It all started with a simple text: "Want to go to Panama with me?"
Panama is such an underrated country. Often times, people will go to Mexico or elsewhere in the Caribbean. But Panama? You never really hear many people visiting that part of Central America.
So why Panama? I enjoyed traveling so much with my friend Kevin in St. Lucia that we decided to book another trip spontaneously and I decided on Panama. Okay... I selfishly wanted to practice my Spanish in a real environment (I've been teaching myself since February 2017 on an app) and also to educate myself on Panamian history and culture. Let's be honest: I only really knew of the Panama Canal and that was pretty much it.
We decided to go over May long weekend so with travel time and working on a corporate schedule, that equivocated to two nights in Panama City. Short weekend trips = crazy itineraries and planning. Lucky for me, I found that this timeline actually worked out great!
I stayed at the Sortis Hotel & Spa by Autograph Collection, a gorgeous modern hotel in the heart of the city. It features a large rooftop pool with many cabanas and comfortable beds. There is even a Veuve-Clicquot Champagne Bar by the lobby and quite a few restaurants and shops on-site. It is also walking distance to the Cinta Costera and the heart of downtown. There are many coffee shops and restaurants closeby as well. Taxis are readily available and the area is very safe.
Getting around in Panama City:
- Uber - Okay, I'll be honest. I pretty much exclusively used Uber when getting around Panama City. It is literally no more than $4 - $6 USD per trip and yes, this includes getting around to major attraction around the city. Hell yes. Convenient and cheap!
- Taxi - I initially used a taxi to get from Tocumen International Airport to my hotel and it was safe and decently-priced at $30 USD. I actually think my male friend got charge more but hey, it helps being a decently cute girl speaking minimo espagnol.
Things to do in Panama City:
- Casco Viejo - My favourite part of the city, both in the daytime and evening. This is the oldest part of Panama City. It is rich with history and a mix of both old and new. There are lots of old buildings, towers, and remnants of what Panama City used to look like and dotted with trendy coffee shops and restaurants.
- Miraflores Locks - One major lock of the world renowned Panama Canal. This is the closest to Panama City and on the Pacific Ocean. They have a very informative, albeit busy, information centre which explains the history and need for the Panama Canal. Yes, super touristy but honestly, you need to go here.
- Biomuseo - Designed by world-famous architect, Frank Gehry, this modern museum is dedicated to the biodiversity in Panama. This was so well-done and curated. I read every single exhibit and plaque - spent a good two hours here. It is also located at the beginning of the Amador Causeway.
- Mercado de Mariscos - The fish market! If you came to Panama to eat, this is where you want to go. The people that work here hustle hard and very aggressively. Pick a spot that you're comfortable in - they all serve similar menu items (ie. ceviche, fried fish, etc).
- Rooftop Bars - The rooftop bars are the best here as well. You can literally spot one in the distance and hop over and do that for the entire evening. My favourite spots were Central Gastrobar and the one at the Tantalo Hotel.
- Cinta Costera - The seawall of Panama City! The oceanside stretch of roadway is perfect for a morning jog or to walk along to admire the pretty skyline. The beach isn't nice here so don't even think about stepping foot on the side. We are on the Pacific side after all...
Things to eat in Panama City:
- Ceviche - This should really be the only thing you eat here. Every country in Central and South America have their own versions of ceviche but it is so delicious here! So many different kinds from octopus to scallop to prawn or even a mixed blend. Get this at the Mercado de Mariscos (as mentioned above).
- Coffee - I'm not a coffee person but I was specifically asked to get a specific bag of coffee beans: geisha coffee. Apparently, this is one of the most expensive cups of coffee you can get in the world but in Panama, definitely more affordable! I picked up a bag from Mentiritas Blancas. Be sure to pick up one of their empanadas as well - delicious!
- El Trapiche - If you are seeking some serious traditional Panamian food in a no-frills environment, please come here. This place was smokin' busy and the food was out of control. Platters are a good route if you want to try a bit of everything. Be sure to try the ropa vieja (beef with red sauce), arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), pollo frita (fried chicken), sancocho (traditional Panamian soup), mondogo al trapiche (tripe), and the tamarind juice!
- The Fish Market - A food truck hidden in an empty abandoned building? Yes, please. Music blaring, fried fish, and local craft beer - what more could you possibly ask for? Definitely get the prawns here and some of the brew - you won't be disappointed.
- Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar - Panama's first rum distillery and bar. Their cocktails are innovative and this spot was bumpin'! I would highly recommend getting their Panama Viejo - their take on an old fashioned but with their own rum. Fan-fucking-tastic.
- The American Trade Hotel - I would have LOVED to stay here. It was in the heart of Casco Viejo and it looked like it was plucked straight out of a Pinterest board. Great cocktails here. The ambiance was much better in the daytime. I'd avoid the coffee shop there. Although trendy, their latte was straight up milk with a splash of matcha (unless you like it like that, yuck).
- Raspao - Panamian shaved ice! I love street food an this was the best way to cool off in the middle of a hot day. Shaved ice with a variety of syrups on top. Be sure to get it "con leche" aka with condensed milk drizzled on it - that's how the locals eat it!
Panama City presents the perfect marriage of history and modernity. The cascading skyscrapers that are seen from the old cobblestone steps and deteriorating buildings in Casco Viejo - it is quite the contrast. It is the perfect weekend getaway if you want to get a bit cultured while in the comforts of a big city.