Travel Diary - Panama
This New Year's Eve holiday was the 2nd time I went to Panama. As I mentioned before, if I like somewhere, I have no problem visiting repeatedly (see - Barbados) and this rang true for this vacation.
My 1st trip to Panama was at the end of 2018 to ring in the upcoming year. It was a somewhat random choice, but we wanted to go somewhere new, with decent nightlife for the holiday (I LIVE for a New Year’s party), some cultural highlights, great food and minimal travel time (as it was going to be a short trip, I didn’t want to spend too much time in transit.) Panama ticked all of the boxes above. It’s a short flight from Port of Spain, (roughly 3 hours) with several daily flight options to choose from including an early morning flight which means you get to Panama City around 10 am.
Panama City, a bustling metropolitan city, is the capital of the country and a hub for its banking and commerce industry. Upon landing last year, and driving through the city center we first noticed the glitzy cityscape; high rise buildings everywhere and a fast pace of life very reminiscent of metropolitan cities in the US.
Last trip we stayed in the city center at the Waldorf Astoria Panama and were extremely pleased - their staff goes above and beyond to ensure you have the best possible stay. No trip to Panama would be complete without a tour of the Panama Canal so on our first visit we did the Panama Canal tour which I advise you dedicate the entire day to as it's quite long. You get breakfast and lunch while on the boat, a history of the canal and then drive through the locks. One of the modern 7 wonders of the world, the Panama Canal and its operations was amazing to experience in person. The level of coordination and detail to ensure everything goes smoothly is quite impressive. I highly recommend doing the canal tour if you are in Panama. We booked ours via the hotel concierge - you can do the same or a quick look on Viator shows you the available options as well. If you don’t have the time for the full tour you can go to the Miraflores Locks (see their website here) which is a center overlooking the canal where you can see the ships pass through. Additionally, there is a Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo.
The city is easy to get around, and very affordable. On our last trip we used Uber to get around, with most of our trips to Casco Viejo from the main city centre being under $10 USD. USD is used widely in Panama so we had no reason to change currency while there. The Panamanian currency - the Balboa is tied to the US dollar (1:1) but balboa bills are not printed and in circulation so USD is accepted as legal tender for all transactions.
A few snapshots around Casco Viejo.
We went out in Casco Viejo (old town)almost every night our last trip so this time we decided to stay there, booking at the Central Hotel Panama - a historic (and recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site) hotel, built over 150 years ago right in the heart of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is the historic district in Panama City. Spanish for “Old Quarter”, it’s a charming area of colonial style buildings, many refurbished boutique hotels, restaurants, craft markets and other assorted boutiques. Our hotel was in such a central location that we walked everywhere with ease. Every day after breakfast we’d just go out for a walk, stopping for lunch and drinks along the way.
Scenes from around Casco Viejo - local crafts and specialty boutiques.
Casco Viejo really comes alive at night, the parks were still lit up for Christmas (my favorite thing to see) and every night you’d see scores of people in the parks or bar hopping.
We took advantage of all the amazing dining options, all of which I'm sharing below:
Mahalo Panama - Stopped here for lunch on our first day - a cute, small backyard vibe restaurant with healthy food options and smoothies as well as cocktails and beer.
Casa Casco - This is a multilevel restaurant and probably my favorite place. We attended their rooftop party for New Years Eve on our first visit and also ate there so it was a no brainer to go back. There’s a rooftop bar at the very top, with the other 3 levels being different restaurants and also a nightclub. We had lunch at their Marula Restaurant which was amazing as usual. The seafood risotto and ceviche are my top picks.
Highlights of Salvaje Restaurant - charred salmon, passion fruit cheesecake and the Tommy's Margarita.
Salvaje - The restaurant I was most excited about. I found them on instagram and their cocktail list was what drew me in. I was counting down to this reservation, no joke! The entire experience did not disappoint! The food was amazing - my salmon was presented on a mini coal grill and the Tommy’s Margarita was perhaps one of the best I ever had in my entire life.
After dinner we went upstairs to their rooftop for some more drinks. The rooftop offers an amazing view of Panama City and there’s a live DJ.
Tantalo Kitchen - A smaller boutique hotel with a restaurant and rooftop bar , we came here randomly one night as we were walking around. Really great service at the restaurant and a nice vibe - good music and cocktails.
Pastissima - A cute Italian restaurant, we ate here on New Year’s Day. It’s very small and cozy, and the bar is designed somewhat like a wine cellar. Of course being in an Italian restaurant I opted for tiramisu as my dessert which was pretty good.
Shrimp tacos and cocktails at LazoTea
LazoTea Rooftop - Another restaurant with a great vibe and views of Panama City. There’s also a rooftop pool in the middle of the space which adds to the ambience, complete with a live dj. The shrimp tacos were my favorite.
The strongest margaritas and tasty sancocho at Diablicos.
Diablicos - we stumbled upon here one day when we were exploring closer to our hotel. They serve traditional Panamanian food and every night there’s a live performance of traditional dance and songs. My favorite traditional Panamanian dish is sancocho which is a chicken soup, so of course I ordered this and loved it. Also note - the margaritas are VERY strong ;-)
We didn’t have a set plan for this trip, just to relax, go to a few restaurants and bars and of course the main event - a New Year’s Eve Party. We also included a shopping day at the Multiplaza Mall which has many American brands, no surprise as Panama City is also known as a shopping hub. We returned to Casa Casco’s rooftop this year for their New Year’s party as we had such a great time on our last visit. Ringing in 2020 on the rooftop with an exciting fireworks display was one of the highlights of this trip for me. If you ever decide to visit Panama, a party at a rooftop bar (many spaces in Casco Viejo hosts these) is my top pick as the views cannot be beat. The entire city is lit up at night and the overall vibe is just so exciting.
New Year's Eve Highlights - A night at Casa Casco.
This was the perfect trip to ring in the New Year and I hope this travel diary helps if you're ever considering Panama. It's a beautiful city, with a charming mix of old and new, endless food options and amazing shopping. I can definitely see myself returning in the future and won't hesitate to recommend it.
Thank you for reading!