Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday, but between family drama and a few bad cases of food poisoning, I’m over it! As soon as I learned about the “Everywhere” option on Skyscanner, I decided to check it out! You plug in your dates, and leave the destination open. This is how I found a round trip, direct flight from Chicago to Panama for $307, over Thanksgiving weekend, no less! Next I had to figure out where to stay in Panama. I had no idea what a modern city we were visiting! With everything from the Trump Hotel to backpacker hostels, you’ll have plenty of options for choosing where to stay in Panama City. A quick check of Starwood properties showed rooms at the Aloft for $75, including breakfast, so that was a no-brainer!
In all, we spent 4 nights at the Aloft Panama, but with travel days, we had 3 full days to explore. (All other free time was spent at the air-conditioned malls or at the hotel pool, haha! The Aloft was great, but next time I think I would stay closer to Casco Viejo as that is where most of the fun is.
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Panama City Day 1
I like to start off in a new city with a tour to get my bearings. The Panama Canal, Miraflores Locks and City Tour encompasses all the major tourist sites in Panama City. The night before, we received email instructions with staggered pickup times, letting us know exactly when we needed to be ready. We were picked up at our hotel by our tour guide for the day.
Our first stop on the Panama City tour is Cerro Ancon, the highest point in the city, which gave us great views of both Panama City and the Panama Canal.
Next, we headed to the Miraflores Locks on the Canal to watch a couple of ships pass through. We spent about 2 hours here, watching ships, touring the museum and watching a short film. Honestly, watching a boat crawl slowly through a lock isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s cool to see something you’ve heard about your entire life….a man, a plan, a canal….Panama! You can’t visit Panama and not see the canal! The observation deck was packed!
The following day, we saw ships piled as high as the observation decks with containers!
Our next stop is the Amador Causeway, where we had lunch at Mi Ranchito, and our first sampling of ceviche.
Our final destination for the day is Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a great walking tour of the old town, and a chance to sample the “most expensive coffee in the world.” There are some beautiful churches here, and a lot of renovation going on, but some original buildings as well.
The building below was being renovated, and if you look closely, it’s just a wall with nothing behind it!
At this point, it was getting steamy, so we opted to head back to the hotel pool to cool off. (The tour included transit back to your starting point, although most opt to remain in Casco Viejo for the afternoon)
For dinner, we took our guide’s recommendation and walked to Patagonia Grill for a steak dinner. (Well, we walked in the wrong direction, took a 2 minute cab ride and figured out how to walk home!)
Panama City Day 2
For the 2nd day, we wanted to visit the rainforest, and I left the planning to my mom, who’s not really a detail person and is used to letting me do all the planning. We booked a Soberania Rainforest tour through Viator, and while we had a fantastic guide, and ultimately a nice day in the jungle, the pre-trip communication left a bit to be desired. In hindsight, we should have gotten more information prior to booking. Our tour was $185, and I think it’s because we booked a private guided hike, when we were both picturing a tour bus gawking at animals. I would instead recommend the Soberania, Monkey Island and Indian Village tour. We were not really prepared for 4 hours of jungle hiking, as the description doesn’t mention this, nor did the confirmation suggest we dress for it. The website says the tour starts at 8am, and again, the confirmation mentioned nothing to the contrary, so we were confused when the guide called us from the lobby at 6:30. Sleepily, we asked him to come back at 8:00 which is when we thought the tour started. Little did we know, this meant we would arrive in the jungle as the heat was building and the animals were heading to siesta. (It appears this tour has since been replaced by Viator, with much clearer instructions! If interested, click here)
That said, our guide, Jorge was fantastic, as was the driver Vladimir. Both spoke excellent English and had great knowledge of the area as we drove out to the park. After a quick stop for a gas station sandwich (included in our $180 tour price!) we set off on our hike along the pipeline road. This is a car road, but we walked along, and the hike was “out and back” meaning whenever we reached our halfway point in time, we would just turn around and head back to our waiting car and driver. Jorge had great knowledge of the flowers, trees, bugs and birds that we saw along the way. He came armed with several wildlife identification guides as well. We saw sloths, capuchin monkeys, lots of birds and butterflies, and a cayman. We heard the howler monkeys but didn’t see them.
After showers and naps at the pool, we headed back to Casco Viejo for dinner at Casablanca, another recommendation from our first tour guide. Their corvina (seabass) was my favorite of the trip! And Plaza Bolivar was a great place to dine outside.
Panama City Day 3
After two days of hot, humid touristing, a day at the beach was exactly what we needed! (Not to mention a day to sleep late!) After breakfast, we took a cab to the harbor at Amador Causeway, and purchased a r/t ferry ticket to Isla Toboga for $14. We thought we might faint from heat on the way over, so when we landed at the dock, and headed towards the beach, we threw money at the first person offering shade. For $15, we rented an umbrella and 2 chairs and parked ourselves there for the rest of the afternoon. The water temperature was perfect, and the beach was great for finding shells and seaglass!
After showers and naps (again!) we returned to Casco Viejo again, this time for dinner at Feelings. The corvina here was also good, but I had already gorged on garlic focaccia and couldn’t finish my dinner.
All in all, I really enjoyed this quick trip to Panama City. For the price, and relatively short flight (5 hours from Chicago) it was well worth it to experience a whole different culture, climate and cuisine! I look forward to exploring more countries in Central America in the future!Panama City, Panama is a great weekend escape from the States! Click To Tweet
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