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My Guide to Panama, the place I call home :).

Last updated (May 2015) - Still need to flesh this out.

This is a guide to the place I call home -- my favorite place and dearest to my heart, Panama. I'll give some general tips on places to go, along with some more generic itineraries.


Transportation:

Panama has Uber. It is much better than the somewhat unreliable taxi service, and it will most definitely revolutionize transportation in the city. I love it and take it everywhere, and I hugely recommend that you do as well as it is so much more convenient. If you are out of range, I recommend you drag the pin closer in range and then when you get an Uber, call the driver immediately and ask him if he'd be willing to drive farther for more money. I have done this and they are generally willing to make the trip for cash (basically not through Uber but at a decent price).

Places to Travel:

  1. Miraflores Restaurant: This one is a decent option, call in if you want a reservation for a table outside to see the boats cross, its a phenomenal experience, and personally I think its the best way of checking the Panama Canal off the list. Food-wise its nothing crazy (its a subpar buffet) but sitting outside and grabbing a beer while watching a boat cross the canal is a great experience.
  2. Afternoon in Casco Viejo (This is a really good idea to do near sunset, have dinner, and then maybe go out for drinks since it lends itself for all of that). There are numerous places to visit including the San Jose Church with its golden altar, and the stunning architecture of this old but preserved part of town. Other highlights include the National Theater (Teatro Nacional) and the Plaza Bolivar.
  3. The Causeway - I've never been super fond of the Causeway, just because despite how gorgeous it is, its logistically out of the way if you don’t have a car. However, its a must do and now that Panama has Uber, this is much more doable. If you’re athletic, then its a haven, run it, bike it, and grab some refreshing beers at any of the restaurants after ( I personally like the ones in the last island, go grab a beer and some seafood, and then chill there).
  4. Taboga - Taking the ferry out for a day trip (I wouldn't spend the night) at the beach is always a fun thing to do. There are better alternatives in terms of beaches, but logistically Taboga is definitely one of  the easiest. I’d recommend you take a cooler with beer and pack some sandwiches, and then spend the day relaxing at the beach. This is a quick day trip to an average beach (for Panama’s standards).
  5. Santa Catalina - This is the holy grail of beaches and trips (its up there with San Blas). Logistically it requires quite a bit of thought, but taking the buses isn't a bad approach. Basically, you take a bus to Santiago, and then the a bus to Sona. From Sona, you are on your own, but what I have done in the past is to take a taxi up to the Santa Catalina beach. I don’t recall the exact cost, probably between $25-$50 but split between 4 its not bad at all.  It's smart to pack everything you'll need (food, drinks) and its most definitely worth the trip. This is one of the two favorite and best places to go in Panama for a relaxing time at the beach. Did I say its amazing? It’s outstanding.
  6. Boquete - Boquete is the go to spot for trails, hiking, and enjoying what nature has to offer. I love this place as a calm escape, the hostels there generally have tours and trips you can take with them in addition to the adventure-focused shops around the small town that will take you on ATV tours, rock climbing, etc. Well worth the visit if you have the time to get out there.
  7. Bocas del Toro - I'm not too fond of Bocas del Toro since it has become a big tourist hot spot. However, Isla Colon will always have its charm, its cute hotels with porches which you can fish off of (my mother is from here, and she once told me a story that they’d fish off the balcony and leave the bottle (which the string was tied to) on the table, and once it fell off, you’d know you had caught something). If you’re into some nightlife I hear (but have never personally experienced) they do have some fun nights in the island, and of course there are more isolated islands around there which are always worth the visit!
  8. Gatun Lake, Gamboa & Monkey Island - this is an experience focused on the rainforest biodiversity of Panama. I’ve been to Gatun and Gamboa on numerous ocassions, but I don’t recall having been to Monkey Island, although I’ve heard its definitely worth it to go check it out.
  9. Night at Istmo Brew Pub -- this is a common one for a relax weekday night, if you’d like to spend a night trying out some craft beers, here’s always a good place to go. A must do as well: order any of their pizzas. The crust is made out of fried plantain (that should be enough for you to want to go).
  10. San Blas (2 nights / 3 days) -- must do. At least one night. Contact LAM Tours. They’re in Costa del Este in the same plaza as the Supermarket (Super 99), and they will handle transporation there and back. If you want to do this and have a car, you can also drive up, although that’s a little bit more of a hassle since its through some interesting roads (although these have mostly been paved now) and the path can be a little bit daunting. Regardless of how you choose to get to San Blas, it’s a must do.
  11. Dim Sum -- I’d personally recommend eating chinese breakfast at Lung Fung or Golden Unicorn, both have their specific taste but the experience is definitely worth it.
  12. Shopping - Albrook Mall - To me, this is the best mall in Panama. You will simply not cover it in one day, its gigantic. However, it is always a great place to go because of the cheap prices. Pass by places like the Oca Loca just to see how cheap things are. Insider note: I’ve heard these places buy their clothes in huge containers without really knowing what is inside, so you can sometimes find some really good winter jackets that Panamanians will never buy at these stores.
  13. Shopping - Multiplaza - If you are a little more sophisticated, Multiplaza is a mall in the opposite end of the spectrum, it has all the high-class stores you’d find in the US.
  14. Walking through Panama Viejo -- As of right now this one is a bit weird. The area doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of walking, but its always good to go see it. Look up a little bit of the history before you go and you can be guaranteed to be a bit more fascinated. Also look up the hours if you’re interested in getting up close.
  15. Bowling + Drinking nights -- a personal classic for me, change up the atmosphere, go with a good group of friends (i’d recommend 4+), it can also be fun as a couple but generally bowling is a great activity for a lot of people. The bowling allies in Bolos El Dorado and Albrook Bowling have open bars on weekends, be sure to find out exactly when but that’s something to keep in mind since its all you can drink + bowling all night, which can be awesome.

Total, this is what i'd recommend in terms of days and trips:
For when you are in the city, if you’re only around for three days:
PANAMA THREE DAY TRIP:
  1. Day 1: Usually planes to Panama land in the afternoon if not at night from the US, either from Miami or ATL, (Miami lands at 11:50am, ATL direct lands at 9:00pm, Copa flies from Orlando and has i think two, one at 5pm-ish and the other 8:45pm, there are others too), but regardless, you never want to do anything too crazy  If you have time, this is the perfect time to pass by Istmo Brew Pub (my personal favorite bar from home).. A weekday might be a bit empty, but weekends Istmo is the place to go.If its early enough on a weekday when they tend to close around midnight, you can still pass by and have a good patacon pizza dinner and try the beers, that’s always fun.
  2. Day 2: Sleep in a little bit since you’ve just flown in, and then hit up Miraflores Restaurant for lunch to see the Panama Canal and the visitor center. After going to the canal, go to Casco Viejo and walk around. Here's a map of the main places you want to go to. There are a few good merchants that sell touristy stuff you might want to buy to take back home, and also a nice view of the skyline (not as nice as the Causeway but still pretty good). Out of those, i’d highlight the Panama Canal Museum which is very well designed for you to experience. An alternative to your second day would be to hit up Casco Viejo in the morning (if you’re up for waking up) and after you walk around and see the Panama Canal Museum, go to the actual Canal and check it out while you have lunch. It might enhance your experience since you’d go knowing a bit more of the history and effort that went into building it. After you leave the Miraflores locks around 3pm, i’d go to Albrook Mall and do some shopping and then as it approaches like 6-7pm, head out to the Causeway for dinner just to see the city skyline at night. It’s truly something. After that you can head back to Casco Viejo or Calle Uruguay for some drinks to finish the night!
  3. Day 3:  Grab dim sum in the morning. It’s hard to say what day 3 would be depending on when you have to leave and what day of the week it is, but if you have the time, i’d spend the day at Gamboa, feel free to pick one of the many tours they have available here depending on what you like. That should cover the main aspects of Panama, although I hope you can stay for more than three days because despite how close together we have the rainforest, the city nightlife, and the beach, it would still be nice to see some of the more stunning things the country has to offer.
If you’re around for more than three days, i'd recommend doing these trips AT THE START (you want to aim for spending the last few days in the city so you don't like get stuck in the middle of nowhere and miss your flight):
  • San Blas for 1 or 2 nights depending on how long your stay is.
  • Taboga after that if you’re there for like a week and you have one day where you have nothing planned.
  • Santa Catalina precedes these trips if you’re there for like two weeks, although after Catalina i'd still go to San Blas because its definitely crazy worth it.

That pretty much covers the basics, I mainly missed Chiriqui in terms of common places that people go visit. If you are a fan of hiking and the rainforest rather than the beach, Chiriqui and El Valle might be of interest, but these generally require a car. Look into the different cabins you can get in Boquete and other places around, that’s always worth it!.

I hope this helps :),
Daniel.

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