Over the holiday break, I had the amazing experience and obligation to leave Costa Rica and take a bus down to spend a weekend in Panama City.
It was absolutely beautiful, and amazing, and I left a piece of my heart there when I returned. This guide is a quick recap of how to spend one day in Panama City.
After countless hours of painstakingly forming itineraries, planning, reserving, emailing, and international phone calls, the day finally arrived. I took the Tica Bus down to Panama City.
The bus ride down was a long and quite painstaking one, lasting a total of 17 hours. We arrived to the Costa Rica-Panama border around 7pm/8pm, groggily trudged through the immigration lines, walked to the Panama station then passed through immigration and customs again.
We arrived to the terminal in the city at a drowsy 4 am. I stumble down the stairs, scouting out the bus stop for Gamboa, a city I will have to travel to later that week.
Once I locate where it leaves from and purchase a metro card to use the bus, I wander outside to look for a taxi and drive to my first destination.
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Spend Some Time Wandering in Casco Viejo
Panama City is kind of shaped like a horseshoe, curving around a bay in the Pacific coast. One side of the city is the most widely thought-of, filled with skyscrapers.
On the other side you will be encountered with the pleasant charm of Casco Viejo, literally the “old part”.
This captivating colonial square is named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and brings to mind many other coastal cities like the very near and dear to my heart Charleston, SC.
I arrived to my hostel before the sun rose, too early to check in. Instead, they kindly guided me to the common area, pointed out the freshly made diner coffee, and showed me to the couch.
After catching up on sleep for the twilight hours of the day, I showered off all of the traveling from the day before. Finally, I checked into my shared dorm room, locked my things into a locker, and set out to explore this hidden gem of a town.
I wandered through the streets searching for a popular coffee shop to start out my morning with some decent coffee, passing old church ruins and colorfully painted houses on the way.
I stopped by a balcony lining the shore on the way, taking in the morning view of the city buildings and the cathedral.
I grab an overpriced coffee around the corner and opt out of the pricey pastries. Then drink in hand, I wander through the streets and marvel at the city’s magic.
I happened upon the artisan’s market, perusing the handmade trinkets, unable to pass up the $4 Panama coffee mug. I chatted with the lady selling it to me about the ghost town across the water.
She confirmed that many of the buildings remain empty, that it feels eerie to watch at night, and that the buildings really are there due to drug laundering.
Pondering her words, I continue to wander, through a strange art museum and then check out more of the city.
Mystified by all this city has to offer, but hungry for breakfast, I finally circled around back to my hostel and found a local expat favorite close by, thankfully with cold air conditioning – a reprieve from the humidity of the tropical day.
To my delight, I was able to order an authentic southern sweet tea and a warm veggie pesto egg English muffin, which was the perfect satisfaction to a morning of discovering this old town.
I was also able to purchase some handmade soaps and coconut oil infusions that are biodegradable which are both great for my skin and Central America’s wastewater systems (they send it straight to rivers which then dump into the sea.) The lemongrass coconut oil fusion is great for my skin and also helps to deter insects. And I beyond love my coconut and aloe/mint-scented soaps!
🤩 Don’t miss this: Take a day tour to the beautiful, tropical San Blas Islands
Visit the Famous Panama Canal
A day in Panama City would be incomplete without going to the canal, so after having a late breakfast I stumbled back to the hotel hoping to catch a shuttle to the Miraflores locks only to find that my clock was still an hour behind and the shuttle was leaving in several minutes.
Luckily the roommates in my dorm room were going on the same shuttle, and it was running a bit behind so I had time to drop off my things and get ready.
Outside of the hostel, we were greeted by a tan surfer type with dread-like sandy blonde hair and his skinny afroed friend driving a white van.
Once we loaded up, we headed to the Miraflores Visitor’s Center, the most visited locks of the canal complete with a 4-story museum and a small theater boasting a short clip on the canal’s history in English and Spanish.
We immediately headed outside to check out what these locks were all about.
The Panama Canal consists of two sets of locks on the Pacific side, bringing boats up from sea level to the height of the artificially created Lake Gatun, as well as one full set of locks bringing the boats back down to sea level on the Atlantic side.
The Miraflores Locks are the second and final set on the Pacific side. After passing through these, the ships and boats will cruise through the canal, crossing the country from one side to the other before being brought down once more to sea level at the Atlantic side.
The history of the canal was very interesting to learn about, taking hundreds of years, and thousands to build, and several countries running the project to complete. I wouldn’t say it was a highlight of the trip, but definitely very interesting to see.
Grab Some Fresh Fish
After heading back to my hostel and sneaking in a quick nap to catch up on the previous night, I headed out one last time to check out a local recommendation- ceviche at the fresh fish market.
I found a random vendor and bought a little Styrofoam cup of fish and onions cooked in lime juice with a little packet of saltines for $1, and took in the day’s last setting views, resting but eager to see what tomorrow’s early morning would bring.
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