The most striking thing about Panama is the diversity and culture of the people. Each area of the country has its own personality. Downtown Panama City has a definite metropolitan feel with its tall sleek buildings and Miami vibe without the Miami price tag. Taxis and food are both inexpensive and easily accessible. There are a variety of choices of clubs, restaurants and food trucks to select from as well as convenience stores for local snacks so you can party all night, have a quiet dinner or binge out on Panamanian junk food while binge watching the local shows. Most of the hotels boast a rooftop pool with a view of the ocean or downtown. If you’re interested in chilling by the pool by day and partying by night, then downtown Panama City is definitely the place to be.
If you take a ten minute drive east of downtown you’ll find yourself in Casco Viejo, also known as Old Town where the streets are paved in red bricks and the architecture dates back to early colonial Panama. You can take a walking tour of Old Town and learn of its tumultuous history and its current renovation and growth. The stay here feels more like New Orleans French Quarters. The hotels in this area are renovated mansions and buildings with balconies, Spanish tile and beautiful aged wood. You can sit on the balcony and take in the sights and sounds or go bar hopping. There are not really any clubs but the rooftop bars with spectacular views of downtown and the ocean attract a lot of visitors and the music and mojitos keep them coming back for more. In our search for the Relic Bar we happened upon a quaint little hostel in Old Town with a nice open reading/working area, outdoor plaza, and the Relic Bar in the basement where I was able to practice my very limited Spanish and German as well as discuss art with other travelers. If I were younger I would give Luna’s Castle (the hostel) a try.
The Panama Canal is about a 30 minute ride outside of the city. You can catch a taxi for $15-20 one way. The entrance to the museum is $15 which is a small price to pay to see one of the manmade wonders of the world. The museum has 3 levels and takes you through the history of the canal. There is also a movie about the construction of the canal and a viewing area so you can watch ships go through the canal. They seem to allow ships through every hour so you can grab a few scoops of gelato and wait for the “show”. The process takes about fifteen minutes but it’s amazing.
If you go about an hour outside of the city, you’ll reach the Cargres River where you can ride in a powered canoe to one of the river villages. The villagers will take you on a hike through the rainforest to a beautiful waterfall where you can swim or simply take in the view. I saw butterflies and dragonflies that I have only seen in movies. The vegetation is lush and beautiful. Everything seems to grow bigger and greener because of the constant rain. When you return to the village after the hike the villagers share their history, dance and culture and serve you a lunch of freshly caught fried fish, plantains, and fresh fruit. You can also get an ink tattoo that lasts about 10 days.
Finally, if you take a 90 minute drive east of the city you will find yourself in the historic town of Portobelo, the home of the Black Christ. Portobelo is a port town and is surrounded by turquoise waters and remnants of old forts. The town square is used as an open market and the towns one restaurant serves fresh lobster and fish and $2-3 beers and mojitos. You’ll also see a few Rojo Diablos, painted school buses with sound systems and disco lights used for public transportation. You can take a boat from Portobelo to a “private” island where you can go snorkeling or lay on a palm tree and marvel at the colors of the Caribbean Sea. The water is so clear and warm and the color changes with the light from cobalt to turquoise. The sound of the waves crashing against the reef will lull you to sleep.
The food is great but Panamanians excel at seafood. My drink of choice for this trip was the mojito because this too is a specialty. The mojitos are made with fresh fruit and the perfect amount of mint. My favorite meal was not at a fancy restaurant but at a local spot called Pescado Frito. I’m not sure which was better, the food or the conversation with Danny who I dub the best fish fryer in Panama.
Panama has something for everyone. You can sleep all day and party all night, experience the communities and the culture, learn about the history, chill in the beach or make new friends. Whatever your personality or preferences there is something for you.
Jernita Randolph is a native Mississippian currently residing in Metro-Atlanta. She is a high school instructional coach for mathematics and sciences and loves opportunities to travel and experience different cultures. In her spare time, she enjoys quilting, making jewelry, and fellowship with friends.