Panama was my final Central American country as I had visited the others in my Best of Central America tour, starting in Costa Rica exactly a year ago today! (Check it out here).
I spent 4 days solo in Panama City in Feb 2019. Panama City is the capital city, is generally safe and has a very cosmopolitan feel to it with international banks and high rise hotels juxtaposed with the beautiful colonial old town and neighbourhoods in between.
I flew into Panama’s Tocumen International Airport (the largest airport in Central America) via Avianca, with a short layover in Bogota, Colombia. It is then easy and cheap to get into the city centre via Uber.
I stayed in Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro which is a lovely hotel and affordably boujee (£165 for 4 nights). It has a free rooftop pool, sauna and gym, happy hour drinks deals and breakfast which you can pay extra for. The views of Panama city from the rooftop (and my bedroom) were worth the money alone. From my previous posts, you’ll see that I often stay in hostels and this is a good idea especially when solo travelling. But I really fancied treating myself this time which is needed every so often!
Exploring Panama City and beyond
*Interesting fact* This is where the old town was relocated after the original one (Panama Viejo) was attacked by English Pirate Henry Morgan!
It has the classic Spanish colonial feel to it and is also where most of the best bars and restaurants in town are located. From my hotel, I took the metro to 5 de Mayo and walked to the Old town. The area surrounding this metro station is apparently dodgy (I learnt this afterwards ha) so just be streetwise in the day.
Just by the station, you’ll find the Afro Antillean Musuem which looks like a small black American church. It’s $1 entry and explains the 2 waves of black migration into Panama and how the difficulties they faced in society.
My tour started at Plaza de Santa Ana, a square which was previously used as a market and for bullfights before it became a park. There’s a church and park benches but not much else was happening so I quickly moved on.
From here, I ended up by the coast where you could see the city centre skyline across the canal and were surrounded by more beautiful greenery.
Cathedral Plaza houses La Cathedral Metropolitana (the main cathedral in the city) plus open markets where you may see dance performances. The cathedral is open to enter for free and has an important shrine dedicated to Saint Mary of La Antigua (the Patroness of Panama).
Other places nearby to check out are: the beautiful yellow Palacio Bolívar and the church next to it, Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús, Arco Chato (the Flat Arch) and as many pretty side streets and colonial buildings as you like! The beauty of this area can be appreciated just by strolling and taking it all in.
This is probably the most visited tourist attraction in the city and rightly so. It connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean across the isthmus of Panama, which makes the location key for transporting goods. Crossing the Panama Canal means a ship crosses these seas in 8-10 hours as opposed to almost 2 weeks it would take to go around the continent!
I visited Miraflores Lock which is one of 3 locks of the Canal which costs $20 for adults. The visit includes a museum which explains how the Canal was built and the struggle that Panama faced to gain authority over it from the US. There were a lot of workers brought in from the Caribbean and other parts of the world and the devastation faced with tropical diseases and fighting for their rights to be in Panama after the Canal was completed is interesting to learn about.
There is also a cinema showing a short film which looks at the development of the Canal through children’s eyes during the different Ages.
The ideal thing to see whilst here is the actual passing of ships through the Canal. It happens in the morning and the afternoon but I found it hard to tell online exactly when they passed. I caught the afternoon one which started at 1.30pm. It was amazing to see the process in real time and how different sized ships go through.
This 25 minute hike will take you to a great view over the city. It’s free to go up and there’s a house turned café for tourists which sells drinks, snacks and offers toilets if needed. Due to its location, it’s a good place to combine with your Panama Canal trip (as your ticket for the Canal allows re-entry. So if you arrive and the boats aren’t due to come for another couple of hours, this is a great way to break up the day).
The original old city of Panama which was the first settlement of Spanish on the Pacific Coast. Due to poor defences, it was attacked by pirates and abandoned for Casco Viejo.
It’s $20 to enter and you visit the museum and ruins (including those of the cathedral) around the site. I enjoyed the museum a lot as it’s super interactive and takes you through life of Native Panamanians, how this changed with subsequent invasions and it touches on the Canal too.
San Blas Islands
These paradise islands, officially known as Guna Yala can be visited on a day trip or overnight trips. I chose a day trip as I only had 4 days here and wanted to maximise my time. The day is tiring so overnight trips is an option if you want to relax more!
There is a lot of flexibility with booking as it can be done via your accommodation a couple of days before you go. The tour consists of an initial car ride to the sea which takes an hour an a half in a 4×4 due to the roughness of the road. You need to bring your passport as there is a checkpoint where it’ll be checked.
You then go on a boat ride to visit the different islands. We visited 3 islands including Isla Perro Grande where we spent the most time, enjoyed fresh fruits including coconuts and the sea. My favourite part of the day was being in the ocean where we spotted beautiful starfishes (estrellas del mar).
The Guna Yala flag has a black swastika on it which is confusing at first and I was on the trip with a group of Jewish girls so didn’t know what to say. But it’s important to know that their Revolution occurred 94 years ago and so obviously has a completely different meaning.
Food and drink
Tántalo – this is a great place for lunch, dinner, happy hour rooftop drinks and a night out! The bar and kitchen is attached to a hostel in Casco Viejo and a must visit for one of the above. I had lunch here and also attended the Wednesday night Latin night which was a lot of fun.
El Trapiche – I had an incredible breakfast here called desayuno centario (flour fritter topped with fried eggs, pork cracklings, grated cheese and creole sauce) as below.
Arepas Vía España– generous portions of chicken, rice, plantain and salad for $6!
New York Café – for amazing breakfasts. I had the pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage and watermelon juice which was filling and fairly priced. I have to say, all the fresh juices in Panama are to die for!
Everyone recommends Hard Rock Café for a drink and great views over Panama City. I didn’t go as my hotel offered the same views but it’s one to check out if you’re staying elsewhere!
Useful tips for Panama
Although Panama has its own currency (Panamanian Balboa), it is like for like with the US dollar. Meaning you can pay in dollars (paper and coins)..you may be given change back as a mixture of the 2. Card payments all appear as USD.
Uber is your friend when it comes to getting around! It’s so cheap and all the drivers are lovely. Although there is a metro system, it’s not very extensive or leads you to walk though less populated areas and I felt this was a safer option, particularly at night.
And finally little bit of Spanish goes a long way! I think this is a great Central American country to solo travel around for all the above reasons so check it out and let me know what you think!