Central America’s Panama has gained a lot of attention recently as travelers begin to explore Central and South America more and more. And if your’e traveling from the U.S., it’s a wonderful place to go, either for an extended weekend or longer. I recently went to Panama City and really loved it. There are a lot of reasons to go to Panama, but my top five reasons to visit Panama are:
1) It’s easy
Now that Copa Airlines has direct flights from New Orleans to Panama City, it’s sooo easy! You leave early in the morning and get there by 10:30 on a direct flight. Bliss! It’s almost easier than going some places in the U.S. You get yourself to the airport at the crack, take a little nap on the plane, and bam, you’re there in enough time to have the entire day to explore. It doesn’t hurt that the coffee is ah-mazing there so after a quick cab ride from the airport to the center of town, grab a cappuccino and a sit, and enjoy the day.
Another thing that makes Panama easy is that they use the U.S. dollar, so no money exchange necessary. Sweet. They are also only an hour’s time difference from New Orleans, and after many trips to Europe, no jet lag is very much appreciated. No more lost first day because jet lag is dragging you down. Adaptors? Don’t need ’em. You can plug your hair dryer or laptop into the outlet just like you do in the U.S.
The city is divided into two parts–the old and new. I only breezed through the new part, preferring the old town, or Casco Viejo, much better. This part of town is cool–a mix of worn, lived-in buildings with new, tastefully done places coming up. The streets are lively with people and sounds–never a dull moment there.
2) Culture and History
One of the main things Panama is known for is the Panama Canal. You can easily go check it out within the course of the day. You can visit the Miraflores Visitor Center and see how the canal operates. There’s a museum and viewing platforms there.
There are many indigenous people in Panama, and while most live in communities outside of the city, some are also there showing and selling their art work, particularly the Guna and their colorful, hand-crafted molas.
3) Food and Drink
The food and drink are great there and if you’re frugal, you can find cheap, tasty treats all over. Mojitos are a must. Lots of places make them with fresh fruit mixed into them, like watermelon or mango. After walking around in the heat, it’s the perfect drink to have.
If you make your way to the fish market (follow your nose!), you can eat your fill of ceviche for next to nothing. They serve a variety of ceviche in small styrofoam cups for $1 a cup. You get a cup with ceviche piled high like a snowball and a pack of saltines for your money. A beer is another $1. A feast for very little money. Plus, the place is lively–there are always lots of people around and music constantly playing.
Ok, let’s talk coffee. I come from New Orleans where we have pretty great coffee. And I’ve had delicious coffee in other countries, but Panama is definitely up there in my top three. The coffee here is robust and flavorful, and I can’t even tell you how many I’d drink in one day (and yes, had trouble sleeping for sure).
One of my favorite spots to get a coffee was at the Unido Cafe, in the gorgeous American Trade Hotel. Sitting in the cafe, sipping my iced latte, I was pretty happy to just be in that lovely space. Coffee here in the morning, jazz and cocktails in the evening–you could spend your entire day in this hotel and never want to leave.
4) Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a cluster of islands that are easy to get to from Panama City’s Albrook airport. For around a hundred dollars and a fifty minute flight, you can zip over to some of the most untouched islands I’ve seen. We flew into Colon and stayed there. From that spot, you can take boats to any of the smaller islands nearby. The boat rides are a blast. The town of Colon was an old shanty town and definitely has that island vibe and friendliness you’d expect.
It was fun to walk the streets in the evening, even though it rained while we were there. Still, there were kids playing soccer in the streets and locals and tourists alike were just hanging out and getting a beer or coming in from a day of surfing.
One morning, we took a boat ride to Islas Zapatillas, two uninhabited islands that are part of the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. You pay someone to take you there (it was about $30/person) and they bring you past different areas (to see dolphins, starfish, etc) and then to Zapatillas, where you can hang out for a few hours. You’ll need to bring your own supplies because there are only a few people there who monitor the island and there’s nothing for sale there like snacks or drinking water.
But as you can see, it was like paradise there. The water was blue-green and clear, and just the right temperature to swim and forget about anything else but that moment. It was like instant relaxation the minute I got there. There were only a few of us who came on the boat plus some others from another boat, which made for only about twenty in total. We basically had the island to ourselves. Heaven.
5) It’s a hub
You’d be surprised to find how many places you can fly to directly from Panama City–even to Europe! You can also get to Cuba on a short flight, which is still a little difficult to navigate from the U.S., even with the recent changes taking place.
Here’s a partial list of nonstop flights from Panama (PTY) with the airlines and the approximate flight time:
Amsterdam (KLM 10 hours)
Aruba (COPA 2 hours)
Atlanta (Delta 4 hours)
Bogota (COPA 1 1/2 hours)
Buenos Aires (COPA 7 hours)
Dallas (American 5 hours)
Frankfurt (Lufthansa 11 hours)
Guadalajara (COPA 4 1/2 hours)
Havana (COPA 2 1/2 hours)
Lisbon (TAP 9 1/2 hours)
Los Angeles (COPA 7 hours)
Montego Bay (COPA 2 hours)
New Orleans (COPA 4 hours)
Paris (Air France 10 hours)
Punta Cana (COPA 2 1/2 hours)
Quito (COPA 2 hours)
Santiago (COPA 6 1/2 hours)
Toronto (COPA 5 1/2 hours)
Washington DC (COPA 5 hours)
There are lots of other reasons to go and many more things to do than I’ve listed here. I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like when I went, but I hear David and Boquete are cool places to go for a different experience than the beaches. It’s really a beautiful place, that offers the modern and the old, the beaches and the rainforests, the coffee and…the coffee. Now that’s it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away, there’s no reason not to go!