PANAMA CITY – THE OLD AND THE NEW
Panama is a country located in Central America in the unique position of connecting North and South America. Bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
Geographically, Panama is effectively a narrow land bridge between the mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
There are of course many more reasons than it’s geographical location as to why Panama attracts so many tourists.
Panama City, the capital of Panama, 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 provides a glimpse into the country’s colonial past 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 – is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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’.
Panama has long been on our travel radar as an interesting place to visit
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- A BUCKET LIST TRIP TO PANAMA CITY
- A VISA RUN TO PANAMA CITY
- THE PANAMA CANAL
- PANAMA HATS
- PANAMANIAN CUISINE
- CASCO VIEJO – The Historic District
- WHERE TO STAY IN PANAMA CITY
- HOW TO TRAVEL TO PANAMA
- THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PANAMA CITY
The Backpacking Husband and I finally got the chance for our much longed for trip to Panama while travelling on a Midlife Gap Year and staying on an island called Utila: the smallest of the Bay Islands, just off the coast of mainland Honduras, in the Caribbean Sea.
We’d already been on the island for almost three months and we were planning to stay until the end of the summer.
But, if we wanted to spend more than 90 days 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 then come back again to renew our visa and acquire another 90 stay at the border. A practice that is commonly known as a ‘visa run’.
For our visa run, we could have chosen to head off to Belize or the Cayman Islands or even across to the US, as we have done before but instead, this time we decided to make a bucket list 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 flew onto San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, as a pit stop to 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. 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. 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. What a result!
The Panama Canal is a significant and iconic tourist attraction, drawing many visitors from around the world. Its importance lies not only in its history but also in its crucial role in world trade and maritime transportation.
The canal is one of the most impressive engineering feats in the world and is something I’ve always wanted to see for myself.
We arrived at the Miraflores Locks and Visitor’s Centre just in time to see a giant 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 you a video!
I was excited to buy myself a Panama Hat while we were in Panama and was shocked to discover that contrary to what the name might suggest, Panama hats did not originate in Panama but rather in Ecuador, where weaving straw hats has been a tradition for centuries!
These hats apparently gained international fame when they were worn by various historical figures, including political leaders, celebrities, and artists. Often considered a symbol of elegance and sophistication, a Panama hat is a staple accessory suitable for both casual and more formal occasions and often associated with warm-weather fashion.
Originally, the hats are made from the leaves of the toquilla palm (Carludovica palmata), which is native to Ecuador. Skilled artisans weave the Panama hats by hand having carefully selected, harvested, and preparing the toquilla straw, which is then finely woven into intricate patterns, resulting in a lightweight and breathable hat.
Interestingly, Panama hats come in various styles and shapes. The classic style is a wide-brimmed hat with a centre crease and a slightly dimpled crown. Other styles include fedoras and trilbies. The brims can vary in width and the hats can be further customized to suit individual preferences.
The quality of a Panama hat is often measured by its “grade,” which is determined by factors such as the tightness of the weave, the fineness of the straw, and the overall craftsmanship. Higher-grade hats tend to be more expensive and are often softer and more flexible.
Montecristi Hats: Some of the finest and most expensive Panama hats can take months of meticulous work to create and are known as Montecristi hats, named after the town of Montecristi in Ecuador.
Cuenca Hats: Cuenca, another city in Ecuador, is also known for producing high-quality Panama hats. While not as expensive as Montecristi hats, Cuenca hats are still valued for their craftsmanship.
So, when purchasing a Panama hat, do check its authenticity and appreciate the craftsmanship involved in its creation!
From our perspective, tropical island life in the Caribbean 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 foods available to us with Panama’s rich tapestry of the country’s culinary heritage.
The country’s strategic location has certainly influenced its cuisine, incorporating the diverse flavours from Asia, Africa, Spain, and indigenous cultures. We enjoyed traditional Panamanian dishes like sancocho (chicken soup), ceviche, and arroz con pollo.
But in the busy streets of modern-day part of Panama, we had lunch at a wonderful Lebanese restaurant and 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. It was here I’d also arranged to meet up with a friend, whom I’d first met several year’s before in Central America, who was now heading down to South America!
Later, for dinner, the backpacking husband and I found an Indian restaurant and we fed our craving for a hot Vindaloo and poppadum with lime chutney and spicy onions!
Once the domain of gangs and gangsters, Casco Viejo is now a UNESCO site and it is as beautiful as I’d hoped and imagined it to be. The charming streets of the historic district of Panama City 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.
Finding our way through the shady maze of old town streets, we finally headed back to our hotel in the newer part of town.
We’d planned our FOUR NIGHT STAY in Panama City staying in THREE separate Holiday Inn Hotels (IHG) booked with (affiliated link) Booking Dotcom. One Holiday Inn at the Panama Canal and then one in the new part of the city (with access also to Casco Viejo and the Old City) and then a Holiday Inn at the airport the night before our early morning departure back to Honduras.
By Air: Panama’s Tocumen International Airport serves as a major transportation hub, making it relatively easy to access from various parts of the world. Once in the country, domestic flights and a well-maintained road network facilitate travel between different regions. We flew to Panama from Honduras via El Salvador with Avianca Airline.
Overland Travel: Driving: If you are in a neighbouring country, you can drive to Panama. Panama shares borders with Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. Ensure you have the necessary documentation for border crossings.
Bus: Long-distance buses connect Panama with neighbouring countries. For example, there are bus services between Panama and Costa Rica.
Travel Advice: Check if you need a visa to enter Panama. Visa requirements vary based on your nationality and the purpose of your visit. Check if any vaccinations are required or recommended for Panama. Yellow fever vaccination may be necessary if you are traveling from an area with a risk of transmission.
Do have Travel Insurance. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
Panama has a tropical climate and there are distinct wet and dry seasons. Weather conditions can vary across the different regions of Panama due to its diverse topography. The dry season is generally considered the best time to visit Panama.
If you’re planning specific activities or have particular destinations outside Panama City in mind then it’s advisable that you check the local climate and weather patterns for those areas.
Dry Season (December to April): This is generally considered the best time to visit Panama. The dry season offers sunny weather and less rainfall.
Wet Season (May to November): The wet season brings higher humidity and more rainfall, especially in the afternoons and evenings. While some areas experience heavy rainfall, others may see short, intense showers. Despite the rain, the wet season can still be a good time to visit, especially if you’re interested in the local culture during festivals.
Carnival Season (February/March): Panama’s Carnival, known as “Carnaval,” is a lively celebration that takes place before the start of Lent. It usually occurs in February or March. Carnival festivities include parades, music, dancing, and colourful costumes. It’s a vibrant and culturally rich time to experience Panama.
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?
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