Panamá, A Shimmering City With An Old Soul
The past month or so has been filled with some truly amazing weekend trips! Since moving to Mexico in July, I’ve taken five weekend trips (without taking a Friday or Monday off), and for my sixth, I decided to check out the capital of Panama. It ended up being a towering, cosmopolitan city with amazing dining options and an international vibe. It’s no surprise that Panama City is a cultural melting pot, since products from around the world pass through one of the most important canals in the world only a 20-minute drive from the city center.
I’ve been eyeing Panama City for a while now on Google Flights, but generally round-trip tickets cost around $800 which is way too much for a weekend trip. However, last week I found Copa Airlines tickets for $350 dollars and had to jump at the opportunity! I’m hoping that they have another sale soon, because I really enjoyed my short time here and want to see more!
I found that for a weekend trip, there are three main areas that can be explored in depth. These are the Amador Causeway, Casco Viejo, and Punta Paitilla (the downtown). Each area was unique and beautiful in its own way!
Three Distinct Areas
The Amador Causeway
This road built on reclaimed land from the canal connects the small Causeway Islands to the mainland of Panama and has a whole afternoon’s worth of things to do and explore. After landing at the airport, I took an Uber straight to the Biomuseo, a very brightly colored piece of architecture at the beginning of the road with exhibits on the region’s biodiversity and cultural history.
The museum is home to a café and a beautiful lawn where you can do a bit of birdwatching.
Once you’ve stocked up on snacks and drinks, I suggest walking along the Causeway out to the islands where there are a handful of restaurants to have lunch (including a great Colombian place).
There are some parks and shops on the islands, but the biggest highlight of this area is the amazing view of the skyline you’ll see as you walk along the Causeway. Be sure to wear sunscreen out here; there’s barely any shade!
A short drive from the Biomuseo is the unique neighborhood known as Casco Viejo. Standing in stark contrast to the rest of the city’s towering condos and office buildings, Casco Viejo is home to the city’s best-maintained architecture from centuries past.
There are a bunch of churches to check out as well as bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, and more.
While wandering the museum on the corner of Ave Central and Calle 10 Este, which offered free entrance to visitors, I ran into a dance performance. I really loved the unique outfits as well as the relaxed vibe of the choreography.
An interesting little piece of trivia about this neighborhood is the fact that the Cinta Costera, one of Panama’s main highways, circles around the Casco Viejo as a viaduct. If you’re headed from the center of town to the Causeway, you’ll probably take this road, which offers another great view of the impressive skyline.
This is the center of downtown. I stayed here at the Hard Rock Hotel, where the views could not be beat! There isn’t as much to do necessarily here, but the Cinta Costera does extend all the way here and is a nice little waterfront walk.
I would also recommend trying to find accommodation here if you can because there are more restaurant choices nearby. Which is a nice segue to…
A Culinary MicroCosm
Panama has a much more international food scene than Mexico City, so I took the opportunity to taste a different cuisine for every meal. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the following places, but I think any well-rated restaurant in the city would be an equally memorable dining experience.
Last month during my trip to Colombia, I tried bandeja paisa, a traditional meal consisting of red beans, different types of meat, rice, plantains, a fried egg, and an arepa. When I found “Hacienda Colombiana” on Perico Island at the end of the Causeway, I knew exactly what I wanted to eat for lunch! Surprisingly, I enjoyed this restaurant’s bandeja paisa more than the one I had in Colombia, but my waitress here told me that the chef was from Medellín. It was just so fresh and filling after about an hour of walking under the hot sun.
For dinner on Saturday night, I went to a restaurant recommended by a friend called Segundo Muelle. It’s a Peruvian seafood chain with locations throughout Latin America as well as Portugal. I ended up ordering the “pescado en salsa de parihuela” which was truly delicious! I am definitely going to keep my eye out for this restaurant the next time I’m in one of the countries where they have a location.
And More Seafood
For lunch on Sunday, I wanted to try another Peruvian restaurant called Machu Picchu, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations. I ended up going to the place next door, Restaurante Martín Fierro, instead. The octopus ceviche and seafood spaghetti I ordered here were amazing! There were a few other dining options on this street, but Martín Fierro had a huge and diverse menu, so everyone should be able to order whatever they like here.
For my last meal, I had to have something that is in short supply in Mexico City: phở! I went to La Casa de Vietnam and was so excited to taste the authentic fragrant flavors of my favorite soup dish! (The pho I’ve had in Mexico City was really bland in comparison).
Something I Want to Try Next Time: Dim Sum
I didn’t get a chance to try it, but I read that Palacio Lung Fung is an excellent place for dim sum. I haven’t had good dim sum since I was last in New York, but Panama has a huge Chinese expat community so I trust that this place would rival some of the good dim sum houses in NYC!
Whatever international cuisine you fancy, you should be able to find it here in Panama!
Tips and Tricks
The currency of Panama is the USD, but it’s sometimes called the Balboa. If like me, you enjoy collecting currency, then you’ll want to focus on collecting spare change, as there is a uniquely Panamanian set of coins that are used alongside American nickles, dimes, and pennies.
Prices (Spoiler: They're High)
Speaking of money, be aware that Panama isn’t necessarily the most budget-friendly destination in Latin America. I ended up paying a reasonable price for my stay at the Hard Rock Hotel through a somewhat unusual Airbnb booking, but meal prices were on par with the United States (approximately 20 USD per person per meal). Uber was probably cheaper than it would be in the States, but not nearly as cheap as it is in Mexico. If you’re looking for a truly cheap destination, Panama might not be it.
Speaking of Uber, I had read some things saying that you may experience problems with the rideshare service here, but I never did. So far, my worst Uber experiences in Colombia, where I was taken on an unnecessary 30-minute detour among other issues. I would still recommend Uber over traditional taxi services, as the fact that you have your driver’s name and license plate serves as a safety check.
As I mentioned above, Copa Airlines flights from Mexico to Panama are typically quite expensive, and they are the main airline that travels between the two countries. You might be able to find better deals from the US, but if not, wait for a sale.
On a side note, Copa seemed to have better customer service than most. On both flights, complimentary meals were served and in general it was just a pleasant flying experience. Perhaps that’s why their prices tend to be higher.
A Short but Worthwhile Trip
Despite having only spent two days here, I felt like I was able to get a good sense of Panama in that amount of time. Even though it looks like a huge city, if you stick to the three areas I discuss above, you will be able to experience the contrast between the old and the new neighborhoods that makes this city unique.
Keep an eye out for Caffeinated Excursion’s next post featuring another guest author who visited the island of Puerto Rico! I’m so excited to see what my cousin has to say about her long weekend in San Juan! Until then, enjoy your journeys!