An August 2003 trip
to Panama City by wanderluster
Quote: Flying into Panama City? My friend Donna and I spent only the first and last night here during our two-week journey exploring Panama's surrounding rainforest, mountains, and Kuna Yala islands. Yet we managed to find some gems worth sharing, even in this (too) brief stay.
No larger than South Carolina, diverse landscapes of rainforests, coral-reefed Caribbean islands, Pacific beaches, the Darien forest, and far-flung mountainous regions can be reached easily. Most, in fact, are a one or two hour drive away.
Although this metropolitan city of nearly two million inhabitants screams congestion-–especially at rush hour-–there are areas worth exploring before scurrying away. Walk along the Amador Causeway where ships await transit through the Panama Canal. Hike or go birding in the city contained rainforest Parque Natural Metropolitano. Hang out at jazz clubs, dine on exquisite French food, or wander the brick streets of captivating Casco Viejo.
Sites aside, I can't get over the people. Some of the politest, friendliest people you'll ever meet. One taxi driver brought me to an Internet café, helped Donna shop in a local grocery, then sat outside in his scorching car (despite our protests) while we lunched at a café he recommended. And refused to take more than fare.
Don't be afraid to visit Casco Viejo. But do avoid walking there from the Amador Causeway. Taxis are cheap-–around to go most anywhere–-so don't risk your personal safety by waltzing through the El Chorrillo neighborhood where poverty striken locals hang out of flapping shanties.
Don't limit your stay to Panama City!
Less than an hour north is the incredible Soberania Park chock full of birds, sloths, jaguars, anteaters, and monkeys. Stay among treetops at Canopy Tower then visit Gamboa Resort to ride their aerial rainforest tram and speedboat across the Canal to Monkey Island.
Two hours away exists a fantastic cultural opportunity. Stay overnight at an authentic Embera Indian Village where a timeless community depends on the Chagres River for food and surrounding rainforest for herbal medicines and thatch for their homes.
A hour by plane will take you to the intriguing land of the Kunas, a gentle people who live peacefully on pristine coral-reefed tropical islands on the Caribbean.
Me Again Travel (800-556-3114) a discounter for Delta advertised rates from Boston to Panama City for , from Chicago, and from Los Angeles. They arranged flights from my departure city of Evansville, Indiana to Atlanta, and onward to Panama City for a total of .
Fly Cheap (888-921-2359) a discounter for Continental offered comparable rates, advertising 40% discount to Latin America. Their arrival time into Panama City from Atlanta at 6:30pm was a little more appealing than Delta's arrival at 9pm, but they were sold out.
The Tocumen International Airport is located 45 minutes east of Panama City. A taxi to the city costs . Once in the city proper, taxis should cost to get most anywhere, except to the Amador Causeway, which costs .
Panama Star Tours offers air-conditioned transport (two person shared) from the airport to the city for , or to Gamboa/Canopy Tower for .
Hotel | "Country Inn & Suites"
The location of this American chain hotel is 45 minutes from the airport on the opposite side of the city near Amador's scenic causeway jutting out in the Pacific. Tourists will feel safe walking the three mile paved path and eating at any of the seaside restaurants that line the long narrow causeway.
The hotel has the basic amenities expected of a Country Inn & Suites: gym, whirlpool, gift shop, pool, in-room coffee, newspaper and breakfast buffet. Our standard room had two double beds and a balcony overlooking the massive Bridge of Americas.
But if I didn't look out the window, I could've been in Des Moines, Portland, or Stewartville. It certainly didn't convey the Spanish Colonial feel prevalent in the country, and I missed that. I enjoy experiencing the local flavor of staying in a small hotel, B&B or hostel unique to the region. But it's a matter of personal preference–some like the safety and security that comes with staying in an Americanized hotel away from home. But it was only one night, and our taxi to the airport left at 4:45am the next morning.
The hotel had a restaurant. Not wanting to eat anywhere that served traditional American food, I scoffed at the adjacent TGIF but later ate my words, "I am not eating there!" We'd spent the evening at some kind of festival at Mi Pueblito and ate unidentifiable–but delicious–local foods from vendors set up around the complex amid dancers and musicians.
We returned to the hotel we forced with the unpleasant task of packing, forcing two weeks of souvenirs like palm baskets, hammocks and woven masks into already cramped bags. After hours of dazed organizing we got the munchies and wandered down for a midnight snack at the conveniently located TGIF. We ate on the deck overlooking the pool and yachts beyond preparing for tomorrow's transit through the Panama Canal. It was nice.
Felt great to get out of the room for our last breath of Panama's clean tropical air. Intoxicating, it lessened our logic for sleep. Why bother when we'd have to get up sooo early? The air was warm, relaxing. We could just stay up all night. The pool area looked awfully inviting and was open 24 hours...
Windjammer charges $70 per person to stay here. That's double what you can get on your own. Internet Saver Rate on Country Inns & Suites advertises $70 per standard room/$80 for balcony room. We booked through Panoramic Panama and got this balcony room overlooking the Bridge of Americas for $70.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 23, 2003
Country Inn and Suites Panama Canal
Amador Ave. and Pelicano Ave.
Panama City, Panama 8001
Location, location, location
Situated near the top of Cerro Ancon, La Estancia is close ($2 taxi ride) to both the quaint brick-lined neighborhood of Casco Viejo and the touristy Canal Zone in Amador Causeway. At the base of Ancon hill is Mi Pueblito, a reconstructed Spanish Colonial village where a pollera museum, folk dancing and souvenirs are a 10-minute walk away. At the top of the hill, towering mangroves hide colorful birds, reptiles, and sloths.
An added bonus is that La Estancia is run by a friendly, helpful couple in the tourism industry, Tammy Liu and her husband, Gustavo Chan. They will book your stay at upscale city hotels or their own place, which is new, a testament to which were the curtains that arrived the same day we did. They also offer transport services, city/canal tours, sailing or sunset cruises, and day trips to El Valle, Embera Indian Village, Gamboa Birding, Fort San Lorenzo, Barro Colorado or Taboga Island. Check out Panoramic Panama.
I was impressed with Tammy's prompt email replies, additional information and offer to make dinner reservations for our arrival night. She booked accommodation for us at both her guesthouse and the Country Inn--saving us money and getting us a balcony room for the same cost as a standard room. And accepted checks!
We booked her transportation services, which matched the best rates in town. Tammy and Gustavo greeted us at the airport, dropped our luggage at their inn, then delivered us at Las Bovedas on their way to meet friends at another restaurant in Casco Viejo.
Not a native Spanish-speaking person herself, Tammy was mindful to give us a business card, the address for our taxi driver and told us not to pay more than $2. When we returned after a wonderful evening and a hassle-free taxi ride, we found that our room was actually an apartment.
We'd booked a standard room for $45 but were upgraded unknowingly to the $75 apartment without charge. Tammy had apologized for changing our request, stating that two couples booked the standard rooms for three days.
Inside the burnt orange two-story building was a comfortable living room with large picture windows overlooking trees, a full kitchen with steel stools at a breakfast bar, an oversized bedroom with two beds and door leading to a deck, storage room/walk-in closet, laundry room with ironing board and iron, and a good-sized bathroom. What a bargain!
And breakfast was included. Around 7am, Tammy brought cereals, yogurt, bananas, warm croissants, juice and coffee to our room, informing us that she was ready whenever we were. Ah, yes. We wanted to squeeze in a city tour (8am-noon) before Tammy drove us 40 minutes to Canopy Tower in time for lunch.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 23, 2003
Casa 35, Calle Amelia Denis de Icaza, Quarry Heights
Cerro Ancon, Panama
First stop was as an overview of the city from the top of curvy Cerro Ancon, a short jaunt up from Tammy's guest house. A dense forest of towering mangroves opened to an expansive view of skyscrapers, Pacific Ocean and Panama Canal through foggy mist.
The blend of Spanish and French architecture in charming Casco Viejo became a World Heritage site status in 1997. Protected from the Pacific by an 18 ft. seawall, the district within this rocky peninsula has a romantic feel. Ornate churches, classy jazz clubs, museums and rows of pastel homes with plants cascading over iron balconies line cobblestone streets. Tammy drove us to the southernmost point near Las Bovedas, and suggested we walk along the seawall.
In daylight, various districts in the city skyline were identifiable. We walked past artists painting landscapes and paused at a French monument honoring Canal workers who perished from malaria and yellow fever before those diseases were eradicated in Panama.
Traffic was congested in the narrow streets as we wound our way to Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Nowhere to pull over, Tammy simply stopped, ignoring honking taxis and cars waiting for us to get out. The flatness of this unsupported arch supposedly influenced French engineers to build the Canal in Panama instead of neighboring countries, its intactness testament to the absence of earthquakes for the last 200 years.
Inside Iglesia de San Jose was the incredibly bright Golden Altar, the only treasure from the original city that escaped the ransacking hands of Henry Morgan. To hide its value from the notorious pirate, a quick thinking priest had painted this massive two-story structure black. Sure I was familiar with the story, but what I wanted to know–staring at the intricate surface–was just how the paint came off. And who got assigned that laborious duty.
We parked the car at Plaze de la Independencia a park-like plaza where Panama declared her independence from Colombia in 1903. We walked past the Cathedral (1688) and National Police enroute to Palacio do las Garzas, where herons wander freely inside this presidential palace overlooking the sea. The guard ignored us as we peeked through iron gates and spotted three white herons roaming marble floors near a fountain.
Leaving Casco Viejo, we sped through the cotton-candy projects of El Chorrillo, took a scenic driving tour of Amador Causeway, before weaving through the business district en route to Panama la Vieja far east of town.
All that's left of Panama's original city–thanks to Morgan's razing in 1671–is a ruin of the cathedral's tower and bishop's house. It looked intriguing, but there was no time to explore. Traffic getting here was lengthy compared to other parts of the tour. Perhaps time would've been better spent walking around either Amador or here.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 23, 2003
Panama City Tour
P.O. Box: 2708
Panama City, Panama
Aware that Las Bovedas was not open on Sundays, we had made 10pm dinner reservations for Wednesday, our only other night in Panama City, which happened to be our first night in Panama. Landing at 9pm, we were cutting it close. Tammy and her husband from Panoramic Panama were there to meet us and drove us the 45 minutes from the international airport into the city, stopping to drop off our luggage at their guesthouse on Cerro Ancon before dropping us off at the restaurant minutes later.
Once we entered the quaint Casco Viejo district high rises of modern steel and fast food restaurants gave way to narrow brick-lined streets, peeling pastel-colored homes with plants cascading over balconies and jazz clubs reminiscent of New Orlean's French Quarter. At the end of the peninsula was a seawall bordering the large three-story Instituto Nacional De Cultura and romantic looking Las Bovedas Restaurant.
Donna and I stepped into the weathered concrete seawall housing the restaurant, immediately sensing the history and intrigue of the dining room that resembled a castle more than a prison. Narrow walls and curved vaulted ceiling created out of bricks, stones and concrete were softened by warm polished woods and low lighting in the intimate dining area. A bar decorated with model sailboats and stacked wine bottles were the backdrop for six tables set with green linens. A lively French foursome occupied another table, the only other guests.
A waiter dressed in a white Panamanian dress shirt and slacks greeted us with a winning smile and a string of foreign words. He asked what we'd like to drink–without producing a wine list–and all we were able to communicate was our preference for rojo or blanco. His eyes twinkled as he smiled at our feeble attempt before nodding and hurrying away to produce the finest wine I've ever tasted. Later in the meal, he brought out the bottles to show us the labels, which I meant to remember. But perhaps I enjoyed the wine a little too much . . . So smooth, it calmed nerves still frayed from our plane ride. Sudden turbulence had sent us flying out of our seats, scattering food, beverages and belonging into laps, shoes, everywhere. Surround sound screaming, wailing and crying crescendoed as Donna and I clutched each other and began praying, scared and strangely quiet realizing the possibility that we might not survive.
Ritilio, our waiter, brought over the chalkboard menu. We perused the Spanish words guessing at their meanings. Sopa had to be soup, ensaladas salads. I started with Ensalada cesar and Donna with her favored calamari calamares apanados. Both were excellent.
Deciding on our entrees was a little bit more challenging. Donna was first to extract salmon from the menu and awkwardly read the description aloud. Ritilio smiled and repeated the choice, the name of the salmon entree rolling off his tongue. Without thinking, Donna clapped her hands exclaiming, "Good job! Good job!" to which I couldn't help from laughing. Of course he knows how to pronounce it, I said. "Oh, yeah. I guess he would," she said, tucking her cheek into her shoulder. "Good job!" became the catchphrase of our trip, repeated with giggles whenever anyone did anything successful, no matter how small.
The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Succulent and cooked to perfection, it didn't really need the complement of three different cream, garlic, and herb sauces, yet they added a flavorful sensation with each bite. Asparagus, collard greens, and a mound of warm tomato, corn, and squash salsa accompanied the salmon along with a basket of rolls, served with puffs of herb butter.
After dinner, Ritilio gestured us to follow him. He posed for our photos, handcuffing himself to a chained ball attached to the wall once used for prisoners. Then lifted a curtain leading to a darkened room and entered. Donna looked back at me, unsure whether or not to follow. After all, we were alone in an unfamiliar place where we didn't speak the language. But it turned out to be another narrow dining room with a curved brick ceiling where musicians played jazz a couple nights a week. It was empty now, except for a couple seated on a couch who separated from an intimate embrace when we entered. Ritilio led us up to the bar, took our photo then went behind the counter to fix us a drink. Neither of us wanted anything more. Instinctively he knew and brought us water. He led us to a tiny table in an alcove, and pointed out the window. We looked, but couldn't see anything. What did he expect us to see? It was midnight. Not a soul was roaming about. He lit a candle for us then disappeared behind the curtain.
Puzzled we sat there, watching the flame flicker against the fortress wall. The brochure Ritilio left behind told of it's original purpose. Juan Bautista Antonelly built the fortress in 1688 to safeguard gold from frequent pirate attacks. The fortress was considered Panama's primary defense when the city was rebuilt in Casco Viejo after Henry Morgan demolished the original Old Panama in 1671. Centuries later Las Bovedas was used as a military prison. In the early 1900s, prisoners were chained to the wall and tortured by sea creatures when the tide rose up to their necks. Just how many died is pure speculation.
We wondered why he had brought us in here. It was late. A tiring travel day. We needed to get back to our guesthouse. Within minutes, lights from a taxi appeared in the window, and we realized that Ritilio had been looking after us, sobering us up for our taxi ride home. What impeccable service! Intriguing atmosphere, outstanding food, and an fun friendly waiter made this dining experience extra special. A fabulous introduction to Panama!
Located on Plaza Francia in Casco Viejo. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Jazz on the weekends from 9pm-1am. Phone: 507-228-8068.