Travel to Panama

Panama from Isla Flamenco

In 2017, I was able to travel to Panama for three days on the way to Costa Rica from London. Actually, it was more of a stopover, but during that short time I was able to visit Panama City, take a boat ride on the famous Panama Canal and do some wildlife exploration. In addition to the sightseeing, I enjoyed sampling the local cuisine.

Unfortunately, I had one scary incident where I fell into a hole in the sidewalk as I was walking back from a restaurant in the dark. I injured my knee quite badly but made it back to the hotel where I could ice it. Luckily, I was not too injured and got out of the hole, as I am not sure anyone would have found me for awhile. Subsequently, I learned that I should pay more attention to the sidewalk and use a flashlight when there are no streetlights!

This post is a guide for travel to Panama based on my experience. It was worth the visit and also realising a life-long wish to see the Panama Canal. In fact, it had been on my mind since I had first read about it as a child in history classes.

Ship going through Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal
Ship going through Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal
Old Town Panama City
Old Town Panama City
Panama City Skyline
Panama City Skyline

Highlights

  • Panama Canal tour with Canal and Bay tours– I did the half transit going one way including lunch on the wooden boat called Islamorada. That already took about 7 hours so that was long enough for me to get a chance to see and be on the canal, and transit through some locks.
  • Panama City double-decker bus Hop On, Hop Off tour
  • Miraflores locks to see the ships transit through the locks of the Panama Canal
  • Isla Flamenco – here you can find a colourful Panama sign for a nice photo. The Hop On Hop Off bus driver actually took a photo for me there!
  • Monkey island tour with My Friend Mario – this was a lot of fun cruising in a small boat. We had monkeys in the boat and in the trees above the boat. We also saw some beautiful birds.
  • Visit the beautiful old buildings in the Panama City Old Town
  • Arco chato museum – located in the remains of a church built by Dominican friars
  • Traditional dance and music show at Restaurante Tinajas

Before you go

  • No visa is needed for travel to Panama as a tourist for up to 90 (or 180) days for most countries including the USA and UK
  • Panama customs was friendly and straight forward at the Panama City airport
  • If you want to visit the Panama Canal then check schedules and book a space in advance. Usually the smaller boats need to time their passage through the Panama Canal with a larger transport boat or it is too expensive
  • You can withdraw US dollars and I recommend to have some cash on hand for taxis and restaurants
  • The weather is quite hot and humid. This means you should beware of mosquitos and it also means your camera lens may steam up when trying to take photos, so bring a cloth to wipe it off
  • People shortened Buenos Dias to Buenos or Buenas Tardes to Buenas. 
Colourful apartments in Panama City on the edge of the centre
Colourful apartments in Panama City on the edge of the centre
They really do have Panama Hats in Panama! :-)
They really do have Panama Hats in Panama! ­čÖé
Panama Canal
Panama Canal

Transport

  • I took a direct 11 hour flight on Air France from Paris to Panama
  • For my transport to and from the airport, and sometimes around the city, I used Amber Moon. They were reliable and friendly, though drivers spoke minimal English and did not always know their way around. Thank goodness for GoogleTranslate and GoogleMaps!

Accommodation

  • I stayed at the Panama Princess Hotel, which was centrally located and listed as 4 stars. It was reasonably priced and I would say about a 3 star hotel by US/UK standards. Great breakfast and pool. The wifi was very slow, so I hope that has improved by now!
Church in Panama City - Iglesia en la ciudad
Church in Panama City – Iglesia en la ciudad
Correos, Panama National Post Office
Correos, Panama National Post Office
Simon Bolivar monument and plaza, Panama City
Simon Bolivar monument and plaza, Panama City

Currency

The main currency in Panama is the US dollar. There is also a local currency called the Balboa but at the time this was only given sometimes as change. The US dollar and Balboa were almost equivalent in 2017. Also, I checked in September 2021 and found that they are still almost the same value.

I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates

US Dollar
US Dollar
Lunch at Tataki, Panama City
Lunch at Tataki, Panama City- Chicken teriyaki and yakisoba
Restaurante Tinajas dancers
Restaurante Tinajas dancers

Food

Restaurante Tinajas is a traditional restaurant with dinner and a show. I tried the Sancocho, a typical Panamanian chicken stew, and followed that with chicken, rice and plantains. Very delicious and flavourful food, and not spicy.

Tataki was a delicious Japanese restaurant. I had a mango frozen smoothie and chicken teriyaki with yakisoba.

I also tried the local fast food yeeros which are like kebabs or gyros. And I found a great taco place called Mordida de Burro

In the Balboa shopping centre there were some familiar American shops like Pinkberry, Nathan’s hot dogs and Coffee bean and tea leaf

Monkey Island, Panama
Monkey Island, Panama
Dam near Miraflores locks
Dam near Miraflores locks
Shops and apartments, Panama City
Shops and apartments, Panama City

FAQs

Q: Do I need a tour guide?

A: No, not in general for Panama city as it is easy to walk around. For the Panama Canal tours you will need to join a tour with a boat. And also if you want to go see some wildlife then it is good to find a tour as well.

Q: Do people speak English?

A: Yes at the hotels and tourist places, but not always at restaurants and with local people.

Q: Can I travel solo?

A: Yes, in general it felt safe and people were helpful. I was walking in a very local area of Panama City and a number of people asked if I needed help. I must have looked lost as I searched for a post office.

Q: How easy is it to send postcards?

A: In Panama, it was very difficult both to find postcards. Instead of postcards I found some pages for kids to learn about the local animals etc and then I sent these in envelopes. Getting stamps from the post office was not possible but they could stamp the outgoing mail. See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.

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