fishing harbor with panama city skyline

Two and a Half Days in Panama City

I found a cheap flight to Panama, so I picked up a Lonely Plant guide and figured out a week’s itinerary…three days in Panama City and three days in Boquete.  Aside from the Panama Canal, I hadn’t heard much about the country, so I went with guarded expectations.  I was pleasantly surprised.

I found the wonderful Latin America culture coupled with some American conveniences such as safe drinking water, easy and cheap Uber rides, excellent food, and US currency.  To me, this was perfect!

Where to Stay in Panama City

I stayed in Casco Viejo which is the old quarter and historic district of Panama City.  Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was settled in 1673 after the near complete destruction of the original Panama City, now known as Panama Viejo, in 1671.

Casco Viejo is a mixture of ruins as well as abandoned and restored buildings.  This section of Panama City is similar to Antigua, Guatemala or Granada, Nicaragua and not quite as popularized as Cartagena, Colombia.

Originally, I booked Hotel Tantalo through Hotels.com because it looked like a cool place with a rooftop and included the use of free bicycles.  The hotel emailed me a letter saying it was a party hotel.  Oops…not for me!  They suggested I cancel.

Las Clementinas

As a result, I changed my reservation to Las Clementinas.  Las Clementinas was once a high-end pawn shop operated by Clementina Herrera.  Now the four-story home includes seven, serviced apartments.

With limited front desk hours, I was nervous about my late arriving flight.  Not to worry!  I contacted the wonderful staff and Jose was waiting for me in the small lobby. After warmly greeting me and giving me a welcome drink coupon to the connecting restaurant and brewery, Casa Bruja, he carried my bag up the stairs to the second floor. 

Casa Bruja in Panama City

I didn’t see an elevator, so I was kind of happy for the second-floor room with the exception that it was directly over the bar, thus a little noisier than I would have liked at night, despite the sound proof doors and windows.  I can only imagine what it would have been like at Hotel Tantalo!

My large apartment included a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom and was decorated with antiques.  My refrigerator came stocked with my breakfast foods and a few snacks as I took advantage of their grocery shopping service!  For a $10 fee plus the costs of my groceries, I got my eggs, avocados, apples and a few other veggies (all organic).  I failed to put salt, pepper or oil on the list for cooking and the apartment was bare of these condiments, but I made do. 

Too tired to check out the garden or roof-top terrace for the evening, I sunk into the comfy bed, but I certainly enjoyed the amenities in the following days!

Places to Visit in Panama City

I had 2.5 days to explore Panama City.  I planned for one day to explore Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo and for another day to visit Lake Gatun, monkey island, an Indian Village and the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.  On my shoterned last day, I had hoped to take the high-speed catamaran to a nearby island, but the schedule didn’t coincide with my 4pm flight to Boquete.  Instead I strolled that causeway and explored the old quarter a little more.

Panama Viejo

I started my morning with an Uber ride to Panama Viejo.  Uber rides are dirt cheap!  Perhaps it is because the distances are short, but the traffic is so bad, they don’t seem short.  It took at least thirty minutes to get from Casco Viejo to Panama Viejo after passing by the high-rises of Panama City.

Panama Viejo, once an aboriginal fishing village, was the first city founded by Spain on the Pacific Coast of America in 1521.  Over the next 150 years it grew to a city with a population of 10,000, including 500 houses, many convents, a church, a hospital and a cathedral.  In 1671, Panama Viejo was attacked by Henry Morgan and burned to the ground.

Today, the archealogical site includes a variety of ruins and a museum.  Non-residents must pay a $15 entry to explore both the grounds and the museum which takes about two hours.  Panama Viejo is open from 8:30-4:30 Tuesday through Sunday.

I love ruins and enjoyed Panama Viejo, but anyone pressed for time might skip this attraction for a variety of reasons.  For the ruins and two uber rides it’s a little pricey.  The hour of round-trip traffic to two hours at the site isn’t the best ratio.  And finally, though not as substantial, there are some ruins in Casco Viejo.

Mercado de Mariscos

By the time I finished visiting Panama Viejo, I was ready for lunch.  Instead of going all the way back to Casco Viejo, I had the Uber driver drop me at the fish market on the outskirts of the old quarter.  Although the low tides, which leave all the fishing boats beached in the mud, Panama City has a great fish market.

I entered on the west side.  First, I visited the actual market where locals buy there fish.  Despite the fishy smell, I always like seeing the merchants weigh the fish and bag them up for the customers. Soon I entered the restaurant area.  Countless booths sold a variety of ceviche and other meals.

Spotting a tourist, hosts weaved through their outdoor seating with an English menu as they encouraged me to try their fare.  A local blogger suggested the stall with a bright green awning.  I’m not sure why he liked it over the others, but the prices seemed reasonable.  Unfortunately, they were out of mixed ceviche!

I didn’t really feel like wandering back and looking at all the other choices.  Upon leaving the counter and deciding what to do, the gentleman at the neighboring stall offered me a taste of their ceviche.  I looked no further!  I ordered a medium mixed ceviche from the Restaurante El Rompeolas stall at the fish market for only $5.  It was delicious!! 

After my lunch, I wandered along the Cinta Costera past the fishing harbor and the row of flags back to Casco Viejo where I took a self-guided walking tour around town.  Signs are posted near all the historical features in Casco Viejo along with a map of a walking tour.  Each sign includes a little history too, so a guide isn’t really necessary.

Casco Viejo

The Promenade

Casco Viejo juts into Panama Bay and its south eastern tip features nice views of Panama City as well as several historical sites.  I walked along the promenade named for Esteban Huertas, a general who commanded Panamanian troops during its separation from Colombia in 1903.  It was lined with booths selling trinkets and handicrafts. 

Monument to the Panama Canal

I looped around the corner and down the stairs to find the monument to the Panama Canal by Plaza Francia.  The obelisk honors the French who failed at building the canal!

Plazoleta Carlos V

The walking tour led me from the monument to a small plaza named for Carlos V.  He is credited for being the first person with the idea to build the canal as early as 1520.

Plazoleta Carlos V in Panama City

Ruins of the Church and Convent of Saint Dominic

Not far from the plaza and interspersed with stores and the Colonial Religious Art Museum are the ruins of the church and convent of Saint Dominic which was destroyed by fire in the 18th century.  It is most known for its flat arch.

ruins of church of st dominic in Panama City

Compañía de Jesús

A few blocks farther west on Avenida A are the ruins of Compañía de Jesús.  This was a Jesuit convent and temple which later became the first university in the Isthmus of Panama.

I didn’t follow the walking tour map exactly as I meandered among the streets.  I stumbled upon some demonstrators near Iglesia Nuestra Senora de La Merced who were making their way to Plaza de la Independencia. 

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de La Merced

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de La Merced was quite beautiful and really stood out among the buildings with its original wooden roof and columns which date back to the colonial days. Its baroque façade is made from stones brought from the original Panama City site that was burned down.

Plaza de la Independencia

From the church, along with the protestors, I headed to Plaza de la Independencia too.  The large square is lined by a cathedral, the municipal house, and the Interoceanic Canal Museum.  Also, judging by the protestors, the gates and the security, the President’s Office must have been nearby!

Plaza Simon Boliva

So, there is no shortage of squares in Casco Viejo.  From Plaza de la Independencia, I walked northeast a few more blocks to Plaza Simon Boliva.  Palacio Boliva and Iglesia San Francisco de Asis sit on the east side of the square while outdoor dining takes place on the west side of the square.

Finally I headed back to my hotel which is on the opposite end of Casco Viejo from Plaza de la Independencia.  That’s OK, it gave me time to check out the variety of buildings, restaurants and stores the pepper the busy streets.

Chinese New Year

The street was especially busy today because it was Chinese New Year and Chinatown is just west of Casco Viejo.  A human dragon danced up and down the streets, stopping at each store that needed to blessed or something.  The costumed monster went inside while dozens of black cat fire works were set off.  This celebration went on for hours! Video (5 seconds): Chinese New Year

Plaza de Santa Ana

Just to the northwest of my hotel was my final stop for the day, Plaza de Santa Ana.  A handful of locals sat in the shade on the benches across from Iglesia de Santa Ana.  This plaza seemed less touristy as it was on the outskirts of town.

After a long day, I hung out on the roof top of my hotel.  The strong breeze cooled the otherwise warm day as I admired the skyline of Panama City and watched the sun set over the hillside.  Soon it was dinner time and I found several nice restaurants to choose from.

Santa Rita

While in Panama City, I ate at three different places in Casco Viejo.  The first evening, I selected Santa Rita, a restaurant convenient to my hotel that got great online reviews.  I chose a small table at the bar as I didn’t want to take a nice table in the restaurant for one person.  The friendly wait staff took my order promptly.  The Flatiron steak with awesome chimichurri sauce and patacones were wonderful.  It was a nice way to end the night before my six-hour tour on Lake Gatun.

Tour of Lake Gatun (Monkey Island and Indian Village)

So, I struggled deciding between the Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal and Jungle Tour on Viator or the Monkey Island, Indian Village, and Lake Gatun Tour offered by Barefoot Panama.  Ultimately, I decided on the latter, as I wanted to meet one of the seven indigenous tribes in the Isthmus of Panama.

Most of the tours in Panama City pick up and drop off tourists at their hotel or at a place nearby.  My pick-up location was at a cute coffee shop called Café Unido.  If I could drink coffee, it would have been a great place for a morning joe.  I was the last person to join the group of mostly KLM airline employees who had a layover.

We drove to the lake, boarded the boat from a rickety dock, traveled up the Chagres River and then turned onto Gatun Lake.  I wouldn’t have known the difference between the two bodies of water surrounded by jungle except that our guide told us! 

Monkey Island

Upon entering a cove on the lake to see the howler monkey, our engine promptly died!  After ten minutes of floating around during futile attempts to start the flooded motor, it finally came back to life.  Whew…with no cell service in the area, it would have been a long, warm day waiting for help!

After spotting the howler monkeys who ignored us, we cruised around the corner to see the capuchins.  These white-faced monkeys were smart and happy to be fed by the tour groups. 

As such, they leapt onto our boat and also took advantage of dipping their tails into the lake for water as our arrival scared away any lurking crocodiles.  I am personally not fond of the practice to feed wild animals, but they say these monkeys are not indigenous to the area and there is not enough food for them.

That made me feel a little better until we visited the tamarin monkeys.  These tiny monkeys are native to the area, and the tour groups feed them too.  Oh well…it made for some good pictures.

Indian Village (San Antonio Wounaan)

After visiting the monkeys, we motored to a remote area (who knows where as the jungle all looked the same to me).  The only scenery that changed were the boats that were transiting the Panama Canal.  Giant container ships rocked us with their wake as we shared the waterway with them.

The Indian tribe was called the San Antonio Wounaan.  Approximately 50 members live in their village.  They tend to choose places for settling with a lot of palm trees nearby as they are important for building their homes and for their handicrafts.

While they choose to live in the jungle in un-airconditioned huts, some go in to town for work and all children are required to attend school by law.  They have a long commute on a boat and a bus!

The San Antonio Wounaan stay in one area as long as possible, but every fifty years or so they have to move as their resources deplete.  The ancestors from this village actually taught US soldiers how to live off the jungle back in the 60’s in preparation for Vietnam.  Now, however, they mostly focus on tourism.

Upon our arrival to the village, the members of the tribe kindly greeted us, showed us their handicrafts such as jewelry and baskets and performed two dances for us.  I always enjoy seeing how people live.  For some reason, I wasn’t surprised when I saw a soccer field or more like two goals and a pitch of dirt.  It’s the universal sport.

Miraflores Locks

After meeting the Indian tribe, we returned to the dock where our guide got the mini-van to take us to lunch.  Lunch was planned at a town by the Miraflores Locks.  Instead of having a generic lunch and returning to Panama City, I got dropped off at the locks for a wonderful view of the canal.

The Miraflores Locks are the most popular to visit because they are closest to Panama City and have a visitor’s center, restaurant, museum, movie, and excellent viewing platform.  The locks tend to be busy around 10am and 2pm.  I arrived at 1:15pm in perfect time to see a variety of ships transit the canal.  For more details about the locks and the canal, visit my Panama Canal Post.

small boats in the miraflores locks on the Panama Canal
water level has dropped

Donde José

After spending few hours at the locks, I ordered an Uber back to Panama City and primped for my evening at Donde José.  Before leaving Denver, I made reservations at this restaurant that only has two seatings, no sign, and serves an authentic eight-course tasting meal.  It was so good, I wrote an entire post about my experience!  For some reason, I wasn’t expecting food in Panama to be so sophisticated.  I have been pleasantly surprised by the menu choices.

Fried Cheese at Donde José

Cinta Costera on the Causeway

On my final half day in Panama, I took an Uber to the Biomuseo, a brightly colored, funky looking building that focuses on the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s bio-diversity.  I hear it is really cool, but I just used it as a starting point to walk the Cinta Costera along the causeway.  I went around 9am to avoid the heat, but the constant breeze kept things cool.

Unfortunately, I finished the 2.5 mile walk to Flamenco Island too early in the day to enjoy lunch at the restaurants surrounding the marina.  I thought I may be able to explore the lighthouse and the battery, but most of the surrounding area was blocked off for authorized personnel only, so I just ventured back the way I came.  The Cinta Costera afforded lovely views of Panama City and the surrounding waterways.

Finca del Mar

Back at the Biomuseo, I once again ordered Uber for a ride back to Casco Viejo and had my final lunch in Panama City at Finca del Mar.  I had noticed the fun outdoor restaurant with swinging chairs at the bar on one of my previous walks.  Though it wasn’t my favorite meal, the fish and salad were still tasty.

Overall, I really like Panama City…its history, its nature, and its modern-day conveniences.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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