Looking for a cheap getaway with friends? Or are you yearning for a country with plenty of mountains to climb and sightseeing history to learn? Well, friends, you can officially add Panama to your bucket list of go to countries. Panama is a country where you can get a relaxing beach vacay and still enjoy the scenery while hiking and touring. Although Panama is a Spanish-speaking country, it feels like Miami beach with a dash of Jamaica. I was actually surprised at the amount of black people and the high Caribbean influence. When most people think of Panama they think of the Panama Canal but this country has much more to offer.
At least once a week I search on Groupon in their “vacation” section to see if they have any steals. Lo and behold, the first thing that pops up is a vacation to Panama City, Panama for $500 including airfare and hotel. As if that was not good enough, the hotel was the 4.5 star Hard Rock Hotel Megapolis. One of the finest in the city. I was sold.
My best friend was my travel partner for this trip and when we arrived to Panama we realized that we were so excited we did not go to the ATM to take out money. We did not have to worry, though, because Panama uses all major credit and debit cards. Plus there are no international transaction fees because their main currency is USD. This was American convenience at its finest. I was giddy with excitement when I also learned that they had Uber as well and the cost to get from the airport to our hotel in was about $5. Uber has an option where you can get an English speaking driver but that option was more expensive. Most of the drivers on the Spanish-speaking Uber spoke a little English anyway or were really good with context clues.
The food prices in Panama had the same set up as most countries outside of the United States. The restaurant inside the hotel and at the tourist spots were closer to $20 a meal while the local eats were about $5-$7. The local eats always tasted better too. Some restaurants were not vegetarian friendly so I took the pescatarian route for the most part. They had a range of seafood from snapper to oysters and lobster for cheap. The average price for a drink was about $7 for top shelf (yeah, that cheap!) and the drinks were strong.
Panama City was a pretty easy to maneuver around by local transit. There are two transit bus options, one is a regular city transit bus and the other is a school bus with paintings and colors on the side. The white transit bus is Panama’s standard bus for 25 cents one way. To get a bus pass you would have to the bus terminal in Albrook Mall and buy one for a minimum of $5. The transit bus has information about routes online. Although the school buses cost more (50 cents) each way, most locals and tourists alike prefer to use them for transportation. You do not need to purchase a bus card for this bus and it gets you to your location faster than the regular transit bus. The driver for the school bus will shout the direction the bus is going when he gets to a bus stop. There are attendants on the bus that speak English and Spanish so you can just let them know where you want to go and they will let you know if it is the right bus or what colors you should be looking for on the side of the bus. The school busses also transport locals to surrounding areas outside of Panama City. It would cost no more than $5 but the trip is long and usually packed.
The Groupon was good for three days and four nights in Panama. Not nearly enough time to explore all 480 miles of coastline but we made the most of it. Since we got there at night time we wasted no time going out to the Hard Rock Casino that was next to our hotel. After we lost a good amount of money, we headed to the bars and clubs that were in walking distance. There is a party every night in the city that has music genres from salsa to dancehall. You can go club hopping on 3 different strips in the city as the clubs have no cover. I am not sure what time the nightlife ends but we always left around 2am.
Panama’s rainy season goes on for 9 months from March to December so during our November travel, we were getting some light scattered showers. We did not let the rain affect our adventures so for our first day we stayed in the city and went sightseeing at Panama Viejo. These are the ruins of the old city of Panama that the city keeps open as a tourist spot. We caught the city bus there from our hotel. The ruins have different information stations that tell you about the different areas of the used to be city. There were different tours going on that we joined in on informally but most of the time we just read the posts. It was interesting to hear about the old city and their rituals. On the way back from the ruins we got lost because we caught the wrong bus. All the transit busses go back to the main bus terminal at Albrook Mall so we got off there. We caught the school bus after one of the locals recommended that the bus was faster than the transit bus. The school bus turned out to be fun because it gave us a more scenic route and while the bus driver was playing dancehall music, the locals would be dancing.
El Valle de Anton:
For our second day we had a guided tour that included roundtrip travel to the city of El Valle de Anton, a visit to the Panama’s zoo, climbing up the Sleeping Indian Girl and a bathing in a hot spring. The tour was all day and well worth the $80 USD. The travel from Panama City to El Valle de Anton showed the unaltered and scenic country side of Panama. The houses and greenery all around were magnificent. When we got to the zoo, we saw all of the animals that were native to Panama from their diverse frog collection to the collection of different primates. The climb up “The Sleeping Indian Girl” was definitely not for the faint of heart. It is a good fitness challenge and at 10,000 ft the view from the top was magnificent. Climbing down the mountain, we were able to take a dip in some of the cold waterfalls that line the backside of the mountain. Then we went to the natural hot spring “spa” inside the town. We got to put on a clay face mask, dip in the mineral pool and relax in the hot spring.
Before our afternoon flight, we caught and Uber to Casco Viejo to sight see. Casco Viejo is where you can go “alter hopping” and see the elaborate Catholic churches on each corner. You do not have to be religious to appreciate the architecture, history or art that is within these churches. There is a lot of construction going on because they are rebuilding (gentrifying) the area but it is still a must see. They also have an awesome view of the city’s skyline along the water. You can see the many monuments along with the colorful street art and shops. If you appreciate human beauty as much as I do you will enjoy the natives dressed in colorful traditional attire.
Panama is definitely on my list of countries I would like to visit again. I already have an itinerary in place for the next time I find a cheap flight! I would definitely like to go over to the Caribbean side of the country or take a ferry to Taboga Island.