Why I went here? In all honesty, it was the intrigue surrounding the country itself. The New York Times dubbed it THE best place to visit in 2012. I also read that it was a hub for business, so infrastructure is up to par with major cities in the United States and western Europe. Finally, English is widely spoken, and of course, the Panama Canal.
Best time to visit? Panama lies near the equator, which gives it a tropical climate and only wet and dry seasons. The latter (mid-December to early May) is definitely the best time to visit.
Best way to get there? There are numerous direct flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Miami International (MIA) to Tocumen International Airport (PTY). From there, take a cab to the city. Choose one queued up on the streets just outside the airport arrivals rather than drivers who readily offer their services within the airport just as you clear customs. Taxis queued up are generally cheaper. One way will run you anywhere from $25-$35.
What to see/do? Panama City offers plenty to see and do. It has ruins, shopping districts, water sports, casinos, and nature walks but anyone who visits this city should not miss the Panama Canal. It is of historical significance to the country and it plays a major role in world trade and commerce. The 48-mile canal has three locks and Miraflores is the closest one to the city, readily accesible by taxi. Familiarize yourself with its history prior to visiting in order to obtain a better understanding of its place in Panamanian history and to truly understand its importance to the world economy.
When the Spanish landed in Panama, they established a city northwest of where the current city now resides. The old city was sacked by pirates led by Henry Morgan and the ruins left are what make up the sights at Panama Viejo. The location has fantastic views of the Bay of Panama and the new city and it also provides you a glimpse of what life was like in colonial Panama. After Morgan conquered Panama, he moved the city to what is now Casco Viejo. The Panamanians also refer to it as Casco Antiguo. This part of town still needs plenty of remodeling, but its old charm is starting to resurface. Colourful colonial designed homes as well as historical churches make up this part of Panama City. Go here early to avoid the traffic and the crowd.
Visitors wanting to get a panoramic view of the city should head out to the Amador Causeway. This man-made bridge that connects the island of Flamenco to the mainland has excellent views of the city and the surrounding islands. Also notable is the upcoming Frank Gehry designed museum of biodiversity located at the entrance of the causeway and is due to open late fall of this year. Lastly, Ancon Hill is also worthy of a visit. Asociacion Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza or ANCON for short is somewhat of an urban jungle and was once part of the American Canal Zone. Biking and hiking is permitted and the summit has great views of the city, Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal.
Food and drinks: When I asked my host where I could get authentic Panamanian food, she told me to go to El Trapiche. Its location is not hard to find, considering it is adjacent to the city’s largest mall, Albrook. The service is friendly and accommodating. The price is reasonable for the amount you get and the food itself is pretty good. Since I didn’t know which to order, I went for the Panamanian food sampler comprised of several favorites such as tamal de olla, arroz con pollo, and yuccas. They provide their chicken soup as a complimentary appetizer and that too was quite delicious.
Where to sleep? There are a variety of chain hotels serving the city and I actually stayed in one for a night, however, my preferred accommodation was in a bed and breakfast tucked in the Ancon district called Dos Palmitos. The place has a handful of rooms for rent and owned by a Dutch expat. The location is central to anywhere you want to go within the city and it is well placed among the colonial homes just at the foot of Ancon hill. The house has a relaxing atmosphere, great views and modern amenities (microwaves, showers, air conditioning, flat screen tvs). The place also has plenty of information available from brochures, books, and leaflets and the host herself is very knowledgeable about Panama. The price ranges from $50-$150 depending on the season and the number of people in your party. Wi-Fi and breakfast are included in the quoted rate.
Day trips: If time permits, take a train ride aboard the Panama Canal Railway towards the city of Colon. The route takes about one hour to complete and it follows the path of the Panama Canal from Panama to Colon. Service runs Monday-Friday and the cost is $25 each way. Colon is not much of a tourist destination however, so on your trip back to Panama, take a bus instead towards Albrook mall. Buses are comfortable and air-conditioned, depart in greater frequencies, and cost way less than taking the train.
Why I would go back? Panama in itself was an eye opener. For the first time in years, I found myself in a very uncomfortable position because I got lost one night and was temporarily stranded in what was said to be a questionable part of town. The situation demanded for me to think on my feet and trust my instincts more than I ever had, and that experience forever pinned this country in my mental map. As a result, it made more eager to step outside of my comfort zone. This trip focused mostly on Panama City but the country has plenty more to offer tourists. A day trip with the Embera tribe is something I will like to experience on my next visit and I would also like to explore more of the country’s natural habitat considering it is home to some of the rarest creatures on both land and sea.