Panama City is a cultural combination of old and new. It’s both a modern metropolis and also a vision of old-world charm. The fifteenth-century side of the city with its links to Spanish colonialism and history of pirate invasion is known as Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo, or San Felipe, depending on your preference. While in stark contrast, the modern side of Panama City with its urban streets and sky-scraping high-rises is known as the ‘Miami of Central America’.
Then, of course, there are other attractions too: Panama hats (which are originally from Ecuador) and the feat of engineering that is the man-made shipping canal (linking the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans via the Caribbean Sea) and the fact that Panama as a location not only straddles both of these mighty oceans but also all the border between Central and South America.
For all these reasons, Panama has been on my travel radar as an interesting place to visit for a long time.
We finally got our trip to Panama while we were staying on the smallest of the Bay Islands, just off the coast of mainland Honduras, in the Eastern Caribbean Sea. We’d been on the island for almost three months and planning to stay until the end of the summer. But, if we wanted to spend any more time on this rustic version of a tropical paradise, we knew we’d have to leave the Central Four countries (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua) for at least 72 hours and come back again to renew our visa at the border.
A practice that is commonly known as a ‘visa run’.
We could have chosen to head off to Belize or the Cayman Islands or even across to the US but instead we decided to make this a bucket list ticking trip to Panama City. So, we took a small rucksack each and a boat off the island over to the larger island of Roatan, where we rented a small bungalow on a beach for the night before flying onto San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, early the next morning.
San Salvador was a pit stop (we were after all still in the C-Four) but it was where we had to wait for our connecting flight to Panama City. I had organised this four-day itinerary on a tight budget, so our flight times weren’t the most convenient. Our layover in San Salvador was going to be a gruelling six hours.
It was not quite long enough to leave the airport to go out sightseeing but way too long to be stuck in the airport building sitting on a plastic chair with no internet or access to a laptop recharge socket. But as we aren’t exactly strangers to hanging around in airports, we accepted our lot and settled ourselves down to make the most of our situation. It was while in this predicament that I checked our onward tickets and realised that fate had smiled at us – as it so often does – and that for the second leg of the trip we had been given a complimentary upgrade to business class. This also meant that for the next six hours we had access to the premium lounge. What a result. I must tell you that those six hours passed by very pleasantly indeed in comfortable seating and with a free buffet and a bar of free-flowing wines and international drinks!
Our choice of hotels while in Panama were all with the Holiday Inn Group. The reason for this is that we have membership of their IHG loyalty programme. We have been staying with Holiday Inn and collecting points and increasing our membership level since we first started travelling the world almost five years ago. This decision, to collect hotel stay points from the outset proved to be a smart one, as it has proved far more beneficial to us than collecting airline points – which of course we also do. We’ve had some fabulous room upgrades and free stays, bottles of wine, baskets of fruit, chocolates, cake, and complimentary club lounge access in many fabulous hotels within the group all over the world.
Indeed three of our four nights in Panama – staying in three different Holiday Inns: at the canal and in the new part of the city and then at the airport before our early morning departure – were booked using accrued points – basic rooms we knew would be upgraded to the ‘best available’ and with complimentary club lounge access due to our IHG membership status. Hurray!
Top travel tip: collect those hotel points!
Our first day was spend visiting the famous Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks and visitor center. We arrived just in time to see a huge ocean-going ship travelling from Asia entering the lock system from the Pacific side. It was exciting and fascinating to watch this ship move slowly forward into the lock, then for the water levels to drop allowing access to the Atlantic side, saving travel around the tip of South America. I took lots of photos and made a video!
The second day of our trip we explored modern-day Panama with its high-rise buildings and busy streets. We stopped for coffee and then lunch at a wonderful Lebanese restaurant. It was wonderful to sit in the sophisticated setting on the outside terrace next to the street, watching the world and men and women walking stylishly by in their Panama hats. Later, for dinner, we found an Indian restaurant and we fed our craving for a hot Vindaloo and poppadoms with lime chutney and spicy onions!
Our third day was spent exploring the charming streets of the historic district of Panama City. Once the domain of gangs and gangsters it is now a UNESCO site and it is as beautiful as I’d hoped and imagined it to be. The streets are narrow and the buildings and churches (many currently under restoration) are authentic and colonial. If it hadn’t been for the slow lines of traffic and the jam of taxis dropping off and picking up tourists, you could have imagined yourself whisked back in time a few swash-buckling centuries.
Finally finding our way through the shady maze of old town streets, we headed back to our hotel in the newer part of town and, in the intense and sweltering heat of the day, we stopped off at the marina to take some photos of the skyline. The views across the bay and the contrast between old and new from this vantage point was stunning.
The night before our two flights and a boat back to the island we enjoyed Chinese food. Tropical island life might be blissful, but a twice a week delivery of supplies and a diet of rice and beans and coconuts and fish for months on end, does make you appreciate a variety of delicious and spicy international food.
So now we are back on the island of Utila and we have another couple of months to enjoy living a Caribbean lifestyle before we make plans to head back across the sea to the US and onto the UK to visit our family and friends whom we haven’t seen for such a very long time.
It has been a wonderful long hot summer and I will especially treasure our fabulous few days exploring Panama.
Have you ever visited Panama City?
Have you visited the famous cross-country canal?
If not, is Panama on your travel radar?