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Eight days in Panama; City, Beach, and Jungle


Jul 23rd, 2010, 04:56 PM
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Eight days in Panama; City, Beach, and Jungle

My husband and I spent 8 days in Panama in July 2010. There isn't a lot here on the forum about Panama (at least not compared to Costa Rica) so I'm hoping my trip report can help others looking for details to help them plan.

Who: We're a couple in our early 40's who tries to take at least one international trip a year, sometimes two. We usually travel to South East Asia or Europe, but we've also been to Honduras and Costa Rica in Central America.

Where: Panama City, Isla Contadora, and Soberania Park in the Canal Zone. We wanted a mix of as much as possible in the short time we had. As it was, due to bad weather, we had to cancel a day of our trip and lost our 2nd day in the jungle.

Why: We'd never been to Panama, and when I was looking for an affordable plane ticket to go anywhere this summer and found a $475 non-stop on Copa from LAX to Panama City, I thought, "why not?" I'll admit I was also hoping it would be more of a budget destination than it turned out to be. We found prices to be right in line with the US for most things.
I usually get one of two reactions when I tell people where we’re going next. The first is, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go there!” or “I love (insert place name)!”
The second reaction is not so…enthusiastic; “You’re going where? What’s there?
Our choice of Panama received mostly reaction #2, very similar to when we told people we were going to Honduras, or Cambodia, or even Vietnam.
Funny, I never get that reaction when I tell people we’re going to Italy. ;-)

I have a blog, http://www.wired2theworld.com and I will be posting my trip report there, as well as here, along with photos, videos and other stuff. I'll put links here here as they go up.

Planning: I only had about a month to plan the trip, which was a little nerve-wracking for me as I am someone who usually plans very far in advance and gets very OCD about the details.
I've put the links to all the sites I used for my research on my blog here:

And now, to get on with it...
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Jul 23rd, 2010, 05:40 PM
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July 10, 2010

Copa flight #473 LAX to Panama City

I should have known when the two tickets purchased at the same time were charged to our credit card individually, one month apart.
I should have known when I got an error message trying to check in online.
Maybe when I called the airline for help and "pressed 3 for web help" and it disconnected me I should have known to expect the unexpected from Copa. But no, I assumed that when it said, go straight to the gate if you check in online that was what we should do.

We arrived at LAX to the usual chaos that greets any international departure and debated what to do. I said to my husband David, "the website said we could go to the gate." But, given the issues above, we were uncertain if that was the right thing to do. Plus, we couldn't find the gate listed anywhere, nor any roaming Copa agents to ask. Finally, there was a gap at the web check-in counter and there, we discovered that contrary to the web site's instructions, we did need to check in with them even if we had no luggage to check. This makes sense of course, because they have to see our passports, but what would have happened if we had not?

One of the good things about Copa was that I was able to select our seats in advance and choose row 14, the exit row. Many airlines will not let you choose exit row seats in advance. This afforded us much more breathing room, about an extra 6" of leg room. The flight was late departing, mostly because they had to bus every passenger out to the plane, one busload at a time, to a remote part of the airport I've never even seen. It's as if they could not afford to have docking rights at the terminals.

The flight was easy, only about 6 hours, and the food, surprisingly edible. We were given breakfast burritos with eggs and sausage and a muffin. For lunch it was "chicken or beef" but the vegetables were good and not overcooked. Drinks, including alcohol, were free. There are no personal TV's, only overhead screens which ran a movie I did not watch. I was entranced by my newest love, the Kindle e-reader, and happily read Anthony Bourdain's latest, Medium Raw, most of the way there.
The bathrooms on the plane were another story; the toilet paper was sitting in a roll on the sink and there was no water coming out the faucets. The flight attendants "thoughtfully" left bottles of water on the sinks for the passengers to use to wash their hands. We arrived close to on time, found no one in line at immigration and sailed through customs because we did not have to wait for bags at baggage claim.

A taxi ride to or from the international airport seems to be a set rate of about $28, no matter where you are going in Panama City. We picked up a taxi outside (I saw no official taxi stand or pre-paid taxi desk) and were at the Toscana Inn Hotel in about 30 minutes.

Toscana Inn Hotel

Arriving into a new city at night is always strange. It just feels different than it does in daylight. Somehow not as safe, there's always a touch of the unknown, a little menace. I always look forward to the next morning when things are clearer, cleaner.

We checked out the room which turned out to be a decent size with a comfortable king sized bed, flat screen TV with many channels (most in Spanish of course, but a few in English-I love CNN international, it equals "travel" to me), big windows overlooking the street, and a desk and sitting area. The bathroom is quite small with a walk-in shower. Bring your own toiletries/amenities. Wifi is free with a code given by the front desk.

We looked at a map and set out to find a grocery store near by to pick up some water, snacks, and a comb for me which I'd forgotten. On nearby Calle Espana we found a 24 hour giant El Rey supermarket which was shockingly similar to markets here at home down to the imported US products and prices.

Dinner at El Trapiche

After dropping our purchases back at the hotel, we sought out a Panamanian restaurant I'd read about called El Trapiche which was about 4 blocks away. We found it without difficulty and it had what appeared to be mostly locals dining inside with a few tourists on the patio.We opted to eat inside because of the AC (it was still very humid and warm out).

I ordered the Corvina al Ajillo which would become my favorite go-to dish of the trip and David got the house specialty smoked pork chops. Everything was simply prepared but satisfying; I loved my fish, the rice was perfectly cooked and the little piece of fried plantain tasted of cinnamon. We tried two of the local beers, Atlas and Balboa (both good!) and dinner came to $25 for the food and 3 beers. (Via Argentina #10 at Avinida 2a B Norte, Tel: 269-4353). We finished our evening with ice cream from an Italian style gelateria called Antica on the corner of Via Espana and Avinida 2A Norte.
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Jul 23rd, 2010, 06:24 PM
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Looking forward to more of your report. Thanks for reporting back.
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Jul 23rd, 2010, 07:27 PM
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Thanks for posting. I'm curious about Panama, and you don't read much about it on the boards.
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Jul 24th, 2010, 06:59 AM
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Thanks. It's nice to know at least a couple of people are interested.
Photos from the first day can be found here:

More to come soon.
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Jul 24th, 2010, 08:07 AM
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I'm interested! I've always been curious about Panama.
Can't wait to hear about the whales, sloths and the crazy bird-people.

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Jul 24th, 2010, 09:53 AM
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K, I always take pictures of the food too; my husband will say, "Can I eat this, or do we have to take pictures first?" Totally agree with you about arriving at night. Looking forward to more!
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Jul 24th, 2010, 10:06 AM
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Volcanogirl, I always take photos of the food because it's usually my focus when I travel. I work in the restaurant industry and also have a food blog, so it's usually what I write about too. I have to say, in general, I found the food in Panama to be a disappointment, but I think this is just one of those destinations that's more about the natural beauty of the place rather than the food.
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Jul 24th, 2010, 10:53 AM
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I'm reading and interested, too! I'm also going to steal a look at your report on Honduras on your blog, as we're headed there in March. After researching Panama, I thought it may be a destination we should visit when we have more days for travel than we'll have in March, since there are so many options. You only had 8 days; did you feel rushed, or like you missed out on anything? How did it compare to Costa Rica and Honduras?
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Jul 24th, 2010, 01:38 PM
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I'm reading along as well, Kristina. We spent about 3 months in Panama in two trips and really enjoyed it all (the capital, Darien, Boquete, Cerro Punta, El Valle, Playa Barqueta, etc.)
I agree with you about the food though. I feel that way about food in Central America in general. Nothing wrong with the local cuisine, just not that inspiring/interesting. (not like the food in Mexico, for example). But great countries for exploring nature, beaches, and some culture. Nice people too.
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Jul 26th, 2010, 06:09 AM
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Hi Kristina!

I thought I might find your trip report here...great start! I have to admit, Panama has not been on my travel "radar", in fact, this is the first time I've ever ventured onto the Mexico/Central America board!

Looking forward to the rest of the report!
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Jul 26th, 2010, 07:47 AM
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I am so glad to see that people are beginning to explore Panama, it seems like you did a fabulous job trying to cover all that Panama has to offer, I look forward to hearing more. We've been here for about 2 years developing an eco resort on an island called Isla Palenque on Panamas Pacific side. It is always exciting to see people testing Panamas waters and falling in love with what they find, as we have.
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Jul 26th, 2010, 08:34 AM
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I am thrilled to be reading your report this week as I leave on the 2am Copa LAX-PTY plane. Funny, I also booked us in row 14 and the plane seems to be sold out. Can't wait to hear the rest.

I've read your blog about other trips you've taken and always enjoyed them.
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Jul 26th, 2010, 11:30 AM
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Really happy to see an article like this, and the curious traveler made it down to Panama. When we purchased a vacation rental property in Panama a few years ago, we got a lot reaction #2 as well. But finally, people are beginning to take a look at this country. It offers a ton.

Nice blog too, btw.

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Jul 26th, 2010, 11:50 AM
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It's nice to know people are interested! Thanks! Forgive me for taking so long to return. I wrote a bunch yesterday and then it disappeared. That's so irritating!

Janenicole-There's a lot to see there, like any country and 8 days certainly isn't enough. I would have liked to see other parts for sure. How does it compare to Costa Rica and Honduras? That's tough, each place is unique and has its pros and cons. Honduras was the least expensive place, but that was 10 years ago, so I'm not sure how it is now.

July 11, 2010

Panama City, Panama

We woke to cloudy skies and a desire to get out for the day, but first, breakfast.
The Toscana Inn hotel includes breakfast with the rate in a room off the lobby and unfortunately this is probably the hotel's weakest point. It's not for lack of choice either, it's just that none of it was particularly appetizing. The hot choices included an odd re-fried bean/meat/green olive concoction, limp bacon, scary pale things which looked like fingers but were probably sausages and overcooked hard boiled eggs. There was cold cereal and milk, fruit, and toast. Coffee and tea or $3 extra for a badly made cappuccino.

Our loose plan for the day was to check out the Miraflores Locks and then find some place to watch the World Cup Final game, possibly in a bar either near the hotel or in Casco Viejo.

First, some notes about Panama City:
Panama City is a huge, sprawling, modern city filled with skyscrapers and varying states of construction. I didn't realize this until I saw pictures when researching for the trip. This is no quaint, Central American small city with low slung buildings. It reminds me more of Bangkok in the spread of high rises than even Los Angeles where the tall buildings are clustered in "downtown."
Unlike Bangkok, I didn't see any big open markets and there's no street food visible anywhere. Like Los Angeles, it seems that things are spread out all over, and there's no good public transportation system like a subway. Yes, there are buses, but as a tourist and not a local I was hard pressed to find a bus map, let along figure out where they went and how to use them. That means that cabs are the way to go, and again, being from LA, jumping in a cab to go everywhere does not come naturally.

About taxis;None of the taxis have meters. All fares must be negotiated with the driver before setting off. Fares within Panama City should be $1-$3. Fares to Allbrook Airport (domestic) are $10-$12. Tocumen International Airport is $28. Sometimes taxis are shared and each person will pay a separate fare.

The Miraflores Locks are the closest ones to Panama City. These are the most popular place to see the ships passing through the Panama Canal and there is also a museum. A taxi to the locks should cost $10-$15 each way, and after stopping a few cabs on the street near our hotel, we finally found one who would take us out there for $10, or $25 round trip which of course included him waiting for us. We figured the R/T option was a good one because we had no idea if it would be hard to find a cab back. I suppose there is a way to take a bus out there, as the was a bus stop on the main road, but I have no idea how you would figure it out and once you get there, you would still have to walk quite a way up the road in the heat to get to where the locks are.

Admission to the Locks is $8 per person which includes the museum exhibits and film, or $5 for just the viewing platform. We opted for the full ticket. After we arrived (around 10am), we discovered that we'd just missed the last ship to go through the locks until 3pm that day. It was quite a disappointment not to be able to see the ships go through, and even though they offered to honor our ticket later, I knew we wouldn't want to spend another $25 just to come out at 3pm.

The museum exhibits are nicely done and worth the time to walk though them. There are explanations of all the flora and fauna in the canal zone, how the canal was dug and how it works, and a cool simulator which one can stand in and experience what it's like to be a ship's captain going through the canal. The movie is a bit cheesy, but does explain the history of the canal and their plans for the future expansion of new canals for super ships to be able to pass though. The view from the observation deck is panoramic and from there one can see all the way to the Pacific ocean and downtown Panama City.

We were done in about an hour and our taxi driver, Pedro, found us. Instead of taking us back to the hotel, we asked him to take us to Casco Viejo, the old part of the city.
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Jul 26th, 2010, 01:35 PM
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I'm really excited to find this report. Thanks! My husband and I are currently planning our trip for only 5 nights - 9/29-10/4. I'm also very OCD when it comes to travel planning so I can relate to your stress on a short notice plan. I'm especially stressed over picking where to go after 2 days in Panama City - 3 nights is so short so I need to pick the perfect place to give us beach/surf/scuba and town and jungle within close proximity. Am I asking too much??

I will have a look at your blog to see what else you did there and where you stayed.

My family went to Panama in 1907 to build the canal and I still have a cousin there so I have a little connection, but I want the traveler's perspective. (Her husband is in charge of Canal security so I think I will get a good tour there!)

I plan to read your blog and check back to this thread soon -
Muchas gracias!!
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Jul 26th, 2010, 05:19 PM
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I just looked at your blog and realized I had bookmarked it earlier in the year for your expert packing tips!
Great blog Kristina!
We are considering Isla Contadora and Las Perlas - will you be writing aboutnit soon or can you give me a hint? Yea or nay?
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Jul 26th, 2010, 08:23 PM
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daffy-Yes, Isla Contadora comes "tomorrow" on the trip, but first I have to finish "today."
One thing I can tell you is that the air service there can be unpredictable. It all depends on "luck and the weather" so don't try to plan your trip back home in conjunction with a flight off the island.
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Jul 26th, 2010, 10:04 PM
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More of day 2...

Everything I'd read said not to walk through the neighborhood bordering this area (which is surrounded by water on 3 sides) because it is dangerous. On our way into that neighborhood, our taxi was stopped by machine gun toting Policia, who spoke to Pedro and then asked where we were from and to see our passports. This is the first time we've ever been asked for our papers while out and about in a foreign city, in more than 30 countries. I usually leave my passport in the hotel, but I'd read that in Panama foreigners are required to have them at all times, and some people have been harassed in the more rural areas, so we had ours with us. Pedro said said that yes, it was dangerous and he would not even drive through there at night. It looked poor, and there were a lot of very dilapidated and abandoned buildings, but not particularly dangerous in the light of day. I'm sure night is another story.

Casco Viejo reminds me a little of New Orleans with its wrought iron balconies and of the pictures I've seen of Havana. In fact, one of the last James Bond films was shot here, as a stand-in for Havana. We stood in the doorway to the church (which I later figured out was Iglesia de San Jose) and listened to the service for a moment and then started to wander around, a bit aimlessly. I'd printed out a walking tour with a pretty good map of the neighborhood from the Frommer's website, but had unfortunately left it back in the hotel. We did have my notes and google map however, but we never really did figure out exactly where we were most of the time.

The area is a mix of run down buildings, some abandoned, and some in an obvious state of rebuilding and renaissance. Some buildings are only a facade and some have clearly been restored to their former glory.

We walk in circles (and it's hot, hot, hot out), checking out ruined churches, the main square of Plaza de la Independencia and the large Catedral Metropolitana which for some reason is shut up tight even though it's a Sunday. In the square there are a few women wearing the traditional dress of the Kuna Indians. At the ruins of the San Francisco church a guard opens the gate and lets us inside to walk around.

At one point we found ourselves standing next to armed guards at a sentry kiosk and discovered we were next to the Presidential Palace. It's right on the water and has a stunning view of the city skyline. Someone asked us to take their picture in front of the view and they reciprocated for us. I really wanted to take a picture of the Presidential guards (all good looking in military dress uniforms) but was too embarrassed to ask (still kicking myself).

We continue walking, randomly, wishing I had that walking tour print-out. The area seems a bit deserted and I can't figure out if it's the heat of mid-day, the fact that it's a Sunday, or that the World Cup Final is to start in about an hour that has everyone off the streets. This is an area I'd like to return to when it was more lively, maybe in the evenings. Unfortunately, we did not make it back here.

Around lunch time, we search out Manolo Caracol, a well respected and often recommended restaurant in Casco Viejo, but it's closed for lunch. Instead we end up at the popular Casa Blanco, but the food is a disappointment. The "shrimp cocktail" is drowning in a pink mayonnaise sauce and my caprese sandwich is just mediocre. We did see some salads go by that didn't look so bad. We'd planned to stay there to watch the game, but the place was empty and we wanted to be around a crowd so we left in search of a more happening place.

We found a bar called Cedros and got there just in time to get a table before it filled to capacity and ordered our new favorite local beer, "Panama." The World Cup Final, Spain vs. the Netherlands, was not as exciting as we'd hoped, at least not until Spain scored the one and only goal of the game in overtime. Viva Espana!

Afterward, it started to rain, and it took a us while, and more wandering, before we found an empty cab, which took us back to our hotel for $3.

We wanted to stay close to the hotel for dinner because it was still raining so we walked though the neighborhood, looking at restaurants and menus, none of them local Panamanian food (but we found Sushi, Peruvian, Mexican, and even a Swiss restaurant). We ended up at a place called the Wine Bar but chose not to stay because the amplified life music in the tiny space was so loud (and so bad) we could not converse. Instead, we went to their sister restaurant, Cafe Pomodoro for what could possibly be one of the worst meals I've ever had. It was so bad, I didn't even take pictures. My "Pasta Siciliana" was overcooked rigatoni, with chopped tomatoes, eggplant and mozzarella unceremoniously dumped on top. David's Bolognese was only slightly better. The $4 glasses of ice cold Chilean Cabernet did little to help the horrible food and service. Miss it.
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Jul 27th, 2010, 06:33 AM
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Photos for day 2 can be seen at:
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