PANAMA CITY / SAN BLAS / MONKEY ISLAND
- When: 1 September 2022 – 5 September 2022
- Where (accommodations): Hotel La Compaña (Casco Viejo)
- Transportation: Copa Airlines 5 hr 20 min flight from Boston (BOS) to Panama City, Panama (PTY), all day excursion to San Blas islands through Trips Panama, Monkey Island 4 hour tour through Almiza Tours by My Friend Mario (booked through Viator)
- Sights/attractions: Casco Viejo (Old Town): Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, Independence Square, Catedral Basílica Metropolitana Santa María La Antigua, El Palacio del Sombrero, Convento de Santo Domingo, Paseo las Bóvedas, Plaza de Francia, San Francisco de Asis Church, Palacio Bolivar, Plaza Simón Bolivar, Plazoleta Medio Baluarte; Church of Saint Joseph; San Blas : Yanis Island, Isla Perro (Dog Island); Panama City: Panama Canal (Miraflores Visitor’s center), Ancon Hill, W Hotel Rooftop, F&F Tower, Panaviera Rooftop Bar; Panama Viejo (Museum Plaza Mayor); Monkey Island;
- Food/drinks: Casa Catedral Restaurante, Saint Honoré, Fonda Lo Que Hay, Restaurante Tres Fuegos, Cafe Unido Casco Viejo, Oro Moreno Autentico Chocolate Panameño, La Selva Panamá, Gelato Artisenal, Nacíon Sushi, Isaki Casco Rooftop, Vista Corona Panamá
This was a Labor Day weekend escape from Boston and a new country to both of us. We love long trips, but with work schedules we can only do them twice a year. Typically, once in the summer and the other for Christmas break. Everything in between has to fit in the long weekends and it’s even better if it happens to be a holiday. We took time off from work on Thursday and Friday, so with Monday being Labor Day, it ended up being five days total. Well, the last day was spent traveling, since the flight from Panama left at noon and we were back to Boston at 7pm. Either way, we still got four nights and 3.5 days on the ground to explore. Not enough by any means, but just enough to see what Panama is all about!
Located in Central America, with Panama Canal cutting through the center and connecting Atlantic and Pacific oceans, this relatively small country is of great importance. The World Economy would be a lot different without this essential shipping route. There is a lot to see and do – Panama City with it’s Old Town (Casco Viejo), the New Town with gleaming skyscrapers and rooftops, rainforests, mountains, islands-we only saw a tiny part of it. Since we had so little time, we decided to stay in the most walkable part of the city- Casco Viejo and explore from there on.
Day 1 – Flight from Boston to Panama arriving around 2.30 pm, check in at the hotel, explore Casco Viejo
Day 2- San Blas Islands tour 5.30am-7pm, dinner in Casco Viejo
Day 3- Visit Panama Canal, hike up Ancon Hill, enjoy the hotel, check out the New Town/rooftops
Day 4- Monkey Island tour 6.45am-10.30am, shopping in Casco Viejo, visit Panama Viejo Archeological site, enjoy the hotel pool, check out more rooftops in the New and Old Town
Day 5- Departure and flight back to Boston
HOTEL LA COMPAÑA
There are a lot of hotels to choose from, so we were slightly overwhelmed at first. However, when we decided that we wanted to stay in Casco Viejo and saw that Hotel La Compaña opened in April 2022, we instantly fell in love. It may not have as many reviews online yet, because it’s so new, but everyone that commented raved about it, and we are glad we picked it as well. Not only it’s in a perfect location, but the design of each hallway and room are incredibly thought through. We met the owner Chris, who gave us a tour and showed us to the parts of the hotel that are still being finished- he’s doing incredible job with this place. As a person, he was super friendly, down to earth human being. A Canadian, used to run restaurants in Hong Kong, sailed around the world and when he came to Panama, he wanted his kids to learn Spanish, so settled there and opened this gorgeous hotel.
There are three wings- French, Spanish and American. Each has a different charm, decorations and photos from the historical events and places related to either French, Spanish or USA ruling Panama. We stayed in the French wing and had a balcony overlooking the street/Old Town. You bet I enjoyed my coffee with the view of the colorful buildings across the street!
The room was on a smaller side, but very charming. Chris showed us the not yet occupied American wing, and the rooms there were a lot bigger. One even had a large bath tub- we already discussed about staying there when we return : ) . Besides having several restaurants, a library and a charming courtyard, Hotel La Compaña also has a rooftop pool and a rooftop bar.
We thoroughly enjoyed the pool and had a quick bite to eat at lunch- it took a while to get the food, but it was delicious!
Historical center and the heart of the city was our favorite area to stay at. We saw both- the New and Old towns and Casco Viejo is by far more beautiful and walkable. If you do stay in one of the high-risers in the New Town, you can easily come to Casco Viejo by Uber. The rides are very cheap in Panama. We were paying less than 10 USD for up to 30 min rides. Do not take taxis, they are a total rip off. As we were leaving the airport, taxis wanted anywhere from 25 USD to 40 USD to bring us to the hotel. Uber was $19. Oh, and about money- Panama uses USD as their currency and therefore there is no need to convert anything- it’s one to one. We were able to get some local coins, but apart from that, every transaction is either by card or cash in USD.
By the time we checked into the hotel we were starving, so without further adue we went to Casa Catedral – restaurant/museum recommended by hotel’s concierge. Even if you don’t eat there (food was really good, though a bit pricey), you should stop by to visit.
There is an outside on a patio, or you can have your meal surrounded by the antique cars!
How cool is that?!
All main sights of Casco Viejo could be visited in about half a day, but if you have more time, it’s fun to wanter around the cobble stone streets, check out little stores and art galleries.
Since it was next to our hotel, we stopped by the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus– built in as Jesuit Monastery, turned school, then University, destroyed by the fire and only partially restored.
The gate is locked, but it’s still impressive ruins to see.
As you wander around, you can’t miss the Independence Square and the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana Santa María La Antigua.
Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo– another historical landmark and well preserved ruins that’s worth seeing. There is a little daily market near it as well. We got some hand made jewelry from the local vendors.
While we are on a topic for shopping- you can’t leave Panama without a Panama hat 🙂 . Even though Panama hats are made in Ecuador (make sure it does not say ‘Made in China’), I feel like getting a nice quality hat is a MUST. I did not bring a hat knowing I will be getting one and it was a necessity while walking in the strong sun.
El Palacio del Sombrero has many different options (I purchased a wide brim and a classic Panama hat). The staff knows some English, enough to figure out the correct size and shape. Plus they provide a travel box, so that your hat makes it back in a tip top shape!
Paseo las Bóvedas is a colonial-era stone promenade and seawall lined with local vendors, mainly from the Kuna Yala tribe, so there are more options for picking up souvenirs.
It’s a nice walk along the ocean, leading to the Plaza de Francia.
Continuing the tour of Casco Viejo- short walk away you will find a charming little plaza Plazoleta Medio Baluarte.
And soon after reach San Francisco de Asis Church, Palacio Bolivar and Plaza Simón Bolivar.
Last but not least church to not miss while in Casco Viejo – Church of Saint Joseph. This church was constructed following the destruction of Panama Viejo in 1671 by Pirates under Captain Henry Morgan and then moved by the Order of St. Augustine to the new location of Casco Viejo. The church contains the famous Golden Altar which is considered one of the greatest treasures of Panama.
Carved from wood and painted gold flake, it really is impressive sight for otherwise pretty modest looking church.
Restaurants and rooftops in Casco Viejo
Since there are so many good restaurants here and we had such a excellent food experience, I feel like it’s worth having a separate section dedicated just for the places to eat while in Casco Viejo. I already mentioned Casa Catedral, the first amazing place we tried for lunch. Apart from that, we also ate at Saint Honoré, Fonda Lo Que Hay, Restaurante Tres Fuegos, Cafe Unido Casco Viejo, Gelato Artisenal, Nacíon Sushi and Isaki Casco Rooftop. We also checked out two rooftops in the Old Town- Vista Corona Panamá and Casa Casco. And don’t forget a rooftop at our Hotel La Compañia!
I’ll start with breakfast. We tried a few places and the best ones were Saint Honoré (amazing almond croissants) and Cafe Unido Casco Viejo– we came back to this one because their breakfast sandwich was absolutely incredible and they had good açai bowl, avocado toast and delightful guava empanadas.
At Saint Honoré we also had lunch once- split pea soup, quiche and a mushroom crepe were light but filling.
Dinners were our favorite. Restaurante Tres Fuegos ‘wowed’ us with their service (granted we were the only ones at the restaurant at that time) and their exquisite meals.
Fonda Lo Que Hay was a unique experience and also recommended by our hotel concierge. Once you arrive, you wait at the closed door and the host comes out periodically to take people in. There was no option to make a reservation. They have indoor seating as well as a charming courtyard and all of the dishes we had were excellent.
On our last night we wanted to try two different sushi places- Nacíon Sushi and Isaki Casco Rooftop. Both are super close to our hotel. Nacíon Sushi was good, but we found the rolls to be too big- both the amount of pieces per roll and the size of each piece. It was impossible to finish.
Isaki Casco Rooftop rolls were a lot smaller and also tasted better. We’re still dreaming about the truffle one…
Both have nice view of the old town, but overall the Isaki Casco the food and the view was better (in our humble expert opinion 🙂 ).
Lastly, I must mention the ice cream place that had amazing gelato. It’s very nondescript and I don’t think is listed on Google. Gelato Artesanal is located in the corner building of the seafood restaurant La Fisheria. They just open one of these side doors during the day.
Panama has a ton of rooftops, so naturally we wanted to see at least a few of them. We didn’t stay long, but I can see how they would be fun, especially on the weekend.
After Isaki Casco sushi dinner we just needed to go up one flight and there was Vista Corona Panamá rooftop.
Casa Casco had a great vibe too. And of course we liked the rooftop at the Hotel La Compaña.
All of the restaurants are pretty casual, but I would not walk around in flip flops. People actually were dressed up (women in high heels etc) especially going out at night.
Panama Viejo or in English Old Panama is not the same as Casco Viejo or the Old Town. Founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedrarías Dávila, Panamá Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas and is a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1997.
Located about 20-30 min drive from Casco Viejo (remember, Uber, not taxi!) this place is a great way to learn more about Panama’s history. From the entrance where you buy the tickets there is a 1km walk to the ruins. There is a free shuttle going back and forth, so we walked over and took the shuttle back.
While here, make sure to climb the Bell Tower to see the views of the ruins from above. Also, visit the Museum Plaza Mayor– very informative and interesting, it does not take long to see it all.
It would be a shame to visit Panama and not see the famous Panama Canal. This artificial 82km waterway connects Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and divides North and South America. Incredibly complicated engineering project, Panama Canal allows the ships greatly reduce the time that it would take to bring the goods if they had to go all the way around South America.
One of the easiest ways to see it is at the Miraflores Visitor Center. Museum is being renovated, so it’s only partially open at this time (September 2022), but there is a viewing deck, so if you time it right, you can see the ships go by. Make sure to use shipping tracking apps for times of when they are passing through the canal.
We only saw one in the newest, third lane, which was further down, but it was still great visiting the museum and talking to the staff, who were very informative and answered all of our questions (we had many 🙂 ) .
The same morning that we went to Panama Canal, we also took an Uber to the Ancon Hill. Well, I thought we could drive up all the way to the top, see the view, snap a photo and leave. Unfortunately you can drive only to the bottom of the hill and then it’s all on foot. It’s not a hard hike, you walk up the paved road, but it was SO HOT and humid that we were drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top.
And to be completely honest, the view that you can see almost mid way is pretty much the same if not better, than what is at the summit. It takes going slowly about 30 minutes to reach the top. There was an ice cream cart part way up the hill and it was actually very good ice cream. Definitely made the heat more bearable.
I think this could be a great hike when it’s a little cooler/cloudier, but I do not recommend it for a 90F+ day. We sat up top for quite some time and ate our pastries that we brought from the breakfast caffe, but Sean (besides smiling for this photo) was not super excited to be here 🙂 . We basically ran down the hill to grab our Uber with a very welcoming cold AC.
THE NEW CITY
I don’t know if that’s an official name, but basically it is the area with all the shiny skyscrapers. We did not spend a lot of time there and missed out on the walkway along the ocean that was supposed to be quite nice, but I guess you can’t do it all in the short 3.5 days. Most of the New Town experiences revolved around eating (of course) and the views.
Oro Moreno Autentico Chocolate Panameño is worth the drive from Casco Viejo. They relocated from the Old Town, but the drive is not that far and the chocolate is sooo good!
We also got their special coffee (it actually did not have much caffeine) and a hot chocolate. Not only did the chocolates tasted amazing, they were also super cute.
While we were in the area, we walked over to see the screw looking building – F&F Tower.
Also previously known as a Revolution Tower this is an office building that is 232.7 m / 763 ft tall and it is quite impressive both from close and far.
About 15 min walk away we reached the W hotel and it’s not really rooftop terrace. We thought it would be higher, but the views were still nice and we even got to see some lightning in the distance.
And now that all of the chocolate is somewhat digested, we are ready for dinner. We took an Uber to La Selva Panamá– restaurant recommended by the staff at the chocolate place.
The restaurant looked really nice and most of the food was delicious, but the main meal- the chicken was not very warm. Like it was cooked and sat on the counter for a while before it was brought to the table. That was a bit of a disappointment, but other than that, still a good dinner.
One other place worth mentioning is Panaviera Rooftop Bar. We went there after visiting Panama Viejo. We’ve heard that the drinks are bad, so didn’t get any, but the views were definitely nice.
The entrance to this place is through the casino adjacent to the JW Marriott hotel. We even played a $5 slot machine. Lost 5 bucks it in less than five minutes…
SAN BLAS ISLANDS
It would not be like us to go to a warm tropical country and to miss the beach.
The San Blas are a group of islands in the archipelago de San Blas, located in the Northwest of Panama facing the Caribbean Sea. There are 378 islands in the archipelago, of which 49 are inhabited. Picture perfect islands are not overly touristy and are controlled by the locals-indigenous people that go by the name Kunas/Gunas. The district is called Guna Yala or Kuna Yala.
There are a few ways to reach San Blas. Helicopter ride (we actually met someone at our hotel, who went there on a heli)- if you have extra cash, that might be an option. Sailing- that is a lot more common and we also met a lady at the airport who spent a few nights on the sailboat sightseeing San Blas. You could potentially rent a 4×4 and drive, but then you’d still need a boat to reach the archipelago, so I am not sure how easy this way is. And lastly- a full day tour that includes pick up and drop off at the hotel in Panama City, boat ride and a visit to couple different islands. That’s how we spent one (very long) day.
There are overnight accommodations available, so it’s not necessary to only go for the day. We spoke to some people that stayed a few nights and they said that the hotels are VERY basic. No AC, water in the shower was salty, and the food provided for lunch and dinner was the same two options- fried chicken or fish. As nice as it would’ve been to spend more time here, we had a wonderful hotel booked in Panama City and it was not worth trading it for these super simple conditions.
We read a lot about the drive and how treacherous it is, so I’d like to elaborate on this excursion. We booked it online through Trips Panama (hotel recommended this company) and were picked up promptly at 5.30am. The driver made a couple more stops, but luckily only one other person joined- there was suppose to be 7 total in our SUV. Considering that it was 1hr road on a highway, followed by about 2 hours on the terribly bumpy and winding road – that many people squished in the car would’ve been a nightmare. So we lucked out- I sat near the driver in the front because I tend to get car sick, and Sean and one other person in the back. The bumpy road eventually was just a minor annoyance- somehow we got used to swaying side to side and the driver really tried to avoid huge potholes. I cannot imagine though doing that drive every day and sometimes twice a day- that’s what our driver said his job was. Also, both drivers (we had different one bringing us back) spoke SOME English, but not very much. So knowing some Spanish really helped. There are apps that work without internet and I would highly recommend downloading one (unless you don’t want to talk to the driver the whole 3 hrs each way).
Important note: bring your passports. There is a military checkpoint and they look at the documents. The stop was very short and the reason for it is that you can sail to San Blas from Colombia, so they check for drug and human trafficking. Bring cash. Payment for the tour was only partially taken online. Some of it had to be given to the driver in cash and then another portion in cash was the fees to enter the Kuna Yala territory. All of this sounds complicated, but it really wasn’t that bad in retrospect. Yes, you need to get up super early and sway/shake in a car for some time, but once you get dropped off and get on a boat, it all becomes worth it. At first the water looks green and murky, but once you get out of the channel, magic begins. Little islands surrounded by white sand, some have houses, some only a few palm trees. Clear, blue water, starfish on the bottom and a lot of little fish- it truly is a paradise.
The first island we stopped at was called Yani Island. We arrived there at 10am and stayed until 1pm. Some people played volleyball with the locals, some took endless photos on the swings, relaxed in the hammock, swam- not much to do, but what else is really needed when you have this incredible nature all around?
Lunch was provided- we took the fried fish and it was pretty tasty (though it would be boring to eat the same meal for dinner, and then for the next lunch again).
Three hours of relaxing on Yanis island and we were back on the boat. Not before taking a few more photos of course.
Our next stop was not really an island, but more like a sandbar. We got out of the boat in what seemed like middle of the sea, but it was no more than waist deep. There was a little coral garden for snorkeling (snorkel gear is provided) and it was just a fun place for more photos and to enjoy this crystal clear water.
We spent here about 40 mins or so and then it was time for the last island on this excursion- Isla Perro or Dog Island in English. More swimming, snorkeling, a beer, sun- perfect couple hours.
There even was a ship wreck right near the shore, which made snorkeling that much more interesting.
Very cool spot, but all good things come to an end- at 3pm sharp we were summoned back to the boat, by 4 were dropped off on shore and a driver was waiting to take us back to the hotel.
At 7pm were were back in Casco Viejo and ready to go out for dinner. Despite it being a very long day, we would do this tour again in a heartbeat.
On the boat to San Blas we talked to a group of people who had done this tour and since they really liked it, we decided to book one as well. It was not nearly as long or hard to get to either, so we scheduled it for Sunday morning. The downside was yet another early wake up – we were picked up at 6.45am, but we were back by 10.30, so still had a whole day ahead of us.
The company was called Almiza Tours by My Friend Mario, but we could not find their website, so booked through Viator. The van with a group of people drove to the Gatun Lake where we all got on a boat and set off looking for monkeys.
There were clear signs at the Marina to not feed the monkeys. But The guide had bananas and peanuts and his explanation was- I am not feeding them, you are not feeding them- if monkey comes and wants to take it from you, you have to just let go of it and give it to them…
We stopped at three different islands and the ‘monkey whisperer’ made certain sounds, so the monkeys knew we were there. One by one they jumped into the boat, went all around us and collected the peanuts/banana. Some sat on the heads/lap for a bit, but overall they were very quick and very gentle. Soft little hands and feet would grab the nut and go.
We saw three different kinds- Geoffroy’s tamarin, white-faced capuchin and the mantled howler monkeys. The howler monkeys only eat leaves so they didn’t come to the boat which was ok with us because they seem somewhat aggressive. The captain of the boat (purposely) revved the engine, they sat in the tree and howled/barked the sound somewhat similar to a dog.
We also saw tiny bats, and on the drive back pulled over near a tall tree, because up on a branch there was a three-toed sloth! The guide said they like eating the leafs of this specific tree, because it gets them high. No wonder they are so slow 🙂 . All in all we enjoyed the tour, though I am not sure how I feel about wild animals being fed. It was banana and nuts, but still, they came to the boats because they are trained to be rewarded…
Beautiful country, exceptional food, easy flights from Boston. Panama definitely deserves more time than just a long weekend, but we saw a lot given the short stay we had. There are other islands, coastline and jungle left to explore, so I have a feeling this might not be our only visit to Panama. Hasta luego!