Around this time last year, I was enjoying the beautiful, lushness of the Dominican Republic and the vibrant culture of Panama. When I planned this trip, I thought about how I could make this the most memorable trip ever, since it was my birthday trip. I decided to go to Punta Cana since it was only $298 R/T. This fare also included a 10hr layover in Panama so I was basically getting two countries for the price of one.
We rented a car through National (who tried to blame damage on us but we were not having it), left the airport around 8AM, and didn’t stop moving until it was time to head back to the airport around 6:30PM. The drive into the Centro was an adventure in itself. I thought that road rules didn’t apply while I was in Punta Cana, but Panama was sure to trump that. Nevertheless, the skyline made up for the anxiety-induced trek.
Our first stop was to get a real breakfast. We had a bit on the plane from Copa Airlines, but I wanted something much more fulfilling. We stopped at a famed spot, Tantalo Kitchen, in Casco Viejo. The place is absolutely beautiful. The owner was pleasant and spoke English so it was easy to place our order and get service. The food was satisfying as well. I ordered steak tips, french toast, fruit, and fresh fruit juice. Tantalo Kitchen also has an amazing rooftop (so I’ve heard), but it was closed during the hours that we were there. The owner invited us to stick around, but we decided keep moving.
Tip: Visit Tantalo Kitchen in the afternoon to get the rooftop experience.
Funny story: We ended up driving down the wrong entrance of a one-way. A cop in all military gear stopped us. There was a major language barrier but I’m thankful for Google Translate. The cop was really nice about it, especially since he saw we were such a long ways from home. He even let us park in the area where he was posted while we ate.
After eating, we walked around the area a bit. We contemplated driving over the Bridge of Americas, which connects Central America and South America. But due to the limited amount of time we had, it wasn’t worth possibly missing our flight, especially since I had to be at work the next morning. Instead, we headed to the Miraflores Locks to see the ships flow through the canal.
On our way back, we mingled amongst the locals. I was intrigued by their barbering practices. The barbershops are stationed along the street and are open. This may also be done in the US, but I’ve never seen it. We parked the rental illegally (don’t do that), and crossed traffic dangerously (Because a little excitement doesn’t hurt..don’t do this either) just to get a better view.
Since we still had a few more hours to spend, we headed to see the Panama La Viejo ruins. Here we admired the ruins of the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, as well as traces of the first inhabitants of the Isthmus. We spent about an hour here just exploring what was left of the settlement.
When the hunger set in again, we went to the fish market. This was my favorite part of Panama because ceviche, mofongo, and fresh fruit juice for life. All of the seafood is freshly caught and prepared right at the market. There are a lot of different vendors and restaurants in the area and this seemed to be the spot for family dinner on a Sunday.
I ordered ceviche and a combo mofongo dish. AH-MAY-ZING! The portions are a bit much, even for a foodie like me, but well worth it. The down side is that there is a lot of soliciting, which can really get bothersome while you’re trying to eat, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s that person’s way to make their living. We obliged for a few because we can truly appreciate things that are homemade. One guy made a bracelet for me right at my table. I thought that was pretty cool. We spent the remainder of our time being tourists, eating and preparing shaved ice, and taking in as much as we could in the time that we had left.
Overall, Panama City was an interesting experience. We crammed so much in the 10 hours that we had here, really taking full advantage of being able to visit two countries for the price of one. But if I can be absolutely honest, I’m not sure that I’d decide to actually vacation in Panama. Based on the experience that I had, I feel that it is perfect for layovers. I know there are other places and things to see, and maybe I’ll experience that at a later date, but I think I’ll be okay if I never visit again.
On the other hand, if I happen to have a much longer layover, I’ll definitely make the most of it and plan to venture out to the countryside of Panama. Something tells me the true gems are on the other side of the Panama City’s centro.