I just returned from a nice, albiet short, weekend trip to Panama City, Panama. I had never been to Panama before but in 2011 when I sailed with Semester at Sea, our voyage crossed the Panama Canal, and it was a surreal once-in-a-lifetime experience. This time I got a chance to explore the capital city of this historically and currently important city from multiple angles. It is a socioeconomic and sociopolitical hub and hotspot in the world and region but it also is home to some incredible natural wonders and has some of the most intense biodiversity anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, when you google Panama City you’ll mostly get things related to the Floridian Panama City where college kids go get trashed for Spring Break, disappointing really as the real Panama City has a lot to offer in terms of its culture, history, food and activities (think of all the biodiversity here!!! hikes, diving, camping, and just immersing in mother nature) and is too often overlooked and overshadowed by its neighbors in Central and South America. I discovered it is more than just a economic/ trade hub.
We arrived without really knowing that it was a major holiday and celebration weekend. Friday November 3 was Separation Day (National Day) and Saturday November 4 was Flag Day. Most things are closed on November 3 regardless of day of week and most things are open on November 4 except for business near and around the main parade route. This made for a rather fun trip as we stumbled upon the celebrations and parade and the all-day parade on Saturday was amazing.
It was a short 3.5 hour flight from Atlanta. We uber-ed everywhere, except for a few times when there were no ubers nearby in which we took a taxi which yes is more expensive than uberX in Panama. Both are reliable and safe, Taxis are cash only. USD is accepted in Panama, and is a 1:1 exchange rate, in fact we never once saw locals using local currency. Panama is relatively inexpensive and most places accept cards (except say Chinese restaurants or the Seafood Market). The areas we explored were all quite safe both day and night. And enough people spoke English but of course as with any Latin American country, knowing even a little Spanish can go a long way.
We stayed at the historic (since 1847) and centrally located hotel in the UNESCO historic town part of Panama City, Casco Viejo, the hotel we stayed at was Central Hotel Panama. I would recommend it as it has an excellent location, historic, and recently renovated, and pretty good value as the rooms are well appointed, beds comfy and complimentary daily buffet breakfast (limited but fair and tasty selection).
- Arrive at 9:30PM at Tocumen International Airport, take uber to hotel, albeit with lots of detours due to main roads being blocked for national weekend celebrations.
- Arrive and check-in to Central Hotel
- Walk to La Rana Dorada, a local pizza pub/ craft brewery in Casco Viejo. Great place, great beers and they even give you a free beer flight to taste all your options before ordering! Ordered a Panama Coffee Stout and some local corvina Ceviche.
- Headed back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
- Enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, before heading out to try to see if some coffee shops were open to sample the rare, the expensive and the delicious Geisha coffee. Sadly most places were closed and the one place that was open wasnt serving the coffee until the main barista arrived later in the day (we would return later to sample the incredible coffee).
- We then headed to Plaza Boliviar where each group in the parade were lining up and gearing up for the 9AM start time, we then walked a little ways back to watch the parade from the sidelines.
- We spent the rest of the morning walking along the coast and parade path and watching the parade along the way, before eventually making it to Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market) for a brunch of Ceviche.
- We then walked back to Casco Viejo, once again catching the parade along the way.
- We then went back to Casa Sucre Cafe to have the brew master himself do a pour-over of Geisha Coffee, and my goodness was it amazing. So subtle yet complex and balanced and so aromatic, truly wonderful coffee. Even in Panama a bag of Geisha beans is considerably more expensive than regular beans, and I didnt buy any knowing I’d very well mess up the brewing process at home.
- We then walked to a main street to catch a taxi to take us to the Biomuseo, a museum designed by Frank Gehry on the biodiversity and geology of Panama as well as its historic and contemporary significance to the world. A worth and insightful visit, if anything for the Gehry architecture.
- Afterwards, we walked down the Amador road towards Panama Bay, we then ate a late lunch at a local and traveler favorite, Mi Ranchito, here we ordered a few traditional dishes including an incredible whole fried Corvina fish with creole sauce.
- Post-lunch we cabbed back to our hotel to take a quick break from it all before heading up to the rooftop pool and deck to witness the Flag Day Fireworks display.
- Rested and ready we headed to dinner at Kwang Chow Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown, on the edges of Casco Viejo. In No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain stops by for some Panamanian Chinese Food. The Latin world and Caribbean has a healthy Chinese diaspora and the food is actually top notch and often better than what one can find in the states.
- For evening activities we did a little bar-hopping, at least to ones that were open that night. Casco Viejo is full of restaurants, bars, lounges, and cafes but I’d say around 2/3 were closed this past weekend. Nonetheless we enjoyed the 3 places we hit up. Tantalo for its rooftop bar, Barlovento for its rooftop setting and Corona based cocktails as well as cool recycled Corona bottle cups, and finally Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar for a bygone Hemingway-esque atmosphere and wonderful Rum based craft cocktails.
- Returned to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
- Early wake-up with breakfast at the hotel, its great that the Central Hotel’s breakfast starts at 6AM!
- Depart Panama City on a 9:15AM flight.
Over all it was a festive and culturally rich trip to Panama City. It was a little sad that many shops were closed and that no cars could go inside Casco Viejo during this period and lots of detours BUT it was worth it as the parade was incredible and we got to see lots of Panamanian cultural and societal elements on display all in one place. The weather also held up despite a forecast for thunderstorms all weekend. The food is delicious, with incredibly fresh seafood and the drinks are affordable. The hotels are very affordable and Casco Viejo is pretty and safe. I’d say worth a trip. And if you have never been to the Canal, definitely find a way and time to squeeze that in, if not visit the Canal Museum in the heart of Casco Viejo.