We hadn’t really planned to go to Panama City when initially talking about the route we were going to take, but that changed fairly swiftly when we found out about the San Blas Islands (more on them in a separate post). So, we changed our route and first up, was Panama City for three days.
The Old Town
We stayed in Casco Viejo – it’s the old town, and despite its checkered history of violence, gangs and drugs, is now safe, slowly being developed and is home to some wonderful hotels and fun hostels. it also has a beautiful colonial architectural style architecture and there’s a very pleasant, relaxed feeling about the whole place.
While wandering around you will almost certainly find yourself staring into a Panamanian family’s home, as a lot of the more derelict buildings are still lived in, and the whole place rings with the sound of latin music and TVs from dawn till dusk.
Where to Stay
For the first two nights of our trip, we stayed in the beautiful boutique American Trade Hotel, where we enjoyed a bed big enough that the two of us could, more or less, star fish on it without touching each other and a shower that we would quite like to have taken with us. The hotel also has the most wonderful, friendly staff who really made us feel at home. It’s conveniently located right in the heart of Casco Viejo, but not a million miles from the nearest metro stop if you want to explore the more modern part of Panama City, or visit the Panama Canal.
Food and drink within the hotel is fantastic. The breakfast menu made choosing our option almost too tricky, they were all that good, and if you’re in the mood for something a little cooler in the evening, there’s an excellent jazz bar, where you can sit and soak up the old world feel of the hotel and Casco Viejo in style, while sipping a whiskey or glass of wine.
Just look at the size of that bed and the beautiful dark wood finishings. It’s like something out of a colonial mansion, but updated for the twenty first century and with just the right amount of luxury and technology. This attention to detail and care has been applied across the hotel, from the atmosphere in the breakfast room to the tiles on the walls of the staircase. Each detail has clearly been thought about and applied with and equal amount of care.
The hotel would cater perfectly to travellers looking to start or end their trips with a bit of a flourish, or to a businessman with an eye for something more than just the bog standard corporate, soulless hotels.
If you want a taste of what a real Central American working port is like, the fish market just outside the old town sees the local fishermen bring in their catch and put it on display either, for the more adventurous, to buy and take back to their hostel, or to marvel at the range and size of fish.
Clearly Panama is synonymous with the Canal, which can easily be reached either by public transport (some friends of ours managed to get there for a bout $5/6 total using a combination of the metro and a local bus) or on an arranged tour via a hostel or travel agent. Naturally, this costs a bit more, but takes care of the getting there and you’ll have a guide to tell you more about the Canal itself.
If, like us, you’re a bit short on time or aren’t that fussed about seeing the Canal, you can view the Puente Pacifico from the tip of the old town, which gives you some sense of the scale of the thing and what an extraordinary feat of engineering it is.
If you’re in need of some shopping, or just want to go and hang out in a huge air conditioned space of a few hours, the Albrook Mall, a very short of walk from Albrook metro stop, is vast (apparently the largest mall in the Americas), complete with cinema and bowling lanes and is a great place to stock up on anything you may need for future travels.
Given the short period of time we spent in Panama City, we didn’t explore the more modern part of the city really, but enjoyed the feel of the older parts of town and the friendliness of the people. After initially not even considering Panama City, we were really glad we’d chosen it for the start of our trip!