Panamá: The Green, the Blue, and the Feathered

Five days spent in the Panama City region can provide a wonderful sense of Panama's diversity, from birds to beaches and culture to cuisine.

The Best Little B&B in Panama City

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by IMSAustin on May 28, 2008

I've only stayed in one bed and breakfast in Panamá City: La Estancia. After six nights, there's really no reason to stay anywhere else.

La Estancia is located in Cerro Ancón (or Ancón Hill), a nicely forested spot in the formerly U.S.-occupied Canal Zone that is now populated by many ex-pat retirees and the current President of Panamá (Torrijo). The hill is a bit isolated and some taxi drivers may find it difficult to find, but the hill itself is a prominent icon of the city that is relatively easy to spot. Fortunately, La Estancia can provide a laminated business card with contact information and a handy map on the back to guide drivers and guests to the right place.

Owned by a welcoming and accommodating couple, La Estancia provides ten affordable rooms (we paid $59/night) and two spacious suites. Our room (number 8 on the first floor above the ground floor) was a bit smaller than expected--but we were there to see Panamá, not the room, and it was perfect for a couple. The room also had windows on two sides and a window in the bathroom, which provided a lot of light and a nice view. If you stay here, you may consider one of the two rooms that have a separate balcony--these rooms have two twin beds (rather than a queen) and a bathroom just across the hall, rather than en suite.

Overall, the a/c was very effective, the room was clean, the furniture comfortable, the bath fixtures functional, and housekeeping was excellent at making up our room daily and keeping the bathroom stocked. However, we also noticed that one screen did not adhere to the wall completely, which may have permitted a few mosquitos to sneak in. In any case, mosquitos are unavoidable, so it is necessary to bring bug repellant.

La Estancia provided a wonderful breakfast every morning: a strong but very good local brand of coffee (Durán); a mixture of fresh watermelon, mango, papaya, pineapple, and bananas; a variety of yogurt; cinnamon-tinged bread; cereal; and eggs, omelettes, or pancakes from the kitchen prepared by friendly staff. You can eat breakfast inside or on the two balconies that face the trees and provide a view of the Bridge of the Americas in addition to the various birds and occasional monkeys, sloths, or other animals that stop by to feast on the seeds and bananas that the staff set out every morning. One thing to remember: the breakfast is officially prepared at 7, but is often slowly made available shortly before then. If you have an early departure, such as a day trip leaving at 6:30 AM, try to make arrangements with the staff for breakfast to be made available earlier.

Due to the location and the forests of Ancón Hill, one of the best features of La Estancia is the nearby wildlife. We were within twenty to thirty feet of toucans, monkeys, agoutis, other colorful birds, and even a possum during breakfast or chatting with other visitors we met from the U.S. and Canada. We also took a hike (about one mile each way) to the top of the hill, which provides a beautiful view of the city, the canal, the surrounding areas, and the largest Panamanian flag in the city. The top is considered by some as a symbol of Panamanian patriotism and is well-worth a visit. There's currently a movement to privatize the area and make way for a passenger tram, so although this is met with much resistance from locals, it's best to go while you still have the chance!

Further, the B&B is in a very safe area on a curvy road leading up the hill away from the rest of the city that is guarded day and night by an officer. One side effect of this is the sense of being barricaded from the city itself, as if the original occupants of the hill believed the masses were ready to storm the hill at any moment. This is not surprising, given that it was formerly the home of U.S. military and civilians. However, it is difficult to develop an understanding of Panamanian culture when the cars parked at the local residences bear stickers that represent Germany and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, this may prod you to explore more of the city and the region rather than stay cooped up inside.

Additional amenities include free internet access (one terminal is available), snacks, drinking water and beverages, and several tours of Panamá City and outlying areas through a separate tourist business called "Panoramic Panama," which is worth considering. We went on two of their nature tours and their guide for the birding trip (Mario Bernal) was top-notch!

It's worth noting that although it's a beautiful location, it's also rather secluded from restaurants or nightlife. There is a nearby shopping area called Mi Pueblito, which is more like a pretty ghost town that provides some nice handmade crafts for purchase. You can also walk about 15 minutes to see the murals in the Canal Administration building. Other than that, it's probably best to take a taxi (fares are very reasonable). If you're taking a short flight out of Panama City, the regional Albrook Airport is relatively close (about $5 by taxi). We found that some of the guests were more than happy to share a ride into the city and split the taxi fare, which is also a good way to meet some new friends.

The atmosphere in La Estancia is warm, bright, and friendly. The staff were always ready to answer our questions, call a taxi, or even order food for us when we weren't confident with our Spanish. Their driver also picked us up from the airport at 10 PM with a fair amount of cheer (transfers were $35 each way). We didn't see any children, but there are plenty of animals around to keep even us adults entertained. Just remember that the animals are more active in the morning and don't complain when the birds begin making racket an hour before sunrise!
La Estancia
Casa 35, Calle Amelia Denis de Icaza, Quarry Heights
Cerro Ancon, Panama
(507) 314-1581

El Trapiche

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by IMSAustin on May 28, 2008

El Trapiche is a family restaurant located in the El Cangrejo district of Panama City. My wife and I headed there on our first evening in the city, itching for some local cuisine. The restaurant is well known, so most taxi drivers know how to get there.

The menu is casual dining, which means (as everywhere in Panama City) polo shirts or dress shirts for men and blouses or dresses for women. We were dressed more casually than this, but this is not generally a problem. The walls were also informal, covered with the occasional colorful mask or simple framed portrait. A wide-screen TV also provided our first captivating look into Panamian television. You can choose to sit inside the air-conditioned restaurant or oustide (afuera) by the sidewalk and watch the passers-by.

The food was reasonably priced, ranging from about $5 to $15, depending on your appetite. We had ropa vieja and grilled octopus (pulpo), which were accompanied by the ubiquitous rice and beans, fried plantains, and tasty yucca with a consistency similar to mashed potatoes. We practically cleaned our plates! The local beer was also a decent, but very light, brew called Balboa for $2 each.

Service was equivalent to what we experienced everywhere in the city: not exactly speedy. But this is part of the difference between Central America and the United States or elsewhere. As a U.S. citizen, I've come to expect a short waiting time for a meal. But in other cultures, the time waiting for a meal is also a time to sit, relax, talk, and observe the surroundings. It is part of the traveling experience. After some adjustment, it is not so noticeable. Just exercise a little patience and enjoy the ones you're with!

Also, please note that you must typically request the bill (la cuenta) from your server, as it is not automatically brought to your table. Some servers also stood beside us while we fished out our cash, cards, or other forms of payment AND while we decided the appropriate amount of a tip and signed the credit card slip. We experienced this at El Trapiche and I felt a bit self-conscious while being examined in this way. Our server was also very curt and aloof. But I've found that this is not the norm in the city. My best advice is to smile, be polite, and try to use a little Spanish when you can--it means a lot that you're making an effort to learn their language!
El Trapiche
Via Argentina, El Congrejo
Panama City
+507 269-4353

Restaurante Acqua

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by IMSAustin on May 29, 2008

Looking for Greek fare in Panama? Check out Acqua!

Acqua is located in the Amador Causeway, the trio of man-made islands that stretch into the bay. The area caters more to tourists, but don't let that dissuade you from sampling the eateries.

Acqua offers a surprising array of Mediterranean and Panamanian dishes, including paella, local fish, and pasta. My wife and I had brocheta de pollo (chicken and vegetable kebabs) and reina sofia (feta-stuffed chicken) for $15, not including tax and tip. Local brews are also $2 and are generally very light ambers. Although we weren't blown away by our meals, they were still very tasty and filling.

The restaurant itself offers indoor and outdoor seating. In the outdoor sections, you can view the attractive Causeway and sample the open air. The entrance to Acqua is on the ground floor and you must walk up a flight of stairs tucked inside a stairway lined with purple neon--in fact, the entry left us wondering if it formerly lived as a nightclub. However, the decor gives way to pale blues and soft whites, reminiscent of the domes of Santorini.

Our fellow guests appeared to be composed mainly of locals, who finished their meal with about fifteen minutes of dancing to tunes blasting from the restaurant's speaker system. Fortunately for our ears, the staff turned down the music when the party was over. It's not exactly Puerto Rico, but it was the only time we witnessed spontaneous dancing.

I can't give this a high recommendation because the Causeway is somewhat out of the way and the food wasn't stellar. But I was nevertheless satisfied with it and the portions were ample. Please note that the dress is casual, which means (in Panama) something more than shorts and a T-shirt. Also, as is the case with most restaurants in Panama City, you'll probably have to ask for the bill (la cuenta). But don't let that worry you; just enjoy your time!
Restaurante Acqua
Brisas de Amador (Amador Causeway), Isla Perico
Panama City
+507 314-3356

Las Tinajas

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by IMSAustin on May 29, 2008

Las Tinajas serves up good food, good cocktails, and even entertainment three nights a week (worth the extra $5 per person). Located in the financial/business district of El Cangrejo, this place is touristy, but don't let that fool you, for it serves up some tasty vittles.
Las Tinajas
Calle 51 #22, Bellavista
Panama City
+507 263-7890

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