Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2017
Overall Experience: Panama City has a lot to offer travelers. While its biggest claim to fame may be the Panama Canal, it has a rich history worth exploring, especially its Old City neighborhood. Filled with great restaurants and outdoor activities, it’s time to add Panama City to your travel bucketlist!
I booked a weeklong trip to Panama and Colombia via tripmasters.com which included all flights, hotels (some with breakfast) and taxes for $923! One note: We camped for two nights in the San Blas Islands so we only had 4 hotels nights. I love Trip Masters and have used their site several times to book travel and have always had great experiences. We had a direct flight from Dulles to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City via COPA Airlines taking just under 5 hours.
The Tocumen Airport, which was recently expanded and renovated, is not my favorite. There weren’t many food options and what was available was overpriced. Make sure to eat before your flight or bring a snack. Additionally, Wi-Fi was spotty and not available in all terminals. As far as getting to and from the airport, we took an Uber to our hotel downtown for $25.
Getting Around Panama City:
Unfortunately, downtown Panama City is not the most walkable location. The sidewalks are uneven and in some places non-existent. Traffic lights seem to be more like suggestions than actual laws. On the bright side, Uber is available all over and best of all it’s cheap! Additionally, there are buses that can get you around the city and to most tourist destinations. We’ll refer you to this thorough guide we referenced on public transportation options.
Hotel: Grace Panama
The Grace Panama is a top-notch hotel with friendly service (and reasonable prices). It’s a high-rise building, located near the upscale SOHO mall with modern decor and updated finishes. The beds are massive, soft and ready to provide a good night’s rest. Try to get a room on the higher floors to take in the views of the surrounding skyscrapers. When we checked in the room there mini desserts waiting for us from the hotel restaurant. And they even provided a separate cake to celebrate my birthday! I love personal touches like this and I will be forever loyal to this hotel. Additionally, the room service is well worth it! We were completely famished after camping in San Blas and their burger and fresh juices hit the spot!
Panama Canal – Miraflores Locks
An absolute feat of modern engineering and human determination, the Panama Canal is completely worth the visit! I’ll admit my main motivation was because it’s one of those “must see” things, however I’m so glad I did because it is surprisingly fun and cool to see! We took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks, as it was the closest to downtown, which only cost $7.32 for about a 15-20 minute ride.
Once you get there, it costs $15 for your tickets to tour the museum and see the locks from the observations decks. You can also pay extra to watch a 3D movie about the history of the Canal but we skipped that part. The museum has four floors and is a treasure trove of interesting information and fun facts. For example, did you know it costs almost $400K on average for a container ship to pass through?!? I never realized how important this canal is to modern trade as well as the complex history of how it came into being, the cultural melting pot that built it, and the transition of ownership to the people of Panama. Also, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I really understood how locks worked until I saw the museums graphic explaination…..There are a few interactive exhibits as well so it will keep kids entertained!
Once you’ve learned all there is know about locks and the Panama Canal in particular, it’s time to move on to the observation deck and wait for a ship to pass! You won’t have to wait long for a single boat but I’m told the real treat is when you get two large container ships passing each other. While you are waiting, there is a snack bar, restaurant and food court to pass the time. The employees of the canal do a wonderful job announcing when the ships are passing through to ensure you don’t miss the show.
The Cinta Costera is a designated pedestrian walkway along the Bay of Panama, linking the modern Punta Paitilla to Casco Viejo, from the skyscrapers to Spanish colonial style. It’s a pleasant walk with the sea breeze and very popular runners and bikers. It’s definitely a great area to catch a sunset, you’ll get incredible shots of the new city from the Monument of the Flag of Panama.
It’s said Casco Viejo is the crown jewel of Panama City and it’s absolutely true! The historic district is nice to meander around between the plazas and shops and settle in for a nice meal. It was completed in 1673 after the old Panama City was destroyed by a pirate attack led by Henry Morgan. We spent most of our time and had all of our meals at this UNESCO world heritage site. You too will fall in love with this charming neighborhood!
In my head, I thought this “park” would be like Central Park in New York City, a pleasant paved walk in flip-flops around a quiet part of city. Once we had enough, we could pop right out and grab a drink on a city street. I could not have been more wrong.
This is a legitimate forest, filled with industrious ants moving about their business and other elusive wildlife. There are two long looped trails , as well as various offshoots, that take you to different areas of the 573 acre park. You can schedule guided tours in advance, and if you are looking to spot wildlife, including sloths, this is the route to go as the guides are familiar with the popular animal spots.
We showed up at the visitor center/office an hour before closing at 5pm looking to take a walk through the park. I could instantly tell something was off by the look on the employees faces… They asked if we had bug spray or sneakers and in my broken Spanish I attempted to ask if that was really necessary for a quick walk and they ASSURED me it was in my best interest to have those things. Despite our complete unpreparedness, they were very kind and led us to a close uphill trail where we could see a view of the city’s skyscrapers and return alive and by closing! Everyone wins!
We paid our $4 entrance fee and were on our way to the shaded but extremely humid forest via the Los Caobos Trail and within 20 minutes arrived at the beautiful city vista which was framed by the jungle canopy. This park offers something for everyone, even the unprepared, so I hope you will take advantage and visit when in Panama City!
Food and Drink:
Ocho y Medio is phenomenal! The restaurant has a relaxed and tasteful ambiance with a mint green dining area and courtyard filled with plants and a large mural of Mary in the center. The service itself is wonderful and will provide English menus as needed. They roll out a drink cart for individualized sangria made just to your specific taste right at your table as well as a menu dedicated to craft cocktails. And after you enjoy your drink, it’s time for dinner so settle in! We tried the Tuna tartar, the suckling pig with apple chutney (which is a dish they are known for) and the savouriest duck I have ever eaten. If you have time for just one dinner in Panama City, then I implore you to make it here!
While it has nice views overlooking the Plaza Catedral, it’s definitely a club scene! There are lots of comfortable areas to lounge and sip on $9 cocktails. The lack of service is not worth the views though, so grab a drink for a photo-op and head on to greener pastures.
This local establishment, was recommended by our Uber driver and it’s a great local hangout. The “Golden Frog” is a brewery with both indoor and outdoor seating on the Via Argentina in Casco Viejo. An unpretentious place to taste some Panamanian beers, watch soccer, and snack on bar food. You can’t go wrong dropping in here.
A quaint, Caribbean fusion restaurant with the best deal in town; A six course meal for $25! The place itself is small with an open kitchen which makes you feel like you are eating at your grandmother’s house. The portions are filling and you will look forward to each new dish. The prix fixe menu changes often so it’s a place you can visit multiple times and still be surprised! Additionally, they make delicious mojitos!
An open-air hip locale made out of shipping containers with a pretty patio lit by string lights criss crossing the evening sky. If you are looking to strike up a conversation with native Panamanians, then this is the place! It’s primarily a beer joint but they do have margaritas on special.