I feel I have been well-traveled in the whole Mexico/Caribbean island aspect of travel, those are the only places I have gone pretty much my whole life, so Panama was like my first destination completely out of my comfort zone. I had no clue what to expect, what to do, or what to see and that really excited me! I didn’t know anyone who had ever been there, and since our trip was so spontaneous, we didn’t really research much. Some may call that crazy, but I find it to be a huge sense of adventure and I wouldn’t do it any other way. Mike and I were only in Panama four days, and although we saw and did quite a lot in that time, I don’t think we were there long enough to make an official judgment on how to feel about it. I will defiantly be returning for more adventures, because there is a lot we did not see. Here is our itinerary if you ever find yourselves in the same boat as us.
We took a cab into town and our first impression was big skyscraper, shiny new city. We weren’t sure about the safety level of this destination yet so we remained reserved the first day and kind of just hung out around the hotel to get a feel for it.
We stayed at Hotel las Americas Golden tower. It was literally a brand new hotel, 5 stars, free breakfast, fancy robes, the whole nine…for only $120/night! Crazy right? Panama is super inexpensive, so you can get that luxury travel without the luxury price tag, which is always nice! The rooms were super clean. The bathroom was really nice and had a peak a boo sliding door in the shower to the room, which is always a fun touch on a vacation. The view was really great, we were on the 16th floor so we got a little window ocean view through some of the other high rises. The pool deck was really nice, and heated, unfortunately no hot tub, and the spa amenities were closed so we did not get to enjoy that, but over all it was a very comfortable stay. The breakfast was delicious, they had a waffle/crepe station, and an omelette station, as well as a variety of local Panamanian foods to try. For more information on the hotel, click here.
We did a lot of walking around, and even rode the public bus a few times, which is actually easily accessible and insanely affordable. There is a way to acquire a bus pass, but we unfortunately did not find out how to do so or we probably would have just used the bus the whole time we were there. But we did use the bus twice and we just had a local swipe their card for us and we handed them cash instead. The USD is the preferred currency too believe it or not, so you don’t have to worry about any crazy exchange fees while traveling through Panama. We also used Uber a lot while here, just keep it on the down low and the driver will sometimes ask one of the passengers to sit in the front seat, because it is kind of frowned upon.
Things to do:
- The Panama Canal
Price: $15 per person
It is about a 20-25 minute drive from the city, we took a cab to get there. We stayed here for a few hours because I guess we got the transit timing down wrong, and really wanted to see a boat pass through. We arrived early and there was no crowd at all, which was nice, but once there was a boat in site, that placed filled to the brim! They do about 25 to 30 transits each day, and each lock drops 27 feet to the next lock. We were fortunate enough to see 5 transits go through, but it took forever!! They have a really nice restaurant and bar inside the visitors center so it was nice to kick back, sip on some delicious sangria and watch the boats roll through.
2. Embera Tribe
They live in the Chagres national rainforest, which is now a protected national park. Because it is protected, the Embera people can no longer hunt or fish to make a living, so they rely solely on tourism and selling hand made goods. We took a tour with Tony, (last minute booking, with no official website unfortunately, but he was awesome!!) they pick you up from your hotel in the morning, then you drive about an hour and a half outside of the city, where you get to see what the tour guide called “real Panama”. I remember there being tons of taxis and a lot of trash. We asked him why there was so much trash, and I mean there was really a lot of trash, that it stood out to me. He said it was because a lot of the people can not afford to pay for someone to come pick it up, so it just stays there and people add more and more every day, our tour guide told us it brings in a lot of rats and disease. Once we pulled up to the wildlife office, the tour guide paid our entry fee which was $5 USD and then we made another quick ride down to the Chagres river bed, where we first saw the tribes people.
The men wore cloth tied around their waist with some very intricately beaded pieces fastened over the cloth. We took motorized canoes, hand carved by the tribesmen, over to the village. We first stopped at this beautiful waterfall, it was a 20 minute bout ride through the windy river and jungle. It was just breathtaking. The water was super cold and I am a total baby in the cold so I did not get in, but Mike was loving the waterfall! We spent some time there then made our way upstream to the village. There we were greeted by the women of the tribe, and some of the tribes people played handmade flutes and drums, it was very welcoming. The tribeswomen wore beautifully bright patterned sarongs with exquisitely hand beaded bras. We walked around the village and got to see how they lived and there was a quick briefing on their way of life, with the leader of the tribe. He told us how they hunt and fish, and how the women make jewelry and baskets out of roots and things they grow. They fed us local fish, and plantain. It was delicious. It was so crazy to watch them cook it over a make shift oven inside of a thatched roof hut. It was a very humbling experience and I am glad I got to go and experience such a different culture. I highly recommend getting off Panama’s beaten path and checking out the people of the Embera tribe, the tourism really helps sustain their way of life.
3. Shopping in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is “old town Panama” it really reminded of Old san Juan, with the brightly painted buildings and cobble stone streets. The city actually just got done with its renovations, so everything was so clean and just absolutely beautiful. I shopped for hours!! Luckily for mikes sake there was a bar attached so he sipped on mojitos while I spent the money.
Where to Eat:
- Moriscos Mercado (Seafood market)
So their seafood market is a seafood lovers heaven! It is the freshest ingredients literally caught right on site!! They had tons and tons of different booths set up with different things to offer. We ate Moriscos evesa and had Chilean Sea bass ceviche, lobster tacos, and Moriscos stuffed plantains. Best. Street food. Ever. *PRO TIP: Be sure to double check prices ahead of time! Although they have a menu with their prices listed, they do not stand by that and we ended up getting totally ripped off.
2. Las Bovedas
Located in Casco Viejo, stop in and grab a drink in this cute little tunnel bar
3. Nazca Peruvian Cuisine
Some of the best Peruvian food I have ever had! I ordered gigantic Inca prawns and Mike got Lomo saltados and of course we had to indulge in some Inca Cola!
We ventured out and just “got lost” and found some of the coolest roof top bars in Casco Viejo. We rented a bike and rode around the three islands linked together by the causeway and watched the sunset. We fell in love with the cobble stone art covered streets of Old Panama, shopped until we dropped in the markets and malls. Got drinks and chilled pool side at countless fancy high rises. Panama truly has something for everyone, whether you are into old and charming or new and shiny. I will definitely be returning, and hope to check out San Blas islands when I do.
I hope you get the chance to wander through Panama some day!