Panama Travel Report
Date of Visit: 14/07/2017 – 25/07/2017
I’ve just completed a twelve day trip to Panama, my 4th visit to this dynamic Central American destination. For years the government has focused on building bigger and better infrastructure and the good news for travelers is that (due to it’s efforts) accessing Panama has never been easier. The route network of Copa Airlines’ (the national carrier) continues to grow and today, the airline provides frequent connections to most major cities in the Americas (and to some European cities) from their hub at Tocumen airport in Panama City.
All of this increased aviation activity has resulted in Tocumen airport becoming the busiest in Central America – a true regional hub. It has also meant that the existing terminal is operating beyond capacity. To remedy this, a new Norman Forster designed terminal is currently being built. This is due to open later this year and will solidify Panama City’s regional ‘hub’ status.
Sights – Panama City
Once on the ground, there are many attractions which make Panama appealing to tourists. Panama City offers a wealth of history and is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
The city was founded by the Spanish in 1519, who were led by local Indians on the short crossing from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish then used the crossing to transport their treasures from their new world Pacific-coast colonies in Central and South America back to Spain via the Atlantic.
Today, the beautiful old town (Casco Antiguo) is my favourite place to spend time in the city. This UNESCO listed heritage site is slowly being renovated one building at a time, so with each return visit there’s always something new to explore.
The narrow cobbled streets (hopefully one day they’ll make them traffic-free) are lined with historic churches and lead into quiet, leafy squares. Everywhere there are bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and artist studios – a great place to meander, sight-see, relax and pick up a souvenir or two. In between the renovated properties are old abandoned properties (their stone facades propped up by support beams) which await renovation. It’s all very photogenic.
Outside of the old town is the new town – a modern, bustling city – complete with shopping malls, soaring high-rise office towers, traffic-clogged streets and fancy hotels.
The new town is made up of different districts, including the financial district. Construction cranes are a permanent feature on the Panama skyline as new buildings pop-up at a frenzied pace.
Sights – Outside Panama City
Outside of the city, there are a plethora of travel options. Top of most visitors’ bucket list is a trip to the Panama Canal locks. There are three sets of locks between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The closest to the capital (Miraflores locks) can be visited on an easy half-day trip. Here you’ll get to watch ships pass through the old historic locks, while the newer, larger locks are out or sight in the distance and not open to the public. However, if you visit the Gatun Lake locks (Caribbean coast) you will be able to see the mega-sized ships passing through the new locks (opened in 2016).
After the canal, you can spend your time relaxing on the Caribbean coast; sailing around the beautiful San Blas islands; exploring old Spanish coastal forts; diving/ snorkeling or heading to the other side of the country to spend time meandering along the Pacific coast.
Once you’ve had enough of sun, sand and beach you can venture into the central highlands, where you’ll find lush, green rainforests clinging to the sides of extinct volcanoes. It’s on the slopes of these volcanoes where you’ll find cafe fincas (coffee farms) growing the famous Geisha coffee bean (US$260/ kg), which Panama is famous for. A great base for exploring the highlands is the town of Boquete, which you can read more about in my blog – Bird Watching in Panama.
My favourite place to explore dining options is the old town, where there’s always a new restaurant/ cafe opening somewhere. On this trip I returned to my favourite old town cafe – Super Gourmet – which is especially good for breakfast and lunch. It’s owned by a friendly and informative American (Blaine) and it’s one place where you can try a cup of the famous Geisha cafe. I especially recommend a slice of their lemon pie while you sip on of their amazing Panamanian coffees.
My favourite bar in the old town is the newly opened The Strangers Club. The bar is part of a group of hipster cocktail bars, known as the ‘Employee Only’ bars which span the globe from New York City to Macau, Singapore, London and Miami. The cocktails, food and service are all amazing. If you are looking for a special night out then this is the venue.
As for accommodation, Panama City offers the traveler two very different options – you can stay in a beautifully renovated guest house/ hotel in the old town or in a modern, high-rise hotel in the new town. Many of the new hotels are located along the bay front, where – thanks to a 5 km long footpath/ cycle way – you can join locals in the evening to exercise/ promenade. My pick of the modern bay front hotels is the Hard Rock Hotel, which combines 5-star accommodation with a themed experience (like staying at the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame) and offers an amazing breakfast.
The old town offers wonderful shopping from upmarket boutiques, artist studio’s to cheap and cheery souvenir stalls. In the new town you’ll find the biggest and best shopping mall in Panama – the sprawling Albrook mall. This is popular with visitors from throughout the region who come here to shop in stores not available in their home countries (and at reasonably cheap prices). Also worth checking out is the Multicentro mall (in front of the Hard Rock Hotel) and the larger Multiplaza Pacific mall (more upscale with lots of branded shops), which is a short taxi ride from the Hard Rock.
Other blogs from the region – Feature: Panama Bird Watching
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.