these, New York Bagel Barn was a bit of a walk away from my hotel, but it serves up average fare, mostly geared around breakfast foods.
- El Greco right around the corner from Via Veneto and across from the candy floss pink Veneto hotel serves up some pretty good Greek food – souvlaki and all the rest at a good price.
Day 2 – The Canal
One of the things I really wanted to do during my time in Panama City was to spend a fullday outside of it. I looked at a variety of options – the Panama Railway to Colon, Valle de Anton, Barro Colorado, and all the rest.
Unfortunately, I am not keen on renting cars and getting a boat rental is not exactly easy, so I looked at a number of outfitters. Most of the ones based out of Panama City are super-expensive and on a private basis. I opted for a Panama Canal/Lake Gatun trip through Barefoot Panama.
Personally, I found the owner of Barefoot Panama to be curt and sloppy. I only found out later that Panama Canal trips are through a third-party vendor and as with everything, he furnished no information except to become snarky. Really one of the worst people I have dealt with in the travel industry anywhere. Again, do not deal with Barefoot Panama!
The drive from Panama City out to the Canal docks is a short one. Most of these excursions take at least a couple of hours onto the canal itself. At the end of the day, it is just a canal, so looking at it for hours could border on tedious. On the other hand, it was interesting to see some of the dredging operations for the expansion of the canal and to watch the giant vessels pass through with their cargo, but unless you are a fanatic of the Panama Canal, this only keeps your attention for so long. We also made some stops to check out the monkeys that inhabit the Canal’s surrounding jungle, such as the Spider Monkey and the Howler Monkey. I was quite shocked at how loud such small creatures are!
The highlight of the day was a houseboat on Lake Gatun where we were served a Panamanian-style lunch of chicken and rice. Following this, we had the chance to take kayaks through a narrow passage out to a small waterfall off the lake. At some points, the passageway barely exceeded a few feet, which made kayaking pretty difficult. On the upside, I got to burn off some of the rich food I am always eating on vacation.
Back on the houseboat after our kayaking trip, we had an hour or two to just unwind. The top of the houseboat was stocked with hammocks and fake grass looking out the beauty and serenity of Lake Gatun and the surrounding rainforest, untouched from modern development. Coming from a city, I always appreciate the change to feel like I have really gotten away from it all when I can – traffic, honking, crowds, and the rage of a city.
If I were to rate doing an excursion out to the Canal and Lake Gatun, I would give it a 3/5. I read reviews on the Panama Railway, but looking at other blogs and videos, this seemed nothing bordering on interesting. The “beachy” island off of Panama City had likewise sub-standard reviews. If my scheduling worked out, I would have opted to take a visit to one of the Embera Indian villages or truly get a feel for the nature of Panama’s rainforests with a visit to Barro Colorado or the Soberania. Oh well, there’s always next time!
I got back early enough to explore El Congrejo a bit, in particular the majorly busy thoroughfare of Via Espana. Much like Plaza Cinco de Mayo, this is not something you would necessarily miss. The street is stocked with a ton of electronics and housewares stores and a scattering of clothing stores, so aside from a bit of people-watching and shopping (if that’s your thing, but I doubt anyone came to Panama to buy a mobile phone), this is not a big excursion.
Day 3 – Wrapping Up
This is how trips go for me. I arrive to a place jet lagged and/or not sleeping a bit on the plane. The first day is always a tad bit dis-oriented and exhausting. The second day is easier and I start building up my feel for a place. By the third day, I feel at home, and that’s when I usually head out. Panama City was no different.
I started the day passing through three cabs who wanted $10-15 to get to Cerro Ancon, which I missed on my first day. Finally, one driver was willing to take me for $5. As I entered the cab, I notice a woman in the backseat, giving me the look of death. There is just a certain joy to shared taxis
Cerro Ancon is a slow and up-hill drive through one of Panama City’s ritziest neighborhoods. After all, the wealthy love their views. As we approached the first gate, we stopped. As I later learned, the dispatchers communicate their to make sure people only go up when there are parking spots available at the top of the hill (Very limited).
Most people take a taxi who stops there. For anyone going: Make sure your driver comes with you. I’ll explain more.
I felt mildly furious towards my driver, as I realized getting from the gate up to the top is not a leisurely walk. Luckily, a Panamanian family having a day out saw me and taking pity, offered me a ride up. I thanked the man profusely – I was not in any way dressed for that walk.
On a clear and sunny day, the views from Cerro Ancon are amazing, beating any views from a hotel or Casco Antiguo. On the one side, you can see out north to the Canal and one of the sets of locks. To another end, the entire skyline of downtown. Move a little further and you can capture all of the Casco Antiguo. If you are camera-happy like me, you will linger here – this is a spot worth bringing more than one lens.
When I was ready to leave, it came to my realization that getting a taxi to take me down from Cerro Ancon would be impossible. While the dispatcher attempted to find me a cab, I finally broke down and called the driver who originally dropped me off, offering him a premium to get me out of there and into Casco Antiguo.
The city was eerily quiet on this Monday. A Panamanian friend informed me it was Mother’s Day in Panama and that Mother’s Day is a holiday – who would have thought?
Although I am not a fan of Ceviche, I took a visit through the Fish Market on the edge of Casco Antiguo. Lucky for me, fish tacos – more to my palate, was on the menu. The fish market was casual and a cheap and tasty way to spend lunch, although it is still a fish market – so be ready for the stench that comes with.
Up north from the Fish Market is the Cinta Costera, a coastal walkway which leads back to downtown. The views of downtown, like in many other places, are stunning. The walkway is clean and easy to navigate and part of the fun is just watching the families and bikers out, enjoying the public space in a city with not many of them. The walkway ends all the way by the skyscrapers in Punta Paitilla. If you do not want to do the whole walk, a taxi is easy enough to catch on the Cinta Costera roadway anywhere.
My final night in Panama City was spent at Tantalo in Casco Antiguo. While admittedly touristy (Although some Panamanians go there as well), the restaurant is stylish and focused around small plates. It has a price tag based on its audience, but it was a fun way to spend a dinner. On the top floor is a rooftop bar, once again – overlooking at the skyline. With good music and decent drinks, I can’t think of a better way to send off Panama City.
Panama City is worth at least a couple of full days to explore and enjoy the city with at least one day to enjoy one of the surrounding sites. If I had more time, I would have liked to make the trip out to Bocas del Toro near the Costa Rican border and I definitely intend to do so on a future trip to Panama.
Solo Traveler Comments:
- The most cosmopolitan city in Central America has a wide selection hotels which are still affordable.
- Areas such as El Congrejo and the financial district are much safer than your typical Central American large city. Even Casco Viejo should be ok at night with some extra caution. During the day, almost every area felt reasonably safe (with precaution).
- Taxis are plentiful and cheap if you ensure they don’t try to rip you off. They will offer reasonable rates to be your driver for a half day or full day.
- Again, as a cosmopolitan city, there is a wide selection of restaurants that are modern and offer a variety of international tastes, besides choices to try local cuisine.
- An area like Casco Viejo is probably a good choice to meet up with other travelers.
- Tocumen is a great hub because of COPA’s large network. This also makes it feasible to combine Panama City with other places (in my case, I chose Guatemala). A multi-city itinerary ends up being more affordable because international flights between Central American cities one way end up being extremely expensive for foreigners.
- Panama City is a big, busy city. Don’t expect the same levels of warmth from people you might encounter in Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.
- While it is easy to get around the city independently, the cost of excursions outside of Panama is shockingly high, with most companies seeming to offer only on a private basis. This means those of us independent travelers who might want to join for a group thing are going to have a tough time finding options.
- Panama City is interesting, but a few days is sufficient. It is more overflowing with cultural hotspots the way Quito or Mexico City is. The more interesting natural beauty hubs are further away i.e. Bocas Del Toro.