Tocumen International Airport
I arrived around 8 a.m., and it was about 10-minute walk to customs and immigration. At that time, stores were open and people were slowly packing the airport.
On my way to customs, I saw a small kiosk selling SIM cards; there were some tourists in line. For 30 USD, I got 312 minutes worth of local calls and one gigabyte of data for Internet usage for seven days.
This was a great deal! Now, I am in a hurry because I don’t want to hit a long line at customs, which was the norm at most international airports. My experience in this particular one was a bit different, because when I reached the area, I was the only tourist there. I was so surprised because I had everyone’s attention. They were friendly and just asked basic questions. I was out quickly. Once outside, you will see a sign that reads, “Authorized Taxi”. I stepped outside of the airport and while walking, my eyeglasses fogged up twice after cleaning them; it was so hot and humid. Taxis in Panama City do not use meters; instead, they are based on zones. My taxi ride was about 25 minutes, with no traffic. My hotel was located in the financial district and cost 30 USD.
Holiday Inn Express
It was too early for me to check in, therefore, I just left my luggage and started looking at some brochures in the hotel. After a couple of hours, and few cups of coffee, I ventured around, hoping to get lost. After five minutes, I was already drenched with sweat and I had been going in and out of some stores, which have air conditioning, to cool myself down. I just walked around without a destination and saw a couple of beautiful churches, and plenty of food vendors.
I was tempted to try whatever they had, but I refrained myself as I thought it would be better to try it during the latter part of my trip. And then it happened, a thunderstorm hit and suddenly rain poured down hard. I was so happy and wet because the temperature cooled down. After a couple of hours, I found myself walking to some familiar stores and then I went back to my hotel. When I arrived, my room was ready, so it was just perfect timing. The room was big and had a king size bed with a huge bathroom.
I think I paid 73 USD per night. The location was pretty central and seems like everything was close by taxi. One downfall was that the place only had a small breakfast area and one gourmet burger joint. Other than that, you have to walk a few minutes for other things. One good thing there was that a big mall just a couple of blocks away.
Traditional Dance Dinner Show
Tinajas restaurant was recommended for a traditional dance dinner show from my guidebook. I think it was a best way to spend my first evening in Panama City. Trying my best to speak Spanish, before I left the hotel, I went to the front desk and ask if they can call and make a reservation for me. Instead, the guy grabbed a map and gave me directions. Then I mentioned I wanted to take a taxi, but he insisted on giving me directions. It was evening, so I changed my mind and just walked to the restaurant thinking that the temperature will be a lot cooler than earlier. It was about a 15-minute walk. I arrived at the restaurant still sweating, because even though it was a little windy, it was still very humid. There was a 10 USD cover charge and a minimum of 17 USD for drinks and meal, so I thought it wasn’t that bad.
I ordered sangria for a drink, calamari for appetizers, and a sea bass with shrimp for an entrée. The sea bass was cooked to perfection. It just melts in your mouth with a burst of flavor. I highly recommend this entrée.
The show started around 9 p.m. It was an hour long show with traditional dancing and music. They even talked about the traditional Panamanian attire for both men and women. Overall, it was a good taste of the country’s culture, plus it was a good entertainment.
Mercado de Mariscos
Breakfast was included in my hotel stay (from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.). They had a few selections of warm/hot dishes, but mostly there was just a typical continental breakfast. I had my coffee, my travel book, and map to plan my attack for the day. I then decided to go to the fish market. The taxi ride was 2.50 USD for about 10-15 minutes. I went inside the fish market first, and observe how people work, and looked at the vast selection of seafood. I got so hungry looking at that yummy seafood.
The travel guidebook recommended a restaurant on top of the fish market. I did check it out, but ended up not eating there. Instead, outside the fish market, there was a long line of restaurants serving mainly different kinds of ceviches, but they also serve other entrees.
I picked one and tried three different kinds of ceviches. The ceviches were ok, the seafood was fresh, but it tasted like it was diluted with water and I didn’t really taste lime or vinegar. After eating all of them, I just prayed that my stomach wouldn’t complain and give me problems during this trip.
It was a rainy Saturday morning and my first stop was to go to Ancon Hill. The hill was originally under U.S. territory during the construction of the Panama Canal. You will see big “canal zone” houses, as my local driver describe it. The drive up the hill was steep and narrow, and guards were in charge of which way the car goes first. It was already raining, foggy, and a bit humid. I had a glimpse of the Panama skyline on one side of the hill and the view of the Miraflores lock and the new expansion locks on the other side. After few minutes up the hill, we left because the driver wanted me to arrive early to the Miraflores lock, so I can have a better view of the canal at the observation deck.
Miraflores is a 4-story building consists of three floors of exhibits, one theater, and a full observation deck on the 4th floor. I went straight up to the observation deck to see how this marvelous engineering worked. Luckily, there were two huge ships, which were about to cross; I was surprised how quick the whole process went.
The ships were guided from one section to another, and then the gates open and close, and fill with water to move the ships out. The engineers use the locks and gravity to fill in water to assist the ships to cross.
My dad always told me that the world was not even because of the level of the water. Now, I can tell him he was wrong and I am right after I explain the process to him when I get home. After observing four big ships cross the Miraflores lock, I went back to the first floor to watch a short 10-minute movie about the history of the canal, in 3D no less. The movie was entertaining and had basic information about the canal. If you want to have a more in depth understanding of the construction, then you need to visit the exhibits.
Video Credit: Chris Porter (YouTube)
It was the French who started building the canal, but it failed for many reasons. There were thousands of workers who died during this attempt, and in honor of the people who died; they built a monument located at Casco Viejo. After that, engineers from the U.S. decided to go for it and began constructing the canal using locks. At that time, there was politics involved between the U.S., the old government of Panama, and Colombia. Since I am not a historian guru, I will let you research your history on your own pace. I think there was a book published regarding the history and politics behind the construction.
Smithsonian – Punta Culebra
Photo Credit: Trip Advisor
Now, it’s time to learn a little bit about their eco-marine life. The best way to do it is by going to the Punta Culebra open-air museum. It is non-profit organization, which relies on personal contributions and support from the Smithsonian. Here, I saw four baby sloths hanging and sleeping in their natural habitat. I saw some marine life, which can be found on the Pacific and Atlantic side. They have a beautiful frog museum. The frog museum was not open-air because they need to survive in special temperatures. They only allow about 10-15 people inside. The museum showed the different kinds of species, which can be found, and explained their importance in the balance of the ecosystem, and how we can save them. I thought it was very educational, and I felt like I was on a school field trip.
There was a restaurant near the center called, Mi Restaurante Ranchito. It was an open-air restaurant with a view of the Panama skyline and the Amador causeway. The restaurant is like a sports bar because they have like five televisions showing the same game. It was the final game between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid in football. One thing good I observed though was that the place was packed with locals.
The restaurant hadn’t changed their menu for 20 years, so you know the food is good. I ordered a local India pale ale (IPA) beer, ceviche mixto (seafood) for appetizers, and salmon with mushroom sauce. Everything was delicious. It was definitely a hidden gem.
Casco Viejo is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. When in the old town, according to my guide, whenever you were walking on a red brick road, then you are covered under the Heritage site. Casco Viejo was small town covering only three short avenues and six to seven short streets perpendicular to the avenues. The weather, at this time, was hot and very humid as usual. Our first stop was the French Embassy.
Both the French and European Union flags were staffed, which means that the Ambassador was inside. In front of the Embassy was a plaza known as the French plaza. Here, you will see some statues and big stones paying respect to the French people who suffered and died during the construction of the canal. The National Theater was located on the side of the embassy and performances were still held here.
We continued our walk and reached the Iglesia de San Jose. At this church, you will see the famous golden altar, which was believed to be salvaged from the Panama Viejo. The Plaza de la Independencia was where the Panamanians declared their independence from Colombia in 1903. We also had a chance to see part of the Palacios de las Garzas (presidential home). The palace seems small compared to the other presidential homes. It was guarded (of course), but according to our guide, the president never lived in the palace. However, it was still an active place for congregations and meetings.
As we walk through some streets, we reached the Church and Convent of Sto. Domingo. At this church, you will see a flat arch. Our guide told us that the flat arch helped with the idea of constructing the canal in Panama. The flat arch was not considered to be able to support and be stable, however, it was able to withstand time and still standing. Our guide did mention that they use to hold parties inside the ruin with big electronic music and loud base, which actually caused some of the debris from the arch to fall. The debris was still on the ground and became part of the ruins. And of course, no party and loud music is allowed in the site.
Lastly, we visited the statue of Simon Bolivar who was an important general who helped the Panamanians become independent from Spanish rule. Behind the statue was a beautiful church called the San Francisco church, which at that time was hosting a wedding ceremony. I finished my walking tour at an ice cream place before I headed back to my hotel in the city.