Rear View Mirror: Panama Travel Tips & Observations after 7 Months in the Country

We spent 215 days and drove 5,336 miles in this tiny little s-shaped country at the bottom of Central America. Our experiences became nearly 60 posts on our travel blog covering everything from falling in love with Casco Viejo, the hippest neighborhood in Panama City, getting into the nitty-gritty about travel to the country’s top beach destination, including where to stay in Bocas del Toro, exploring the Darien Jungle and driving to the end of the road, sailing through the San Blas Islands,taking you inside the week of madness that is Carnival in Las Tablas, exposing Panama’s best hotels from budget to boutique and giving you the lowdown on how to explore the Panama Canal. As we put the country in our rear view mirror, here are even more Panama travel tips and observations.

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Panama travel tips & observations

Panama is not the most foreign place we’ve ever been. English is widely spoken and the country uses the US dollar as its official currency. Social customs and things like architecture and fashion seem familiar too. This is not surprising given the fact that the US had a decades-long presence in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal, even establishing a “Canal Zone” that was administered as US territory. The US even invaded Panama in 1989.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

In Panama, “summer” is the dry season (basically January to April) and “winter” is the wet season (basically the rest of the year).

Panama is on US Central Time and they never move the clocks forward or back.

Nearly every town square in Panama, no matter how small, has free WiFi thanks to a national program called internet para todos (internet for everyone).

Some locals call Manuel Noriega, the former dictator with the famously pockmarked complexion who is currently in prison in a jail alongside the Panama Canal, la cara pina or pineapple face.

Republican senator John McCain was born in Panama.

Frank Gehry, the Canadian architect who designed the recently opened BioMuseo in Panama City (below), is married to a Panamanian woman.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The lowest temperature ever recorded in Panama City is 68 degrees farenheit (20 degree celsius). You don’t want to know what the highest temperature is.

Despite the fact that Panama grows world class coffee in places like Boquete, the stuff you find in the supermarkets sucks. Virtually the only non-instant brand on the shelves is Duran which tastes burned. If you do a coffee tour or visit coffee producing regions stock up there.

Finca Lerida Coffee Tour - Boquete, Panama

You can buy unlocked cell phones pretty easily in Panama, something that was far less common in any other Central American country. Cell phone service was comparatively cheap too. We put US$3 on our +Movil account and it lasted for weeks and every recharge seemed to come with lots of free time.

Cell phone numbers have eight digits. Land line numbers have seven digits.

Public buses in Panama, called diablos rojos, look like they were decorated by a talented gang of spray-paint-wielding 15-year-old boys (below). Even the wheels are decorated. However, the artistic value of these buses if far better than their value as a form of public transportation. Panama City recently banned all diablos rojos because of safety concerns and pollution issues and replaced them with generic looking (and professionally driven) city buses. We visited the final resting place of Panama City’s diablos rojos as the buses were being taken off the streets of the capital.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Unscientific survey: 3 out 3 can openers in hostel kitchens in Panama (including brand new ones) will not work.

The place is obsessed with and full of fake boobs.

Wine is relatively cheap in supermarkets across Panama. A bottle we’d been paying  more or less US$6.50 for in El Salvador and Nicaragua was US$3.95 in Panama for the exact same bottle. Actually, all booze was cheaper and the selection was better in Panama than in other Central American countries because the government doesn’t tax liquor imports, though there is currently talk of re-visiting that policy. For best selection and best prices do your wine and booze shopping at Felipe Mota stores.

Panama Beer - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Though Panama is one of a handful of countries (along with El Salvador, Ecuador, etc) which uses the US dollar as their official currency, the country also has its own national currency. It’s called the Balboa and you often get coin change in both US currency and local currency. A balboa dollar coin looks a bit like a NYC subway token.

Local mass produced beers in Panama include Alta (above), Balboa and Soberana. We defy you to find any real taste difference between them. Luckily, there is also a growing microbrew scene in Panama including outstanding brewpubs from La Rana Dorada (below) and an annual craft brew festival in Panama City. Find out more in our story about Central American microbreweries for TheLatinKitchen.com.

La Rana Dorado microbrewery cerveceria - Panama City

As we reported back in 2011, Panama launched a program that gave all visitors 30 days of free emergency travel health insurance. Sadly, that innovative program has since been discontinued.

Panama Road trip tips

For some reason fuel is about 20 cents cheaper per gallon at the two stations in the town of Anton right on the Pan-American Highway. But be warned: the Texaco does NOT take credit cards and when we were at the station there were no signs to that effect. Also, Panama was in the process of switching station signs from gallons to liters. By now we expect that all gas stations will be listing prices in liters.

In general, the price of fuel varied from station to station by as much as 25 cents per gallon so it paid to shop around.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

It was nearly impossible to find a car wash that had pressurized water hoses.

The roads are not great in Panama but they’re better than the pot hole festivals that pass for roads in Costa Rica. Though stretches of the Pan-American Highway from David to Panama City came close to Costa Rican lows with tons of potholes, wavy, rough, poorly laid asphalt and ridge and gap filled concrete.

Thankfully, speed bumps in Panama mostly take the much tamer form of raised reflectors on the road.

Though diesel prices are often listed on gas station signs in the familiar green color, the actual pump handle is sometimes blue with green being used for regular gas. Read the fuel type carefully before you fill up.

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Hostels, Houseboats and Hip Hangouts: 12 Top Hotels in Panama

We spent seven months traveling across Panama. That’s a lot of nights in hotels. While Panama has seen a recent rush of international chain hotels, including the only Trump Hotel in Latin America and many of the other top end business chains in Panama City, we are not interested in those. As usual, we sought out the best locally owned accommodations, including hostels, houseboats and hip hangouts and these are our 12 top hotels in Panama.

Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. It’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. It’s the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats (below), crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake for wildlife watching and fishing. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel. Jungle Land Panama Lodge Panama Canal In 2012, Travis Pastrana, the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon, gathered some of his equally amped up friends and opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort in Punta Chame near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors plus a luxury hotel, Nitro is a unique adventure resort. We learned to wakeboard and SUP here and made ample use of our deck jacuzzi to nurse sore muscles. Nascar fans should not miss the Miller Lite theme room (below). We wish the food was better, but you’ll be so hungry from your daily dose of extreme sports that you’ll be ready to eat anything.

Nitro City Panama NASCAR room

Al Natural Resort, on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, offers stand-alone, water-front, wood and bamboo bungalows on stilts which were built using techniques and materials that the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades. Bungalows (below) are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut if you must. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets, cooling fans inside the nets (why doesn’t everybody do it this way?), plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights. Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food is amazing–from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. All meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with the gregarious Belgian owner at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The hippest of the hip hotels in Panama is Tantalo Hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations (below) change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is one of THE places to hang out. Each room was decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. The lobby restaurant is surprisingly nicely priced and you can linger and soak up the cool for as long as you like. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop for more.

Tontalo-Hotel

If you want hip but in a more budget friendly price point, check out Casa Nuratti. Also in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood, this place was built as an inn in the 19th century and the building was restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$100). Furniture was made using wood from the original building. There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar and small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins.

Walk into Las Clementinas Chambers & Cafe in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood and you might forget, just for a minute, that you’re in Panama. The ground floor cafe looks straight out of Paris and the rooms-aptly called chambers–are full apartments that channel the style of Manhattan but with far, far more space (below). Both the atmosphere and the square footage are true luxuries in the city. Read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop for more reasons to stay.

Apartment-like room Las Clementinas - Casco Viejo, Panama

Yandup Island Lodge is not your average island getaway. For starters, it’s located on one of the 350+ islands in a chain known as the Kuna Yala or San Blas archipelago because the region belongs to Panama’s autonomous Kuna (aka Guna) indigenous group. It’s Kuna owned and Kuna run and the luxuries here are silence, free time and views not swim up bars and beach loungers. The raised, waterfront bungalows (below) are rustic but comfortable. The food (the place is all-inclusive minus beverages) is simple but tasty. The biggest luxury at Yandup is the chance to get a glimpse into the proud culture of the largest indigenous group in Panama through guided visits to nearby Kuna villages (also on their own islands) and in conversation with Yandup’s Kuna staff. To reach the lodge you have to take a flight from Panama City to the “airport” at Playon Chico on a 6-seater Air Panama plane and that’s an adventure in and of itself given the short runway and its orientation to the nearby coastal hills. See for yourself in our scary landing in this video.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

We spent around 50 nights in Hostal Amador Familiar during multiple trips through Panama City. Conveniently located in a renovated house in the city’s “American Zone”, the Amador is spotlessly clean thanks to the best housekeeper we’ve seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a big, semi-outdoor, also-spotless shared kitchen. Breakfast is included. There’s a large and secure parking area. Laundry is US$1 per load (to wash and dry). And room rates are cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per person per night and private rooms with a fan for US$30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it.

 

Canopy Tower bridwatching PanamaIn the late ’90s a decommissioned US Air Force radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal was renovated into a distinctive round hotel called Canopy Tower (below). Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower has become a magnet for bird watchers. We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify right from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room at Canopy Tower which was simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay. There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but you’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.

The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain but the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence (below). Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the best lazy bird watching in Panama.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper & Male Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened near Las Lajas beach in 2013, has a handful of stylishly bohemian bungalows (below), a small pool and a great open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage. Naturalmente makes a great break journey for anyone making the long haul on the Pan-American Highway between David and Panama City.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

Playa Venao, on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, has a perfect crescent of a beach and some of Panama’s most enticing surfing breaks (below). It also has a new beachfront hotel option. Opened in 2013 by Italian owners, the 14 room Beachbreak Surf Camp (from US$77 private double including A/C and WiFi) is sparkling clean, located right on the beach and guests can use the pool and a large and well-appointed kitchen (a good thing since dining options on this beach are limited). Surf school packages are also available.

Playa Venao, Panama

The ones that got away: Even after seven months in Panama there were two enticing hotels that we never made it to. The first is The Resort at Isla Palenque which seems to have come enticingly close to truly marrying “eco” and “luxury”. The second is the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo which was still under construction when we were there but was shaping up to be another cool option in that ‘hood. It’s now open and being run by the very cool Ace Hotel group, so our hopes remain high. If you’ve stayed at either (or both!) of those places let us know your opinion in the comments section below. If we’ve somehow left your favorite hotel in Panama off this list, let us know that too.

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Want to Own a Top Rated Amazon Lodge?

The owners of Ecuador’s #1 rated specialty lodge near Tena in the Amazon are selling the place along with its great relationship with the locals, superb facilities, loyal guests and international tour company relationships. If you’ve ever wanted to own a top rated Amazon lodge, now’s the time. Here’s why.

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#1 Tripadvisor rating

Anaconda Lodge has been ranked #1 out of 24 specialty lodges in Tena in Ecuador’s Amazon region almost since the day it opened in 2011. As we write this more than 100 guests, from the US, Turkey, Bolivia, the UK and more, have left comments like this:

If you are going into the Amazon Jungle, this place is a MUST! My daughter and I stayed for 3 nights and really enjoyed it. The food was fantastic! The jungle walks, river excursions, and interactions with the local people were informative and fun. We were there almost a year ago and still carry with us the feeling of being in the jungle.”

Anaconda Lodge Amazon Ecuador

But it’s more than just ratings

The Tripadvisor rating is not surprising since Anaconda Lodge was created with love and care and respect for the environment and its local indigenous employees and neighbors. It’s easily accessible even though it’s located on an island in the Napo River in the Amazon region of Ecuador. The food is terrific, the local staff and guides are charming and knowledgeable and the jungle is gorgeous. Meticulously built and maintained rooms (one is pictured below) are simple but stylish and have everything you need for a comfortable stay in the jungle.

How do we know all of this? We spent New Year’s Eve at Anaconda Lodge with its wonderful owners, Francisco and Silvia. The entire place is infused with their passion for giving visitors the chance to understand the flora, fauna and unique human cultures of their slice of the Amazon and the environmental and political challenges that currently threaten the region.

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How you can own a top rated Amazon lodge

Francisco and Silvia have done the hard work for you and the fruits of their labor–pristine facilities, a great relationship with the locals, solid relationships with international tour companies, a reputation for outstanding value for money and that #1 Tripadvisor rating–can be yours. The asking price for the place is US$1,000,000 and the owners can be contacted directly at info@anacondalodgeecuador.com.

Tell them the Trans-Americas Journey sent you!

 

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