“Panamá, Panamá, where for art thou IS PANAMÁ“? I utilise parts of this famous Shakespearean phrase to describe this Central American country because hardly anyone I come across knows where it is! Do YOU?
Basically, Panamá is the long strip of country which links North America to South America, separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean, is well known for its white, wide brimmed straw hats, the famous man made canal used for its bustling import/export sea trade and, more recently, the movie Laundromat starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas!
In 2019, I travelled to Panamá eight times from Brisbane, Australia! I know right, I should be a local by now! But in all honesty, I didn’t really stay there as it was more of a passageway for MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I (like the ships) to travel onto further South American destinations (refer to my blogs under South America) as he had been stationed for work in a far flung town called Penonomé, a small province 4 hours drive from Panama City (Ciudad de Panamá). I know a girl who actually lived there full time for that year and she would probably be the best person to write this blog, BUT I will give it my best shot, as we did see quite a lot of the city during these short times and experienced some lovely moments in and around this intriguing country!
Panama City is predominately made up of two parts – the Old Town (Casco Viejo) and the New Town. The New Town is an ultra modern area decorated with skyscrapers lining the main Pacific Ocean road, Avenida Balboa, and is a shiny glitzy playground boasting world class hotels, casinos, huge shopping malls featuring all the luxe brands and more, night-clubs, bars and restaurants! Sort of like a small scale, Spanish speaking Abu Dhabi or Dubai but without the 52˚c heat and sand! It is huge and sprawling and the traffic is ridiculous (as is the case in most major cities). MB and I explored most of the main areas on foot or by taxi as it’s the easiest way. We hired a car once, as we were driving to Bocas del Toro (a trendy beach area on the boarder of Costa Rica and Panamá) the next day and basically spent most of the time getting lost on the badly signed highways, having many near misses or major car pile ups and stuck in traffic jams! It was very stressful if not slightly hysterical at times and I would only recommend driving here if you have: (a) nerves of steel behind the wheel or (b) are a Parisian!
On my very first trip to Panama City, alone, exhausted and with zero Spanish, I was lured by the comforts of home and opted for the “safe option” – booking a room in the highly acclaimed, 5 star Hilton Panama situated on Avenida Balboa, the main road near the water. It was a perfect choice of hotel for two days; affordable, luxurious AND in the best location. With views over the pacific, the city and the 3.5 km long avenue snaking its way towards Casco Viejo, it had everything! With enormous rooms, a rooftop pool alongside a fantastic restaurant, lovely staff and easy access to the long walking/cycling path opposite, I was very surprised just how at ease I immediately felt upon arrival. Even though it was all enclosed and ‘fishbowl’ like, I managed to find my way to little supermarkets nearby and take in a stroll along the waters edge to de-puff my aeroplane legs and visit the cheeky resident Panamanian racoons that hide in the rocks!
Strangely enough, neither MB or myself ever stayed in this hotel again, as we dedicated ourselves, thereafter, to staying in AirB&B’s in Casco Viejo as it was much more our groove! However (and this is a great tip), we utilised the rooftop pool many times during the year! Anyone can go and ‘pool crash’ here and you don’t even need to eat or buy a drink! No one seems to care so feel free to grab a towel and go crazy! We did dine several times at the poolside bistro Saquella which was fabulous (a big call as we don’t do hotels or ever eat at their restaurants) and made a good connection with one of the waiters from day one. I highly recommend this particular Hilton (as there are a few different ones in town).
Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a leisurely 30 minute walk from the Hilton Panamá and is lovely. The perfectly paved streets are lined with colourful heritage buildings, many of which have been beautifully renovated or are in the throws of major renovation and it is also the site for the Presidential Palace (of course) two enormous Cathedrals and the French Embassy! Voilà! Security is extra tight around this neighbourhood because of the Palace and safety at night or anytime is never an issue! It is strangely ultra clean and tidy too, unfortunately giving the area a slightly sterile and ‘Hollywood movie set’ appearance. This was all done though, of course, to attract the tourists which indeed it has. The major hotel here is the American Trade Hotel, a huge, Spanish colonial style structure built in 1917 which looks onto the plaza. It is stunning and staying there costs the same as a small country, but it is also the best landmark to find your bearings when you get lost in the labyrinth of streets! Casco (as the locals call it) is also extremely popular after dark due to its multitude of fantastic rooftop bars, (I think we visited them all at least once and some many times) and loads of lovely little intimate bistros and bars offering anything from French cuisine to Spanish tapas, Peruvian delicacies and Italian. It is THE HAPPENING AREA for both locals and expats to drop their slacks and relax over a glass of vino tinto or twelve when the sun goes down.
Be warned though…this pretty, sleepy little place during the day metamorphoses into a loud, throbbing, twinkling nightspot after 6pm everynight, so be sure to join them ‘cause you cannot beat them! Depending where you stay, you can’t always here the noise, so choose wisely and try to keep clear of the major bars or ‘party hotels’. Find somewhere on a quiet street, opposite the water or on the boarder of the residential area of the Old Town where the everyday Panamanians still live. Saying this, however, the constant beeping of cars due to the traffic jams caused by the narrow one way streets and the racket on bin collection day, ie: everyday, takes its toll a bit after a while as there is never any peace unless it’s between 4 and 7am! But hey, that’s Latino Land for you!
Thankfully, the numerous AirB&B’s we chose throughout the year rarely disappointed. (Apart from the one with sex toys in the drawer or the one where you weren’t allowed to sit or smoke on the balcony but we did both anyway! However, that’s a WHOLE different blog)! All were housed in perfectly renovated buildings and gorgeous inside, most with original exposed brick walls and Spanish tiles, many of them furnished with state of the art appliances and all with balconies overlooking the street or with views to the water or the new town! We could never stay in a hotel again after being this spoilt and we thoroughly enjoyed our nights of animated bliss, cocooned within the bosom of perfectly renovated ruins… could you? Also the freedom of being able to walk to dinner or for drinks on the rooftops and wobble home was just an added bonus!
Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo (some of the signs say both just to confuse you, but it’s the same place) also has an unrenovated area which is home to many locals and businesses. A bit like Havana in Cuba, it is grungy and full of life and also very colourful, as it has many walls dedicated to magnificent street art. MB and I visited this area every time we were in Panamá, as it has a very huge, modern local supermarket that was so damn cold you nearly froze to death (but it was lovely in summer), a long pedestrian street and many quirky little shops. It is the place to go if you need mobile phone accessories, cheap shoes or electronics and we even stumbled across a major outlet for Tommy Hilfiger… go figure!
Panamá uses $USD notes but local coins in the currency of the Balboa. Yes, I bet you’re thinking of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone right now! Whatever makes it easy to remember! The coins took a bit of getting used to and I never really mastered anything other than the one Balboa, which is equivalent to $1USD. To be honest, I found Panamá quite expensive, coming from Australia, as most of the prices were about the same as I would pay back in Oz, but not always for top shelf food or clothing. Believe me, if there were bargains, I would have found them!
Keeping occupied in Casco Viejo is easy, as just wandering the streets and admiring the buildings is enough for some! Take in the beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary, the rooster overlooking Plaza de Francia (France Square) or just indulge in the numerous photo opportunities which represent themselves at every turn! Check out the open air market (on a Sunday) or the Artisanal Marketplace (above Plaza de Francia) where you can buy traditional mola (embroidered cloth) made by the indigenous Kuna women of Panamá. Whilst you’re fishing around, go over the road to the largest seafood market and open air ceviche restaurant in Panama City! A very popular spot for the locals, be brave and try some Panamanian ceviche (refer to blog on ceviche for more info) from one the many kiosks, open day and night or just drool at the mountains of different varieties of ultra fresh fish and seafood for sale which have come straight from the boats! My ultimate pick, however, would be to expand your knowledge and visit the very interesting Panamá Canal Museum…
The Panama Canal Museum is housed in a historic building that was the original headquarters for the French and American companies involved in the construction of the canal. It is a surprisingly fascinating tour and even if you’re not a history buff or have any interest in anything remotely nautical, we were immediately enraptured by the sheer enormity of the scale and complexity of this mission! I’ll refrain from going into too much detail about this accomplishment, but let’s just say that it was and still is ‘one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken’. It first began being constructed by the French in 1881, to open a shorter and more direct line of transport for ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean, but, due to many problems, was later was taken over and finished by the Americans, finally opening in 1914. Many years, many dollars and many lives were spent to make this wonder happen and today it is still the most used and necessary route for maritime transportation known to man. To really take in the canal, take a drive over it or go and see the locks, if that’s your thing, as you get to see and hear the enormous cargo ships as they pass through. Remarkable! FYI: Cameras are not allowed in the museum, so unfortunately there are no photos to show you.. sorry!
Shopping in Panamá isn’t overly thrilling as huge malls and multileveled department stores don’t really excite me in any way, no matter what city I’m visiting! I don’t even visit them in my own country! I’m much more of a ‘little boutique down a side street’ or local market kind of gal, however, if malls are your thing, there are plenty here just for you! – Multiplaza being one of largest and most popular.
But hunting for the ultimate souvenir, a Panama hat or Sombrero de papa toquilla, is fun and will take up a big chunk of your time, as there are many stores that specialise in them! Panama hats are actually hand made in Ecuador from the straw of the toquilla palm and cloned their name when they were shipped through Panamá to be on sold to other countries. They finally became famous when the residing US President Theodore Roosevelt was spotted jauntily wearing one during his visit to the Panama Canal and the rage took off! Who would have imagined an American president being a fashion icon! To choose a good one, the straw must be finely woven and soft and experts say that the best ultra fine ones (and indeed the most expensive) should be able to pass through a wedding ring when folded! All you have to do is personalise this expedition by finding the best one in size, colour, quality, style and, of course, price!
FYI: I bought quite a few for family and friends over the year (not the ultimate quality ones but lovely enough to the job) and payed between $40-60USD. I found the ‘large man’ in the boutique on the corner just near the Capitol Bistro and Bar to be friendly and reasonable… Hola!
If walking or any form of general exertion is for you, then the long 3.5km path running along the seafront is a fantastic way to escape the general pandemonium of Panamá! Lush green lawns, numerous trees, shady rest spots, sculptures, basketball courts and outside gyms are all available to be enjoyed by all. The walkway or Malecón can be accessed from the new town (via overpasses) all the way to Casco Viejo and even wraps around to join the highway crossing the sea that joins you to the Panama Canal. It’s a wonderful invention and highly used by everyone. Even little drink and food stalls are set up here everyday/night for when dehydration or hunger strikes! It is SO CLEAN AND TIDY it’s ridiculous and there is always someone gardening or fixing/painting something and collecting rubbish. Even the local police utilise this pathway, riding up and down here all day on their top of the range motor bikes, whizzing past the panting joggers, sweaty tourists and numerous dog walkers. MB and I did this promenade many times over the year (mostly to go into the new town to buy croissants from Paul Patisserie in the W Hotel or to ‘pool crash’ at the Hilton) and it’s a very relaxing and enjoyable way to simultaneously burn calories and breathe in some fresh sea air! Be aware though that the tides here are extreme and when it is high it’s lovely, but when it is low, the place can resemble a backwater swamp with the smell and the marooned boats stuck in the mud. Not very pretty, but that’s a city on the water for you!
Traditions are still very much alive and kicking here in Panamá as well, as the boisterous latino subculture and the gentle indigenous tribes rub shoulders everyday with tourists and the large American expat community. There is always a festival, Saints Day or enthusiastic parade occurring in Casco Viejo and we were fortunate enough to witness many of these from the comfort of our balcony or even to join in as they danced down the streets. The beautiful, colourful Pollera dresses of the Panamanian women are magnificent in all their intricate detail and the men are handsome and proud in their black and white straw Montuno hats. (And, yes, of course I bought one!) The indigenous Kuna tribesmen and women from the islands of San Blas are everywhere in Panamá too, easily identifiable by their tiny stature, beautifully beaded arms and legs and geometrically patterned clothes. They sell many of their wares at stalls along the Malecón and at the market or are just going about their daily routines in and around all areas of Panamá. It’s marvellous!
Speaking of old towns, the original Old Town of Panamá, Panamá Viejo, is just outside the main city centre. Its ruins and tower are still standing today and is accessible to tourists. Unfortunately MB and I never ended up going there to have a look (which is embarrassing) as we never even knew it existed since we didn’t go to this area except on our way to the airport! It was only the taxi driver who, one day, took us the long way round and pointed it out! We felt slightly ashamed that this historical area was left unacknowledged by us for so long but I hope you can visit it for us one day maybe!
If you’re searching for a bit of paradise and a dose of sun, sand and sea, Panamá also has an archipelago, the Pearl Islands or Isla de las Perlas which lie in the gulf just off the coast. Consisting of Taboga, Contadora, Saboga, Bolaños, Viveros and Flamenco, they are the closest islands to the city (Taboga Island being a mere 30 minutes express ferry ride through the beginning of the canal) and are popular for day trippers or ‘mini breakers’.
One time MB and I needed to escape Panama City immediately as our poor choice of accommodation in Casco Viejo had us unknowingly booked into a room at the ‘party hotel’ Gatto Blanco. IT WAS AWFUL as we were kept awake till 4am every day due to the constant doof doof of house music! We craved for some R&R and to lie on a beach and hear waves, so crying (or maybe that was just me) we practically sprinted to the ferry terminal with our bags and threw ourselves on the first boat outta there! We chose Taboga Island, as it was the closest and only stayed one night, but even that was lovely enough, leaving us with the feeling that we had visited some unknown exotic island in the sea! Luck was on our side and we managed to score a beautiful room in an old hacienda, The Vereda Tropical Hotel with Juliet balconies and views over the water. It was marvellous! Calm and serene and with not a note of house music to be heard anywhere!
Taboga is small but interesting enough, with some lovely beaches, a smattering of restaurants and a very laid back vibe. It is known as the Island of Flowers and is extremely pretty, with little sculptures and streets to explore. Another popular choice for a weekend getaway and to have a brush with fame is Contadora Island otherwise known as John Wayne Island as it was once a playground for the famous actor and some of his counterparts! Who knew?
The Islands of San Blas are the most well known archipelago near Panamá for those in search of the white sand and turquoise waters of the Caribbean. They are much further away, harder to access and are very primitive in their lodgings, but are extremely beautiful I’m told. MB and I looked into spending a week there exploring her lush surrounds, but the prices for accommodation were ridiculous and we had already been spoilt with Caribbean Island life when we visited his family in Guadeloupe (see blog). We had also lived in Madagascar for 4 years and visited the islands off the coast there, which are very similar to San Blas and with little grass huts, so we decided to forgo this area and explore some of the regions further out of Panama City like Bocas del Toro (see blog), for our beach getaway and to discover more adventures!
As the title of this blog suggests, Panamá is so much more than just a latino country with a famous canal and fashionable headwear. It offers its visitors a safe, modern city with a historical twist; a place to be calm whilst living amongst chaos. It has lovely people and an edgy urban spirit which shines through if you look past the obvious modern day mayhem. I thoroughly enjoyed my short bursts of time here, fell in love with her old town and came to appreciate all of Panamá’s beauty, as I think there is a little bit of magic here for everyone. Gracias y adiós!
FYI: Below is my list of the best restaurants and bars in Panamá that we frequented:
THE OLD TOWN (CASCO VIEJO):
CasaCasco (THE BEST rooftop bar); The Strangers Club (a very pretty little bistro serving modern South American cuisine); Capital Bistro ( has great views over the water and to the new town and a good menu); Caliope (a five star, modern restaurant in an old theatre); Lessep’s Bistro ( THE BEST French restaurant in Panamá); Salveje Restaurante and Bar (funky multi story building with three restaurants and a rooftop bar serving modern asian/latino fusion); Santa Rita (five star bistro with awesome decor and THE BEST CEVICHE in town); Cascomar (our very favourite tapas bar with an outdoor terrace, which is rare in Panamá for some odd reason!); Barrio’s Pizza (great pizza to take away if you just want a quiet night at home on your balcony).
THE NEW TOWN:
Gaucho’s Steakhouse (cute little white stucco house with fantastic steak choices and a real local vibe); Petit Paris (a French couple run this bistro and patisserie not far from the Hilton and was our ‘go to’ when in town); and finally…Saquella (the pool restaurant at the Hilton).
Los Ranchitos de Playa Honda (the cutest little beach bistro on the island with excellent service and local delicacies served with a smile).
…”A man, a plan, a canal: Panamá!”…Leigh Mercer 1948