Panama City was totally unexpected. We basically had no choice but to stop over here if we wanted to save some dosh, but I’m so glad we did because it turned out to be one of my favourite cities of the trip.
We arrived after a gruelling, sleep-deprived 28 hour transit, at around 12:30 in the morning. Getting into the city was easy enough ($30 taxi) and it seemed quite safe & easy to get around. Panama City is divided into 2 relatively distinct sections: the modern, skyscraper-lined CBD and Casco Viejo, a more colonial, typical old town. We decided to stay a few nights in both.
The CBD was as expected – noisy, windy, humid & grey. It was interesting to walk around as we had an insight to how it is to live in the city, perusing the streets among commuters, taking the surprisingly modern metro and scouring the streets for a coffee. Although the metro has a tap-card system, buying the card took us about 20 minutes. Topping up the card took another 10. 3 of the 4 machines appeared not to work but the locals appeared to have similar issues to us, which made us feel a bit better!
Where Panama City really shines is on its foreshore. You can walk from the city to Casco Viejo entirely along the waterfront. This modern walkway was a great way to see the city skyline & the onset of tropical storms. We walked about 5km before a huge wall of rain (aptly translated to ‘tormenta’ in Spanish) started rolling in. We knew the tormenta wouldn’t last long, as locals were temporarily huddled under trees, so we simply donned our rain jackets and enjoyed the refreshing shower.
It’s a funny thing about rain when you travel – you don’t really mind getting wet. It was hot & humid and the worst that can happen is you become a bit sodden, go back to the hotel and change. We did so many activities in the rain, in fact in Central America you often don’t notice it, or even appreciate it. When it rains heavily in Sydney it makes the news, and you can’t possibly leave the house or the office. Imagine all the things we could get done if we just ignored precipitation & still took the dog for a walk, or went on that hike, or went camping regardless?
Alas, I digress! We found the people in Panama to be really lovely & helpful. Luckily the Spanish was well-paced & pronounced (compared to the accents & rapid speed of the Colombians & Chileans!). It meant I could regain a bit of confidence in speaking & comprehending, which is half the battle in learning a new language! I managed to establish, in my limited Spanish, that soy milk isn’t really a thing in Panama (but lactose-free milk is) and purchase a SIM card. All you need is a few language wins early on to get your confidence up, but the first conversation is always so nerve wracking!
Casco Viejo was like a completely different city! This was more of the Latin America I remember, a waterfront Colonial town with terracotta rooves & colourful paintwork. The town was filled with rooftop bars, souvenir shops and cobblestone streets. It was easily walkable & we really enjoyed getting lost in the streets. The only thing that gave it away as a ‘city’ was the huge Cintura Costera: a super long, modern freeway looping the entire town, meaning drivers could bypass its narrow one-way streets. We soon learned driving or getting a taxi within Casco Viejo is near impossible, and walking out of the district altogether was the best way to ensure you weren’t stuck in an Uber within its tiny streets for hours (if you were lucky enough to have said Uber arrive to pick you up!).
What did I love about Panama City?
- The humidity. If you don’t like humidity, you won’t like it! But I loved it!
- The language. The Spanish was some of the easiest I’ve heard and it was a great place to build up confidence. The people were patient with me and helped me out when I got stuck.
- Walking. I love walking aimlessly in any new place I visit, but walking along the foreshore was so relaxing, interesting & safe as houses!
- It’s one of those cities with loads to do even if it’s raining. Plenty of rooftop bars to watch the storm, places to take cover along the foreshore, plenty of pubs for people-watching (seems like a lot of these activities involve alcohol… whoops!).
- Tantalo Rooftop bar in Casco Viejo. I had mini empanadas & mojitos overlooking the rooftops of Casco Viejo. There were turkey vultures on every roof drying out their wings before the next shower. Friendly service & great food. We stayed for a whole afternoon as the storms passed over.
What did I hate about it?
- I didn’t ‘hate’ anything, but we had a rather unpleasant experience catching the overnight bus to San Blas. I found the bus conductors & staff at the Albrook Terminal really unhelpful, angry & intimidating. It wasn’t unsafe, but it was really hard to navigate to the right bus & we were shouted at repeatedly, despite me trying to speak Spanish. The driver thought he was in a rally car and I was told off for attempting to sleep across 2 free seats. We didn’t sleep a wink. I’m just comparing this to the overnight buses in South America, which are generally comfortable. The take home message from this is to fork out the couple of hundred dollars to fly from coast-to-coast!
- Hands down – the Panama Canal (Miraflores). I’m not usually into the built wonders of the world, but I really enjoyed seeing the canal, its history and how it connects to the Panamanian economy & Central American politics as a whole.
- It was a 15 minute cab ride from Casco Viejo, has a great little museum, a documentary screening & viewing platforms of the canal itself. You can travel across it in a tourist boat for $170, but we much preferred a view from the top. You can see how it all works in the video below.
Would I go back there again?
- Being a main stopover for a lot of Central American destinations, I think its unavoidable. Which is great, because it’s a great place to explore for a couple of days and I would happily do so again.