This article came out awhile ago but is one of the best about Panama today.
36 HOURS IN PANAMA
By Denny Lee
PANAMANIANS joke that the McDonald’s franchises and glass skyscrapers make Panama City the “Miami of the South,” except that more English is spoken here. But more than a decade and a half after an American invasion leveled part of the city and about six years after United States troops pulled out of the country and ceded control of the Panama Canal, the city is asserting itself as a tourist destination, not just a scenic overpass for an engineered waterway. Fashionable hotels now dot the cosmopolitan skyline. Crumbling colonial homes are being polished into bohemian gems. Emerald rain forests woo eco-tourists. There might even be a Frank Gehry-designed museum in the future, with the hope of sparking a so-called “Bilbao effect” for the port of Balboa. For now, anyway, Panama City hasn’t been overrun by tourists. But with daily direct flights from about six cities in the United States, including New York, Newark and Los Angeles, that might not last.
1) Colonial Explorer
Go back to the future with a stroll through the cobblestone alleys of Casco Viejo, a colonial-era neighborhood frequented by snow-cone vendors. Abandoned by the city’s elite in the 1950’s, the area became a squatters’ slum. In recent years, however, artists, professionals and snowbirds have turned skid row into real estate gold. Among the prominent residents is Rubén Blades, the musician and actor who is now the country’s minister of tourism. Take a taxi to the Plaza de Francia, at the peninsula’s tip. From there, you can walk to the Golden Altar at the San Jose Church (Avenida A and Calle 8a Este), one of the few treasures that wasn’t ransacked by Henry Morgan, the pirate captain, in 1671; the heron-infested presidential palace (Avenida 4 and Calle Eloj); and the slick if encyclopedic Interoceanic Canal Museum (Plaza de la Independencia, 507-211-1649).
2) Cerveza Garden
After wilting in the tropical heat, grab a cold Atlas beer at La Casona de las Brujas (Plaza Herrera), one of the trendy lounges and cafes that have sprung up in Casco Viejo. This one has a raw gallery upfront (photographs of local artisans were recently on display), and a concrete garden out back, lending it a transitional East Berlin flavor that goes well with the artsy crowd. Guitar bands take over a makeshift stage at night, playing a brash mix of “rock de Panamá.”
3) Dinner and Dancing
For Panamanian cooking (similar to Cuban with a lot of seafood), try Tinajas Restaurant (22 Calle 51, 507-263-7890) in El Cangrejo, the central banking district. National staples like corbina ceviche ($4), jumbo shrimps in coconut sauce ($12.50) and ropa vieja ($7.50), spicy shredded beef over rice, are served accompanied by live folkloric dancing in a homey atmosphere. The costumed dance begins at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
4) Hit the Clubs
Like South Beach in Miami, Panama City has its share of velvet ropes, although the lower model quotient provides for less attitude. Many doors don’t open until 11 p.m., so for a preclub cocktail drop by the Martini Bar at the Radisson Decapolis Hotel (Avenida Balboa, 507-215-5000) and watch the city’s peacocks preen on bright orange sofas. After a martini ($6 to $9) or two, many head to nearby Calle Uruguay, where there are no fewer than a dozen hot spots catering to straights, gays, punks and fashionistas. At Moods (Calle 48 and Calle Uruguay, 507-263-4923), the stiletto-heeled and open-collared partygoers grind their hips to Panamanian reggae until dawn.
5) Café con Leche
Suppress your urge for an Egg McMuffin and nurse your hangover at El Trapiche (Vía Argentina, 507-269-4353), a busy diner in El Cangrejo, for a hearty breakfast of carimañola, a savory roll made of mashed yucca and stuffed with ground beef and boiled eggs, and a side of corn tortillas, which look more like silver-dollar pancakes than taco shells. The bill should come to under $8, even with a second café con leche.
6) Boat Spotting
No trip to Panama City is complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. Instead of standing around in your fanny pack, have lunch at the Miraflores Locks, the southernmost of three sets of water elevators that fill and drain as ships wend their way between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans by way of the Caribbean Sea. Just five miles from the city’s center, the new Miraflores Visitor Center (507-276-8427) is home to a multilevel exhibition and a third-floor restaurant (507-232-3120; shown top left) where you almost touch the passing vessels while you refuel. To ensure a choice table, call the restaurant for reservations (the lunch buffet is $17); you can also call the center for the day’s scheduled crossings.
7) Suburban Jungle
To complete your self-guided tour, go halfway up the 50-mile-long canal to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort (507-314-9000), a 340-acre nature reserve complete with an aerial tram that slices through the Soberanía National Park, a Tarzan-like jungle that is home to a staggering 500-plus species of birds. An observation tower offers another bird’s-eye view. Situated 30 minutes from the city center, the resort is as idyllic and unspoiled as downtown Panama City is hurried and urban.
As the day wanes, there’s no better place to rejuvenate than the mile-long Amador Causeway, which juts out between the canal and Panama Bay. Made from rocks excavated from the channel, the three connecting islands form an esplanade of parks, cafes, oceanfront condos and a new cruise ship terminal. By day, bicyclists ride and joggers stride along the narrow roadway, soaking in the dazzling views of the city’s crescent-shaped waterfront - a veritable timeline that spans from 17th-century steeples and fishing nooks to modern office towers and airy penthouses. By night, the distant skyline comes alive like twinkling stars.
9) Fancy Fusion
For a memorable meal, take a cab to Eurasia (Calle 48, 507-264-7859) in the busy central district of Bella Vista. Reflecting the city’s immigrant stew, this Chinese-owned restaurant marries local ingredients with French techniques and Asian flavors. Favorites include a gravlax timbale filled with a passion fruit-cured ceviche ($12.50), and cornmeal-encrusted prawns in a tamarind and coconut sauce ($15.50). The stately dining room has marble floors and handsome artworks that evoke a colonial manor.
David Rochkind/Polaris, for The New York Times
10) Ships That Pass in the Night
If you still have the energy, pop back to the causeway, to the Fort Amador Resort and Marina, located at its tip. For a civilized nightcap, head to the bar at Café Barko (507-314-0000), where the crowd ranges from fun-loving locals to chatty cruise passengers. Should a second wind strike, there are several dance clubs in the entertainment complex, including Alcatraz, a popular nightclub for well-heeled club kids.
11) Old Panama Hat
History buffs won’t want to miss the tombstone-like ruins of Panamá Viejo, the original 1519 Spanish settlement sunken along the eastern fringes of the modern city. A Unesco World Heritage Site, its stumpy walls resemble a sprawling Central American Stonehenge. When your camera runs out of memory, check out the nearby artisanal market for last-minute souvenirs.
Direct flights from Newark Liberty International Airport to Panama City take about five hours. Tocumen International Airport is about 12 miles northeast of the city center, reachable by taxi for about $25 (the United States dollar is used in Panama).
Although there are buses, routes are not clearly marked. Taxis are cheap and should run under $5 for most trips. If you find a driver you like, consider hiring that person for as little as $40 for part of the day.
Below is a link to an article from CNN about budget travel in Panama. For budget travel, it is important to avoid the high season- that is January-March. Every Panama destination has bargain hostels and hotels. Buy a Lonely Planet guide which will have listings of inexpensive but nice lodgings. travel between cities by bus is incredibly cheap and taxis in the city are also very cheap. You can have a great time in Panama on a budget
The historical Panamonte Inn is Boquete’s original hotel and a travelers delight with several major attractions including the best restaurant in town, gorgeous rooms, a stunning garden setting and a warm welcoming lounge. The hotels architecture is traditional country style a la Panama making for a truly authentic experience. All garden terrace rooms have recently been fully renovated in English country style . There is also a luxurious Honeymoon suite including a jacuzzi and fireplace.
All the Inn is arranged around a perfectly lovely large colorful country garden that will beckon you to take some sun and smell the flowers.
In a few months, 8 handsome brand new suites will be available each with its private garden patio in stone on the beautiful garden grounds.
Panamonte’s Lounge is by far the favorite Boquete night spot- beautifully designed it opens to the garden and has a large handsome fireplace and furnishings. You can now dine on the lounge patio. Great place to read a book, sip some wine, dine or be more social.
The spa offers a very wide variety of treatments by a very able staff.
The restaurant with a menu by Panama’s most famous chef, Charlie is the best restaurant in town and has long been a favorite for many. If you haven’t been by recently, make a visit because Charlie has a new 2009 menu. If this is your first time, we recommend their most famous dish- trout with almonds made with delectable fresh local trout . The house ceviche is a great appetizer and the Decadent Chocolate cake satafires the most discriminating chocolate lover including me.
In short, you haven’t been to Boquete unless you have been to the Panamonte and there are many reasons to go.
Both Boquete and Bocas have recovered from the recent heavy rains and are open and ready for your toursim business. Please find below a report from Bocas- you will see that Bocas is now ready to receive tourists.
Boquete is Ready for Tourists: I just spent 3 days in Boquete where I visited all the tourism areas.The road from David to Boquete is in perfect condition. The new bridge across the Caldera River is also in perfect shape. Everything in Boquete is gloriously green and fresh after all that rain. It is a great time to go now to both Boquete and Bocas.
Report: Bocas is Ready for Tourists
The Bocas Archipelago is relatively unscathed from recent weather calamities in our region. Compared to the Bocas Del Toro Provincia mainland, which suffered substantial damage, our living conditions remain in a normal status.
Today, the road is open. We are currently able to truck all commodities and, every 30-minutes, bus all travelers.
Our major problem is perception. Tourists, wishing to visit the Bocas Archipelago, have inaccurate information regarding our preparedness to accommodate them. News media are not differentiating between the Bocas Del Toro Provincia mainland and the Bocas Archipelago, leading to the erroneous belief that the Archipelago is in a disaster condition. That perception is very far for reality. As said, the only difficulty in the Archipelago has been temporary supply interruption.
Be assured, Bocas is open for business. Be informed, all hotels, restaurants, shops, water sports and eco activities are ready to serve guests.
There are no reported deaths or injuries on Isla Bocas or other archipelago islas caused by recent heavy rains.
Bocas Bomberos report no significant emergencies or damages from fire or flood.
We have piped water; while the system is being upgraded, water in some areas may be off for a few hours. We have electricity, with enough fuel to run the power plant for at least one month.
We have land line and cellular phone service, Internet connection, and cash in ATM’s.
We have ample propane gas in tanks. Gasoline for cars and motored boats is arriving at our two stations in frequency and quantities sufficient to serve our needs.
Stores are well stocked with fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, staple foods and bottled water. Supply may run low, depending on deliverability, but lately we have not run out of anything.
Our two water taxi services offer transit to/from Almirante every half-hour; service to Changuinola is suspended pending canal clearing.
Aeroperlas, AirPanama, NatureAir offer regular scheduled flights in/out in good weather. Service is meeting travelers’ needs. No passengers are stranded at our airport.
Our medicine supply is well stocked by Panama Health Ministry; other health aids are available at private pharmacies. Recently and now, there are no health hazards anywhere in Panama.
For your education and entertainment, some words from my friend Casey Halloran, a fellow American in the tourism business in Panama. His insights are right on.
The Five Deadly Sins of Tourism that Panama must avoid:
1. Hyper-growth = Rushing Into Mistakes
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was tourism to visit the ruins of modern-day Rome. A tourism infrastructure requires planning, training, rules and regulations. I am not a big fan of government, but in the case of tourism, there at least needs to be some zoning and long-term thinking that is enforced with smart laws. Panama is growing at such breakneck pace, this author has concerns that some of the areas with greatest tourism potential are being overrun with the most expedient projects, many of which have zero concern for long-term effects on ecology, economy or logistics.
2. Copycat-itis = Loss of Culture
Panama tourism development today lacks much that resembles anything uniquely Panamanian. Despite a culture that is as rich and wonderful as its world famous coffee, too much of the present development borrows on played out ideas from elsewhere. Panamanians are far too creative and proud to have their tourism landscape hijacked by unoriginal, cookie-cutter projects.
3. Eco-Unfriendly = Not Sustainable
Whether its an over crowded city, water front mega beach hotels, record breaking swimming pools or a tendency to look the other way while projects drain mangroves…it’s pretty clear that Panama isn’t attempting to mimic Costa Rica’s success as a perceived “green” destination.
4. Service, Shmervice = No Return Clients
It is difficult to find a truly service-oriented business in Panama. Even harder still to find one that can cater to clients who don’t speak Spanish. Panama faces an uphill battle on both fronts, with a shortage of labor trained in foreign languages and fewer still familiar with the adage that, “the customer is always right”. Service training and language skills aren’t the only challenges facing Panama’s aim at becoming a tourism mecca; the country has a glut of public holidays that occur during peak tourism months. Good luck to the politician who tries to resolve that delicate issue.
5. “All-Exclusive” Projects = Angry Locals
Panama cannot forget to include locals and local culture as part of its future tourism . Development must not mirror the walled in “all-exclusive” disasters of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, etc. where locals don’t actively mix with tourists and exchange culture, ideas and memories. Walling out Panamanians is the fastest way to create resentment toward tourists who traveled all the way to meet and know them.
Despite these pitfalls, I do believe fiercely in Panama’s potential. I will outline my suggested solutions to the possible issues above as well as WHY I am betting on Panama in future articles.
Thank you Casey for these important observations and recommendations. Nancy
Visitor Time Again-When visitors are coming to Panama for the first time, what are the best places to take them? I am putting together a list of “must-dos” for Panama City and outside Panama City for some family members coming in July.
For Panama City and Nearby, the top of my list are:
Two Tours Your Guests Will Be Talking About for Years to Come
Monkey Island Tour with either Ancon Expeditions or Carl Davis’ Gatun Explorer. This day tour has the wow factor- your guests will never stop talking about it. This is a small boat trip on Gatun Lake which is part of the Panama Canal where you’ll experience intense nature including at least 3 types of monkeys that even jump onto your boat. With Gatun Explorer you also take a short hike to a jungle waterfall and delicious typical lunch on a larger boat on the lake. See www.gatunexplorer.com and www.anconexpeditions.com
Embera Indian Village: If your guests don’t have time to go the San Blas Islands and stay with the Kuna Indians there, send them on this day trip to an Embera Indian Village, just an hour and a half from Panama City. Again, this tour has the wow factor- after boating up a scenic river, they will tour an authentic Indian village, eat with them, learn about their age-old way of life and even dance with them if they like. For a tour contact a tour operator on Panamainfo’s Tour Operators page.
Two Restaurant Experiences Your Guests Will Also Talk About for Years to Come
Los Lagartos at Gamboa Rainforest Resort It is on a terrace over the huge Chagres river that connects to the Panama Canal. From your table, you can watch huge ships float silently by in the Canal. The food is good and we enjoy the luncheon buffet. The best thing about this restaurant is a nature experience- you can create and watch a “natural food fight”. The friendly staff will give you some bread pieces to throw on the lake below and suddenly a natural food fight ensues when tropical crocodiles, turtles, fish and birds all come running to get the bread Guess which one of these critters always get the bread first? I won’t tell you! (You have to go yourself to find out. )
The Miraflores Restaurant at the Panama Canal
Of course you will be escorting your guests to see the Canal and the excellent museum. I also recommend you have lunch or dinner at the Miraflores Restaurant which is part of the Visitors center. Reserve a table on the terrace- you’ll a have ringside view of the ships transiting the Miraflores locks. The terrace seating is so close- the view is simply extraordinary. Even in the evenings the views are great since everything is lit up and ships transit at night as well. Another memorable and totally unique experience only Panama can offer.
Folks, Below are comments from my good friend Sam Taliaferro. Sam is an American, long time Panama resident and the pioneer of residential tourism with his superlative Valle Escondido in Boquete. Before Panama, Sam was a long time resident and businessman in Costa Rica, so Sam knows what he is talking about.
(Before this comment, Sam explained why Costa Rica has had far less deforestation than Panama, giving it an big advantage over Panama as an eco-tourism destination.
If you want to see Sams whole post: http://primapanama.blogs.com/_panama_residential_devel/2008/05/which-is-better.html )
The Panama advantage
Yes there is no doubt that the advantages of the Costa Rican environment is strikingly different from that of Panama, but there is the other side of the coin that needs to be addressed. Panama has some significant advantages over her neighbor to the west. We have a number of foreigners who live in Costa Rican who cross the border and stay in our resort in Chiriqui. They are amazed at how civilized Panama appears to be over the country they chose to live in. The roads are much better and they can buy just about anything here at much lower prices. From the moment they cross the border into Panama they are not thinking about how we have cut down all the forests. They are thinking about how great our four lane highway is and how nice to see shopping centers and hospitals along the road way. They wonder why they have such very high duties on their goods and vehicles in Costa Rica while we have very little. They are amazed that our home prices here are less than half that of their country. Crime is a growing concern in Costa Rica as they have become a victim of their great success at attracting foreigners to vacation and live on their shores and mountains. Another great advantage they see in Panama is the corporate and tax structure. Many of them cross the border to open bank accounts and form Panamanian corporations to protect their assets in Costa Rica.
So the facts are that Panama can never really compete with Costa Rican as an ecological tourism destination. Panama has the advantage of a well documented and incredible history of transformation from a 1500’s backwater to the center of the universe in transits for goods and services in the 21st century. It is in her unique combination of modernization, infrastructure, history and culture that make Panama a major attraction as a place to live and live well rather than just to visit. Panama cannot afford to spend millions in marketing to be something she will never become, but she can and should focus on her strengths and attract people to her shores to live here rather than just pass through along with the containers in the canal and money through her many banks.
There are many foreigners who long to live among the forests and monkeys and are willing to share that world with the many visitors that come to gawk at the incredible world of nature. If you can afford to pay for it and are willing to sacrifice some of the many comforts of the first world, then Costa Rica may be the right place for you. If on the other hand you want access to all that natural beauty on a few hours away, but still want to live where goods and services are reasonably priced and in abundance, then Panama may be the right choice. After having lived in both countries I find Panama to be more to my liking.
I just flew to Wash DC on the Copa direct flight and loved the hours- I could travel in the evening without losing a day of activities and return to Panama mid morning. ( I flew out of Panama at 7:30 pm, arrived in Washington at 11:30 Panama time and I returned from DC at 6:30 am arriving in Panama at 10:30 am and ready for a full day of activities.)
This schedule works really well for both the busy business traveler and the tourist who may want to get out of Panama City the to the beach or mountains the same day they fly.
Indeed, Panama’s prize winning Copa Airlines is one of Panama’s major attracions. The service and meals are excellent, the flights on time. (They even give you a nice hot sandwich on short flights like the one hour flight from Panama to San Jose Costa Rica. )
Copa has made Panama the flight hub of the America’s. Because of Copa, Panama is now the most connected country in the entire Latin American/Caribbean region. Copa is a major reason so many international companies are making their new regional HQ’s in Panama-on Copa their executives can fly a direct flight from Panama to just about every country in the region-sometimes they can even come back the same day.
Copa shares a ff flyer program with Delta and Continental and has won numerous awards including best company to work for.
Take a Tour of Panama while you are an in transit passenger: If you have a several hour wait at Panama City’s International Tocumen Airport before your next flight, some companies offer Panama City tours that get you back in time for your flight: Contact Easy Travel which offers personalized tours : www.easytravelpanama.net