Hola! I recently got back from a five-day solo trip to Panama. I will be writing about the trip in the upcoming weeks. Hope you enjoy!
I arrived in Panama City late Monday night. Upon clearing customs, I was given a card for one-month of free health insurance, which is provided for all visitors. I immediately decided that I liked the country.
A half hour taxi ride later, I checked into my first hotel, the Toscana Inn. I chose the hotel based on positive online reviews regarding cleanliness, safety, and location. I figured it would be decent, but I was pleasantly surprised by the décor and the helpfulness of the staff.
My room at the Toscana Inn Hotel
For my first full day I wanted to do a city tour and the concierge recommended Tranvia Tour, which operates tours on historic trolley cars. Forgetting about the one-hour time difference, I woke up at 6:45 AM to reserve a 9AM tour. After hitting up the breakfast buffet, I went for a walk around the surrounding neighborhood, El Cangrejo, which is a commercial and residential district where most of the City’s upscale hotels and casinos are located (look for photos of my walk and more about the neighborhood in Panama post #2).
My selection from the complimentary breakfast buffet (I stuck with the cold foods, which were good. The hot food looked a bit strange and not particularly Panamanian, unless chicken nuggets are a delicacy that I don’t know about).
The Tranvia Tour trolley picked me up at my hotel at 9:15 and then we picked up the other passengers at their respective hotels. Due to traffic, this took awhile, but I enjoyed the scenic tour of the city. There were about eight other people on the tour who were all from neighboring Latin American countries. The tour was supposed to be in Spanish and English, but after ascertaining that I speak/understand Spanish, the tour was only in Spanish (note: I think that if I had requested English the tour would have been in English as well, but I decided it would be a good exercise to just hear it in Spanish).
Tranvia Tour Trolley
Our first stop was Panama City’s #1 tourist attraction, the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, which overlooks the Canal. The tour dropped us off for one hour. I purchased the complete ticket package for $8., which included access to the observation decks, exhibitions, and a short introductory film. Unfortunately, half of the visitor’s center was under renovation, so only the first two floors of the center and observation decks were open. I enjoyed the exhibits on the construction of the Canal and native insects of Panama, but it would have been nice to see the whole center, since I heard the exhibits are fantastic.
A ship passing through the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal – an amazing engineering feat at the time of completion in 1913 and today!
Adorable school children dressed in traditional costumes for a class trip to the Canal
Next, we made a brief stop at the Amador Causeway to take photos of the panoramic views. The tour also gave us time to visit a duty free shop, which wasn’t that exciting.
View from the Amador Causeway and a few of the many yachts docked there.
The third stop was Casco Viejo AKA Casco Antiguo AKA San Felipe, which is the historic district of the city. This is the area I was most excited to see, since it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sounded charming based on my guidebook and various NYTimes articles. I had wanted to go on a group tour in part because I had heard the area was a little dicey and I wanted to see if it felt safe enough to explore by myself. I will write more about Casco Viejo in a later post, since I did end up going back, but overall I found the neighborhood to have a weird vibe. The architecture was lovely French and Spanish colonial à la New Orleans and Cartagena, but EVERY block had at least 1-2 construction projects, a couple beautifully renovated homes, and a few dilapidated buildings with possible squatters lingering around.
Church in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo (notice the construction cones that were EVERYWHERE)
A renovated building and a building shell in Casco Viejo
Park in Casco Viejo
Colorful buildings in Casco Viejo (note – I think this is the only completed block, since it’s the location of the President’s Palace, which is used for ceremonial government functions).
The Panama City skyline from Casco Viejo looks just like Miami!
Our last stop was Panama Viejo, which are archeological ruins from the earliest Spanish settlement in Panama (c. 1519). We walked around a former monastery, but we did not climb the famous tower, since it was not included in the tour and the temperature was super hot and humid.
The tallest building in Panama Viejo
The former monastery in Panama Viejo
The Virgin in Panama Viejo
Tranvia Tour dropped me back at my hotel around 2:30PM. I enjoyed the tour and we visited all of the sites that I had been most interested in seeing, but unfortunately I was left with negative feelings towards the company after the guide increased the price by $10. at the end. When I complained/tried to protest in Spanish, I was told the price change was due to the fact that we had done a full day tour and I was originally quoted for a half day tour, but even if the tour had been extended (which it wasn’t), they should have announced it beforehand. I do not like using my blog to complain or badmouth companies, but I feel I should mention this because it prevents me from wholeheartedly recommending Tranvia Tour. Otherwise, I had a great time and it was a nice way to visit all of the major sites early on.