The Road Less Travelled (or: What to Do With 12 Hours in Panama City)
Most city trips equal a long weekend of exploration, however there are the rare “in-and-out” excursions that occur thanks to long layovers where you have, at most, one day to hit the ground running. For the most part, such occurrences wind up being a travesty because many cities are too vast to get a feel of in under 24 hours (e.g. thinking Cairo, London and Istanbul here, am I right?). That said, for every Paris there is a Copenhagen: more compact and manageable centres where travellers can spend their layover exploring instead of watching House of Cards at the airport.
Now, while I have nothing against House of Cards, I do like to get outside the box when I travel. And Panamá City is the sort of destination that will put your binge viewing of President Underwood on hold.
A hub for travellers moving between the Americas, Panama City is home to almost 900,000 residents and an impressive, ever growing, skyline. Mr. Intolerant and I stopped in the Central American enclave on our way back to NYC and, with 10 hours to burn, we had deliberated over how to spend our time since we didn’t want to our layover to involve faffing about the airport. A colleague of Mr. I’s, who lived in Panama a few years back, learned of our situation and encouraged us to take leave of the airport. Legend has it that if your layover last more than 6-7 hours, immigration and customs will stamp you through so instead of blowing $50 at the airport you can spend two or three times that much in-country. After agreeing to the idea this colleague was kind enough to arrange a driver (at a rate of $100 USD a day, inclusive of gas) and the jovial Raul picked us up at the arrivals area one early morning and spent the day shuttling us around town.
Spending one Benjamin, while a bit of a luxury, was worth every mother-loving penny as our driver knew what lay beneath every rstone of the lively and architecturally beautiful capital, and was able to navigate traffic #likeaboss. Over the course of the day he took us to the major sites and left us enough time to enjoy two delicious meals that did not consist of pre-packaged airport fare.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament or if you are going to Panama with the intention of exploring Panama City over the course of three to four days, make sure to not miss out on the following sites:
The Panama Canal (but of course)
The 77 kilometre shipping lane that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is a must see. Sure, it’s a bit tedious and, yes, it may involve a bit of waiting and cost a touch more than you’re willing to pay ($15-25 entrance fee), but you’d miss out by not paying a visit to the engineering marvel. One of Panama’s biggest sources of income (just think: 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year and are charged a toll of anywhere between $200,000 – $400,000 USD) the canal site is home to the Miraflores lock, a museum, café and theatre. One could easily spend half a day here but due to our tight time frame Mr. I and I popped in for an hour and a half…just in time to witness an enormous freighter pass through one of the locks.
The Biodiversity Museum (or: a Frank Gehry masterpiece)
Located on the Amador Causeway, the museum hosts several exhibitions on biodiversity curated by the Smithsonian Institution and University of Panama. The building was designed by architectural mastermind, Frank Gehry, so even if you’re not into environmental sustainability–hightail to the museum nevertheless.
The Bridge of the Americas
It is only a bridge, but it reaches over the Pacific entrance of the canal. Quite cool if you ask me.
The Artisans Market on the Amador Causeway
Located close to the Biodiversity Museum on the causeway, this market boasts an impressive selection of Panamanian souvenirs. Dozens of sellers hawk shawls, tunics, baskets, sculptures and other crafts, and the prices are far better than buying your souveniers at the airport or upscale boutiques in other parts of the city.
The Historic District of Panama
A beautiful part of the city, the historic district is what I imagined I’d see when touching down in Panama. To be honest, the glassy high-rise skyline threw me for a loop, however when we got out in Casco Viejo and spent a few hours walking around I was wooed by Panama City. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Casco Viejo (aka: Casco Antiguo) was completed in 17th century and is home to countless cultural, religious, archaeological and architectural gems such as: Palacio Municipal; La Catedral Metropolitana; the National Theatre of Panama and Plaza de la Independencia (amongst others). There are also plenty of restaurants and cafés in the area where you can fuel up on local, Asian, South American and fusion fare before returning to the airport.
I enjoyed this segment of our whirlwind tour the most as we were able to stretch our legs for several hours and soak up the festive and funky atmosphere. That, and I also secured a fruit smoothie so good I’m pretty sure I cried into it.
The beautiful thing about Panama City is it can be “done” in less than 24 hours if needs be. It’s also possible (if you don’t want to spend that one Benjamin) to save your cash by taking a taxi into town and catching a $30 USD ride on the City Sightseeing bus, which has stops around the capital. From the Business District to Cinta Costera, and from the Panama Canal to Amador Causeway and Casco Antiguo, the bus covers the major highlights of the city.
Whatever you decide, I suggest heeding my sole words of advice: get out of the airport and hit the town. It will be worth every extra dollar you spend.