Panama City: Part II – A bit of Luxury

Our second randevou with Panama City began at 4am when we were unceremoniously dropped off at the bus station. After many confused looks and waking up enough to turn on our cell phones, we confirmed that yea, it was in fact 4am. And we were standing in a bus terminal that wouldn’t open for hours, with all of our luggage. Awesome.

We took a quick inventory of our options:

  1. Go to the hostel we had booked and hope they took pity on us/had a free couch. Nope. Our reservation email confirmed that reception didn’t open til 7.
  2. Find a 24 hour diner and have a looong breakfast. As lovely as this would have been, we didn’t have internet and neither of us trusted ourselves to communicate correctly to a cab driver in Spanish: please take me to a decent 24 hour restaurant in a decent neighborhood.
  3. Were the bars still open?? Wait, right, we have all of our luggage…
  4. Wait it out in the bus terminal. This was where we ended up, in a waiting area that the security guard ushered us to after being told that no, we could not just take a seat on the ground near the taxis.

Once 7am finally rolled around we caught a cab to our hostel in the El Cangrejo neighborhood, one of the trendy areas that bordered the banking district. Luckily, they answered the door and we were able to drop off our heavy packs. Not-so-luckily, we were told to come back at 3pm, the official time of checkin. Sleep-deprived, we stumbled into a near-by diner for some breakfast, before taking a walk through downtown.

After an unsuccessful attempt to go to the mall (opened at 11am) and the movie theater (which was supposedly in the mall), we sat down outside, feeling pretty bummed, and more than a little exhausted. We had barely slept the night before and I was a bit frustrated with myself for pushing us to book our hostel rather than a proper hotel. Granted, the prices were much better, but a hotel would have afforded us an air-conditioned lobby to hang in, and Panama City had some really nice hotels.

I voiced my frustrations to Kyle, and his response was “why not?”. 10 minutes later we were relaxing on the big purple couches at the hotel across the street, checking our email on the free wifi, and enjoying the A/C. Thus began the more luxurious side of our trip, which included a day of lounging at one of the nicest pools in the city, followed by a nine-course tasting menu and a bottle of Argentinian Malbec at one of the top restaurants in the city. A much needed vacation from our vacation!

Getting There

We booked the full transfer from Bocas del Toro to Panama City at our hostel, assuming it would be both faster, and easier. Well, we were right on one account, we realized as the bus sped up and down the winding mountain roads. The bus also ended up being two busses, the first which dropped us and all of our luggage at a one-window bus station down a sketchy-looking road in David at 10:30pm. Thankfully, we were with about 20 other backpacking tourists as well, and one guy helped translate for us, confirming that the bus driver said another bus would be along within the hour.

The next bus arrived and it was definitely a step down from the public bus we took from Panama City to David. They had also double booked our tickets, or so they said after a brief conversation with the exceptionally grumpy looking people sitting in the ones listed on our ticket. So, we ended up stuck in the very back, with the toilet. Overall, not our favorite bussing experience, but we made it!


Our hostel, Autograph Lodge, came highly recommended on a bunch of booking sites. After the great time we had at Bubba’s we were excited to check it out and meet some of the other guests. We had the back room off of the garden, and while it was quiet and the room was clean, we were a bit bummed to find that the hostel wasn’t really set up with any social areas. The neighborhood was good, but we both agreed that next time we would splurge on one of the nice hotels downtown.

See / Do

Cinta Costa
Walk or jog along Cinta Costa at high tide. Great views of the skyline from this park that follows along the water’s edge. Make sure you catch it when the water is high though, otherwise the smell can overwhelm the skyline views.


Legs or hotdogs?
A beautiful pool, thanks for letting us crash…

Hang at one of Panama City’s many high-end hotels. If you can splurge on a room, most are still a much better deal than in the US, and the rooftop pools are the perfect antidote to the heat. If not, most still have bars and restaurants where you can enjoy the atmosphere (and if you’ve packed proper clothes no one needs to know you’re actually staying at the hostel down the street).

Eat / Drink

Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!
Best beer in Panama City, good nachos as well!

La Rana Dorada

I believe there are two or three in the city — we ate at the one in El Cangrejo. It’s a brewpub that also does food and we were more than happy with both. We had an enormous plate of nachos and two of their signature beers. It was a cute location with tables outside and seemed to be a popular spot with local 20 and 30-somethings.

Manolo Caracol
We went back and forth on this for awhile on whether to go here because it would be our most expensive meal of the trip at $41/pp, plus taxes, tip, and drinks. However, where else could we get a 9-course menu prepared by one of the city’s top chefs, for that price? We finally decided to go for it and were not disappointed. The food was inspired by traditional Panamanian cuisine, and made with local ingredients. I could go on about the flavors, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…


Tips & Lessons

  • Always ask what time the over night bus arrives, and if there are any middle of the night transfers.
  • Always pack some nice clothes – you never know when you’ll need them, and you don’t want to be caught at a nice restaurant with hiking pants!
  • Even happy budget travelers need a bit of luxury now and the

Current location: Miraflores, Lima, Peru


Panama City: Part 1

Panama City was a great starting point for our adventures into South America — I’d definitely recommend it to anyone heading to South or Central America. It was much bigger than any cities we passed through in our previous travels to Costa Rica and Belize. And way more modern, but with a distinctly Central American feel. The juxtaposition of everything made this an especially interesting stop: tourists and locals, poverty and wealth, old colonial ruins and brand new skyscrapers.

imageOur first few days in Panama City were a mix of relaxation and exploring. And trying to remember / learn key phrases in Spanish. I quickly realized that much of what I learned in high school was either forgotten or not incredibly useful. While I could conjugate an irregular verb I was at a complete loss to understand directions to the bathroom. It’s something that I’ve noticed with a lot of U.S. schools (maybe elsewhere too?) — everything is taught to pass a test, not necessarily learn in a way that can be applied to real life. But, we’re working on it!

The first time I successfully haggled our taxi fare down in Spanish was one of my proudest moments.


We had booked the first few nights at The Country Inn and Suites by the Panama Canal at the recommendation of one of Kyle’s coworkers who was originally from Panama. A bit outside of the noise of downtown and with all the comforts of a US hotel chain it was an easy transition into our travels. The hotel was clean, and modern with comfortable beds, air conditioning, and a pool with views of the canal. Plus it included free breakfast and cookies!

The only downsides were the over-priced taxis and the on-site TGI Friday’s. I suppose with a captive audience of mostly tourists both were to be expected.

View of the canal from our room. This is the same ship we saw going through the locks an hour earlier!

See / Do

Casco Viejo

An old church in Casco Viejo.
An old church in Casco Viejo.

This old colonial part of the city is a must-see. It’s incredible to see the transformation happening here. Crumbling colonial buildings completely overgrown with vegetation are side-by-side with newly restored bars, restaurants, hotels, and condos. The squares with their old churches and outdoor restaurants are also fun to check out.

We didn’t have a chance to wander too much this time — by the time we got to Casco Viejo it was only a couple hours before dark, and the heavy military/police presence and warnings from shop owners not to go past 11th Street put us a bit on edge. We had seen the slums that boarder the town on our taxi ride in and the warnings did not appear to be exaggerated. Though we did later learn that the military presence is partially attributed to the presidential palace being in Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo
Old and new in Casco Viejo.

Miraflores Locks

imageThe Miraflores Locks are the prime viewing spot for ships going through the canal. You can watch cargo ships and gigantic cruise ships come in and get ushered from Lago Miraflores out into the open ocean.

There’s also a multi-level museum that details the history of the locks, as well as a film that we unfortunately missed due to poor timing (the locks close at 5:30 and it was already 4:30 by the time we arrived). We did get to watch a ship pass through the first set of locks – so cool!

We had also pre-arranged with our cab driver to pick us up when the locks closed so getting back to our hotel was easy (our Spanish was improving…a little!).

A cruise ship and cargo ship preparing to enter the locks.
A cruise ship and cargo ship preparing to enter the locks.
Opening the locks at Miraflores.

image image

Avenida Balboa Park

A  nice urban park, worth a stroll for some good pictures of the Panama City skyline after lunch at the Mercado de Mariscos.

Park along Avenida Balboa
Giant clock in Balboa park along the waterfront.

Amador Causeway

We opted to walk the mile to the Causeway from our hotel along the canal path, and then about 3 miles further down the Causeway. It was nice to get some exercise in and overall felt really safe. However the heat and construction made it just OK. I’d suggest checking it out in the early morning (before it gets too hot), and only after the construction is done, since the view of the city is almost entirely obscured by temporary walls.

Bridge to the Americas
The Bridge to the Americas, from the Amador Causeway.


Mercado de Mariscos

Our first stop on Day 1 was this local fish market just outside of Casco Viejo. It was cool to go inside and see all of the fresh fish for sale, but the highlight was definitely the ceviche from the vendors outside.

Ceviche from theMercado de Mariscos
One of many cups of fresh ceviche from the vendors outside the fish market.

We skipped the restaurant in the market and instead spent a few hours sampling the $1.50 – $3.50 cups of ceviche and $1.50 local beers. It was fun trying to translate the menus to figure out what we were ordering. We did have a couple mistranslations, but everything was so good that we really didn’t mind!

We were here on a Saturday and it was apparent from the crowds of locals that this was more a locals spot than a tourist hangout.

Yacht Club restaurant near our hotel

I don’t know the official name of the restaurant, but it was just on the other side of the TGI Friday’s at our hotel and WAY better. The food and beer were decently priced — my fish tacos restored my hopefulness that we would actually be able to get good food in Panama. And the open air patio was a great place to catch the sunset over the canal.

Sunset over the Panama Canal.
Sunset over the Panama Canal.


Red Lion Pub in Casco Viejo

A fairly standard pub with slightly overpriced beer. I wasn’t overly impressed, but they did have a nice outdoor patio for people watching and, most importantly, a bathroom! (see below on our bathroom challenges…)

Gatto Blanco in Casco Viejo

We had the lovely rooftop lounge almost to ourselves at sunset. Once again the drinks were overpriced ($5.25 for a Heinikkan, yikes), but the views made it well worth it. We were much less impressed with the restaurant downstairs. The food was quite good, but expensive and small portions: we split a baked chicken entree and 2 sodas for $23. Not ideal for budget travelers.


Tips & Lessons

  • Tipping is 10% in restaurants. And often included in the bill. We found this out after leaving our waiter at TGI Friday’s a VERY nice (and completely undeserved) tip. It is also not standard to tip taxi drivers.
  • Public bathrooms are not standard. After walking around for a half hour trying to find the elusive public restroom referenced on all of the tourist signs near the Mercado de Mariscos, we finally paid a woman 25 cents for Kyle to use a small trough.
  • Brush up on Spanish. While you can get by with English in most places you will constantly feel like a tourist and haggling with locals is MUCH easier when you can speak the language.
The Panama City skyline, from the rooftop bar at Gatto Blanco.
The Panama City skyline, from the rooftop bar at Gatto Blanco.

We’ll be stopping back in Panama City for a couple days on our way to Ecuador, this time staying at a hostel in El Cangrejo. More on that area and downtown to come!

Current location: Isla Bastimientos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panama City, Panama

Starting the Journey: NYC to Panama

Hola y buenos dias a Panama!

We officially set off on our trip last Friday, after six weeks on the East Coast visiting friends and family, and getting everything set to go. Our first day got off to an early start — since we were unable to check in online we left 3.5 hours early for the airport. Trying to be budget conscious, we planned our route around public transportation: a 15 minute walk to the subway, subway to bus, bus to airport. Sounds simple, right? Add in a snowstorm and rush hour in NYC and it’s a good thing we left so early. Trekking through the snow with two packs each was the first challenge. Add to that a (very) long wait at the bus stop, followed by an unhelpful bus driver that resulted in getting off at the wrong terminal, and we finally made it with just under 2 hours to spare.

Once we got to the ticket counter we learned from the helpful Spirit agent that you actually can’t check in to one-way flight to Panama. We had assumed that either our tickets to the Galapagos in February or the flight home from Montevideo would satisfy the requirement for “proof of onward travel” that most countries require. Wrong. So, we handed over our credit card and the agent booked us on the cheapest flight back to the US. Tip: all US airlines are required by law to allow you to cancel a flight up to 24 hours after purchase with a full refund and no penalties. We would use our return flight tickets to get through customs, then cancel it so we can book the flight we really want, to Ecuador.

The flight down to Panama was pretty uneventful. Despite the many warnings on Spirit’s site about needing to pay for good seats the check-in agent had sat us together, and we even ended up close to the front of the plane on our first leg! With all the warnings I had read about Spirit’s customer service we actually had a great experience. She didn’t even charge us the $10/pp that the website quotes for checking in at the counter (though I wonder if this might have been because we had tried and were unable to complete our checkin online?).

Getting through immigrations / customs in Panama was easy enough — wait in line, get photo taken, scan all finger prints, etc. They didn’t even ask for our return ticket or question where we would be going next. Both of our packs had arrived safely, though Kyle found the lock on his pack safe was missing and presumably cut off. A quick search of the bag found nothing was missing, which was good, and I had brought an extra lock with me. Exhausted from the long day we gathered our stuff and caught a (slightly over-priced) taxi out to our hotel. Coming soon, our first Panama post on the first few days in Panama City.

Current location: Isla Bastimientos, Bocas del Toro, Panama