Almost everyone these days seems to be writing about Panama City as a hip new travel destination in Central America. There’s good reason — it’s within a seven hour flight from both coasts of the U.S. and Copa Airlines has aggressively expanded to market itself, and Panama City (its hub), as a natural stopover point on U.S. flights to South America. This means that fares can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip from LA, New York, or San Francisco.
Panama City is a great town to spend 36 hours in. The residents widely speak English, getting around town is easy and affordable thanks to Uber, and they use USD as their currency. I suggest prioritizing two things during your time in Panama City — seeing the canal and spending time in Casco Viejo.
The Panama Call is surprisingly accessible from the city and worth the half day trip. There are a number of ways to get to the canal including a ferry and railway, but I recommend taking a taxi as this is the quickest option. A private car to take you the 30 minutes to the Miraflores locks and wait while you see the canal will be less than $70. I’d suggest going early in the morning – arriving just before 9AM will help you avoid the crowds and is also a busy time for canal traffic, so you’re more likely to see a ship passing through it. There’s a museum onsite, which is worth strolling through, but is unlikely to take you more than 30 minutes to appreciate.
Casco Viejo is the historical district of Panama City, that until fairly recently was fairly decrepit and quite dangerous. However, investors have poured a lot of money into renovating the area, and it shows. It’s a gorgeous neighborhood on the southwestern tip of the city that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is full of beautifully maintained colonial era houses and is reminiscent of a more urban Cartagena. It’s also quite small – three streets wide, and about a 20 minute walk from one end to the other.
The neighborhood is filled with excellent coffee, restaurants, and bars and one can easily have great meals in Panama City without ever venturing outside of the neighborhood.
After sipping a cup of Panamanian coffee, all doubt leaves one’s mind about whether their coffee lives up to the hype – it does. Bajareque’s Café is just two blocks from the water – grab a pour over there and stroll over to the water. If you’re looking for a place to sit and read or get some work done, Unido Panama is in the lobby of the American Trade Hotel, and serves excellent coffee in a spacious, light filled environment.
For dinner, check out OCHOYMEDIO. It’s a see-and-be-seen place but the food and cocktails are great. If you have to wait for a table, order their take on a gin and tonic and sit out on their porch. For something quicker, Barrio Pizza has a great selection of local beer and the best pizza I had in Panama.
The American Trade Hotel is a renovated, colonial era trade hall in the heart of Casco Viejo. Like any other Ace Hotel property, the rooms are minimalist and beautifully decorated. More unique to this property, the rooms feel really spacious — the ceilings are quite tall and most rooms have small balconies overlooking the colonial streets around the neighborhood.
My favorite part of the hotel is that you can get lost for days without leaving. The eating and drinking options in the hotel are all top-notch and the library has an excellent collection of books to peruse by the rooftop pool.
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