Say what?! A free trip to Panama! Well, that was half of what my brain was thinking when I found out my flight home from Panama was cancelled and rebooked for 4 days later because of Winter Storm Jonas. The other half of me wasn’t excited to be stuck in transit.
Normally I’m pretty prepared for trips, but this one caught me off-guard. Thankfully, it was pretty easy to figure things out as I went along. Assuming you’re doing research ahead of time, here are a few of the things I learned along the way but wish I knew ahead of time!
Don’t Be Scared of the Metro.
Panama’s metro is quite nice, probably because it’s brand new. It’s not always convenient to tourist attractions., but when it is, it’s awesome. The metro is way faster than Panama traffic, super clean, well-signed for navigation, and incredibly safe. When I rode, there were security officers on the cars and I didn’t hesitate traveling on my own.
To ride, you need a reloadable card which costs $2 to start and then $0.35/ride. Unfortunately, the only real place to buy one is at the Albrook terminal, but most buses to other towns depart from there anyway…plus it’s attached to Albrook mall, the largest shopping mall of the Americas.
Side note: I’ve been to the West Edmonton Mall back when it was the largest mall and this is 300,000 square feet larger. I don’t shop, but it’s still a sight to be seen! If you need something, try Titan. It’s a discount department store that has basically everything you need at great prices (I paid $6 for a bathing suit I needed last-minute).
Download Uber. Now.
Taxis pretty much suck in Panama. The drivers try to rip you off at every turn, either by stating that a ride costs quadruple what it should (there are no meters) or by trying to change the price once you’re partway through the ride (because “there’s traffic”…hint: there’s ALWAYS traffic) or by saying they don’t have change for your $10 bill at the end of the ride.
Uber avoids all these issues since prices are automatically calculated at fair rates. Most trips within the city itself are $2.50-3.50, and even my trip all the way to Miraflores locks was only about $6. Best of all, it’s charged directly to your credit card so you don’t need to have cash on you. You can get your first ride free (up to $15) when you sign up with code uberthegirlandglobe…which is perfect for a cab ride from the airport to downtown. That’s a flat $25 with Uber compared to $30 in taxis.
If you do need a taxi (because Uber isn’t available or if you don’t have wi-fi/phone service to request one), agree on the price before you get in the cab. And by all means, don’t ask the price — that implies you don’t know a fair price so they’re bound to request too much. State an offer of $2-3 depending on the length of your trip (more if you’re leaving the city) and negotiate from there.
Slather on the Sunscreen.
It’s hot in Panama, but the sun is a far greater problem. You can burn in less than an hour if you’re not careful, so sunscreen is essential. I didn’t have much with me since my trip doubled in length compared to what I packed for and thought I’d make do with what I had. That decision lasted five minutes before admitting it’s unrealistic. Pack sunscreen in advance because it’s about $15 and you don’t want to be forced into a purchase like I was.
Take in the view.
With a city skyline that rivals some of the best in the world, it would be a shame not to take in the view of the city. You’ll find tons of great views, both from the water and from the rooftops. Turn your sightseeing into sightDOING by renting a bike on the Amador Causeway. Stop at the end for a meal or just an ice cream, grab some photos, and return toward the city.
For a more leisurely way to take in the views, the 66th floor of the Trump Casino is a great option. It’s free to go up although it’s expected that you order a drink while you’re there. Going for sunset is great because it’s not terribly busy that early and you’ll see the skyline in day, twilight, and after dark. Way better than the Tantalo Rooftop bar, which gets a lot of mentions.
Even though Panama is a major city with an awesome skyline and tons of skyscrapers, there’s lots of nature to be found as well. Tons of day tours head to places like Soberania National Park or Gamboa rainforest (and Embera village tours take place partly in the forest). The easiest way to see nature is by taking a ~10 minute drive to Parque Metropolitano.
This park is very accessible and has two main hiking loops that are well-maintained. If you walk both, it’ll take 2-3 hours depending on how much you linger, but you’ll have the chance to view agoutis, sloths, and maybe other animals. I loved it and recommend it to everyone heading to Panama. The park is open from 6am-5pm and costs $4 admission.
Regardless of where you go to view wildlife, learn to use your camera’s burst setting ahead of time. Quick creatures won’t wait for you to set up a shot!
Try the local beer (sort-of).
Two travel bloggers I know and trust basically summarized Panama’s national beers as “not awful” so I skipped the big names in town like Panama Lager and Balboa and went straight to the good stuff. I was less than impressed by Casa Bruja’s Fula (blonde) or SABMiller’s 507 (red ale), but the beers at La Rana Dorada were quite good.
I visited both locations of this craft brewery — there’s one in Casco Viejo and one in El Cangrejo on Via Argentina — and they both have a great ambiance. The blanche was my favorite, but the porter was pretty good, too. Expect American prices, but happy hour is half off. For Casco Viejo, head there 12-6pm for specials or 3-7pm at Via Argentina.
Stay at the Radisson Summit.
Why would you willingly stay 30+ minutes outside of town? Because the Radisson Summit hotel is that good (really!). The inside of the hotel looks exactly like you’d expect, but the grounds are spectacular. It’s a golf resort, but for me the main draw was their walking trail (I saw 3 monkeys and numerous tropical birds) and butterfly house. The pool was also lovely and a great retreat compared to the bustle of Panama City.
Even though it’s far from downtown, it’s not as isolated as you think. You can get to Miraflores locks in 5-10 minutes, hop on the free shuttle to Albrook mall (daily at 10:30 or 11am), or have a head start on day trips through the Gamboa area. For rates around ~$70 including wi-fi a welcome cocktail, and breakfast, it’s a good option.
The one downside to this hotel was the lack of nearby dining. Eat before you return to the hotel in the evening or pack snacks (there’s a fridge in the room great for sandwich supplies or leftovers). My dinner there was only slightly overpriced, but it wasn’t very good.
I also spent two nights downtown at the Doubletree hotel. Although the location was way better, there was nothing special nor nothing bad about it. For $49/night on Priceline, I was pleased. (Learn more about using Priceline in my full guide).
Most of all – don’t skip the city!
I’ve always wanted to go to Panama, but I had my eyes set on destinations like the San Blas Islands, Bocas del Toro, Boquete, and David. I just assumed the city was a pretty generic place. Who knew it’s actually pretty interesting? You could spend quite awhile using it as a base for nearby day trips, but it’s worth checking out the city itself for a day or so. I’m surprised — and I think you might be, too.
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Have you been to Panama City? What is your take on it?
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Keep Reading on The Girl and Globe:
- The 6 Biggest Macau Blunders: Macau was another city that completely surprised me and blew me away in a good way. Don’t judge a book by its cover!
- Splendid Nature at Estacion Biologica Las Guacamayas: If you’re into beautiful settings and the chance to view wildlife, this nature reserve in Guatemala is worth checking out.
- No, I Didn’t Love Mexico City: I expected Panama City to resemble Mexico City, but they’re completely different and I didn’t love that hub of Central America nearly as much.
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