Why I Love Panama
It is easy to fall in love with Panama. Located in Central America between Costa Rica and Columbia, it is tropical with one of the most diverse biospheres in the world. It has a variety of geography with mountains, valleys, volcanoes and is surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and small islands.
Panama is safe for travellers and easy to get to and get around. The best time to visit Panama is from December to April when it is the dry season.
There are numerous small villages dotted through the country. You will see people wearing traditional clothes in these areas. Long white cotton garments highlighted with colourful bodices and scarfs. They have retained their own traditional culture and ways of doing things. That is great to see as we appreciate local cultures.
Panama is a Spanish speaking country. Business people and people who work in the tourism industry speak English. Most of the local people we met only spoke Spanish. We speak enough Spanish to be able to get around and I used Google’s Translator to carry on conversations on a number of occasions.
Getting to Panama City is Easy
We took a United flight from Calgary to Denver then transferred to the Panamanian airline, COPA, from Denver to Panama City. The flight was an easy 4 hours. There are direct flights from most major US airports and from Toronto and Montreal.
We arranged for a private car, through our property manager, to meet us at the airport when we landed at 6:30 am. Being close to the equator, there is almost equal amount of daylight and night. The sun rose at 6:40 AM and set at 6:20 PM.
For $50, our driver Edwin met the four of us at the airport. He loaded all our luggage into his Porsche Cayenne. He gave us an informal driving tour of Panama City from the airport to a local supermarket close to the condo that is open 24 hours. We stocked up on groceries and beverages for the week.
Currency used is the $USD
Panama money is called Balboa and is generally only used for coinage. Credit cards are widely used and there are ATMs in most grocery stores for those who do not take credit cards. We like to carry about $300 in cash between the two of us.
Grocery prices for produce, meat and bread are lower than at home. Overall the cost of eating is lower than at home. We ate most of our meals in because we love to cook local food in regional dishes along with a carefully selected wine. For 4 adults for a month our grocery and wine bill was under $300 each or $10 a day. We had lobster dinners, tomahawk steak dinners, various fish dinners and many other special meals. We ate well.
There are plenty of accommodations in Panama City for reasonable prices. We look for the most for the least. That is the nature of a budget traveller. We had a list of criteria; new or new renovation on property, full time property manager, kitchen, ensuite, pool, air conditioning, Internet, exceptional outside area and a great view.
Our condo complex was all by itself on the far side of Isla Naos overlooking Panama Bay. Every ship that went through the Panama Canal during our 7 days cruised 300 yards in front of us. At any time there are 40-70 ships anchored waiting their turn to go through the canal. At night, their lights look like a city out in the bay.
It seemed like we were the only people in the complex. We saw an occasional person in the two pools from time-to-time but for the most part we did not see any other people. It was just us, the pools, the view and the ships.
The weather was sunny and 90F (36C) everyday. There was a cooling breeze off the ocean and in the evening the temperature dropped to the mid 70s (22C) so we only needed a little air conditioning at night to sleep soundly.
The complex is gated. When you turn off the Amador Causeway the security guards at the gate make each Uber or Taxi we used to show their ID and to open their trunks for inspection. Throughout Panama City you see security guards at most buildings so they must have a problem with theft or else the heavy use of security is a left over from Manuel Noriega days.
The Amador Causeway is a special spot for people of Panama City and is one of the top things to do in Panama City. It was built as a breakwater for the ships anchored out in the Panama Bay waiting to go through the canal. The causeway links the mainland to three small islands. It is a modern 4-lane highly landscaped highway.
There are palm trees and flowering plants all along the 3 miles with regular benches to sit and admire the view of Panama City or the islands in the Panama Bay. The walkways and bike paths are full of local people. At regular intervals there are observation decks that are actively used by locals for gatherings and fishing. At night the causeway is lighted by colonial styled light standards.
Our condo was on the first island, Isla Naos, the next island is Perico and the last is Flamenco. Each island has marinas, a few hotels, a number of eating kiosks and restaurants. There is a mini mart, a well stocked wine store and deli, bike rentals, a duty free shop and even Karaoke. This area is very popular on the weekends when local Panamanian families flock to the Amador Causeway to have fun.
There is a large kids water park surrounded by food carts selling hot dogs and other goodies. Next to the water park are a dozen or more booths selling all kinds of food. There are two bicycle rentals shops with hundreds of 3 and 6 person bike carts. The bike paths and roadways are full of them.
At the start of the Amador Causeway, just 3 miles from our condo, is the Frank Gehry designed BioMuseo. The outside design is a colourful collection of roofs that represent the colours he saw in Panama City. They look like coloured fabric blowing in the wind. The overall design is meant to resemble the upheaval of the Panama land mass 3 million years ago that divided the ocean and changed the climate and biodiversity of the world.
This wonderful interactive biodiversity museum is one of the top things to do in Panama City and is housed in 8 galleries in the $95 million dollar facility. Plan on spending at least 3 hours or more if you take one of the tours and decide to have lunch at the restaurant. Tickets are $16 per person and you can buy a combo ticket for the BioMuseo and Milaflores Locks and save a few bucks.
Mercado de Marisco
A 15 minute drive on the Amador Causeway and the Cinta Costera (the coastal highway belt) is the Mercado de Marisco (the local fish market) that is one of my top things to do in Panama City.
The large white building with the blue roof was a gift to the people of Panama from the government of Japan. Inside the open building are over 60 stalls filled with every imaginable fish available in the waters of Panama. Whole fish, filet fish, shellfish, it is a fish lovers paradise.
Upstairs is the Restaurant Mercado del Marisco. You can order off the extensive menu or you purchase your fish on the main floor from one of the stalls then take it upstairs to the restaurant and they will prepare it for you.
I bought a pound of Lagostina, they look like small lobster tails, for $8. The restaurant charged $10 to prepare and cook it in a delicious garlic butter sauce with a side of fried yucca. A glass of white wine was $4 and a beer was $3. Sitting there eating this fresh catch meal was a fabulous experience. I would go back to Panama City just to go here again.
Casco Viejo, the Old Town was built in 1717 after the pirate Captain Henry Morgan destroyed the original city that had existed for almost 200 years. This area was chosen because it was easier to protect from invaders like Morgan. Casco Viejo is about forty blocks in size. It had fallen into total disarray and was a dangerous area to visit up until a few years ago.
Casco Viejo is a must visit when you are in Panama City. The old town has transformed from a rough, run-down and downright scary place to one that has been gentrified for tourists. There are still areas I wouldn’t go to on a dark night but for the most part it feels safe.
Investment dollars are pouring into Casco Viejo. Most of the buildings have been bought up by investors and every single block has multiple construction projects underway as most of the decrepit buildings are being restored or rebuilt.
These are large construction projects with architectural and design firms from all over the world listed on the construction signs. Everywhere you look there are groups of architects and engineers wearing white construction helmets and carrying clip boards discussing details.
The architecture restoration is sympathetic I spent hours walking around and looking at the different architectural features. The Panamanian Presidential mansion is situated here as is the National Theatre. There are many boutique hotels, shops, restaurants and roof-top bars.
The streets in Casco Viejo are narrow. The traffic is congested and at a standstill in many of the areas. If you take a taxi or Uber have them drop you off at the entrance to the Old Town and walk in. It will save you time and money.
Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1890, by Ferdinand Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal in Egypt. The plan was to dig a sea-level trench across the isthmus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The project was abandoned after continual engineering failures had used up all the money and over 20,000 men had died from malaria and yellow fever.
The United States took over the project under the leadership of John Stevens. He realized in order to complete the canal, the mosquitos carrying the malaria and yellow fever viruses would have to be eradicated. Over a two year period they cut back the jungle and drained the swamps where the mosquitoes bred and began a program of spraying toxins to kill the mosquitoes.
Stevens also realized a better solution than trying to dig a trench across the isthmus would the damming of the Chagres River to create a large lake in the middle of the isthmus with three locks on each of the West and East sides to raise the ships from the ocean to the lake elevation and then back to the ocean. The operation of the canal would be entirely by gravity without the need of any pumps. As with most engineering projects, the simplest solution is usually the best solution.
The Milaflores Locks are the Westside of the canal. It houses a world class museum located on three floors about the history of the canal. On the top floor of the museum is a restaurant that serves a lunch buffet for $35 per person. There is also a covered viewing area where you can watch the ships move through the locks.
The ships are pushed to the locks by tugboats where they are then attached to six electric locomotives called mules. These mules then pull the ship into the lock and hold it is place as the water either fills or empties to raise or lower the ship. You want to time your visit to the Milaflores locks for early morning or late afternoon when the ships are going through that part of the canal. Otherwise you will just be looking at the empty locks.
In the background, you can see the new canal that was recently completed to allow the passage of larger container ships. Here rather than electric mules pulling the ships they are pushed by tugboats. The new canal was built over a period of five years at the cost of $5 billion. The largest ship to pass through the new canal held over 14,000 containers and the fee was $1.2 million. The canal brings in $1 billion in fees into the local economy per year and has 10,000 full time employees.
The month we spend in Panama was wonderful. There is more than enough cultural activities to keep you busy. We felt welcome and safe where ever we travelled in the country. The weather was perfect as was the temperature of the ocean for swimming. I would rate Panama as a top country for budget slow travel.