Panama boasts two oceans, volcanoes and mountains, lakes and jungles, pristine islands and national parks, surf and snorkel, and its capital offers cosmopolitan restaurants, live salsa, traditional markets, modern shopping malls, a colonial city and many other sites worth visiting.
A one week holiday in Panama meant making choices, and putting together a holiday to remember while visiting only a few of the country's attractions. All I can say is it did not disappoint.
Panama City is unavoidable when going to Panama, if only because virtually all international flights land into Tocumen airport, but that's not the only reason to come. The province of Panama has a lot to offer, and we spent 4 days in Panama city, including day trips. From the airport, the easiest way is to take a taxi, $ 28 for 2 people, or $ 11 per person if more than 2 travel together. If several people arrive at the same time, the taxi "dispatcher" will offer you to share. It took us about 30 minutes to El Cangrejo (on a Saturday afternoon, but it might be more on a weekday, especially around rush hour).
In Panama City, don't miss the Casco Viejo, the colonial architecture is beautiful, with the ocean as a background, salsa coming out of houses, and small cafes to escape the heat, it was one of my favorite places in the city. If you're coming between Thursday and Saturday, you'll find live music in many bars here in the evening.
I also loved the new promenade on the ocean, you can walk from the casco viejo to Punta Paitilla, stopping for shaved ice from street vendors on the way, or just to look at the ocean and enjoy the sun.
Wherever you are in the city, you can still see the diablos rojos (red devils), old buses painted with colorful and imaginative designs. They are slowly phased out, to be replaced by more modern buses, so go and see them while you can!
Sleeping in Panama City
We stayed in 2 different hotels in Panama city.
The Hilton Garden Inn has a modern lobby, a gym, a guest launderette, and its best feature, adjustable mattresses : you can adjust (on each side) to have a softer or harder mattress. And it works ! However the downside of this hotel is that it does not have a swimming pool, only a jacuzzi on the roof, which was not working while we were there.
The Wyndham Veneto is again a chain hotel, and as a 5 star hotel, it comes as no surprise that it does feature a swimming pool, a gym, and of course a casino. But what we were not expecting is that the casino and the bar are used mostly by "ladies of the night", and as there are not many other clients (at least during the week), it might not be the best place to go for drink as a couple. If you take the lift directly to the rooms you will not notice them so staying at the hotel is still OK, especially as they usually have good deals on the web.
Eating in Panama City
Our favorite restaurant in Panama City was the Lena y Carbon, situated on the Causeway. It's located right at the end, after the duty free shops. You can have dinner inside or al fresco, enjoying views of the ocean, and the food is good, with enough variety, and large portions.
If you're staying in El Cangrejo district, try "El Trapiche", on avenida Argentina. Their fiesta panameña will give you a taste of the main traditional Panamanian dishes.
El Greco, across the street from the Veneto hotel, has real home-made Greek yogurt for breakfast, and some good pancakes too.
The chain "Parillada la estancia" is everywhere in Panama city and has some good grilled meat, and the ubiquitous patacones (fried plantains).
Day Trips Around Panama City
There are many sights within easy reach of Panama City, from beaches to mountains, lakes and jungle, and of course the Panama canal.
Our first trip was to the canal, it's an easy 20 minutes drive to get to the Miraflores locks. As there are not ships all the time, on arrival the staff will tell you when the next ship is coming, and you can keep your ticket to come back later in the day if you need to. There is also a small but interesting museum, viewing platforms, from where you can see how the locks work, and some information about the current works to enlarge the canal.
We then took a day to visit the coast around the city. Our plan was to begin with Playa Coronado, but we were stopped at the gate, and told only residents can enter the town. We visited Nueva Gorgona (an empty stretch of beach with brownish sand), Punta Roca (another deserted beach that was not good for swimming), and other small beaches. The beaches in that area are known to be dangerous because of rip currents, and while it was good for a day trip out of the city, none of the places we visited warranted a second visit.
Panama: The Caribbean
During the green season (this is the marketing term for rainy season in Central America), the Pacific coast is supposedly drier. With that in mind, we first decided to go to Chiriqui, and explore the area : Boquete (for mountains and coffee plantations), Boca Chica (a seaside area that's not too developed yet), and maybe a snorkeling trip).
And then we changed our mind...
As we were going to Costa Rica next, Chiriqui involved a 9 hours long bus ride from David to San Jose, then another 4 hours bus ride, or a drive, to the areas we wanted to visit. That meant losing one and a half days, and probably being quite tired on arrival.
From Bocas del Toro, we could take a plane to Liberia, changing in San Jose, be there around midday the same day, and avoid all the hassle: next stop, Bocas del Toro.
If you get the early flight from Panama city to Bocas del Toro, you arrive early enough to have a whole day ahead of you on the island. Arriving there at 7 in the morning, you will feel like you're in a ghost town. You can walk from from the airport to Bocas town, even with bags, and you'll see very few people out and about at that time of the day.
The most recommended activity in Bocas del Toro is a snorkeling trip. There are 3 different ones on offer in all the tour companies (they all offer the same tours, at the same price, but the departure time might be different). You can choose to snorkel in the mangroves, or to see some coral, and visit the famous Red Frog Beach.
You can also visit Bocas del Drago, a minibus from Bocas town leaves every 2 hours and costs $ 5.00 per person return. The water is calm and clear, and the beach is not too crowded, although not very wide. Once you get there, the Yarisnori restaurant is right on the beach, and has some of the best food we had during this trip.
Sleeping and Eating in Bocas Del Toro
Credit: sunset Bocas del ToroWe stayed at Las Terrazas, and were happy with the hotel. Within walking distance of the town, it has a swimming pool, and offers loungers on the terrace, right over the ocean, though it's not on the beach.
For breakfast, head to John's bakery for cheap and good coffee, great pancakes, and a variety of pastries and juices.
In the evening, Bocas Bambu Beach offers decent food, with daily specials, and live reggae on weekends.
For a wifi connection, try Buena Vista, which also offers burgers and brownies. Next door, Kunja is a Chinese restaurant, it's cheaper but the food is not great and there's no internet access.
For the best cheap food in town, the Pollo Rostizado offers of course roasted chicken, as the name indicates, and some other dishes for lunch. It's cheap, and it's tasty.
For a memorable meal, take a 5-10 minutes ride with a taxi boat to Carenero, and have dinner at Bibi's on the beach (call ahead or ask your hotel, as they're not always open). The restaurant is built on stilts over the water, and the water is so clear you can see the ray mantas passing while you eat, and eat you will, as the food is great. The Bibi's ceviche with passion fruit and pineapple and the ginger fish fillet are not to be missed.
After a great week in Panama, it was time for us to go on to Costa Rica. The flight from Bocas to San Jose and from San Jose to Liberia were a highlight of this trip, and while the small plane might not look like much when sitting on the tarmac, once in the air, you'll forget about it and admire the 2 beautiful countries that are Panama and Costa Rica from the air.