Tuesday January 9th, 2018
Panama City: Our experiences as backpackers

This post is also available in German (auf Deutsch)

In this post I want to tell you about our time in Panama City. Before that were on Bocas del Toro for 8 days. You can read about our experiences in Bocas del Toro here!

Arrival from Bocas del Toro

We considered about exploring other parts of Panama. There are so many beautiful waterfalls in the interior of the country and beautiful landscapes, as well as the remote San Blas archipelago, but we would have had to organize it ourselves again and it would have been a lot of driving back and forth and we just wanted to chill out for a few days before we went to Cuba for two exciting weeks. So we decided to extend our stay at Selina Red Frog and book the night bus to Panama City after 8 days. Theoretically, you can also fly from Bocas del Toro to Panama City, but this is relatively expensive (as a backpacker) and we also avoided flights whenever they were not necessary. And on the bus trip, we met a super nice couple from Germany, with whom we are still in contact! I was even able sleep in the bus since I had two seats for myself!

Arrival in the middle of the night in Panama City

Of course we arrived very early in Panama City, at around 4 o’clock in the morning. I think they always do that on purpose, whether in the Americas or Asia, so that the tourists have to take a taxi who are always “conveniently” waiting there (there are many backpackers like us who want to travel on their own). Of course, the city buses were not running yet and it was too early for an Uber. So the four of us squeezed ourselves into an overpriced taxi and went Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City. From there our ways separated and we went to our hostels / guesthouses.

Our ghost hotel

We stayed at a Budget Hotel called Casco Antiguo and, to put it simply, it was a very strange hotel. You can hardly find pictures or descriptions online. The building itself is very nice and the rooms are quite spacious. But everything is a bit run down and as the hotel is very large and it felt like only three rooms were occupied, it seemed like a bit of a ghost hotel. The roof terrace was cool and the it was very cheap! The location was ok as well. It was right on the edge of the safe gentrified part of the old town and the unsafe, not renovated part of town. The breakfast was ok, but the staff was exhausting, as the receptionist really did not understand English. But Jesse settled everything 🙂 Also our room which was facing the street was quite noisy as the neighborhood was always loud late into the night. So not a recommendation, but for us really an experience 🙂

Pretty Casco Viejo

The old town of Panama City is beautiful as almost all the buildings have been renovated. I would definitely recommend finding a hotel there and not in downtown. At the same time, this is also a strange feeling when a district was rebuilt just for the tourists and the local population was removed from their homes to give way to hotels and restaurants. At the same time, however, this part of town became safer as well, and this may even extend to other parts of the city. To learn a bit more, we did a little city tour, but more below.

What to do in Panama City

We stayed in Panama City for five days and although I did not like the city so much in retrospect, there was a lot to do:

Panama Canal

A supposed must when in town. The museum was also quite interesting, but there isn’t really anything going on in the canal 😀 I think that a ship comes through about twice a day and we missed it. So check out the schedule before you go so that at least one ship passes through while you are there. We took an Ubere there and back.

Panama Downtown

We went here just to change money for Cuba (we needed Euros) and for some vegan food. On Sundays, the Cinta Costera is also closed to cars in the afternoon and is a nice place to ride a bike! But it was super hot 🙂 We took an Uber to the metro station Mayo 5 and from there used the public transportation (simply, because we wanted to experience that).

We ate at:

  • El Jardin Vegetarian – super cheap and tasty, but canteen-feeling (picture below)
  • and T-bar – tasty, but relatively expensive

Casco Viejo

  • Walking: we just walked around for hours, there were so many beautiful houses to discover!
  • Shopping: At many corners you can discover small markets and courtyards with markets, as well as countless boutiques, concerts and much more!
  • Bars: We went for a drink in the Pedro Mandinga rum bar
  • Vegan food in the restaurant Dodo – was ok again, but quite expensive
  • I can’t recommend any other restaurants, as I either didn’t find them tasty, or they were too expensive
  • Sunset on the rooftop: You can enjoy the sunset with a cool drink and admiring the Panama City skyline for a fair price in the Central Gastrobar. Definitely go all the way up!
  • A tour with a local guide from the former Fortaleza Gang: Usually we never do tours, we are usually disappointed, which was the case with this tour. It sounded really awesome, a tour with a former gang member, who was able to transition back into normal life through this work. At the same time one would also have the change to get interesting insights. But we would not do it again, because the guide came late, the guide (unlike the translator) always seemed annoyed, as if he would want to finish everything quickly, we had hardly got anything out of the tour, the price for the tour was suddenly more expensive then what we were told on Facebook message and then a large tip was expected for the translator who they paid basically paid nothing. As a backpacker, we were simply annoyed by all these things and did not think the tour was worth the price. Many love the tour, but do your own research in advance!

We also visited the local market “Avenida 5 de Mayo Market”, which was a bit difficult to find. It was also much smaller than we had imagined, but we found some nice souvenirs. And finally found an area that did not look touristy at all.

At the end of our stay we got some things that we needed for Cuba, such as cereal, soymilk powder, sweets, sunscreen, etc. and then flew to Cuba from there. That’s why we spent a relatively long time in Panama City to deal with a few things that we needed to before going to Cuba.

Conclusion

The old town of Panama is really beautiful, but somehow just seems like a world of adventure for tourists and you hardly find any locals there. Also, the fact that the locals had to move out to make room for hotels is never a nice feeling. Gentrification at its finest. Allegedly the locals who had to move out were offered new houses in good neighborhoods, but I doubt whether that always ran so smoothly. During our tour, we also touched on the subject, and the development of Casco Viejo has many advantages (more security, new living space, safety is spreading), but also disadvantages (locals had to give way to hotels, the “real life” in the old town was not received). In this blog post, a traveler has summarized his thoughts about this nicely.

I would not necessarily return to Panama City. I found the city (which is now VERY subjective, that’s just my personal opinion, as I said) not so exciting, at least not the touristy corners. When we were a bit on our own, I found everything much more exciting, but of course it is not really safe and in some corners, outside of Casco Viejo, I felt really uncomfortable. And as a backpacker on a low budget, there just was not much to do. But many fall in love with the city, so this is just a feeling of mine.

Bocas del Toro however was VERY nice and next time I would just cut down my time in Panama City or skip it and head for an inland adventure instead or an exciting trip to the San Blas Islands!

Have you ever been to Panama? Where exactly were you? Did you visit Bocas del Toro, Panama City, San Blas, or possibly other areas? Or do you want to go to Panama soon and have some questions?

Here you will find my post about Bocas del Toro. And below are some photos from Panama City.

 

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4 Comments

  • Denise says:

    Sehr interessanter Blogpost über Panama! Ich war selbst im April 2017 dort und habe eine Freundin, die in der Nähe des HRC wohnt, besucht und auch bei ihr gewohnt. Wir haben einen Tagestrip nach San Blas gemacht und ich muss sagen, dass die Anreise sehr mühsam war (ca. 3 Stunden, 1 Stunde davon durch den Dschungel in Serpentinen auf und ab fahren), dazu wusste ich auch nicht, dass ein Reisepass benötigt wird (war aber mein Fehler). Als wir dann schließlich an der Küste waren, lief alles reibungslos ab: In einem kleinen Motorboot geht es dann rund 20 min auf die erste Insel. Traumhaft paradiesische Verhältnisse, glasklares Wasser wie auf den Malediven, es ist die lange Anreise also absolut wert! Und so geht es dann immer von Insel zu Insel, auf denen man immer für eine gewisse Zeit Aufenthalt hat und baden, usw. kann und die indigene Bevölkerung vor Ort verkauft selbstgemachte Produkte wie z.B Armbänder. Insgesamt kann ich also San Blas sehr empfehlen, einfach, weil die Gegend sehr schön ist. Am Ende des Tages war ich aber froh wieder nach Panama City zurückzukehren, da es auf den Inseln nichts zu tun gibt und sie so klein sind,dass man nicht mehr als 10 min braucht, um sie abzugehen. Aber das ist natürlich nur meine subjektive Meinung und falls man der Typ ist, der nur am Strand liegen, baden und die Sonne genießen möchte, dann ist San Blas definitiv die richtige Entscheidung für ein bisschen Karibikfeeling!
    Deinem Bericht zum Panamakanal kann ich mich nur anschließen: Das Museum ist sehr interessant und gut aufgebaut, aber der Kanal an sich eher langweilig.
    Insgesamt würde ich aber ganz sicher noch einmal Panama besuchen!

    • Mia says:

      Oh das klingt trotz beschwerlicher Anreise wirklich schön! Wir hätten glaube ich gerne 1-2 Nächte dort verbracht, aber irgendwie haben wir uns dann dagegen entschieden, dadurch dass wir vorher schon so viel unterwegs waren. Ich bin ja mega der Typ, der einfach nur am Strand liegen kann. Mein Freund aber weniger. Aber hätten wir vorher und nachher ein bisschen mehr Ruhe gehabt oder ein paar Tage mehr, wären wir definitiv auch auf die San Blas Inseln! Klingt für mich traumhaft!!!
      Ja, der Panama-Kanal ist spannend, aber es ist halt nichts los 😛 hatte mir das dort mega geschäftig vorgestellt! Deshalb muss man glaube ich wirklich schauen, wann ein Boot kommt und dann dort rechtzeitig vor Ort sein!
      Ich will unbedingt auch noch einmal ins Inland, dort gibt es so viele schön Parks und Wasserfälle, zumindest laut Google 🙂
      Danke für deinen ausführlichen Kommentar, und dass du deine San-Blas-Story hie rgeteilt hast! Klingt mega spannend!
      Liebe Grüße!

  • Arunika says:

    Cooler Reisebericht und tolle Bilder! 🙂

    Liebe Grüße,

    Arunika von quarterlife.blog