The Ultimate Guide to Your Panama City Layover
Panama City is the hub of the Americas and, because of this, I often get messages from people who have long layovers in Panama City and have no idea how to kill time between their flights. Most people know that Panama has a canal...and that's about it. However, if you immerse yourself in the city for even just one day, I guarantee that you'll fall in love. To help you plan your layover in PTY, here are my tips on how to spend 24 hours in Panama City (don't worry about getting around, just hail an Uber):
1. Hike up Ancon Hill in the morning
If you can catch the breathtaking sunrise atop Ancon Hill, it is well worth the leisurely thirty minute hike to the summit. You can see both the colonial architecture of the old city and the high-rises encompassing the metropolis from atop, creating a distinct contrast between Panama’s past and its future. If you're there early in the morning, you can also catch a glimpse of exotic birds and animals out foraging for food before the noonday heat.
2. Try Geisha Coffee
The geisha coffee bean was cultivated and rose to fame in the mountains of Boquete here in Panama. However, if you’re pressed for time and can’t make it to Boquete, there are 2 places in the city to try the premium coffee: The first is at Bajareque Coffee House in Casco Viejo. This family owned coffee shop, in which the same family that sells the coffee owns the coffee farm where it grows in Boquete, is a cozy place to savor your cup of coffee and learn more about the geisha bean from the friendly owners. The second is at coffee lab and artisan bakery, Mentiritas Blancas, where, if you're lucky, Giancarlos will provide you with his personalized coffee tasting menu.
3. Go see the Miraflores Locks- Panama Canal
I’d be the first to admit that a canal in itself doesn’t sound interesting, but the Panama Canal has a rich history and is truly a wondrous feat of modern engineering to witness. An untold number of laborers from the West Indies died during the building of the Canal and it was both the catalyst to finding a cure for yellow fever and the end of the U.S. occupation of Panama, only adding to the sacrifices made to connect the East to the West. Watching a boat navigate the deceptively simple locks is actually fascinating! The museum also boasts a simulator to see the canal from the captain’s perspective and artifacts from the era when it was being built.
4. Go back in time at Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo isn’t as well known as Casco Viejo, but it’s just as interesting to see if you can fit it into your schedule. Established in 1519, Panama Viejo was the first European settlement along the Pacific Ocean. The ruins of Panama Viejo’s cathedral, convents, and public buildings stretch out approximately a mile under the weight of ancient stones. You can walk through the ruins and get right up close to the past, or take the convenient transportation provided on site.
5. Try the ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos
Although the bustling indoor market is where the fishermen bring their day's catch to sell, much of the action goes on outside as the waiters call out to passersby, hoping to charm them into having a seat and trying the seafood from their stall rather than the next. The outdoor tables are set close together to make room for large and small groups alike, encouraging you to get to know your neighbor and strike up a conversation. Street vendors also expertly weave through the tables, eager to sell roses to a pair of lovers or toys to a squirming child. Experience a slice of the casual chaos that is Panama City while you have some ceviche, but hold off on the main course if you can…
6. Devour Danny’s Fish
Fish is my least favorite seafood, yet even I can't resist Danny's fish, as everyone affectionately refers to the food at Peach Fuzz made by the Panamanian-American chef, Danny. At least once a month, a group of us goes to Danny’s in the Curundú neighborhood for what is undoubtedly the best fish in Panama. Danny has mastered cooking seafood through modern twists of his family's secret recipes. While he has an array of other seafood on his menu, the fresh fish bought directly from local fishermen’s catch-of-the-day and marinated for hours until it taste like manna from heaven is what you should try if you only have once chance to experience perfection. Some people might turn their noses up at the thought of visiting Curundú, but part of the experience of eating at Danny's is chatting with the owner about the changes he's seen in the neighborhood and watching the colorful cast of local characters pass by.
Supply is limited. To make reservations and get directions, contact Danny via Whatsapp at +507 6526-0615.
7. Take a Tour of Casco Viejo
Casco is undoubtedly my favorite neighborhood in Panama, but the rapid development it's experiencing can often mask its interesting past as well as its people. To learn more about Casco, reserve a tour of Casco Viejo led by the reformed gang members of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. Once crime-ridden and abandoned by the wealthy and the Panamanian government alike, these neighborhoods are now at the forefront of the gentrification Panama City. What is fascinating about the tour is how the former gang members themselves have also turned into vehicles of social progress and economic change for their neighborhoods with the help of local business owners.
The cost of the gang tour is $15 in Spanish, $20 in English. If you speak Spanish you can contact Jaffet directly via Whatsapp at +507-6031-8961 to set up the tour. For reservations in English, contact the Esperanza Facebook Page.
Afterwards, stroll the rest of Casco Viejo to take in the colonial architecture and the beautiful views of the modern high-rises across the Panama Bay. Make sure to buy a delicious paletta (gourmet popsicles made of fresh ingredients) to stay cool from Paletta America or try the new spin on traditional Panamanian raspaos at Razz. You can also drop into Taco la Neta for the most popular tacos in Panama City right now and enjoy happy hour at Panama's only rum bar, Pedro Mandinga.
8. Shop High
If you’re looking for truly unique souvenirs to take back to your loved ones and don’t mind spending a little extra, SuperMini Diablo Rosso boutique in the Sortis Hotel, a spin-off of the art gallery in Casco Viejo, has a great selection of limited quantity pieces from local artists and artisans. They sell everything from t-shirts to one-of-a kind glassware that are both distinctly Panamanian yet avant garde. The owner is also well-known for supporting local artists and ideas, and hosting community events right in the store.
9. Shop Low
The Mercado Artesanías de 5 de Mayo (Artisan Market) is a great place to buy traditional Panamanian souvenirs for a reasonable price. The vendors here are less aggressive than those in Casco, providing you with the opportunity to browse and shop for Panama hats, polleras, Kuna mulas, and many of the other items traditionally associated with Panama. What is interesting about the market is that the vendors and artists come from all over Panama, allowing you to explore the diversity of Panama’s ethnicities, regions, and traditions in one little place. Many of the vendors are also the artisans, meaning that you can sometimes ask them to personalize a bag or other souvenir for you if they're not too busy. If you get lost, ask any Panamanian to point you in the right direction across the street from the Cinco de Mayo metro station. Don't get overwhelmed by the vendors at the jam-packed entrance, go inside to browse the rest of the stalls.
10. Stroll the Cinta Costera at Night
The Cinta Costera- the beautiful boardwalk along Panama City's coastline that boasts outdoor exercise equipment, the giant PANAMA letters, a skater park, swing sets, and a host of spaces for outdoor activities- doesn’t comes alive until sundown because it’s just too darn hot out there during the day. At night, however, you can catch lovers strolling hand-in-hand past vendors hawking raspaos (Panamanian snow cones), burgers, and cool drinks, group fitness classes, gymnasts and dancers practicing their routines, and kids zipping by on their bicycles without a care in the world. It's a wonderfully communal space and a great example of urban design right alongside the ocean.
11. Have a World Class Dinner
Panama's reputation as a growing metropolis continues to attract world class restaurants. Although there are plenty of spots where you can get Caribbean-inspired dishes here, take it from this island gyal that El Caribe's food rivals anything you can get on Flatbush in New York City or in the heart of Miami. I am not ashamed to say that I once ate there three times in one week and the waitstaff can now spot me coming from down the street! I'd recommend starting off with the stuffed plantains to share and then making your way to the entrees.
If you really want to have a truly one of a kind culinary experience that rivals anything you can get anywhere else in the world, make a reservation at the five star rated restaurant, Donde José. Each course in the tasting menu tells a different story about Panama, as your attentive waiter will explain (or sit at the chef's table and chat with him directly). When we had dinner here, the only thing my date had to say was, "Is this restaurant Michelin rated yet?!"
12. Drinks with a view
Tantalo's rooftop bar in Casco is a favorite amongst Panamanian young professionals, expats, and tourists alike for its relaxed atmosphere and graceful view of the Panama. There is almost always a DJ spinning there as the night progresses, adding to the hip vibe. Grab a drink and enjoy the view and the cool night's breeze. CasaCasco, the newest rootfop bar in Casco, is perched to give Tantalo a run for its money as it also boasts a chic atmosphere and gorgeous city views.
13. Dance the night away at Teatro Amador
Finally, dance the rest of the night away at the beautifully restored Teatro Amador. On Friday nights, you can take salsa classes at 9pm and enjoy a live salsa band before the DJ starts spinning. As the night progresses, the "theatre" goes into full club mode with dancers and acrobats above while revelers dance on the dance floor below to the best of Latin music. However, Friday's aren't the only nights that the theatre comes alive. Check their Facebook page for event updates.
14. Relax and listen to Live Music
If you aren't in the mood to party and rather unwind, Panama City has a great selection of live music on different nights. A few of my favorites are: Wednesday nights at the "secret garden" of Las Clementinas where a different band performs every week. For jazz lovers, the restored prison of Las Bovedas on Friday nights burst with the sound of a live jazz band and singer while Danilo's Jazz Club offers a more exclusive jazz scene most nights of the week (with a $15 cover charge). Other live music sites can be found here.
I lived in Panama for almost 2 years and cannot wait to share my insider tips with you. It's a country where you can be in the city, mountains, or on the beach within minutes. This guide contains:
Background history and important facts on the location.
Personal tips to plan your trip.
Full daily trip itinerary.
Links to restaurants and hotel recommendations.
Special tours and cultural activities for an unforgettable experience.