Modern with a taste of tradition. Cosmopolitan yet distinctly Panamanian. Great food and nightlife. Panama City has a little of everything and makes for both a great long weekend getaway and an extended stay. With innovative architecture and amount of money flowing through the city, it’s earning its aspiration to become the “Dubai of Latin America”, although there is a long way to go.
Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport is an important international hub for Copa Airlines, making it easy to access from many cities in North and South America. It’s located well outside the city. Expect a taxi ride to cost between US$30 or more. Taxi drivers will attack passengers as they leave the terminal. Make sure you agree on a price before leaving. The other airport, Albrook Airport, serves mainly domestic destinations with Air Panama and is located in the city.
Speaking of taxi drivers in Panama City, there are no taxi meters to regulate prices. The majority of them I used were honest, but a select few were completely dishonest and I got into some serious shouting matches with them. ALWAYS agree on a price before getting into the taxi. Find out from the hotel what each route should cost. DO NOT let them cheat you by telling you it’s a “night rate” or a “per person rate”. A 1km ride shouldn’t cost more than US$2 – I was quoted up to US$9!!! In touristy areas, the drivers will congregate together and try to hike up the prices. Stay firm and name your price. The worst that can happen is they can say no and you find another driver a block or two away.
Using buses and the metro are also very easy, but many tourist areas are not directly served by bus routes. I typically took the metro (US$0.35) to the stop nearest the area I wanted to go and found a taxi there. There is only one metro line which keeps it simple. A metro-bus combo card can be bought at an automatic machine at any metro station. The cards cost US$2. Try not to put anything other than the necessary US$2 when buying a card because more than one machine ate my money. I lost US$15 that way.
Long Distance Buses
If leaving Panama City on a day trip or for a long distance bus trip, you will have to use the Albrook bus terminal. It’s connected to the metro and serves major destinations in Panama and some in Central America. To board buses at the terminal, you have to buy another card and pay US$0.10 to enter the bus area. The card is also good for use on the city bus and metro. If you plan on leaving the city by bus, you should get this card in the first place.
Weather and Safety
Panama City is hot and extremely humid. Make sure you keep hydrated, especially when the sun is beating down. As far as safety is concerned, if you’re in a touristy area near lots of hotels, bars, and restaurants, it will be safe almost all hours of the day. You’ll be able to tell very quickly when you’re in an area you shouldn’t be in.
For shopping, I visited, Albrook Mall, Multicentro, and Los Andes Mall. All three have several great stores to choose from and food courts, but Albrook is just massive with about 900 shops, kiosks and restaurants to choose from. The only thing that turned me off about Albrook was the fact I had to pay US$0.25 to use the bathroom. For a place where an incredible amount of money changes hands, I thought it was tacky.
Hostal Entre 2 Aguas
I stayed at two different hotels during my nine days in Panama City. The first was Hostal Entre 2 Aguas. It’s a bed and breakfast in the El Cangrejo area, which is safe and has several restaurants and bars within walking distance. The metro is also just a few blocks away. Staff was ok, they weren’t always around, and the facilities were excellent.
There is a dining room and kitchen which are kept immaculate along with laundry facilities and a common area. Some rooms have private bathrooms and others are shared. There are dorm and private rooms. I stayed in a private single room for US$45 a night. The room was simple and small but good enough. My only complaint is that it had no window and felt like a closet. Anyway, for someone on a budget, this is a great value.
The other hotel I used was the Grace Hotel, located in the Obarrio district. It’s a boutique luxury hotel with 60 rooms. I stayed in a double room with a couple friends for a bachelor party. I have to say the whole experience was incredible. From the very beginning, staff made sure we were happy and enjoying our stay. They always had a smile on their faces and went well out of their way whenever we needed something. The room was very comfortable and modern.
We took advantage of the small outdoor pool and workout room almost every day. There is a Mediterranean restaurant inside the hotel that we never got a chance to try. Breakfast was included in our room rate but unfortunately it left a lot to be desired. Food was often cold and didn’t taste all that great. The breakfast was my only complaint.