Panama City

Every year, we try to take a vacation shortly after busy season. Usually it's someplace relaxing, since we want to exert very little physical or mental effort after months of overtime. This year's post-busy season trip was not chosen based on relaxation value, however; it was chosen based on direct flight patterns. 

I can't tell you how much I enjoy direct flights over anything with a connection. Not only does it take a lot of the guesswork out of arrival time, but it's also the most efficient way to fly. And although I do love flying, I don't love wasting time. So when Cayman Airways started offering direct flights from Grand Cayman to Panama City, we put Panama on our destination list for the very first time.

Not only was it our first trip to Panama, but it was also our first visit to Central America.  I really liked the mix of tropical and metropolitan. Plenty of palm trees; tons of skyscrapers.

I spy a Gap billboard hiding behind that palm leaf.
One challenge I faced (as evidenced in the next photo) is that I did not have a wide angle lens for my DSLR on this vacation.  I'd sent my 24-70mm back to Canon in the U.S. for a warranty repair, as I didn't feel it was focusing properly on certain shots, leaving me with a 50mm as my widest lens. Combine that with my cropped-sensor Rebel t1i, and I found myself to be a bit closer to the top of the buildings than I would have liked. Still, lack of equipment shouldn't be an excuse for loss of creativity.

After checking into our hotel (Lemon Inn - a cute little centrally-located boutique hotel), I'll admit that one of our first activities in the city was to visit the enormous Albrook Mall. The lack of shopping, not to mention the lack of affordable shopping, that we endure in Cayman means traveling with a long list of "needs" when we finally get to the mainland. The taxi ride from our hotel to the mall on the other side of town took 30 minutes due to horrific (but standard) traffic, and only cost us $4. Crazy.

My review of the mall: Absolutely enormous (in fact, the largest one in Central America), with a decent number of brands commonly found in the U.S. (I practically made a bee-line for Zara). But there were also a ton of stores that I didn't recognize, which seemed to carry a variety of brands, and it was nearly impossible to narrow down which ones would contain the items we wanted. Fortunately, Panama City has a few other shopping centers (like Multicentro, and our favorite, Multiplaza), and between them all, we covered our bases.

After leaving the mall, we planned on taking a taxi to an Argentinian restaurant NS had scoped out in the San Francisco area, but my Spanglish directions didn't make much sense to the driver (can't blame him), and seeing our dilemma, a very friendly passerby redirected us to Brava Pizza, located on the ground floor of the Radisson. I hadn't really planned on eating pizza in Panama City, but it's hard to turn down a recommendation for gourmet pizza no matter where you are. Dinner was delicious and affordable, and our hotel was just a short walk away.

The next day: No trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to the canal. We got there via the hop-on-hop-off bus, which I was very pleased with. It may or may not have been the cheapest way to get around the city for the day, but I still felt that for the $30/person fare, we traveled to places that interested us, all while listening to pre-recorded commentary about our surroundings as we rode along, with a great view from the covered upper deck. Really, what's not to like?

But back to the canal. To be honest... it's not that impressive, size-wise. I don't know; I guess I just expected it to be enormous, like the Hoover Dam or something. But I suppose it's as big as it's needed to be all these years, with the expansion project (adding basically another canal parallel to the current one) slated to be completed in 2014, coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of the original canal. [Note: Wikipedia just informed me that the project is behind schedule (shocking), and won't open until April 2015. Bummer.]

Every boat must utilize a specially-trained canal captain to safely navigate the locks.
And at the end of the day, you have to admit that those locks do hold back quite a lot of water.

What impressed me most about the whole structure was when we watched a short documentary on the building of the canal, we saw the shipping lines that cross the world via the centrally-located Panama Canal, making this spot truly look like the center of the world. And with transit fees that can easily reach six digits for the largest boats to cross the canal, it's no wonder that this has and will continue to be a fabulous money-maker for the country.

We hopped back on the bus and rode it out to the Causeway, a man-made road linking three small islands in the Pacific. Although we didn't get off and see the Causeway sites until the next day, it's a great place for duty-free shopping, delicious food, and gorgeous views of the city's skyline.

Lunch at Panama Grill along the Causeway
We stayed on the bus until Casco Viejo - the Old Quarter. The area's gotten a total revamp in the past several years (the reconstruction we noted there was representative of ongoing projects throughout the entire city), making the once slum-like area look more like the historic section of the city it once was.

There was no escaping current slums we saw on our way to Casco Viejo.
Panama City may be experiencing a great deal of progress,
but there are many people still living in very sad conditions.
UNESCO declared this area a World Heritage Site in 1997, and the revitalization project has been so effective that Casco Viejo is a popular place to find a hotel these days.  The beautifully renovated buildings make it clear why tourists find this area to an attractive destination.

From this area, we walked to the Fish Market (El Mercado de Mariscos) at the public pier, where everything from freshly-caught seafood to huge tubs of $2 ceviche to prepared seafood dishes could be found and enjoyed.

Retailers sell freshly caught seafood downstairs,
while Restaurante de Mariscos serves up tempting dishes upstairs.
I feel a bit guilty, but I think this was our only true Panamian meal during the entire vacation. It involved a whole fried fish (kind of a lot of work, picking around the bones) and arroz de coco (coconut rice - I could have eaten a whole pound of this.)

The next day we resolved to hike up Cerro Ancon, the highest point above the city. Unfortunately, the difference in the heat and humidity between our hotel and the outdoors was so great that one of my lenses got completely fogged up and was basically useless the entire hike, but I did manage to get a few pretty photos of the views. Although it was a sunny day, the humidity made everything look hazy - such is a symptom of the rainy season in July!

Of course, the camera lens wasn't the only thing affected by the humidity. I have to admit that we were both dripping by the time we reached the top (which is when we discovered that it was possible to actually drive up.) All part of the experience, I suppose.

After two and a half days in Panama City, I think we felt like we had seen about as much as we needed to. And since busy season had only just finished, we felt no guilt in keeping our activities to a minimum at a pretty relaxed pace. We even took naps during the day! (Although I will insert one complaint here: Our hotel was located in a partially-residential section in the city, and thanks to the paper-thin walls, a perpetually-barking dog woke us up several times day and night. Can I just ask who keeps a perpetually-barking dog??)

Overall, we found Panama City to be a modern city with a gorgeous skyline which, primarily, served our shopping needs well. We also found everything from accommodations to meals to taxi rides to tour prices to be very affordable as compared with most parts of the U.S. and especially as compared with Cayman. It was great to be away, but to be honest, we hadn't really fallen head-over-heels for Panama up to this point. But our vacation was only half over.

Stay tuned for photos and stories from our trip to Boquete - one of my new favorite places.

For more shots of Panama, check out this Google+ photo album.


  1. Can't wait to hear about Boquete! From the facebook pictures it looks absolutely charming!

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  3. Panama City is indeed a modern city. However, you will still observe its culture and traditions that remained throughout the years. You will truly feel how beautiful this place is when you get to know their food, language, buildings, and very nice locals.

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