Only a week remains in my two month stay in Panama, so I thought it would be useful to condense everything I’ve learned here to make it easier for future travelers.
Panama City is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a perfect blend of “frontier spirit”, as Todd calls it, comfortable city life, good prices, and nearby cities and towns to explore. In list form, here are my recommendations for Panama:
1. When in Panama City, check out Casco Viejo before you decide on a place to stay. It’s a two dollar cab ride from anything in the city and it feels like a totally different country. Manolo Caracol, located in Casco Viejo, is considered to be the best restaurant in Panama, despite only costing $20 for the prix fixe menu.
2. The best place to go outside of Panama City is Boquete. The weather is cool, there’s tons to do, and it’s the total opposite of Panama City – perfect for a break.
3. Grocery shopping in Panama City is excellent. El Rey, Super 99, and Riba Smith are the main grocery stores. Riba Smith has the best selection of healthy foods and American and European imports. Organica, located in Paitilla, is an expensive store that has even more health food imports.
4. Don’t try to live in Paitilla or Pacifica. These are the the super gringo areas, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. Cangrejo, Marbella, Bella Vista, and Obarrio are the best areas downtown. I personally wouldn’t want to stay anywhere farther out, except for Casco Viejo from #1.
5. Don’t pick up Taxis in front of hotels or malls. Walk down the street. If you ask the price, they know they can rip you off. If they try to barter the price up front, they’re trying to rip you off. Get in the car, and pay $2 for the ride as long as it’s within downtown.
6. Try patacones. They’re delicious fried plantain chips.
7. The only coffee shop with wifi is NY Bagel near “cabeza de Einstein” on Via Argentina. There are a few internet cafes that have wifi for .50-.75 per hour. The one at Via España and Via Argentina has really fast internet (for Panama).
8. When you arrive at the airport, go upstairs to the departure gate dropoff area. The taxis there will charge you less than the ones downstairs. Shoot for $15, negotiate up front.
9. Rental cars are only around $20 a day, which makes them great for road trips. Thrifty on Via España is a good place to go.
10. Finding good apartments is very difficult. Craigslist and VRBO are good places to start, but they are expensive. I rented a room from Michael (lirpa1966 at yahoo.com). E-mail him and he may have something for you too. Just don’t book my room next winter!
11. The hostels in Panama City are pretty bad. I’ve stayed at a few and wouldn’t recommend them. Casa De Carmen is somewhere between a hostel a hotel. Great place, decent location, and decent prices.
12. Bocas Del Toro is probably not worth visiting unless you’re really into surfing. If you are into surfing, it’s a must do.
13. If you like beaches, go to the San Blas Islands. Any hostel will get you in touch with the right people to make it happen. It’s real remote island living with real indians. Highly recommended.
14. If you are a vegetarian, you MUST go to Casa Vegetariana next to Manolos near Casa Veneto. You will eat there every day. For special occasions, check out La Novena across from Happy Copy on Via Argentina. Arturo will take care of you!
15. It is possible to swim in both oceans in one day. We did it in 89.5 minutes, ocean to ocean. Can you beat us?
Panama is one of the first places I’d recommend to anyone. Consider visiting, and use these tips to make your trip even better.