We flew to Panama City from Belize City on January 1st 2019. The Airport in Belize City is small. When you land, they wheel stairs up to the plane and you walk off onto the tarmac. The single line for customs is long and often overflows outside and on both of our trips there the baggage carousel was not working so our bags were dumped on the floor. The single airport restaurant is overpriced as are all airport restaurants but you can buy food to go in the departure lounge.
We flew from Belize City to Panama City on Copa Airlines. Copa was the cheapest way to get to Panama but they only fly there a couple of days a week. At check in we were asked to provide proof that we were going to leave Panama. We had been warned of this so we had our reservations for our return flight to Canada from Costa Rica in hand. They were slightly sceptical but willing to accept that we were using ground transportation to get to Costa Rica which we were booking in Panama. Being older and obviously North American probably helped. I don’t think they would have let us on the plane without a pre-paid ticket of some type.
The departure area at the airport is rather crowded and there was no announcement for our flight they just boarded it and we left but we actually got free food on the 2 ½ hour flight to Panama City.
Arriving at Panama City airport after a few weeks in Belize was a real culture shock. The airport is huge. It’s also very modern and upscale we could have been in New York or Hong Kong. Going through customs was fast and painless and we were able to get cash from one of the many ATM’s. Panama uses US$ so the conversion was easy.
We paid $30 US to take a taxi from the airport to Hostel Mamallena where we were staying. You can take a bus but it’s not that convenient.
Downtown Panama City has a big modern section with a skyline which could be mistaken for a big American city. Big skyscrapers and stores which you expect to see on 5th Avenue in New York or on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Modern buildings full of condos which we were told were going for $1,000,000. Many of the condos looked empty and apparently they are. With the political situation in Venezuela rich Venezuelans have been buying real estate in Panama to get their money out of the country and driving the prices up. In contrast to the big slick skyscrapers Panama City has some of the worst urban slum areas I have seen. This is all in a city of only 1.5 million. The gap between rich and poor is glaring.
We stayed at Hostel Mamallena which is very popular. They have dorms and a few private rooms. We are too old and married for dorms so we booked a private room. There are lots of great common areas including a big common kitchen making this a great place to stay as an independent traveler. You get lots of opportunities to meet others who are going where you are going or have already been there. As always most of the people staying there were the age of our children but we did meet a few older couples. The staff were helpful and they speak some English. Once again I wished that our Spanish was better. We arrived late on January 1st so the only thing open was a couple of mini marts. We bought pasta, sauce and beer and headed to the kitchen.
Our room had AC which was centrally controlled and only turned on at night. It was going full blast and we froze the first night. After that we figured out how to unplug it. So we would let the room cool and then unplug the AC for the night. There are showers and lots of water but the water is not hot.
Breakfast was included. It was pancakes that you make yourself and excellent local coffee. Over the course of the trip we discovered that ALL hostel breakfasts in Panama are pancakes you make yourself and ALL coffee in Panama is amazing. It’s so smooth adding milk is just wrong and there is no bitterness.
On our first day in Panama City we left the hostel with a plan to take a bus or subway to Plaza Cinco de Mayo and follow the directions in our guide book to walk to Cerro Anon, a hill in the middle of the city, and climb to the top where you are supposed to get great views of the city. There is a large flag on top which is in all the tourist guides.
Panama City has one metro line and lots of buses. They are currently building a second metro line which I believe will connect the city to the airport. In order to use the metro or bus you need a metro card which you can buy at a metro station or a store. The cards are $2.00 and you load money on to them at a machine in a metro station. The hostel was supposed to sell them but they did not have any so they lent us one which we had to go to a metro station and load. We walked to the nearest metro station and found the right machine but even with the help of a number of locals and eventually a metro agent we were not able to load the card. We bought a new one and loaded $1 on it which covered the $0.70 fare for both of us.
We took the metro to Cinco de Mayo and headed in what we thought was the correct direction. There were police everywhere, fences, roadblocks and what sounded like a protest headed in our direction. Not a good place to be so we kept walking away from the protest. The streets were starting to look rougher and we were not sure we were going the right way. Panama City is full of taxis so we hailed one and bailed. We paid $5 to go our next planned destination Casco Viejo (the old city).
Casco Viejo is historic and has been developed with tourists in mind. There are lots of shops with tourist stuff including Panama Hats, fancy restaurants, old buildings and a signposted walking tour. The Presidential Palace is also in the area. Not unlike many tourist areas in Central America Casco Viejo has lots of tourist police. As you near the Palace they are replaced by heavily armed guards who are there to protect the president not the tourists.
One thing Casco Viejo does not have is public bathrooms. In fact Panama City in general has very few of these. So if you find one take advantage! In Casco Viejo we ate lunch at a restaurant primarily to use their bathrooms.
We walked around Casco Viejo, reading signs and exploring churches. We stumbled across Iglesia de San Felipe Neri in Plaza Bolivar which has a remarkable nativity scene.
We walked the first part of Avenida Central but it was January 2nd so most things were closed. It must be fascinating when all the small stores are open.
As soon as you leave Casco Viejo the streets get a much less tourist friendly feel. We took a taxi from Casco Viejo to our next planned stop the Amador Causeway because it looked a bit too far to walk. On the ride there we passed through a neighbourhood of crumbling buildings open to the elements with people living in the ruins. It was not an area I would have walked through.
The taxi dropped us off at the Biomuseo at the start of the Causeway where we found a place to rent bikes. We paid $3.50 an hour for the bikes after some discussion because we were not carrying our passports and they wanted photo ID. We eventually convinced them to rent us the bikes using the picture of my passport I keep on my phone.
The Amador Causeway is the breakwater for the Panama Canal and there is a cycle path along it. It’s about 3.5 km each way. The pathway has look outs to the sea and the canal and public bathrooms with water fountains. You can also get some great views of the city.
We returned the bikes and planned to take a bus back to Cinco de Mayo to make a second attempt at climbing Cerro Ancon. We had a metro card but we only had $0.30 on it. When we asked we were told the only place to reload it was the end of the causeway 3.5 km away. Rather than walking 3.5 km back to the end we flagged down another taxi.
The rates we were offered by taxi drivers varied a lot in Panama City. We quickly discovered that saying no to the first driver often resulted in a second driver appearing and offering a much better fare. I suspect we were still overpaying as we always seemed to pay more than we had been told to expect. We paid between $4 and $7 for each ride we took in the city.
The first driver who stopped for us on the causeway had no interest in taking us to Cerro Ancon which we found odd. A second driver agreed to take us and dropped us off at the gate. There is a road that continues up the hill but it is only open to residents. We walked up the hill and spotted a few Agouti which are cool to us but probably like ground hogs if you live in Panama. They look like giant gerbils.
The road ends at a T junction with no clear signs. The road to the left takes you to a trail which is closed and the road to the right goes to the top. We saw one monkey and the views from the top were worth the walk. There were a few other people around mostly locals and a few runners getting in some serious hill work.
We had planned to walk back to Cinco de Mayo and take the metro but we talked to an English speaking local on the way down who was most insistent that we should take a taxi. We took his advice and later found out that the area between Cerro Ancon and Cinco de Mayo includes some of the worst slums in Panama City and is considered extremely dangerous. We met a former marine who had walked through it by mistake he said it was a very scary place.
We did not go to the Panama Canal. It’s historic and significant but we live in a city with a canal with locks so we were not really excited about paying money to watch big boats go through locks
Overall impression. It’s probably obvious but Panama City is not my favorite city. It’s not the poverty it’s the stark contrast between the $1,000,000 Condos and the people living in crumbling buildings a couple of km away. I don’t think I have ever seen such a big gap between rich and poor in such a small area. The tourist areas are nice and the hostel was great so maybe we were not there long enough to appreciate all of it’s charms.