La ciudad de Panamá, or Panama City, is a vast urban metropolis brimming with modern architectural wonders piercing the crisp, blue sky. Allow your gaze to follow the path of the warm breeze grazing your sun-warmed cheek and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with pristine coastline abutting the gem-colored water of the Caribbean Sea. Overflowing with a unique culture all its own, a quaint stroll through the Spanish colonial facades of old town “Casco Viejo” or the well-reviewed restaurants of the trendy San Francisco neighborhood is all it takes to make your day exceptional. So, let’s dive right into all this fantastical locale has to offer! And no, no – I definitely do not mean to dive directly into the Panama Canal. I promise it’s much more enjoyable bobbing gently back and forth atop a paddleboard – speaking from personal experience. But more on this later!
After spending some time sampling the local fare, we solidly recommend centering your journey around the Casco Viejo area as this neighborhood houses all the trendiest spots in town. The best place to begin your exploration of this city is with a relaxed walking tour through the tangled maze of cobblestone streets. As you gaze admirably up at the quintessential Latin American period architecture amid the tantalizing smells from local eateries, be sure to take in the occasional pop of music from the many rooftop bars and smell the salt air emanating from the nearby ocean. If there are any movie buffs on here, you’ll be excited to see a familiar backdrop to the most recent Suicide Squad movie – notice Margot Robbie on a beautifully dilapidated balcony, anyone?
Having accomplished a thorough exploration of the city, what better way to start your day than sipping some of the world’s most expensive coffee at Café Unido? Though Geisha coffee hails from another region of Panama, this is the only place in Panama City where you can sample the very light coffee that almost resembles a heavy bodied hot tea. Pro tip: a bag of this makes for a unique souvenir or gift for those back home! Mosey on over a couple of short blocks and wander into the Pedro Mandiga Rum Bar – which has locations in Argentina, Colombia, and right here in Casco Viejo, Panama – for their reasonably priced and incredibly delicious Geisha Martini comprised of a unique cold brew and the Pedro Mandiga Geisha Coffee Rum only found here! If alcohol at 10 AM isn’t quite your thing … hey, we don’t judge here! … then make sure to stop by Sunday brunch at the American Trade Hotel. Like most large cities, brunch is a big thing in Panama City on the weekends. The American Trade Hotel in and of itself is an icon where a number or international dignitaries and high-profile guests have stayed, but somehow its artistic plating of its creative brunch menu tops even its renowned history.
As the day is surely winding down, it’s time to settle down at Tantalo, a decadent three story restaurant, bar, and lounge that has the most magical view in town. I wholeheartedly support ordering the carne asada for dinner, but even more important is sampling the passionfruit mojito. My love affair with maracuya – also known as passionfruit – began many years ago during a trip to Peru. I haven’t been able to get enough of it since, which is exactly what you’ll be saying after you order a few of these mojitos! A word of warning: the rooftop bar can be hard to get into. Its relatively exclusive and fills up quickly, so make sure you are either on a list or dressed to impress. The vibe is most definitely a younger crowd looking for a good time, but is still more relaxed than many of the famed discotecas in town. (Sadly, we visited during the tail end of COVID restrictions, which meant all the discotecas, or clubs, were still closed.
If you are looking for a more mellow, but excellent tapas experience, by all means run … don’t walk … to La Pulperia Bar de Los Ramos Generales, which was conveniently located directly across the cobblestone street from our comfy AirBnB. We may have eaten here more than once, probably like 3 separate times in the span of five days! Our favorites included any of their margarita varieties, loaded fries, and langostinos! Don’t forget to leave room for their dessert of the day, which happened to be a cheesecake topped with local berry compote.
Now, you may be thinking that we have already exhausted all the interesting spots in town given that Casco Viejo is only a few blocks wide. Well, while we are not in the business of telling our clients they are wrong very often, this would in fact be a time to do so! I was able to connect with an awesome local businesswoman running a startup food tourism company centered around her love for her country’s cuisine. Did I mention she also trained abroad in the culinary arts and has degrees in food tourism and gastronomy? She led a really interactive private tour around the neighborhood allowing us to admire the graffiti art tastefully adorning city walls while exploring the lesser traversed city streets to get to a local’s food market. We tasted fresh local beverages – no surprise here, I opted for the fresh passionfruit option yet again – a local dessert traditionally reserved for milestone events, Panamanian ceviche at the fish market, and much, much more! One thing I had never heard of before was “culantro,” which is incorporated into Panamanian ceviche instead of the more mainstream cilantro that I was much more familiar with. It has a less potent flavor. The overall highlight of the tour was most definitely stopping at Cafe Coca Cola– which is the only establishment in the world allowed to use their trademark – for a traditional breakfast stew and Ojaldra (essentially flavorful fried bread.)
Changing directions, let’s talk about day trips and excursions worth your time and money. Did you know you can Stand-Up Paddle in the actual waters of the Panama Canal? Well, you can! And we sure did. These photos are of the calm marina that technically is outside of the canal waters. Once you prove to the guide that you can handle yourself outside of the protected no wake zone, then you make your way into the actual canal waters. We opted to leave our phones behind on this excursion as we didn’t really trust our SUP skills and were confident that one or both of our phones would end up at the bottom of the canal … so that means no photos of the most epic view you can possibly imagine. For this, I’m truly sorry. But if you want to picture it in your mind, imagine a perfectly sunny morning (hence my sunburn, yet again) relaxing on a giant colorful paddle board with a line of a dozen of the largest barges you can possibly imagine waiting patiently for their turn to enter the Miraflores Locks to cross over from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Don’t forget the gorgeous island views with simultaneous mountain backdrops behind these vessels and the sounds of a bustling city close by yet far enough away to be soothing. Honestly? It couldn’t have been more postcard-worthy if it tried. Moreover, how many people can say they were in the Panama Canal?! This was arguably the best excursion of the entire trip, hands down. (Though please do continue to read on for more epic adventures!)
For a full day adventure outside of the city limits, I booked a nature guide to take us to Soberania National Park. I do want to mention that this excursion is an hour away from Casco Viejo by car and took us through some serious off roading to get to the beginning of the 5-hour hike through the rainforest. That being said, we are avid travelers and tend to push some of our limits when hiking abroad since we love exploring nature and seeing the endemic flora and wildlife. With that goal in mind, it was a glaring success! We came across several critters including toads, lizards, army ants, and a cute little ground critter whose name I didn’t catch. Fun, simultaneously scary, fact: the army ants were huge and venomous. There was a birder out observing a rare avian species on a parallel path to ours. He was dressed head to toe in protective gear and was standing completely still. At first, we were confused as to what was happening. Then our guide pointed out the movement on his torso – he was standing still so the army of ants thought he was a tree and wouldn’t attack him! There must have been 1000 if not more ants parading across his body, but he was able to blend in with the environment so well that they accepted him as part of nature and continued to guard their territory – birder included! We also happened across a Geoffroy’s tamarin monkey who was much too low in the trees and much too bold in his interactions with us. The guide originally thought he had fallen and lost his troop, but that didn’t explain how easily he came to us. Turns out he was quite hungry, so we found some fruit further in the rainforest and brought it back to him on our way out. We did get caught in a downpour just before we got back to the truck. I suppose that’s what we get for trekking through the rainforest during rainy season. We initially planned to stop by the Sloth Sanctuary and visit the Aerial Tram in Soberania to visit with the sloths (aka perezosos) up close, but given the impromptu monsoon we experienced, we decided to go back to our AirBnB and relax.
The last of our day trip adventures led us again into Soberania National Park, though this time to meet a local fisherman at an off the beaten path fishing dock. I had arranged a trip out to the islands within Gatun Lake, the largest body of water within the country, to try and spot some of the indigenous primates up close and personal. Again, we went during rainy season, so this was not a bright and sunny day. We ended up on the water during a thunderstorm and just prayed that we would survive to tell the tale – good news, we’re still kicking and planning our next trip! This scenario was one of the few times that I was genuinely scared for our wellbeing, so I recommend that you postpone this if you have poor weather in the immediate forecast. However, it was entirely worth it to have a mama capuchin with her baby holding tightly to her back jump directly onto our boat, scurry across the seats to look us in the eye, and then proceed to eat a banana straight from my hand. In fact, entire troops of monkeys across different islands made their way to our boat. It was such a surreal experience to interact with these magnificent creatures up close and personal. In addition to the many species of monkeys, we observed baby bats, turtles, a plethora of birds, and much more during this excursion. It was like a real-life Disney’s “Jungle Cruise.” (For those of you that know me, you know I have high standards for comparing something to a Disney movie or experience, so this is the real deal!) Another side note here: please make sure, if you are organizing a similar trip on your own, to go with a licensed professional that understands how to safely interact with the wildlife. Animal tourism, when carried out appropriately, can function to support a fragile ecosystem or assist in crucial conservation efforts for critically endangered species. Not all animals are friendly, please don’t assume they all want human visitors. Always allow the animals to come to you and never give them anything that is not naturally occurring within their habitat.
Monkeys on Lake Gatun
To close out our adventures in Panama, we spent our final day 2 hours from Panama City in the sun-drenched beach town of Colón. Our group stopped along the way to see some beautifully preserved ruins of a local war fort before arriving at port to spend the day on a picturesque yacht cruising the islands of the Caribbean. Towards the end, we transitioned into a smaller speedboat to go traverse the smaller waterways of the mangroves, where we took a quick dip among some baby barracuda. If you are on an extended trip to Panama City, then this town is worth checking out. However, if you are planning to extend your time in Panama to the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro, then by all means spend your time elsewhere and leave the sunbathing for the islands.
Colon and Ruins
Thus, while often overlooked as a mere connection to your final South American destination, Panama City, Panama is a tried-and-true traveler’s paradise in its own right. In fact, we at Your Concierge NYC recommend that you thoroughly consider Panama City to be the location of your next international vacation. Or, even better yet, you could – and should – make it a perfect addition to a relaxing beach holiday in Bocas del Toro (more on these islands here!) As always, if you would like some help in setting up your travel plans – whether you are headed to Panama or any other corner of the globe – please be sure to reach out to our expert travel designers INSERT LINK TO CONTACT US for your next bespoke adventure.