After spending just a few days in Panama, I realized it was the most underrated country I’ve ever visited. This may seem like a bold statement, but in just a week in the small country I laid on beautiful beaches, enjoyed mojitos overlooking Panama City’s impressive skyline, and saw monkeys in their natural habitat.
My family always travels together over Christmas, and due to strict parameters (“must be near a beach, but also have lots of activities, and I don’t want to be on a plane for more than 5 hours!” proclaims my dad every year) we were running out of new travel destinations. I’ll admit we kind of “settled” on Panama – it’s an easy direct flight from New York and I stumbled upon some beach resorts that were available when we were looking to book in July (which is late to book a Christmas vacation). Not to mention, my expectations for the trip were set low by everyone’s reaction to me spending my week off in Panama. When telling friends and colleagues about the trip, everyone was perplexed – “Oh interesting… to see the Panama Canal?” was the general response.
But, boy was everyone wrong about Panama! We spent the first few days of our trip off the grid at an outstanding resort in Bocas del Toro, Panama – relaxing by the water, snorkeling, and enjoying amazing freshly caught fish. My entire family still gushes about the resort, wondering how we were lucky enough to find such an amazing place, seemingly so off the beaten path. We don’t visit many resorts twice, but this is one we unanimously feel a force pulling us back to.
We spent the next few days of the trip in the big city – wandering the streets of cosmopolitan Casco Viejo, getting up close and personal with monkeys, exploring a rainforest within the city limits, and yes, admiring the marvel of the Panama Canal. Is there any other capital city which monkeys and sloths call home?!
So, go to Panama now, before everyone realizes it’s the next Costa Rica!
10 AM : Arrival in Panama City
We arrived to Panama City’s Albrook airport on an Air Panama flight from Bocas del Toro. We called an Uber to take us to our hotel and the 5km trip was only $3.17! Uber is definitely the most cost effective way of getting around Panama City and I’d suggest using it over traditional cabs whenever you can. If you’re arriving to Tocumen International Airport, there’s really no easy way to get to your hotel on public transport, so catch a cab from the airport cab stand for $30 or call an Uber and save ~$5.
We stayed at the American Trade Hotel in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Casco Viejo is Panama City’s stylish, hip neighborhood which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What was a center for gang violence less than a decade ago, is now a neighborhood on the tail end of a renaissance due to hotels like the American Trade opening. Described often as a mix between Havana, New Orleans, and Mexico City, it’s easy to spend hours exploring the narrow brick streets of the “next SoHo”. You’ll find pastel-hued buildings next to decrepit ones waiting to be restored and a mix of Spanish colonial and art nouveau architecture. It’s a neighborhood with a whole lot of character, and we were excited to be staying there.
The American Trade Hotel is a 50-room boutique which opened its grandiose doors in 2013. The history of the building, however, dates back to 1917, when it was the tallest in the entire country – constructed during the boom following the opening of the Panama Canal. The hotel itself is a work of art, built with an immaculate attention to detail, seamlessly looking like it has been there for hundreds of years. When we arrived, we were greeted with an airy lobby – filled with plants adorned with Christmas lights, beautiful tile floors, and jazz music playing in the background. There’s a small pool on the roof, where you can curl up with a good book on a statement red and black lounge chair. The wall along the staircase leading up to the second floor is covered in photos of graffiti and gang symbols – the only reminder that just ten years ago, this was a home to squatters and thieves.
Although the American Trade Hotel was a bit of a splurge for us, it’s affordable for what it is. I’ve seen rates as low as $191/night, which is undeniable value – you could not stay at a hotel this luxurious for under $200 in most capital cities! Even if you decide not to stay at the American Trade, it’s worth stopping in for a coffee at the lobby’s Cafe Unido or for a meal at the restaurant. Alternatively, check out Airbnb for more affordable apartments in the Casco Viejo neighborhood. We almost always use Airbnb, and if it’s your first stay, you can get $40 off your booking!
11 AM : First Glimpse of the Skyline from Cinta Costera
After dropping off our bags at the hotel (it was still too early to check in), we decided to stretch our legs with a walk along the Cinta Costera. This trail was built along the Bay of Panama and goes from Casco Viejo all the way to downtown Panama City along the coast. The ciclovia (bike path) and pedestrian walkway have been beautifully landscaped by Panama City to provide a place for people to exercise and explore together. Along the path you’ll find parks, monuments, and even swings! We took the path towards downtown and were greeted with great views of Panama City’s impressive skyline.
I was shocked when I first saw Panama City’s skyline – it’s unlike any other in Latin America! It’s often called the Dubai or Miami of Latin America and the skyline is drastically changing every year as apartments and high-rises are built at a record pace. Panama has a strong economy, with a highly-developed service sector (Panama Canal, Trans-Panama Pipeline) and a modern banking industry. On average, Panama’s GDP has expanded 7.2% annually between 2001 and 2013, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world – and this shows!
As you walk along the Cinta Costera, stop for a homemade popsicle as you people watch. You can also rent a bike at Urban Bikes to explore the path if you’re determined to travel the entire route.
1 PM : Break for a Five Course Lunch
We spent about two hours meandering the Cinta Costera before heading back to Casco Viejo for lunch. We chose to eat at Rene Cafe based on multiple recommendations. This small, family-run spot serves local staples for affordable prices. The menu is prix fixe with a selection of protein (fish, chicken, pork, etc) for $10. The courses included a salad, Spanish tortilla, protein, “specialty rice”, and dessert. The rice, a fried rice with pineapple and veggies, was the standout of the meal! Go if you want to enjoy a traditional meal and feel like you’re in Grandma’s kitchen.
Alternatively, stop at Panama City’s Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market), which lies at the foot of Casco Viejo. Each morning, thousands of small fishing boats bring their latest catches to this popular market. Here, you can try lots of different ceviches for only a dollar or two. You can also explore the market, pick out the fish you want, and bring it to the restaurant upstairs where they will cook your selection to your liking! The market is open every day from 6 AM to 5 PM, except for the third Monday of each month.
2:30 PM : Visit one of the Engineering Wonders of the World
Time for the reason you came to Panama… the Canal! The 48-mile long canal, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, put Panama on the map when it was finished in 1914. It was a milestone for global shipping, allowing ships to cut 8,000 miles off their journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Canal was an engineering marvel – after the French had tried and failed to build a canal at sea level, the United States purchased the rights to the zone and built a canal using a system of locks. The locks enable ships to cross Panama’s mountainous landscape, raising them 85″ above sea level to the Gatun Lake and back down to sea level on the other side.
The United States operated the Canal from its inception until 1977, when the Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed and transfer of operations to Panama began. In 1999, Panama gained full control of the Canal, a day that was widely celebrated across Panama.
In 2010, the Canal celebrated its 1 millionth transit! More than 100 years after its opening, the Canal is still vital to international trade. In 2006, an expansion project was approved by 77% of Panamanians in a country-wide vote. The Canal debuted these expanded set of locks in 2016, creating a third lane of traffic which can accommodate much larger ships. It’s estimated the canal will bring in $2 billion in annual revenue for the country by 2021.
The Miraflores Locks, one of the canal’s three sets, are located 11km (~7 miles) from downtown Panama City. Call an Uber or a taxi and head to the Visitor Center, where you can see the locks in action as ships enter or leave the Canal (depending on the time of day)! The Visitor Center is open every day from 8 AM – 6 PM and admission costs $15.
Once at the Visitor Center, head to the observation deck to see if there’s a ship in the lock(s). There are two “steps” at the Miraflores locks, where ships will be lifted (or lowered) 54 feet! You will witness the locks fill with water as the gates open and after a few minutes the ship will be level with the next lock! The process is slower than expected, we spent more than an hour at the observation deck and only saw two ships passing through the locks! Make sure to factor in ample time at the observation deck, as there’s no way to know if you’ll get there right before a ship is passing or if you’ll have to wait for one! After witnessing the engineering marvel of the Canal, watch the 10-minute video and peruse the four-story museum! Or, if there’s no ship passing through right when you arrive, start at the museum and then make your way back to the observation deck.
It’s definitely worth making the trip to Miraflores to see the canal in action! After 100+ years in operation, it’s a well-oiled machine. I especially enjoyed hearing about the national celebrations that have taken place for the canal’s recent milestones (transfer of operations from U.S. to Panama, 1 millionth transit, expanded set of locks) – it shows how proud Panamanians are of the Canal, and they should be! You don’t need to travel to Miraflores with an organized tour as there is a plethora of information throughout the museum and even guides “narrating” the passing of ships through the Canal.
6 PM : Mojitos with a View
After Ubering back to the hotel, we got ready and made our way to Tantalo Kitchen & Hotel for drinks and dinner! Tantalo is a popular spot in Casco Viejo, just a short walk from the American Trade Hotel. Before dinner, we headed to the rooftop bar, where we took in the sweeping views of Panama City and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The vibe is upbeat, with DJs and events happening almost every night of the week. Grab a seat, order a strawberry mojito, and enjoy the breeze!
After taking in the views, head downstairs to Tantalo Kitchen for dinner! The restaurant is fun and funky, with ceiling lamps made of bottle caps and colorful wall murals. The menu is tapas style, which I always love because that means you get to try lots of things! We enjoyed tuna tartare, ceviche, grilled shrimp, goat cheese, and more (I wish I had more pictures to share but my family gives me a hard time for photographing food with flash in dark restaurants)! Both the food and the Tantalo experience were memorable and definitely highlight Casco Viejo’s eccentric side!
After dinner, head back up to the rooftop to dance the night away or head back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow!
9 AM : Monkey Island Exploration
Today’s excursion took us outside of Panama City, but it was a highlight of our trip and definitely worth the time/cost! We were picked up from our hotel and driven 45 minutes outside of the city to Gamboa – where the Panama Canal meets the Chagres River. We boarded a 15-20 person canopy boat and headed out with a naturalist guide! The beginning of the boat ride took us through the man-made Gatun Lake (part of the Canal), where we passed huge cargo ships making their way through the Canal! It was cool to be a tiny boat circumventing the massive boats around us.
The boat then took us to a set of small islands in Gatun Lake, more commonly known as Monkey Island. Here, our guides searched for some of the locals – iguana, sloths, crocodile, and monkeys! We could hear Howler Monkeys as we searched for others hanging in the trees. Soon, we found a pair of White-faced Capuchins who we were able to get close to from the boat. If you’re lucky, your guide will bring a banana and the monkey will even board the boat to retrieve his snack. I didn’t expect to get so close to the monkeys, it was awesome to watch them interact and have such human-like facial expressions! Since the islands are small, the guides are familiar with the different monkeys and we enjoyed calling them by name and hearing stories of their interactions. After spending about an hour and a half exploring in the boat, we made our way back to the dock to return to the concrete jungle!
2 PM : Getting to Know Traditional, Cosmopolitan Casco Viejo
We arrived back in Panama City and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Casco Viejo! Throughout Casco Viejo, there are historical sites and beautiful buildings to admire. Make sure to stop at The Church of Santo Domingo, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza of France, the National Theater, and the Presidential Palace (Palace of the Herons).
To make sure you don’t miss any sights (and learn a bit of history!) download the LiveWalkPty app from the App Store. This app is your own personal Casco Viejo tour guide – such a great concept! When you still have internet, download the app and open the “Casco Antiguo” tour, click purchase (for me, it was marked as $0 even though it said purchase) and listen to the introduction. Then, begin the “walk” which will open a screen with a map of Casco Viejo and numbered sites. If you begin the walk when you have internet, it will continue to work even without service. The tour begins in Plaza Herrera – right outside the Trade Hotel! The app then takes you on a tour of the neighborhood, walking you to 18 of Casco Viejo’s most popular sites and giving you a 1-4 minute history of each. If your GPS is enabled, you can even see your location on the map and get clear directions to the next site. This app is a lifesaver and will make your trip to Casco Viejo 100% more rewarding! I love the succinct history lessons – so short and sweet! The walk is an hour and twenty minutes, but will take a little over two hours when you factor in walking from site to site!
Along the walk, stop in some of Casco Viejo’s one of kind stores for souvenirs and local clothing items. Viviendo, Undercover Store, Galeria de Arte Indigena, Lupa, and Victor’s Panama Hats are some of the stores I’d recommend for handmade baskets, clothes, hats, jewelry, crafts, and more! Once you’re at the Plaza de Francia stop on the walk, you’ll also want to peruse Paseo Las Bovedas, a walkway with stands of local artisans selling hats, jewelry, baskets, and more. There’s also a great view of the skyline from here! After walking around Casco Viejo for a few hours, stop for ice cream at Granclement Gourmet, one of Casco’s original ice cream stores!
If you’re interested in digging even deeper into Casco Viejo’s storied history, you can sign up for a Fortaleza Gang Tour. The tour is led by former members of the “Ciudad de Dios”, a gang whose stomping ground was Casco Viejo. This same gang that used to make a living off robbing tourists and squatted in the American Trade Hotel building, is now showing people how they are living alongside Casco Viejo’s newfound development and tourism. It is definitely a unique way to see the city, and the sites will be different than those you visited earlier this afternoon! The group has hosted journalists, politicians, and members of various international NGOs – it’s incredible how they’ve gone from being criminals to entrepreneurs! The tour is an hour and a half, costs $35, and leaves at 5 PM each night from the Trade Hotel.
6 PM : Mojito with a View pt. 2
After spending a few hours exploring the neighborhood, we ventured across Plaza Herrera to check out another rooftop – this one at Casa Casco! We quickly learned how popular rooftop bars are in Panama City and Casa Casco was the bar of 2017. The rooftop at Casa Casco provides great views of the American Trade Hotel and is another perfect spot to watch the sunset. The roof has a very hip vibe and is decked out with Belvedere and Moet branded umbrellas and furniture. We were the few tourists enjoying delicious mojitos among stylish Panamanians.
Casa Casco also has 3 restaurants (one per floor) if you choose to stay here for dinner. On the first floor, you’ll find Mano de Tigre, with a “wild” fusion menu. On the second floor, you’ll find sushi at Nacionsushi. On the third is Marula Cocina, with “eclectic” African and Caribbean choices. It was quite an experience to walk up the stairs and pass through three restaurants with completely different decor and ambiances! After dinner, you can even head to the fourth floor and dance the night away at Casa Casco’s club. They really don’t ever want you to leave… if only there was a hotel too!
For a more casual dinner, head to Tacos La Neta, a relaxed taco spot with Panamanian influence. Here you can enjoy guacamole and then choose 3 tacos for $10 in a charming outdoor space with picnic tables and tree lanterns.
9 AM : Meet Sloths in the City
On our final morning in Panama City, we woke up early to explore Parque Natural Metropolitano – an unspoiled tropical rainforest within the city’s limits! The rainforest is home to more than 200 different species of animals – including monkeys, anteaters, sloths, iguanas, turtles, and toucans! The park has numerous trails, but the most popular is a 3km loop which offers sweeping views of the city skyline and even the Miraflores locks at the summit!
Take an Uber to the park’s visitor center, it’s a 15 minute (6 km) ride to the park from Casco Viejo. Once at the park, you’ll enter the visitor center and pay the $4 admission fee. The park rangers will happily point you in the right direction if you ask which trail leads to the “mirador” (lookout). We started on Los Caobos trail which then meets the Mono Titi trail to continue to the top. Immediately after departing the visitor center, we saw a beautiful toucan perched on a tree branch! There are lots of birds who call the park home, so if you have binoculars, be sure to bring them with you!
We ascended through the rainforest, stepping over long lines of ants carrying their leaves back to their nests (straight out of Antz)! The hike isn’t too steep until you get closer to the mirador, when the incline picks up. We reached the lookout in an hour and a half, walking slowly as we were on the lookout for wildlife! We kept our eyes on the tree branches the entire time – determined to see a sloth!
The views from the top of the hike are breath-taking, again reminding you how vast Panama City’s skyline is! After catching our breath, we headed back down, taking the El Roble trail this time. We saw turtles and gerridae (water striders) at Laguna Pond, but still no sloth! Of course, as we emerged from the rainforest and back at the visitor’s center, we saw two sloths hanging upside down from a tree branch! We watched as they, very slowly, climbed towards each other. They really do look like they’re moving in slow motion!
Making a trip to Parque Metropolitano definitely rounds out a visit to Panama City. You’ll feel as if you’ve left the city far behind and traveled into a deep rainforest! Be sure to take your time and look for animals in the trees, you’ll be surprised how many different species you can find! You’ll definitely work up a sweat on the hike due to the incline (and heat), but the actual distance is perfect for a morning excursion.
12 PM : Adios Panama!
After a jam-packed two days in Panama City, we said adios to this bustling Central American capital. When I return one day, I have a feeling the city will have twice as many skyscrapers (and rooftop bars) and Casco Viejo will have even fewer crumbling buildings. GO NOW before everyone else does!