I flew into Panama City on a red eye and was lucky to be picked up by business associates of my husband, who gave us a tour of the city. I learned a lot in those three hours, along with having the best empanada of my life. Street food is safe to eat in Panama, and delicious! There are also fresh juice stands which are quite common, and so refreshing. I had two large fresh juices, which didn’t quite sit well with my three hour car ride. Best to always have quarters on you in Panama City as the bathrooms are public, but cost 25 cents. I learned interesting facts along this tour, such as the tap water is safe to drink, everything is negotiable in Panama (even the high end retail stores), and I got a detailed explanation of the definition of a Push Button. A “Push Button” in Panama is a very private motel (aka a love motel). Complete discretion and privacy is the main goal of these establishments. They are called “Push Button” because typically you can pull up to a window, push a button, slide some money through a slot, get a key, and head to a room all without actually seeing a person. Being that prostitution is legal in Panama, I’m sure these motels come in quite handy for those in need of privacy. This was personally not the most useful information to me, however it made for a very comical conversation. Our final stop along the tour was at the Fish Market for some ridiculously delicious, fresh, and cheap ceviche. After a red eye flight and a three hour tour, I was ready to relax at my hotel.
I decided to stay in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City. Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the historic district of Panama City. It was built following the near total destruction of the original Panama City, which was attacked by pirates in 1671. I guess you can say it is the new old Panama City. After reading blog after blog about how this neighborhood is the hip and trendy area of the city, it sounded like a good fit. In the Casco Viejo neighborhood, you will find a huge difference from the busy metropolis of Panama City. This area is filled with old world charm of Spanish colonial buildings, boutique hotels, rooftop bars, and amazing restaurants. You won’t find any chain hotels or restaurants here. Everything is mom and pop.
I booked a room at the absolutely stunning American Trade Hotel. It is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, and everything you would want to see in this area is within walking distance. This hotel is the epitome of mixing old world charm with modern day luxury. This is one of the only hotels in the area with a pool. Let me tell you…it is necessary. Panama is hot and humid and I did not accomplish to have even one good hair day during my stay. Back to the hotel….Did I mention it was stunning? From the beautiful balcony room, food, ambiance, location, pool, grounds, service, adjacent jazz club, bar….I could go on and on. I spent a lot of time at the hotel on this trip, and it truly made my vacation unforgettable.
The food in Panama was phenomenal! I love to eat, and some of the dishes I had here completely blew my mind….dishes I had never heard of or tasted before. The cocktails are also superb. Rum is Panama’s alcohol of choice, however those that read my blogs know that I am a spicy margarita kind of gal. Panama did not disappoint! Every cocktail I had was fresh squeezed, and delicious. As you take the first sip of these drinks, you already want a second one.
I was only in Panama City for six days. I can officially say that I ate and drank my way through Casco Viejo. My favorite dining experience for traditional Panamanian food was Diablicos. They put on a show while you eat, and it was very lively, and fun. It is located directly in front of the President’s Palace, so you get to check that out during your walk to/from. My favorite Rooftop Bar? Well, I have two! Casa Casco, which is directly across the street from the American Trade Hotel, is a super chill spot with great drinks and postcard perfect views of Panama City. If you want a more lively rooftop scene, the best place to go (hands down) is the Tantalo. It is the closest you will get to a nightclub experience in this area. It is all outdoor on the rooftop with great music to dance to and a VIP area. BTW, the restaurant at this hotel is also amazing! I had my favorite meal of the trip at the Tantalo Kitchen. It was a clay pot of tamale mash on top of a bed of slow roasted pork. YUMMMY!
Ok, I think I have beaten in how great the food and cocktails were in this old world Spanish neighborhood. On to the Panama Canal! If you go to Panama City, you simply can’t miss out on visiting the Panama Canal. It is the number one visited site in Panama. The Panama Canal is a waterway that has created a shortcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. It takes ships (on average 8-10) hours to travel the Panama Canal. This compares to 2 weeks if a ship tried to bypass the canal, and travel around South America. The best place near Panama City to see the ships go through the lock system is Miraflores Visitor Center. The viewing center is directly in front of the locks, so you get a front row seat to watching these huge ships pass through. They also have a restaurant buffet where you can eat lunch, and have wine while taking in all the action. You can visit the museum, and watch a film in both Spanish and English about the history of the Panama Canal. The best time to visit the Panama Canal changes daily, depending on when ships are scheduled to go through.
With one day left to spare, and being so close to so many beautiful islands, I decided it was time for a change of scenery. I got up at 6:00am to catch a 1.5 hour ferry ride to Contadora Island. I felt like I had been transported to another world! It was a small and jungly island with beautiful white sand beaches, and crystal clear waters. I purchased a day pass from the Mar y Oro Hotel which included lunch, two welcome drinks, and umbrella/chairs on the beach. It was absolute paradise, and a really relaxing ending to my trip! If I had one more day (which I always wish I did on vacay), I would have most definitely visited the San Blas Islands. Here you can rent private cabanas to spend the night in paradise. The cabanas don’t have much to them. They have no electricity and sand bottom floors. But who cares, because you can almost have the entire island to yourself for the night. Although still in Panama, these islands belong to the Kuna Indians On this excursion you can snorkel with star fish, and see how these indigenous people live. It wasn’t so bad leaving something behind that I was desperate to do and see because now I am anxious to go back. Until next time Panama!!