After 2 months in Colombia, it is already time to leave – with regrets – this beautiful country for Nicaragua. We decide to divide the trip in two, because it is the opportunity to spend 2.5 days in Panama City and to realize my childhood dream: to cross the Panama Canal by boat.
Part 1: Travel Diary Part
2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
Bogotá => Panama City
At the check-in, we are asked for the exit ticket (which we fortunately have). JB having forgotten to ask for a Priority Pass card for me (he thought the card was valid for two people), I find myself on uncomfortable chairs while he tests for the first time an airport lounge, one of the best in the world . Unlimited Wifi, glass of Chardonnay, all-you-can-eat snack, comfortable chairs.
From Bogotá, one has no choice but to take the plane, but those leaving from Cartagena de Indias can take a ferry apparently (the land route isn’t possible between the two countries because there is simply no road).
Airport Tocumen => Hotel by public transport
This airport was designed to pluck tourists. Everything is done so that tourists are forced to pay a $30 cab (Panama uses US dollars as well as their local currency) to downtown. Not to mention the duty-free stores right after leaving the plane.
not too much of pigeons either, and we quickly spot the stand selling (overpriced) SIM cards that also sells the Metrobus card – otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to take public transport. Purchase cost: $5 (including $2 credit).
We use a card for two, and take the bus ($0.25) then 2 subways ($0.5/subway) to our Hampton by Hilton hotel(Booking link)
Cost: $2.5 for two instead of $30. This trip goes through some pretty crappy parts of the city, but the subway is spacious, and being careful, it went very well. We use our international SIM card to find our way around instead of buying the expensive ($30) SIM card at the airport (read more about more affordable SIM cards here) so we avoided all the pitfalls of this airport. Yeaahhh!! #Barrrrrrrrrr.
However, these small savings went up in smoke the very same evening because we were quickly caught up by the overpriced restaurants, a little too fancy next to our hotel 😀 Let’s say that the Asian population is very present in Panama City and I take the opportunity to stock up on Asian food – before going to Nicaragua.
Day 1 : Crossing the canal by boat
I have told you about it here, I invite you to read the travel journal.
After the tour, we have the right to a drop off at our hotel, the driver takes a road in arc of circle! which allows us to admire the skyline (magnificent) of Panama City. From far, the skyline looks dense, but from close, they are buildings rather distant from each other.
Tourists who are in the same car as us ask to be dropped off at the old town. We take advantage of it to go down too. The old city is a little too clean and too luxurious to our taste, but the colonial style is really charming.
We go to Plaza de Francia, it’s a bit late for sunset but it’s still splendid.
Dinner at the Peruvian restaurant Nazca 21 (anyway it’s hard to find a real restaurant with local cuisine, they seem to like fusion cuisine). It’s very good and the service is excellent. Next door, at René Café, the owner of the restaurant provides croquettes for street cats – so there are always about ten cats in front of his restaurant, they are super cute!
Day 2: Visit of the fish market and the old town
It is said that it is in the Mercado del Marisco that you can find ceviche for 2€ ! Hihihihihi me who loves ceviche, it’s a must stop !
Note: google maps will say that you have to walk 27 minutes from the nearest subway to get to the market but it’s not the case, there are crosswalks, we aren’t next to a highway.
On the spot, you will discover that the market is rather small, but clean – with plenty of fresh fish…
On the other hand, the restaurants are more outside – hello the heat; and with more or less aggressive flappers as a bonus.
We find a restaurant with only rooms, and without a flipper. The ceviches are stored more or less cool in plastic jars. By opting for a vaso of ceviche de camarones (shrimps), 3,5$ we didn’t expect something so delicious (yummm, I still think about it)
We continue our little walk to theCathedral of Panama City. The outside is prettier than the inside.
Just across the street is the Central Hotel Panamá, magnificent! The day before, we were able to stalk a luxury wedding organized in this hotel, where all the guests were in cocktail dresses.
Next to it is the Inter-Oceanic Canal Museum. If you have visited the museum at the Miraflores locks, there is no point in coming here. But since we didn’t go there and it’s very hot, we prefer to enjoy the air conditioning of the museum and learn more about the Panama Canal.
Admission: 10$/person. This museum is quite interesting, let’s say that the English text is always shorter than the Spanish text – so we must lose a bit of information. It traces the history of the construction of the canal, first by the French, then by the Americans, as well as the development of the city thanks to the canal
It’s already time for lunch, we go to a French restaurant (not even ashamed) named Lesseps, the gentleman who brilliantly built the Suez Canal but failed to build the Panama Canal. I advise you their homemade pâté de campagne, it’s super good.
We continue to walk around the city, in a moist heat that is quite bearable thanks to the drafts. We were told that the old town(Casco Viejo) looked a bit like Havana. I can see where the comparison comes from, but sorry, Havana is still Havana and unique in the world 😀 Let’s say that this downtown seems too clean to be authentic, too Disneyland for the locals to fully enjoy it.
There are, here and there, houses in ruins, whose walls are covered with quotations.
Lonely Planet advises to visit Arco Chato, the ruins of the church and convent Santos Domingo, which survived the fire of 1756.
I personally found the ruins of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús more impressive.
There is another church: Iglesia de San José, with a modest exterior, which hides its Altar de Oro, gilded, very pretty. Legend has it that a priest saved it by painting it black – thus escaping the plundering of the city by the pirate Henry Morgan.
What can be found in souvenir stores? Panama hats, real ones (made in Ecuador, in the $35 range) as well as fakes. These hats are named after Panama because they were widely adopted by the workers who participated in the construction of the canal.
As soon as you get out of the Luxury/Disneyland area, the streets are suddenly much dirtier – and you see more locals. The real city, the real life. We asked around and the locals tell us that the city center is very safe, and that we can walk there in the evening without any problem.
There are “school bus” type buses, whose safety leaves something to be desired (too old and not well maintained), and leaving behind them a cloud of black smoke. What a contrast with the beautiful and big luxury cars crossed until now. These buses aren’t listed on Google Maps so ask for the destination before getting on them (cash payment possible).
The bus stations here are indicated by a simple “metrobus” sign and Google Maps isn’t very precise about the bus stops – ask the locals for confirmation.
As for us, we will use our Metrobus card, go back to the hotel and take an Uber to the airport. Direction Nicaragua
Part 2: Practical Tips
The Practical Guide for visiting the Panama Canal is available here
The official currency is the U.S. dollar. Panama’s currency exists only in coins. You can withdraw up to $500 at ATMs (for a $5.xx fee regardless of the amount). If you run out of dollars (and go to Argentina for example), take advantage of it!
For transportation, you can use Uber (lots of hidden fees are added), Cabify (no hidden fees) or public transportation. Avoid cabs because there is no meter. If you take a cab from the airport, the fare is fixed: $30, don’t pay more.
Buy the Metrobus card at the airport like we do (or at the subway stations for $2) to take advantage of Panama City’s excellent public transportation system. The purchase of the credit for the transportation card is done in cash only. You can use the Metrobus card to pay for the bus ($0.25) or the subway ($0.5). You can use one card for the whole family.
- Plane Bogota => Panama City : 190$/person
- Plane Panama City => Managua (Nicaragua) : 278$/person
- Transportation :
- metrobus + top-up : 7$
- Uber: between $3 and $5
- Hotel => Airport in Uber : 17,5$
- Restaurants: quite expensive, between 10$ and 15$ per dish + 7% VAT + 10% tip
- Crossing the Panama Canal by boat: 120$/person
- Hotel: Hampton by Hilton: 35€/night(link Booking)
- SIM card: between 1$ and 5$(more info)