In Search of a Panamanian Paradise, Chapter 10:
Although we’ve spent our four visits to Panama in the Chiriqui Highlands town of Boquete, our first two trips began and ended in Panama City. We haven’t spent much time there since Copa Airlines started a shuttle service between Panama City and Chiriqui Province’s capital of David. Still, we have fond memories of those first two visits, and how we managed to thoroughly enjoy ourselves without going broke.
Panama City is famous for many things: the Panama Canal, a modern look and a cosmopolitan atmosphere, which includes multi-star hotels and restaurants, as well as world-class festivals and cultural events. But if you think that you have to give up your first-born to partake of the city’s bounty, think again. Enjoying Panama City can be affordable, and family-friendly enough that you can bring your first-born along with the rest of the clan. Here’s how.
Rise and Shine: You’re in Panama City
In order to get your day started on the right foot, you need to have spent a comfortable night, followed by a substantial breakfast. Hotel CentroAmericano will meet these needs and more for around $70 per night, double occupancy, including breakfast for two.
This small, pet-friendly hotel is located near various medical facilities that include the Hospital del Ninos, Hospital Santa Tomas and the University of Panama School of Medicine. The rooms are clean, the beds are comfortable, there is complimentary wifi and the showers are fully functional.
The full breakfast offers several options including pancakes, fried eggs and bacon and liver and onions. The scrambled eggs with vegetables is an excellent choice for its flavor and texture. A side of tortilla or toast accompany the main dish. The tortilla is not the flat, round all-purpose wrapper to which Americans have become accustomed. It is a corn cake that has been fried to a golden crunchy crispness, with a tender interior.
Fresh fruit salad, orange juice and a choice of coffee, tea or hot chocolate round out the meal.
Under no circumstances would I recommend you order the breakfast item listed as Sausage Stew. I did, and it was the only regret I had during our stay at CentroAmericano. It turned out to be sliced hot dogs in tomato sauce. Yuk!
To the hotel’s credit, they do have a way with fish, and also make a tasty burger for lunch or dinner.
Now, with bellies full, it’s time to hit the street.
All in a Day’s Wandering
The area surrounding the hotel is less than scenic and not necessarily conveniently located, but it is safe and there is reliable public transportation to take you anywhere in the city you want to go. Also, cabs are relatively inexpensive.
Casco Viejo (Old City) is within walking distance of the hotel, and offers the opportunity to wander through historic streets and pedestrian malls where tourists and locals mingle. Not to mention a chance to walk off that breakfast. There you’ll find churches, government buildings, plazas and palaces, each with its own unique history.
Take a walk through Plaza Simon Bolivar, and you’ll arrive at the waterfront. From there you can see the causeway, the harbor and a stunning view of the city, with its concrete and glass sky scrapers.
The architecture echoes back to the eras of Balboa, Tomas Herrera and Panama’s deposed dictator, Manuel Noriega. Not to be missed is a walk past the Presidential Palace overlooking the bay.
Communing with the Canal
The Panama Canal Museum takes you through the planning, construction and daily operation of one of man’s most ambitious undertakings.
For $2.00 for adults, and a whopping $0.75 for children under 12, you can spend an hour or two exploring a fascinating collection of exhibits, artifacts, models and videos that explain how this mammoth project came about.
The museum can be found on the Plaza de la Independencia, in a magnificent building, once housing the offices of the French Canal Company, the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission and the main Post Office before its renovation and opening in 1999.
There are shops and restaurants to be found everywhere you turn, however, if you’re still digesting breakfast, but want something light and refreshing, there’s nothing better than a large cup of shaved ice to perk you up.
Stop at any street vendor and select the fruit flavored syrup you would like. This will be poured over a large cup of ice, which you can watch being shaved from a giant block. You can have this frosty treat drizzled with a thin stream of coconut milk, too. Grab a straw, a long plastic spoon, some napkins, and find a shady spot to sit and enjoy.
Thus rejuvenated, you can walk back to the hotel for a siesta during the hottest part of the day. If you’re not quite that rejuvenated, a cab will set you back about $3.00.
Refreshed from your siesta, and ready for some dinner, the Mercado del Marisco, or “Seafood Market”, is about a 20 minute walk from Hotel CentroAmericano. Within a couple of blocks of the hotel, you cross a bridge over the highway, and take a leisurely stroll through Cinta Costera, a public park that runs along the waters of the Pacific, as you make your way to your destination.
Don’t be in too big a hurry, because you will learn a great deal about the area’s inhabitants. You will see families walking together in the gathering twilight, fathers teaching sons to ride their first bike, young girls giggling and gossiping, and teens playing sports. Family life is everywhere, and it’s beautiful to see.
There is public access exercise equipment, bicycle paths, benches, fast-food vendors, people trying to sell all kinds of stuff and people just soaking up the cooling ocean breeze.
When you start smelling fish frying, you’ll know your getting close. The Mercado del Marisco is a long, low structure featuring several eateries with similar menus that are almost identical. If you’re willing to part from your view of the water, you will find lower priced offerings around the back side of the building.
Ice-cold cerveza (beer) comes in cans, and costs $1.00. Several types of ceviche are served in styrofoam cups. You can get shrimp, fish, lobster or a seafood mixture that range in price from $1.75 to $3.50. What it lacks in presentation, it makes up for in flavor. The citrus marinade that “cooks” the seafood has a back end kick. You get more seafood in that cup than you would find on a beautifully arranged plate that costs four times as much.
If you’re still hungry, you can get an order of fried fish, patacones and salad for about $9.00, but the portions are generous, so sharing an order is not uncommon.
The hot fish is very hot, and the ceviche is very cold. Both are so fresh, they were probably swimming earlier that day.
But the food isn’t the only draw to the Mercado del Marisco. It is a place where families, couples, singles, tourists, and locals congregate. If you sit at one the large tables, people will talk to you. The atmosphere is friendly and jovial, perhaps in part because of a visible, but unobtrusive police presence. The teens in the park behave and you can feel safe walking back to the hotel in the dark.
If all the best things in life aren’t always free, they don’t have to max out your credit card either. You can enjoy a fabulous day in Panama City for a small amount of money, and take home memories that money can’t buy.
Do you have any advice for making a particular city budget friendly? Let us know in the Comments.
Avenida Ecuador y Justo Arosemena
Ciudad de Panama.
Telephone: (507) 227-4555