Far from being an adventurous person, I was initially doubtful if my choice of Panama was suitable. After some reading and first-hand experience from my patient (who was relocating to Panama), I felt that it should be fun and I did not regret choosing Panama for a visit.
Panama is a large country and with only 6 days, I could only limit myself to within Panama City and the Canal Zone area.
The biggest question would be how safe is Panama City? From the reviews I read, most would say Panama City is no more dangerous than most major USA cities and I would concur with that statement. Of course, the usual precaution applies such as to avoid deserted areas and not to flash expensive belongings on the street.
The 2 areas that one can stay in is along Avenue Balboa and Casco Viejo. Both areas are safe and has their own merits. Avenue Balboa is where most of the major hotel chains are located at (Marriott, Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Intercontinental etc.) and there are many eateries and malls within walking distance. It is certainly safe to walk along the main streets even at night.
Casco Viejo on the other hand is the older part of Panama City and carries its own charm. It might not have been an area tourist would visit many years ago, but things have changed. Casco Viejo is quite heavily gentrified, and you can notice police presence along the streets. There are many boutique and quaint hotels within the Casco and two that are highly ranked are American Trade Hotel and Central Hotel. One can identify the Casco’s compound by the colored brick road.
My Uber driver drove us past the El Chorrillo area into Casco Viejo and you can see the stark contrast between the two areas. El Chorrillo is the poorer part of Panama City and there are reviews recommending tourists not to walk through it alone. There are walking tours for tourist exploring the El Chorrillo for those interested in seeing the less glamorous part of Panama City. Other than driving past it, I did not venture into the area so I cannot say if the it is indeed as notorious as what some claims.
Amador with the Biomuseo and the Bridge of Americas
The most convenient way to move around would be on Uber. Both UberX and Uber Black are available in Panama City and the price difference is minimal, which is why I used more of Uber Black than UberX. There are times that getting an Uber Black may be more difficult than UberX due to availability – such as when I was trying to leave the Amador and leaving the Gamboa Rainforest resort to Playa Bonita. Both Uber and UberX are safe and reliable not to mention cashless.
I did not try out the public transport or taxi but from what I was told, you will need to negotiate the price with the driver before getting in as none of the drivers in Panama City uses the meter. Generally, I suspect that taxi may be more expensive. It cost me USD $31 to get into Gamboa from Panama City while at Gamboa on Uber Black, I overhead one tourist requesting a taxi from Gamboa into Panama City and he was quoted USD $55!
What are the things one can do while in Panama? Plenty! If you are like me and is interested in the Panama Canal, do the Canal Transit Trip! There is the partial transit trip vs full transit trip (full transit traverses the entire length of the canal, ocean to ocean). This itself will take almost the entire day! Do plan carefully as the transit cruise is only available at selected dates. I was so unlucky that during the week I was there, not a single cruise was available (both partial and full).
To compensate, we visited the Atlantic and Pacific Fish Co restaurant located within the Miraflores Visitor Centre. Traveling up to Miraflores from Panama City, one would pass through the former US Military Zone (where old barracks and installation still stands).
The restaurant offers an excellent view of ships passing by (especially when you are seated at the balcony area). The lunch service is buffet while dinner service is ala carte. Do note that they are closed on Mondays. Although located within the Visitor Centre, one does not need to pay USD $20 for entrance (unless one wants to visit the Centre) and you can get the free ticket from the ticketing counter (tell them that you have a booking at the restaurant).
Time lapsed video of a ship passing through Miraflores Locks
The food selection was not great, but it tasted pretty good for buffet item. We spent almost 4 hours there in which we only managed to see a total of 4 ships passing through (southbound).
For those with time, you can also opt for the Hop On Hop Off bus, although reviews on TripAdvisor has not been flattering. As we did not have much time, we decided not to use this service.
For history lovers, Panama Viejo lies to the west of Panama City. It was the site of the old Panama City prior to its sacking by Henry Morgan in 17th century. Again, I have read that the area around the site is not that safe for exploring and as I was short on time, I gave this place a miss. Perhaps, Uber is probably the best option getting in and out of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are many other areas to explore outside of Panama City such as Portobello, Fort San Lorenzo, Lake Gatun and many more. One can also do a day trip into the Gamboa Area and visit the Embera community.
There are also islands nearby that one can visit such as Pearl Island and San Blas Island (which I will write more in my next post).
Those looking to laze around enjoying the sun, sand and sea, look no further than Playa Bonita. The beach there may not be as good as those along the Caribbean Sea, it is still relaxing.
Going further, one can explore the western side of Bocas Del Toro (near Costa Rican border) or fly southeast into Colombia.
One place that one can bypass perhaps is the City of Colon. There are trips going to the Colon Free Trade Zone and this is not a Premium Outlet Mall and is catered more towards importers from abroad. Someone I met on my trip to San Blas (he is from Netherlands and works in Colon but commutes daily from Panama City) told me that Colon is very dangerous with shootings and robberies.
For those with time in their hand, I would recommend doing Costa Rica, Panama and perhaps Colombia together as these countries are just next to one another.