This is in no way a full guide to Panama City, but we wanted to bring you a concise page of the highlights of our visit, and maybe some disappointments too. This is an honest guide with some transportation, food, activity, and sightseeing tips.
Where to Eat and Drink
Dodo bon pan café—a cute café with a Parisian vibe. We loved that they had a daily selection of homemade cakes, pies, and other sweets. The best bang for your buck? The daily special, which can be made vegan upon request! It comes with a juice, a soup, an entrée, and a dessert.
Mahalo—a Hawaiian themed café perfect for brunch! The owner is Canadian and has an adorable puppy that melts hearts. While service was a bit slow, the food was fresh and satisfying—don’t miss the burrito for a filling meal, while the basic betch in all of us will appreciate the selection of avocado toasts.
La Rana Dorada Brewery—We came across a fantastic brewery in each place we visited in Panama. Our first gem may be the most popular in the country. They have daily happy hour specials and a pizza that can be made vegan upon request.
Luna's Castle Hostel Bar—Yes, it’s a hostel. No, we didn’t stay there, but we did enjoy two nights of cheap beer and great conversation with travelers from around the world. Make some friends, play some drinking games, and enjoy the music.
Coca Cola Café—While we did not eat here, we popped in our heads to see what the buzz was about. The oldest café in Casco Viejo was a favorite to Ernest Hemingway. It’s still a beloved spot for breakfast and lunch for locals. At any time of the day you’re sure to see a group of older men eating here and chatting the day away.
The Fish Market—When Lauren was here in 2010 with her Aunt and Uncle, she remembered going to the fish market. It’s a walkable distance from Casco Viejo and known for the freshest fish around. The ceviche is not to be missed. Although Lauren does not eat fish anymore, we felt this is a part of the culture and those who do eat fish should not miss. The vegan in her would tell others to also go to the nearby fruit and vegetable market for some of the best tropical fruit you will ever have and be sure to grab a fresh coconut to sip out of while you wander.
Supermarket—Traveling on a budget? We definitely are. We shopped at El Machetazo for all our groceries, beer, and essentials like aluminum foil, sandwich bags, etc. Fruit stands provide the ripest fruit however and are peppered throughout the city.
Things to Do and See
Walk around Casco Viejo—The old area is walkable within an afternoon, but stop to admire various buildings, shop in the eclectic shops, and don’t miss the Corredor Artesanal De Casco Antiguo where you can shop for the some local handmade crafts and get an ocean view! For inspiration see our posts of Day 1 and Day 2 exploring Casco Viejo.
Miraflores Locks—It isn’t a visit to Panama City without seeing one of the greatest engineering marvels of our history. Aim to get there when the Locks first opens to the public. You’re more likely to see ships passing through the locks and beating the crowds means you can get a good viewpoint on the observation deck. Skip the overpriced café and learn some history instead by walking through he multilevel museum to understand why this canal is a world-renowned engineering marvel. See our blog post for some inspiration.
Expanded Locks—Visit the newest locks completed in 2016. We wished we had the time to visit this new set of locks. Go to our blog post to learn about how it is different from Miraflores. Go in person for a fantastic panoramic view of the ocean at the observation deck.
Barro Colorado Tour—This was a tour that we really wanted to go on but did not get a chance to unfortunately. Barro Colorado is a tiny island in Gatun Lake, and it is known for its wildlife. The wildlife on the island is part of an isolated tropical ecosystem studied by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. You can book a tour of the preserve and hike along the various trails. The minimum number of persons per tour is 4 (unless you want to opt for the more expensive private tour), so be aware of this during low season. Plan your visit here.
Amador Causeway—Our blog post goes into detail of this Causeway. A 10 minute taxi ride takes you to the beginning of the Causeway. Ask to be dropped off at Bicicletas Moses. Rent bikes and ride along the entire causeway. We went during low season, so there was not much action in the restaurants or attractions, but the pristine road and bike path was worth the ride alone. Not to mention a fantastic panoramic view of the city.
Biomuseo—This museum can be visited the same day as biking the Causeway. They’re right next to each other after all. The building itself is worth the visit, and if you prefer to not spend money feel free to walk around the gardens around the museum that the Biomuseo started to promote biodiversity in the city. They maintain the area and planted the first few plants but are now letting nature take its course. You will see various flora and fauna the museum did not introduce into the garden. The museum itself was one of our highlights of our visit as we learned a lot about Panama’s biodiversity history. Students get a discount with Student ID!
Day (or 2) trip suggestion—San Blas Islands. While we did not have time to do this, ask your hotel and hostel for suggestions on how to book a 2-day visit to the San Blas Islands. Many companies will pick you up at your hotel/hostel and provide transportation, accommodations, and meals. A girl we met booked last minute and had a fantastic few days enjoying a true tropical paradise.
Taxis—We were not brave enough yet to explore the intercity bus system, although if we had to do it again we would have taken buses for sure. We did however become savvy in taking taxis. It’s best to know some Spanish beforehand to negotiate, but even if you don’t you’ll be able to get by. Here are some of our tips for not getting ripped off by a taxi driver:
1. Talk to your hostel or hotel about what a fair price for a taxi would be to wherever you’re trying to go. Eventually, you’ll get the idea of a fair price is based on how long the ride is. We asked our hostel concierge the first few times and learned how much it would be for a 5-minute, 10-minute, and 15-minute ride. Eventually, we didn’t have to ask anymore. We simply googled directions, found out how long it would take the taxi to drive there, and apply a price from a similar trip to this one.
2. Negotiate and agree upon a price before setting foot into any taxi.
3. Tell the taxi driver a specific address, intersection, or landmark. (i.e. Amador Causeway is too vague as it’s miles long, but Biomuseo is a specific building most taxi drivers will know)
4. Have small bills with you. Sometimes you think you and the taxi have agreed upon the price, but they will declare a higher price once you arrive. This happened to us, and we think it was because the taxi driver knew our Spanish was not that good, so we couldn’t argue with him. If we had smaller bills on hand, we could have given him the correctly agreed upon price and left.
Where We Stayed
Magnolia Inn—This place is a combination Hostel and Hotel. The hostel is on the second floor and the hotel rooms are above. We found the hostel very clean and appreciated the air-conditioned rooms! The kitchen is a bonus, but some may find the socialization that usually happens in a hostel setting to be absent. We didn’t mind as we still made friends and went to another hostel bar for the party scene.
How to Get to Boquete from Panama City by Bus
Our next stop was Boquete, which ended up being our favorite place of where we visited in Panama and Costa Rica. We attempted to do as much research as possible to figure out how to get there cheaply, but could not find much. Hopefully this will help some future traveler in our position. There is no bus that goes directly to Boquete. You have to take a large bus from Panama City to David. At David you have to transfer to a small bus which will take you to Boquete.
The Bus Schedule and When to Buy Tickets
Go to the bus station the day you want to leave. Aim to be there an hour before the bus you want to get on leaves. They do not sell tickets a day in advance, so you have to go the day of. I know. If you're anything like me, this will make you nervous, but we got on the bus we needed to get on. Here is the only place I found the bus schedule online. Make sure you give yourself enough time to catch the last bus in David!
Where the Bus Station is Located
What to Expect on the Bus Ride
You will be traveling from Panama City to David and then transferring from David to a smaller bus that will take you to Boquete. The ride to David takes around 7 hours. There is no bathroom on the bus, and if there is you probably don't want to use it. About halfway you will receive a 20-minute break to use the restroom and grab a bite to eat. Do yourself a favor and don't drink too much water before getting on the bus!
What to Expect at David
We could not find a bus schedule online. The closest thing we found was a description of the bus schedule. The first bus leaves David to Boquete at 4:20 am. They leave about every 25 minutes. The last bus leaves at 9:45 pm according to this website. The trip was about 1 hour.
The terminal at David is a little confusing. Here's a map from where you will be dropped off and where you go to catch the smaller bus to Boquete. The terminal was larger and much busier than we expected. You do not need to purchase a ticket at the window. Simply go to the other side (back) of the terminal. You will see overhead signs the have various cities written on them. Look for Boquete. There will be people shouting at you asking you where you are going. You should find several small buses/large vans that have lines in front of them. You will pay the driver of the bus/van directly (it should only be around $1.75 per person). Make sure to ask if they're going to Boquete before you get on of course!