I arrived in Panama city after a 18 hour bus ride from Herradura, Costa Rica.
The bus was an incredibly comfortable Ticabus (more info on bus travel here) and I arrived in the early afternoon on a sweltering hot day.
Once you arrive at the main bus terminal, Gran terminal, in Panama city you have easy access to the Albrook metro station which is across the road connected by a sky bridge. This is also the closest station for those arriving at the airport. To use the metro you buy a 2 dollar bus card from one of the ticket booths which you then recharge as you go. Each trip costs USD 0.35 From Gran terminal you can book a bus to pretty much anywhere in Panama or to Costa Rica.
The official currency in Panama is the Balboa, but since 1904 it was made equal to the dollar and Panama now uses the US dollar as currency, although they have their own dollar coins which are only valid in Panama, the bills are the same as the ones used in the US.
The metro is extremely easy to navigate and I had pre booked a stay at Lunas Castle an extremely awesome hostel in Casco Viejo a beautiful colonial part of town which is a far cry from the skyscrapers in the city centre. It is two stops away from the bus terminal at 5 de Mayo.
I walked from the metro stop to the hostel, it’s a little over 1km so not worth getting into a cab for. I had preloaded the map onto Google maps so was able to navigate there very easily.
(if you zoom into a city while you have internet then even in flight mode you can see the blue dot moving around the city as Google maps has saved the map data while online, very nifty tip to navigating without using data)
The hostel has a very open relaxed feel, the dorms had aircon (there is a dorm without) and big open spaces to meet people. Downstairs is a really trendy bar and everyone hung out there in the evenings.
Panama city itself was beautiful, there is an amazing coastal walkway that extends all the way into the city, in the evenings it’s full of families and young people enjoying the cooler evening air. Nightlife is also booming so no shortage of nightclubs.
Image by Charlie
I hooked up with a crazy mismatched group of travelers and we partied the nights and relaxed during the day, eating fresh ceviche on the pier at the Mercado de Mariscos, and walking the streets while discussing the finer details of the meaning of life and the merits of butt implants.
Panama was really just a stopover for me as I had decided to make one of the backpacking highlights in Central America the San blas island tour. This is a 3-4 day journey by boat either by yacht for the wealthy or a various motley assortment of small wooden boats for the thrifty (like myself) You bypass the impenetrable Durian gap and island hop sleeping on the beach and eating fish and lobster caught along the way.
I had booked with San Blas adventures, which I will write about in another post. Pretty much every backpacker you meet in Panama city will be going to or coming from this trip and you can get lots of good advice and tips from others who have made the journey. It is also pretty easy to book from hostels/hotels once you arrive as long as you don’t mind waiting a day or two for an available spot. But in Panama there is plenty to see while you wait.
How to get around
There are bus links from Costa Rica as well as an International Airport, if you are coming from Colombia you can also come by boat. the metro is very easy to navigate as previously explained. There is also a huge network of buses but they can be trickier to understand if your Spanish is limited. I ended up getting pretty lost getting on wrong buses, traffic is also painfully slow, but if you get a chance jump on a Diablo Rojo. They are pretty amazing and each one is individually owned and decorated in garish colours and lights, with their own soundtrack. You can literally jump on to anyone you want, stay on for a few stops and jump off again. The cost was USD .25 which you pay directly to the driver. I found a really good article on everything you need to know about local transport in Panama City here.
Image by Karen Diablo Rojo
Where to stay
Hostels for me are the best way to meet fellow travelers, you are spoiled for choice on Hostelworld and Booking is a good place to find hotels. You can also travel in style and rent an apartment on Airbnb don’t forget to use this link for 35 off your first stay.
Personally I think staying in the Spanish old quarter of town “Casco Viejo” is the nicest if you want to experience a less modern part of town. There is a fish market by the harbour and an amazing selection of stalls adjoined to it selling freshly grilled fish and delicious Ceviche (if you have not tried Ceviche you have not lived!) There are nightclubs, beautiful views and old colonial style buildings and roads. It also happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site so yet another reason to stay there!
What to do
Image by Brian
This is what people come all over the World to see and it’s a pretty amazing engineering feat. The Miraflores locks are the most popular and easiest to reach from the city. You can take a organised tour which can cost anywhere between USD 50-100, a taxi which should not cost more than USD 20 (remember to agree on the price before departing, as allot of cabs do not use meters) or you can get a local bus from the main bus station (just ask at the Albrook bus station which bus goes to Miraflores locks) for about USD .25 one way and you can use your metrocard. Its free to see the locks but it costs USD 15 to enter the Visitors centre.
Image by Ron
This beautiful part of town, which literally means “Old Quarter” in Spanish, is full of winding streets, Spanish mansions and charming plazas, you can spend a full day exploring the Churches, boutiques, coffee shops and markets and finish it off with fresh fish by the harbour at the Mercado de Mariscos,. Lonely Planet has written up a very informative article on how to spend your time here Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo has in my opinion the best variety of nightlife there is a huge array of rooftop bars, discos and wine bars.
Personally I loved RelicBar which is under Castle Luna hostel, it has a great underground bar as well as a awesome beer garden with fairy lights and wooden details. Amazing drink offers too! If you are staying at the hostel then happy hour between 9pm-10pm, offers $.50 beers and $1 mixed drinks.
Image by Pablo