My first stop on this trip was two days in Panama City, arriving on a Friday evening and departing on Monday morning. We flew down via Chicago and Cancun, MX using 30,000 United miles per ticket for business class service plus a grand total of $13.00. The connection through Cancun was not particularly easy – one of the reasons low mileage awards were available on this route – since a chance of terminals is required. This means any check bags must be claimed, Mexican immigration and customs cleared, a shuttle bus to the other terminal, recheck in at the Copa Airlines counter, and back through Mexican passport control. We had three hours to make the connection, and it was enough to do this without undue stress.
Panama City from Casco Viejo
On arrival in Panama, the drive into Panama City proper took about 20-25 minutes with little traffic at this time of day. Many of the hotels and restaurants are clustered in the El Congrejo area which is where the financial and business districts are located. This is an area with plenty of amenities and safe to walk around at most hours of the day and night.
Our hotel of choice was the Doubletree by Hilton – El Carmen, located right next to the Iglesia de Carmen. There are many choices in the area but our decision was driven by the ability to get a junior suite with a separate bedroom and living area for $89.00 per night. Traveling with my daughter, this made it easier to accommodate our differing sleep schedules. The Doubletree served our needs well. With tile floors in the rooms and hallways, there was some sound carryover between the living area and the hallway but not noticeable from the bedroom with the doors shut. The buffet breakfast that was included in our rate was robust and offered nice selection.
On our first night, we simply stayed near the hotel and ate at Manolos which had a wide ranging menu and was decent food at a decent price. Reviews on TripAdvisor are generally positive.
Day 1 – Casco Viejo, the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama, and Tinajas
After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the old town, one of the “must sees” of Panama City. We arrived fairly early at the Plaza Catederal and spent a few minutes checking out the church. As was the case with most of the churches we visited in Panama, it is not particularly elegant or decorative when compared to the soaring cathedrals of Europe or Mexico City with the exception of nicely done altars.
Plaza Catederal, Casco Viejo
Across the main square was the museum that tells the story of the building of the Panama Canal. Now, our Fodor’s guidebook said this about it in relation to the visitor’s center at Miraflores Locks (on the second day agenda), “Once the only museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico has been put to shame by the visitors’ center at Miraflores Locks.” I beg to disagree. Perhaps it was because we went to this one first, but we found it to be very well done and more informative than the displays at Miraflores. Entrance is only $2 or $5 with the audio guide which is well worth it since most of the displays are in Spanish only.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around the old town and along the promenade by the water. There are wonderful views of downtown Panama City from this viewpoint and there is a raffish charm of the area although much of it is in varying stages of renovation. It was early when we were there and the crowds were definitely picking up when we left in the early afternoon. Actually, there isn’t that much to see other than the aforementioned activities. We had some shaved ice in the main plaza and lunch at the Finca del Mar. We loved the location and the breezes. The food was good. The service was slow but not a bad place to relax, if you have time. We saw several parties give up and it took us about 15 minutes to get waited on so be forewarned.
After an afternoon visit to the rooftop pool at the Doubletree to cool off – it was 90 degrees and humid – we got ready for a dinner show of the type that I rarely go to when on the road. Tinajas Restaurant is literally a block from the hotel and features “cultural shows” several nights a week. Basically, this consists of traditional song and dance on stage while you eat.
Traditional dance at Tinajas
Shows start at 9:00 p.m. and a reservation is recommended. Also, we reserved for 8:30 p.m. so we could have our dinner served prior to the commencement of the show. I had a dish billed as typical Panamanian fare – arroz y pollo (rice and chicken) and ropa vieja (literally “old clothes” but actually stewed beef). The food was fine.
What about the show? It was good in the sense that it was well-done and, as far as I know, authentic. It is not something you are ever going to want to see again. There is, in fact, a reason that even Panamanians stopped doing these dances and singing these songs long ago. But, none of this is a criticism of the troupe or of the event as I think it did exactly what was billed. I’m glad we went.
Day 2 – Driving Tour of Panama City, Amador Causeway, Cerro Ancon, and Miraflores Locks
On our second day, we had a driver who was recommended to me by a Colombian friend who lived in Panama for a couple of years. Victor helped us cover a lot of ground over the course of 5+ hours at a cost of $70. We started by simply driving around the city a bit to get a lay of the land – financial district, Punta de Pacifico, Avenida Balboa, past Casco Viejo, and then on to the Amador Causeway.
The Amador Causeway connects four small islands that just into the Pacific and was constructed from rubble and excavation from the construction of the Panama Canal. There are resorts on these various small islands and many people bicycling, walking, and rollerblading along the way. Personally, I’m not sure why one would stay out there unless the primary point of the trip was to lay on a beach. That is fine but a very different experience from what we had in Panama City.
Next up was Cerro Ancon or Ancon Hill. At the base of the hill are the settlements and administrative offices of the Panama Canal. Further up the hill – either by taxi or a steep hike – are sweeping views of Casco Viejo and Panama City on one side and the Miraflores Locks on the other.
Panama City from Cerro Ancon
There is also supposed to be some superb bird-watching, if that is your thing.
Finally, we headed for the canal itself. No doubt about it, the canal is quite impressive in what it accomplished and how much effort went into it. A ship that transverses the canal can save almost 8,000 miles of travel as compared to going around the tip of South America. About 20,000 people died in the French effort to build the canal, that ended in failure, and another 6,000 died during the American project that ultimately got it done. If you are interested in all the other factoids, I’ll let you google them for yourself.
Miraflores docks and Railway Yard from Cerro Ancon
We first stopped by the Pedro Miguel locks and saw a Swedish registered ship heading slowly toward the Miraflores Locks and Pacific Ocean. Victor told us we would see it about 90 minutes to two hours later at the Miraflores Lock. It was $15 to get into the visitor center and first stop was a 10 minute film about the canal. Nothing in the film was new to us since we had been to the awesome museum in Casco Viejo. We did a quick trip through the exhibits and then up to the fourth level observation deck to watch the ship we has seen up at Pedro Miguel entering the locks.
A Big Ship Goes Through the Miraflores Lock
The crowds were five deep at the rail and in frenzied excitement about see the impending transit of the dock. Honestly, it was pretty boring. Nothing happens quickly and the water level changes pretty slowly. A time lapse video of the process – which I’m sure exists – would be the best way to watch it. But, we stuck it out to the end and can now say we have seen it.
After a quick trip back to the hotel and a dip in the pool, we finished our last night in town with a really fabulous meal at Market, a steakhouse just a few blocks away.
An impressive wine cellar, nice atmosphere, and quality steak were all enjoyed. We got there just before 7:30 p.m. and the place quickly filled up even though it was Sunday night. I would assume that weeknights are filled with business dinners from the surrounding offices. Service was excellent and would definitely return here on a second trip to the area.
On Monday morning, we made our way back to the airport, leaving the hotel at 7:00 a.m. It only took about 20 minutes to the airport as we were going against that is the Monday morning rush hour. We found departure out of the airport to be straight-forward and efficient.
We enjoyed Panama City and two full days were about right for the ground we covered. If I was to go back, I would go into the interior and experience the jungle and wildlife and/or go to the beaches at Bocas del Toro or San Blas based on recommendations from others. I would not go back to the canal and, if I went to Casco Viejo, it would be for dinner.
On to Bogota..