Latin America Travel

Stopover: 24h in Panama City

Panama Kanal

Bloody Jetlag… it´s 5:00 o´ clock in the morning – or better: in the middle of the night. The Malbec and ron cocktails yesterday night apparently did not really help. So I better get up and have a look around. It is my first time in Panama City, I am not prepared at all and have no clue, what to do in Panama.

Did not plan to visit this country. But as I had to change planes on my way to Lima anyway, thought it might be worth to spend an extra day. Even managed to setup a couple of business meetings. Not too many though, so I can get a feel for the country. It is going to be a sunny day, so why not watch the sun rise during some workout.

Jogging at the Cinta Costera
Good morning Panama…

Early morning jogging at the Cinta Costera

Not far from the old town – casco viejo – just a couple of blocks and you are at the cinta costera, Spanish for coastal ring. A ring street and motorway above the sea and surrounding the whole casco viejo. The best feature: a well kept pedestrian and cycling street next to the motorway. Apparently I am not the first one despite the time… the sun is slowly rising and you can see the financial district with its skyscrapers and buildings of steel and glass waking up on one side of the cinta costera. The contrast on the other side could not be bigger. Small casco viejo with its churches, white walled buildings, red roofs and green hills in the back. Beautiful. Would do this even without jetlag, so great to see the city waking up, jogging above the calm oceab, only accompanied by other early birds and street cats… Well, the motorway gets crowded too, so time to take a shower.

Panama Canal

In order to make the most of my limited time and to figure out what to do in Panama, I ask my cab driver on the way to my first meeting in the banking centre, whether I could hire him for the rest of the day. Guess what, I can… for USD 50.- (by the way, USD is the accepted currency here in addition to the Balboa) I have not only a driver, but a tourguide. Definitely recommend to do the same if you don´t want to spend time understanding public transport in a Central-American metropolis. Count with USD 10.- per hour, more or less depending on your bargaining skills.

First stop after the meeting is the legendary, spectacular and magnificent Panama Canal. From my point of view there are only two reasons to visit the Panama Canal: you are a canal-, ship- or a similar freak…or you are in Panama by accident and this is what people do when they visit. You don´t want to go back home and hear your friends saying: “What ? You have been to Panama and did not….”. I definitely belong to the second group and can confirm: it´s a canal, the canal. Interesting, yes, with museum on four floors, a terrace full of tourists, a cafeteria and a restaurant charging you USD 42.- the the buffet. I think the USD 15.- for the visitor centre are enough. So glad I´ve seen it now.

Coffe in Panama´s old town
Wanna coffe… ?

Lunch Time: Mercado de Mariscos

The recommended alternative to an expensive lunch at the canal, would be a moderately priced fish at Mercado de Mariscos just in front of the casco viejo. Please do not expect culinary highlights, but it´s a very lively spot and worth a visit. In the middle a small market hall with fresh fish and seafood. I have seen cleaner ones and decided to go for a fried fish instead of the ceviche you could also get (marinated raw fish). Surrounding the market hall a bunch of simple restaurants, in fact food stands, offering fish of all kinds, coloured desks and chairs invite you to take a rest. I don´t think it makes a big difference where you go. You should get a reasonably fresh piece of fish with rice and a cold beer almost anywhere. I liked it.

fish market
dead fish with salad…

Evening: Streets of Casco Viejo calling…

But what I liked most – even more than THE canal – the old town on the small peninsula of Panama City. Not big and you can wander through most of the streets in probably a couple of hours. But it is – still – full of charme.

Beer with a view

White houses, colonial architecture, some coloured dot in between, red roofs, picturesque churches and all that within fortified walls keeping sea and pirates outsise (well, the pirates moved into the financial district, but that´s another story…). Of course it is “touristic” and of course you will stroll around streets where souvenir shops and restaurants for tourists dominate. But if you take your time to discover the side streets too you will find the part of Panama City with still a lot of patina, locals resting in front of simple flats, policemen taking a break in the evening sun, an old guy with hat selling newspapers at the corner, a black lady offering coffee and tea. This is how Havanna might feel, or how I think Havanna might look like, although I have never been there.

The whole of Panama City seems like a mixture of Miami and the Cuban capital. The leftovers of the “good old time” in the casco viejo and at the same time the future leftovers of the finance district. I must say, I like the old bit much better. Be it touristy or not… recommend to go there soon, as the country is about to exploit the potential of this spot, which means, patina will be gone and replaced by a museum town.

Something else ?

If you have time and like ruins, have a look at Panama La Vieja or visit the Biomuseo. The first is an intersting archeological site with a tower overlooking the oldest part of Panama and the mangrove forest. The latter ? No idea, comes recommended, but did not go there. Was too attraced by the culinary side of the city.

Before you start ordering, be aware: Panama City is expensive. You pay in US Dollars and plenty. An espresso coffee in the old part can easily cost you USD 3.-, a beer USD 5.- or more. Even managed to find a gourmet restaurant called Donde José, charging USD 75.- for 8 courses and USD 14.- plus for a glas of wine. Was not bad, cosy atmosphere and the chef explains each and every dish. Definitely good for a romantic dinner, if company and wine is more important than the food…

Tacos and more at Casco Viejo Panama

Instead of spending your money there, I can highly recommend the Taquería La Neta in a patio of the old town. Loved the margarita with passion fruit, cilantro and jalapenho (USD 7.-). Their tasty tacos are a bargain, USD 10.- for a mix of three. For example the suckling pig with chili, guacamole or chorizo with melted cheese, cilantro and fresh red onions. If you are vegetarian you might like the fish or chicken tacos… 😉 Laid-back atmosphere, friendly service and good food for a great price… what else do you want ? More to drink ?

If you are more into liquid food, try a craft beer at Rana Dorada (Golden Frog) at the entrance of casco viejo not far away from the fish market. Or you have an imported beer on the roof top terrace just opposite the ACE Hotel I stayed.

Have fun !

And here the most important links:


Ace Hotel Panama

Essen & Trinken:

Fishmarket, Donde José, Taquería La Neta, La Rana Dorada

20 comments on “Stopover: 24h in Panama City

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  2. I’m so impressed with how much you did in such a short period of time. Also, you are so clever to hire the driver for the entire day, and for only 50USD. I might have to try that out the next time I’m trying to see a city in a short period of time.

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi Rebbeca, first of all many thanks for the first comment on my blog in English (have started to translate my posts only recently)… and yes, was a hectic day, but better than nothing. For Panama City would take a bit more time as I really liked it, but you can do it pretty fast if you have too… Cheers, Eddy

  3. I had a friend visit Panama for a business conference once, it sounded a bit dull. Thanks for sharing the fun stuff!

    • Eddy Harteneck

      business conferences are always dull… and in fact the business district in Panama City is not different to many other business districts in the world, well, perhaps a bit louder and more traffic… cheers, Eddy

  4. Hey! Just read your comment above – good work on the translation. Does seem like you did a lot in such a short space of time – I’m impressed 😀 It’s my dream to travel around South America with my Mom. My Spanish is getting there 😉

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi, and thanks… if you plan to travel in LatAm feel free to contact me via facebook or e-mail. Have been travelling with a campervan in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and South Brasil for a while and also know other places from business trips… hopefully a post on Bogotá coming soon… Cheers, Eddy

  5. Considering that we are going to plan a trip to Panama soon this post is perfect for us! This place has lots to offer and the Mercado de Mariscos looks like a cool local to feed our stomach haha The photos are so good 🙂

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi, happy that you find this helpful and almost sure you will like and enjoy Panama City… Have fun, Eddy

  6. Well done maximizing a short time in Panama City! Smart to have hired a driver if you have the budget otherwise you’re spending all of your time running around. Sounds like Panama City has some culinary options too! Good to know. I’ve been to Bocas del Toro but Panama City is still on my list. Great post.

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi Erika, it does have culinary option, however, that´s not the reason I would go there…but it is really practical for a stopover in case you fly to other places in LatAm from there… Cheers, Eddy

  7. Sounds like a whirlwind adventure! I’ve always thought Panama City would be an interesting place to check out sometime. It sounds like it has a lot of great things to offer.

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi Jessica, it definitely is an interesting place. Not for long but I liked the contrasts and would even stay there again. Cheery, Eddy

  8. What a packed day! Good for you on making the most of it! I really enjoyed Panama, although I skipped on Panama City. It’s an amazing country with lots of friendly people.

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi Meg, yes it was a bit more backed than I would have liked too, especially with the business meetings and wearing a suit, but I survided… Cheers, Eddy

  9. Rhiannon

    I skipped out on Panama when I travelled South/Central America last year, as I only had 3 weeks for C America & figured there was more to do in Guatemala/Belize/Mexico so headed up North! It seems I missed out, and like many others have already said, I’m impressed you managed to squeeze so much into such a short visit!

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi, to be honest, if I did not have to make the stopover on my way to Lima, would also have skipped Panama… was happy in the end that I took at least a day. Cheers, Eddy

  10. I have heard so much about Panama City and all that is has to offer. I think this would be a great place to visit and to have a post like this as a guide.

    • Eddy Harteneck

      Hi and thanks… yes, it is a great place to visit, but would not spend too much time… Latin America has so much to offer that Panama City should really just be stopover… Cheers, Eddy

  11. Nice to see that you have covered a lot in just 24 hours and a nice way to make the best use of a stopover. The place looks beautiful and 50 USD for a day is a deal for sure. Yet to visit the place though.

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