Tag Archives: Panama City

Panama Series Finale


Sunday was my last day, though it was just a half-day because I had an afternoon flight.  I attempted to sleep late, but church bells woke me up.

Another shot of pretty Iglesia del Carmen, which provided my unofficial wake-up call

The pretty Iglesia del Carmen provided my unofficial wake-up call

I tried to go to Cafe Shalom for coffee and found it closed, so I went to Cafe Duran at El Rey supermarket instead.  Cafe Duran reminded me of Starbucks, since they had the first iced drinks I saw in Panama and the desserts looked industrial.  I ordered ice coffee and an alfajor because it was my first time seeing my favorite Latin American cookie in Panama (it’s actually a dulce de leche filled cookie sandwich).  The alfajor was mediocre, but the coffee was outstanding.  I bought a couple bags to take home!

Cafe Duran

Cafe Duran

Alfajor and iced coffee

Alfajor and iced coffee

Random final thoughts/advice for potential travelers to Panama:

I had a great trip, but I can’t say Panama City is on my list of favorite places.  As mentioned in previous posts, there is construction EVERYWHERE.  It would be interesting to visit in 5-10 years because the cityscape will look entirely different and it will probably be closer to being “done” (or at least too crowded to build more).  There is also a Frank Gehry designed BioMuseum that is currently under construction and should be interesting to visit in the future.  At present time, I wouldn’t recommend more than two days at most in the city (do a tour one day and spend the second day exploring on your own).

This was my first time traveling alone and I really enjoyed it.  I felt very safe in El Congrejo and would definitely recommend staying there over Casco Viejo, which has more interesting architecture, but a weird vibe.

People were very friendly and helpful.  The only thing that slightly annoyed me was that multiple taxi drivers tried to ripe me off, though this also happened when I hung out with my travel buddy, so it’s not just a single female phenomenon.

My trip to El Valle de Anton was the highlight of my time in Panama.  I also found the Gamboa Rainforest Resort gorgeous, but it was pricey and I was disappointed at the low number of monkey sightings.  I have heard there are many other beautiful places to visit in Panama, but I was only there for five full days and I wanted to limit travel around the country and just relax.  And relax I did!


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Panama – Day 5: Spa visit, lunch at the Coca Cola Cafe, drinks at the Radisson Decapolis, and dinner at Manolo’s

I am sorry for the extreme delay in posting!  I started writing the below text several weeks ago, but then things got very hectic.  I just got back from a Thanksgiving trip to Israel and I will try and post highlights from that trip in a more timely manner.  I hope everyone had a relaxing holiday!

Now, back to the end of Panama.  By my fifth day, I had already visited every site I wanted to see, so I decided to go to the spa at Le Meridien Hotel for an express facial.  I enjoyed using the spa’s facilities more than the treatment itself.

View from the roof of Le Meridien Hotel


In the afternoon I was planning on meeting up with a fellow traveler from TravBuddy.com, which is a website that helps you, “[m]eet travelers and locals who are going to the same place at the same time as you.”  I signed up on a whim and paid the one time $9.99 registration fee before my trip, but I was disappointed when I saw that only two members were going to be in Panama City at the same time as me.  One of the two members messaged me and asked if I wanted to go sightseeing or meet for coffee.  I had already seen all of the major attractions, but I was curious to visit the Coca Cola Cafe and I had read that it borders a sketchy neighborhood, so it seemed like the perfect activity to do with a partner.  The funny thing is that I actually recognized my travel buddy, Isreal, on the street about an hour before we were supposed to meet, but this was less serendipitous than it sounds, since most of the city’s hotels are in one area (El Congrejo).  We walked on the Cinta Costera walkway to get to the cafe.  Along the way we passed the entrance of Chinatown, but I read it was a little dicey, so we did not enter.


We then passed through the historic district of Casco Viejo to reach the Coca Cola Cafe, which is located on the border of Casco Viejo and the rougher neighborhood of Santa Ana.  The Coca Cola is oldest cafe in Panama City (c. 1875) and is known for its hearty fare and local clientele.  The Coca Cola is also historically significant, since it was frequented by Che Guevara and was supposedly the first place in Panama to serve the eponymous beverage.

The Coca Cola Cafe

I ordered chicken milanesa and pineapple juice.  The prices were very reasonable and the chicken itself was good, but the sides (salad and lentils) were nothing special.  Several other diners seemed more drunk than is optimal for lunchtime.

Chicken milanesa and rice for three people.

Before leaving we ordered the famous coffee, which was excellent!

Coffee at the Coca Cola Cafe

After lunch we walked back to Casco Viejo and passed some interesting 1930’s/1940’s architecture in the more run-down area bordering the cafe.

Benefits building

Back in Casco Viejo, we visited the Iglesia San Jose, which is known for its gorgeous gold alter.

Gold Alter at the Iglesia San Jose

We took a taxi back to El Congrejo and rested before meeting up for drinks.  I had read about the sushi and martini bar at the Radisson DeCapolis Hotel, which was supposed to be the hipest places in Panama City.  However, when we arrived around 8PM, it was almost completely empty.  We thought maybe we were too early, so we visited the Multiplaza Mall across the street and then the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino next door.  The stores at Multiplaza were similar to Albrook and not particularly interesting.  The Hard Rock had a ton of famous musician’s memorabilia, which was fun to view.

Hard Rock Casino and Hotel

We went back to the bar at the Radisson and it was still pretty empty, but we decided to stay and order drinks.  I asked the waiter why it was empty and he said it’s more popular on Fridays.  I don’t know if that is the case or if it just peaked in coolness.

Radisson Decapolis Bar

Eye chairs at the Radisson Decapolis Bar

After drinks I suggested we go to Cafeteria Manolo’s because I liked the people watching and wanted to have a traditional Panamanian dish for my last dinner in P.C.  I ordered Sancocho, which is Panamanian chicken soup.  It was more flavorful than American chicken soup, but it was a bit too salty.

Cafeteria Manolo’s

House salad

Sancocho soup

Post-dinner we walked across the street to the Veneto Casino because I wanted to try gambling for the first time.  I bet a dollar in a slot machine and after repeatedly pressing the very confusing, though all English buttons, I won $3.  I decided to call it quits while I was ahead.  We also left the casino quickly because it was pretty depressing.  The Via Veneto Hotel strip is known for prostitution (which is legal in Panama) and there were dozens of prostitutes walking around the casino floor.  The scene was very sad and it was already rather late, so we headed back to our respective hotels on the other side of El Congrejo.


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Panama – Day 4 – PM: Albrook Mall, the Executive Hotel, Dinner and Belly Dancing at Beirut Restaurant

The bus ride back from El Valle de Antón was unfortunately more hectic than the way there.  The driver sped while talking on his cell phone and I thought about complaining, but the idea of being left on the side of the Pan-American Highway was more frighting.  I was relieved when we finally arrived at Albrook Bus Terminal, on the outskirts of Panama City.  Albrook Bus Terminal is right next to the Albrook Mall, so I crossed the street to check out Central America’s largest mall.

Rhino Entrance

Albrook Mall was gigantic (200+ stores) and safari themed, with all of the wings named after different animals and large animal sculptures at the entrances. There were also guards in safari attire, in addition to guards in bullet proof vests.  As evidenced by the safari decor, the mall was family oriented and had lots of children’s rides and games throughout.  There was also a large fast food court with many American chains.

Carousel and zoo train

Bungee jumping for children

Uniformed guard and safari guard

A small Mac store

I walked the length of the mall to the Koala section where I was told the best stores were located.  The floors and walls of the Koala section were sparkling white and gleaming.  However, the stores were extremely disappointing.  Ninety-five percent of the shops were American and not particularly interesting American companies.  There was Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, the Gap, Converse, Crocs, etc. and while I like some of the aforementioned, I was hoping to see some upscale Panamanian stores or at least Argentinian or Spanish chains.  I had a coffee at Juan Valdez and then headed to Panama City to check into my new hotel.

the Koala section of the mall

Colorful jeans

Typical Panamanian shoes

Jeans!  Jeans! Jeans!

For my last two nights in Panama City, I choose to stay at the Executive Hotel because they had a weekend special and came NYTimes recommended.  The Times mentioned that the hotel was dated and while my room’s furnishings definitely needed upgrading, I found the old-fashion lobby charming.  It reminded me of a Graham Greene novel.  I also loved the balcony in my room!

How Graham Greenesque is that sign?!


My room

View from my balcony

View 2 (see the construction crane…typical P.C.)

View 3

The Executive Hotel was in El Congrejo, but several blocks away from my first hotel, the Toscana Inn.  I walked around the area and came across Beirut restaurant, which was mentioned in my guidebook and almost every Panamanian tourist site (the restaurant is so popular, it has an outpost in Albrook Mall).  I was initially disappointed when I saw the outside because it looked so cheesy.  I had read there is belly dancing on Saturday nights, so I asked the host if I could make a reservation for 9PM.  He said he didn’t know if they would have indoor seating for one, but maybe they could find a seat for me on the patio (in the 92 degree heat and humidity, I decided this was not an option).  I went back to my hotel room to change and googled the city’s other middle eastern restaurants with belly dancing (surprisingly, there are at least 3), but Beirut had the best reviews by far, so I decided to give it another try.

Beirut Restaurant

I returned around 9:15PM and the host found a seat for me inside, which turned out to be massive.  The belly dancing had already started and talented dancers rotated through the rooms.  I didn’t recognize a lot of the middle eastern dishes on the menu, so I asked the waitress to make a suggestion.  She recommended the Beirut platter, which she said was appropriate for one.  The platter consisted of many different little plates and was probably much more appropriate for two.

Beirut Platter and rose water

The decor was a little Disney-esque, but the food was delicious.  The only downside was that the music was extremely loud and there was a strong scent of hookah drifting from the neighboring tables (I think maybe the host was doing me a favor when he tried to get me to sit outside).  However, the fumes and blasting music were outweighed by the phenomenal people watching.  Although I ate at several other upscale Panamanian restaurants, this was the first one where the clientele looked almost exclusively Panamanian and the diners were dressed for clubbing.  The food, entertainment and fashionistas made this my most enjoyable meal in Panama City.

Belly dancer

Belly dancer and the chef (check out his pants)

Belly dancer in another room

Belly dancer in gold

Stay tuned for my final day in Panama City!

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Panama – Day 3 – AM: More around El Congrejo, lunch at Cafeteria Manolo’s

For my third day I planned an overnight trip to the mountain town of El Valle.  Before checking out of my hotel, I went for my morning constitutional around El Congrejo.  I was curious to see a Panamanian super market, so I stopped in the mega store El Rey.  It was surprisingly similar to an American supermarket.  Almost all of the frozen foods and packaged products were from American companies.  Some even had English labels.

El Rey

View from above

The most glaring difference from an American supermarket was the armed guard at the entrance who shouted at me to stop taking photos.  Inventory-wise, the only noticeable difference (from my brief assessment) was the huge variety of aloe drinks.  I was also impressed with the large health food selection, which even included my favorite German Mestemacher bread.

Aloe drinks

I bought green guayaba (guava) fruit because I had never seen it before.  It was delicious!

Exotic fruit

I took photos of some interesting buses around the neighborhood.  In Panama City, the older public buses are former American school buses, and many of them are painted with images ranging from Jesus to naked ladies.

Plain bus…you can tell it’s a former school bus

Nicely painted bus

Decked out bus

I checked out of my hotel and then went for a casual lunch at a diner called Cafeteria Manolo’s, which is across from the Veneto Casino.  Manolo’s is considered the place to see all walks of life, from casino prostitutes to businessmen.  It’s also known for being inexpensive.  The interesting people watching, old-fashioned decor, and typical Panamanian menu made it my new favorite restaurant.  I didn’t know what to expect from a $2. sandwich, but the grilled cheese I ordered was huge and very good, as was the house salad.

Cafeteria Manolo’s

House salad

Grilled cheese

This is a short post, but stay tuned for a New York fashion post and photos of my trip to El Valle!

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Panama – Day 2 – PM: Lunch at el Mercado de Mariscos, walk around Casco Viejo, and dinner and a dance show at Las Tinajas

After my excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, I asked my driver Luciano to drop me off at Panama City’s fish market, El Mercado de Mariscos for a late lunch.  I had read in my guidebook about the top floor restaurant, which naturally has the freshest seafood in the city.  Upon entering the market, I was overwhelmed by the fish smell and afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through a meal there, but very quickly adjusted to the stench.

The fish market

The restaurant overlooked the below market.  I ordered a plate of mixed seafood, which came in a tomato sauce.  It was OK, but the sauce was a little too salty for my liking.

Fish market restaurant

Mixed seafood in tomato sauce

On my way out, I stopped at one of the many stands outside the market and bought a cup of ceviche for $2.25, which was outstanding.  If I was to do it again, I would try several types of ceviche at the different stands instead of eating at the restaurant.

The beginning of a long row of ceviche stands

Ceviche and accompanying cocktail crackers

I walked along the waterfront from the fish market to Casco Viejo, which was just a short distance with lovely views.

Casco Viejo in the distance

Miami-esque skyline

I wanted to further explore Panama City’s historic neighborhood, Casco Viejo, since I only saw it briefly on my historic trolley tour.  As mentioned previously, I found the area to have a very strange vibe.  The lovely French and Spanish colonial architecture is reminiscent of New Orleans and Cartagena, but the area is undergoing major transition.  Many of the buildings are owned by foreign investors and are being renovated, but there is still at least one dilapidated building on every block.  There are upscale hotels, boutiques, and restaurants, alongside rundown homes with squatter-ish looking people lingering around.  Casco Viejo is a big tourist attraction and the location of the President’s Palace, so there is a strong police presence.  However, Casco Viejo also borders three of the poorest neighborhoods in Panama City and until those areas receive aid, I think the district will remain dicey.

Typical street in Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

I tried to photograph some of the charming architecture, but there were literally construction projects on every block, which took away from the picturesque potential.

Casco Viejo

The renovated portion of one block

Casco Viejo

I walked around Casco Viejo for awhile and visited some cute boutiques.  I liked the store Reprosa for reproduction pre-Columbian jewelry and Karavan Gallery for local design pieces, though the latter was a bit pricey.  I also stopped at the much heralded French ice cream parlor, Granclement, which lived up to its reputation, but was difficult to find due to the construction project in front.


Around 5PM I decided it would be a good idea to head back to my hotel before it got dark and I started the arduous task of finding a taxi.  There are a lot of taxis in Panama City, but it could be challenging to find one around rush hour.  Another issue, which I experienced at heightened levels in Casco Viejo, is that Panamanian taxi drivers like to overcharge.  Taxi fares in Panama City are set by zone and should never be more than $2-3 dollars.  I always asked the cost of a ride before getting into a taxi and usually passed on too-high rates.  However, in Casco Viejo all of the taxi drivers were quoting me ridiculous fares ($8-10) and eventually I settled/bargained down to $5. because I was tired and just wanted to get out of there.

Colorful trash cans in Casco Viejo

I went back to my hotel and rested before heading out to dinner and a folkloric dance show at Las Tinajas, which is one of the city’s most famous restaurants for traditional Panamanian food.  I had wanted to eat at Las Tinajas on my first night, but the dance show dining room was booked (note – you need reservations for the dance show, because it’s a popular tourist activity).

Las Tinajas

I ordered fish soup to start (in retrospect, this day could be called fish, three ways).  For my entree I ordered the “typical plate,” which was probably not the best choice for me since I don’t eat ham/pork, but there was enough food so that I didn’t leave hungry.  The plate featured a meat I don’t eat, rice and chicken, a grilled plantain, and an unidentifiable, but tasty side dish of orange mush with olives.

Fish soup

Typical Panamanian platter

I enjoyed the folkloric dance show, which was fun without being too cheesy.  I especially liked the women’s traditional pollera costumes.

Pretty costumes!

Folk dancing

After the show I headed back to my hotel room to prepare for my upcoming trip to El Valle de Anton.


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Panama – Day 1 – PM: Walk around El Cangrejo, dinner at La Posta

As mentioned in my previous Panama post, on my first morning I took a walk around the El Cangrejo neighborhood, which is where my hotel was located (along with most of the city’s hotels).  The area was a nice mix of residential buildings, stores, hotels and casinos, though I have to admit I found the architecture disappointing.  The gorgeous latticework strewn Iglesia del Carmen was the only building that stood out in my mind as being exceptional.

Colorful residential buildings

Iglesia del Carmen

Side view

As someone who loves visiting historic hotels, I also found the city’s hotels to be a letdown.  There were some very upscale hotels like the Rui and Le Meridien, but they were all new and glitzy looking rather than grand and elegant.  Even the city’s oldest hotel El Panama was renovated to look like a home furnishing catalog – nice, but completely lacking style.  On my walk around El Cangrejo I also got a preview of what I would see all over Panama City: construction, construction, construction!  There was literally a work site on every other block.  I have never seen anything like it!  Unlike in NYC, there were rarely walkways around the construction sites, so you just had to walk in traffic.  I am curious to know how many tort cases are filed per year because there are so many accidents waiting to happen.  On a more positive note, other than the many construction sites, I felt quite safe walking around El Cangrejo, which was most important!

El Panama Hotel (the oldest hotel in PC), a shopping strip, and of course, a construction site

Shopping center with a cool name and one of the city’s more unique skyscrapers in the background

After going on the previously described historic trolley tour of the city, I had a late lunch in the neighboring area of Marbella.  I ate at my favorite Columbian chain, Crepes & Waffles, which sadly seemed much better in Columbia.  It started pouring as I got to the restaurant, but luckily I missed it, which was a common theme of the trip since it rained every afternoon for about an hour or less.  Following lunch I explored Marbella, though the 92 degree heat and extreme humidity made it a bit unpleasant.

Dolls in traditional Pollera dresses in the window of a souvenir shop

For my veg friends

Beauty parlor price comparison

No, this isn’t an art museum.  Hint: notice the stalls…it’s the bathroom at the Rui Hotel!  The tiles looked golden in person.

Cute coffee shop

I returned to my hotel to rest and shower before dinner.  I then took a taxi back to Marbella to eat at La Posta, which is considered one of the city’s most popular restaurants.  I can definitely see why!  The food was Latin American-European fusion and was exquisitely presented.  I also loved the atmosphere, which was evocative of old Cuba.  The waiters wore guayabera shirts and were very attentive.

Tuna tartare appetizer at La Posta

My table featuring an outstanding bread basket, fried shrimp and eggplant dish, and a complimentary mojito.

The best thing I ate in Panama.  This was a dulce de leche/brownie creation, which was described as an alfajore (note – it looked nothing like an Argentine alfajore, but it was equally delicious!).

La Posta Restaurant

After dinner I decided to call it an early night so that I would be well rested for my day 2 excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.


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Panama – Day 1 – AM: Historic Trolley Tour of Panama City

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!

Panamanian Souvenirs

DAY 1:

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.


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