While planning my trip to Panama, there was one destination that I seemed to be hearing about on every corner, starting from friends back home, to people I met all over Costa Rica and Panama. This place was the San Blas Islands, an idyllic Caribbean paradise. So even though I would have to skip over several other places in order to make my way down to the south of Panama, I figured it would be worth it just to experience that perfect Caribbean sea. And man was I right, it was worth the trip, but not for the reasons I expected.
In order to get to San Blas, I would need to spend at least one night in Panama City. Not considering myself much of a city girl, I didn’t look much into the city before going, assuming I wouldn’t stay long. But once I got there my plans quickly changed. I checked into my hostel in Casco Viejo (the old city) and began walking down Avenida Central in search of fruit. Already the charm of the city was revealing itself to me. The architecture, the shops, the fruit!
Rather than leaving the following day for San Blas, I began to put off my excursion. First one day, then another, then two more! I fell in love with Panama! I finally made my way to San Blas, and on the return trip, I spent three more days in the city… and I could have easily stayed more.
Because there is such a huge division of wealth in Panama City, you will find you can enjoy both a luxurious metropolitan city and the charm of a Latin American colonial city all in the same place. You have everything from high end (duty free) shopping to exotic Panamanian street food. Any hostel or hotel will clearly mark the more dangerous barrios on a map, and you will quickly see that the best of Panama is all in walking distance, or a short (and if you can negociate, cheap) taxi ride away.
The old city, Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo, is by far the safest part of Panama City. The government buildings Palacio Nacional and el Palacio las Garzas (the official residence of the president of Panama) are located here, meaning every street is heavily guarded and safe for tourists 24 hours a day. It’s a very chic part of town, with coffee shops, boutiques, souvenir shops and nice restaurants on every corner. The atmosphere is comparable with European cities, so needless to say, the prices are as well. I stayed here at a quiet hostel called Magnolia Inn for $15 a night. There are a couple of other hostels around the same price, and several hotels as well. I would recommend staying in this area, as it is very central. If you’re looking for a party hostel, head over to Luna’s Castle, it’s right above a brewery that’s usually hoppin’, and most people who stay there are looking to party. It’s also a one of the cheapest places to book a tour to San Blas.
Avenida Central is a long pedestrian avenue which is usually bustling with activity. Aside from the hundreds of clothing, shoe and cell phone shops, you’ll find local vendors selling street food and fresh fruit. Kuna families (indigenous people of the area) often set up little posts selling fruit or handwork along the street. The restaurants you’ll find are typically fast food, Chinese or “comida tipica” of Panama. If you’re on a health kick, these aren’t the places you want to eat at, though you may be able to find a diamond in the rough if you talk to enough people.
Mercado de Marisco & Mercado Publico San Felipe Neri.
If you don’t see anything else in downtown Panama, the Mercado de Marisco is the place to go… well, if you like fish, that is. It is open all day, but morning is the best time to go, just to see all of the activity! Fresh fish is brought in every morning from both the Atlantic and Pacific, and the fierce competition between the vendors will get you some incredible fish at a very low price! I managed to get some awesome sushi grade tuna.
While you’re here, head outside and enjoy some of this fresh fish cooked in a traditional way. On either side of the market you have small restaurants with outdoor tables serving food all day. Which brings me to the most important part… the ceviche! For those of you who don’t know what ceviche is, it’s a raw fish salad which is in a sense “cooked” in lemon juice. It’s a typical food served all over Central America and I must say, the ceviche in Panama City is the best I’ve tried. It’s very cheap and you have several varieties to choose from (fish, shrimp, lobster, clam, conch, octopus…). If you get a chance, sneak into the alley behind the market and restaurants, where you can see the behind the scenes action of the market and ceviche-making.
Although you can buy fruit all along the Avenida Central, I highly recommend taking an early morning trip to the Mercado Publico San Felipe de Neri. It’s a produce and meat market where you can score fresh food at incredibly low prices. The vendors are super friendly (and often adorable) and if you really want to you can talk them down quite a bit in prices, though I didn’t find that necessary… the prices were already a fraction of what they’d be in the States or Europe.
If you walk along Avenida Balboa from the Casco Viejo to the Mercado de Marisco, you are already walking on (or near) the Cinta Costera. The Cinta Costera (the coastal strip) is a gorgeous pedestrian walkway that connects old and new Panama. You can enjoy a nice walk or run, or you can rent roller blades or a bike in the Casco Viejo. The Cinta Costera will take you all the way to metropolitan Panama City, where you can find a huge shopping mall with North American and European stores and restaurants and a movie theatre. On the way you will pass a few beautiful parks and the marina, where you can check out all the fancy yachts and sailboats.
The Amador Causeway is another great place to get some exercise. To get to there, you’ll need to take a bus or taxi (be sure to negotiate before getting in, cabs will try and rip you off). It is another long walkway over islands and land-bridges, where you’ll get some spectacular views. You’ll see Panama from a different angle, the harbor, the bridge of the Americas, Frank Gehry’s new project and the eternal queue of ships waiting to cross the Panama canal. At the end of the causeway there are several authentic restaurants and a large duty-free shopping area.
Miraflores Visitor Center – Panama Canal
Just outside of Panama City is Miraflores, one of the three locks on the Panama Canal. This is certainly the most visited, when I was there in the late afternoon it was full of people. It cost about $15 to get in. The visitor center includes a four story viewing area, a museum, a cafe, and a short nationalistic 3D movie about the history of the canal (which left me with a lot of questions). Be sure to go in the morning or midday with plenty of time, I arrived in the afternoon and didn’t have enough time to see the museum. On the top floor you can watch the filling and emptying of the lock, while someone explains what is happening over a loudspeaker in English and in Spanish.
I was told you could also go to the Pedro Miguel area and watch the boats go through for free, and that there is a bus that will take you there from the terminal.
Mercado de Abastos
If you’re nuts about fruit like I am, it may be worth your while to take a cab over to Abastos market (near the bus terminal). It is a huge wholesale fruit and veggie market where you can get a large variety of produce for very cheap. If you look like a foreigner you will have to haggle though!
Mercado Nacional de Artesanías
The National Market of Handicrafts is loaded with amazing crafts made by locals, especially Kuna people. You can find it all… jewelry, clothing, masks, hats, decorations, ceramics… if you are going to get a traditional Panama hat, this is the place to do it! It is located in Panama Viejo, within walking distance of the above mentioned markets.
I was so pleasantly surprised by Panama, it may actually have become my favorite city! I had no idea I was such a city girl until I got there! If you’re planning on visiting Panama and you have any questions that you think I could answer, feel free to contact me… I’m happy to help!