Our direct flight into Panama City’s airport, the largest and busiest airport in Central America, was a quick four hours from Houston.  My friend and I were on a fact-finding mission, not our first, to determine if Panama was in our retirement destination.

Day One: Travel Day

Once we landed, our trip from the airport to our downtown hotel took an hour.  Prepare for traffic nearly any hour of the day and a good reason not to rent a car while you are in Panama City.  The taxi fares are relatively cheap.  Our fare from the airport to our hotel on the shore of the Panama Canal was $30 and from the hotel to nearby tourist areas and restaurants, about $6.  Way easier to get where you want, when you want.

This beautiful country of 3.5 million people has invested in education and health care for its people but not street signs.  Plus the tremendous amount of construction in and around the city can best be handled with taxi service.

Day Two:  Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)

We left our hotel, The Country Inn and Suites at the Canal, early in the morning to get a bit ahead of the heat.  Panama’s humidity is high and packing a bottle of water is strongly recommended.

Our first stop of the day was a walking tour in Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) and the Plaza de la Independencia where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903.

Much of the area, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, is undergoing major renovations. The ruins of Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the Arco Chato

built in 1678 was an amazing historical site. Historians tell us the longevity of the Arco (Arch) was considered in the United States as another good reason to locate the canal in Panama.  It withstood the fire that destroyed the church in 1781 and stood for many more decades as a monument to the stability in the region – no earthquakes.

Another key stop is the former Gran Hotel, built in 1875, with the story of the Panama Canal captured in pictures, displays and videos from the French attempt to build it through the Torrijos-Carter Treaty that returned the canal to the Panamanian’s in 1999.

The entire exhibit is in Spanish but for $5 you can rent an audio player and have your own personal English guide to the collection.  You will see many rare artifacts and learn all about the struggles to conquer the Continental Divide and find a shorter route between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Shopping for everything from Panama hats to original works of art is also available in the center of the Plaza.  Make sure you compare prices from one seller to the next and make a counter offer for your purchases.  Bargaining is acceptable.

Day Three: East of the Canal

We opted to hire a taxi turiistico for the day and explore the area East of the canal.

Panama Viejo (Old Panama) is  the site of the first Panama City and the oldest capital in the Americas.  The city was discovered in 1519 by the Spanish and in 1671 buccaneer Henry Morgan attacked and the city was wiped out by fire.  The site is now an active archeological area with a visitor’s center and museum. Artifacts date back hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived.

Our day of exploring Old Panama gave way to a drive to Cerro Azul (Blue Hill) to see some of the countryside and the Chagres National Park – one of the largest nature reserves in Panama.  You can take any number of hiking trails or a white-water adventure.

Day Four: A visit through the Canal

Being history geeks, day four started early with a 7 a.m. departure on the MV Pacific Queen (arranged through Panama Marine Adventures, $115 for adults) and a partial transit through the Panama Canal.  The ticket also included a continental breakfast, all the water and sodas we could drink, lunch and a bus ride back to our starting point on Isla Flamenco.

The tour guide was fluent in English and Spanish and told the story of its history, construction and operation in great detail.   In 1539 King Charles I of Spain sent a survey team to assess the idea of opening a waterway from the Caribbean to the Pacific but it was deemed impossible.

The French made the next real attempt in 1880, but it failed with a tremendous loss of life. More than 20,000 people died from everything from landslides to yellow fever and more.

The United States and President Theodore Roosevelt bought out the French in 1903 and supported the Panamanians in seceding from Colombia in exchange for control of the canal. In 10 years this enormous project was completed. Read more on the incredible twists and turns in The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough.

Day Five: El Valle de Anton

Today we head west on the Pan American Highway (in the United States, we know it as Interstate Highway 35) about 96 kilometers from Panama City to El Valle de Anton.

El Valle is a beautiful garden spot, in the crater of a long extinct volcano, and our first stop after checking in to the Park Eden Bed and Breakfast was the Sunday Market downtown.  The market is actually open seven days a week but the place explodes with vendors on the weekends.  We picked up souvenirs for everyone on our lists and even bought a few extra necklaces for the gift drawer at home.  The prices?  Malachite necklaces were $3 to $4 and Panama hats for $20 to $25.

Day Six: Discovering Los Altos del Maria

It was a day for discovery.  We decided to see more of the countryside and started climbing the mountains in our rental car for some incredible views.  The area is called Los Altos del Maria and about 20 minutes into the climb we saw the warning sign:  four-wheel drive beyond this point.  Warning signs are few in Panama so we opted to be safe and not sorry and turned around and started our descent.

Day Seven: Gambling in Panama City

We decided to continue our investigation of Panama City with  a walk around our area and grab a late lunch.  The heat got to be too much. We discovered the casino next door at the Veneto Wyndham and enjoyed an air-conditioned break with some entertaining penny slot machines.  There are a lot of casinos in Panama City and near our hotel we wandered into the Fiesta.  If you miss the clinking sounds of coins dropping in the tray from a winning spin, then this is your place.

We opted to make it an early evening and get a fresh start on our last day in Panama with a trip to the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center.

Day Eight: Miraflores Locks

The Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center offers a birds eye view of the Panama Canal in action with live narration in Spanish and English of the transit of ships.

A small sailboat entered the canal and we learned that they paid $500 to make the 48-mile trek from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

While that may sound like a lot of money, consider the time and treasure it would require to sail around Cape Horn in South America.  We learned that the highest tariff to date was for a Norwegian cruise ship that paid nearly a half a million dollars for the trip.

The museum has a short 10-minute film (in English and Spanish) that reviewed the history and impact of the canal on the country.  The displays and exhibits tell the story of the isthmus, the French efforts, the completion by the United States and the return of the canal to Panama in the Carter-Torrijos agreement in 1999.

Some parting observations:

  • Panama uses American dollars (though they do make their own coins) which makes using cash easy.
  • If you bring traveler’s checks, you may need to go to a bank to get the cash.  Some of the hotels will break them for you but that service is not inclusive of all the hotels.
  • Many Panamanians speak English (or want to practice with you) and with our smattering of Spanish, we managed to communicate well enough to get by.
  • Luckily, we didn’t have to use a surprise gift when we arrived in Panama – a card (in English and Spanish) for up to $7,000 in emergency medical care if it occurred within 30 days of the Panama stamp on our passports.  That was a first in any country for me.
  • Always confirm (and negotiate) the price of the cab ride ahead of the trip.
  • If you are among the older generation don’t be surprised if you are passed forward when you are standing in a line.  Panama has great respect for elders.

Welcome to Panama City!

Jeanne Janes: Jeanne comes from a print background that morphed into a 10 year TV career handling assignments, public affairs programming and on-air reporting. She owns Janes and Associates Public Relations and Marketing.