The Hippest Neighborhood in Central America – Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

In the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City sultry, sexy and slum mingle into one very, very cool cocktail. It feels like a compact version of Williamsburg but because the resident hipsters are Latin they’re a lot more casual about it. The wood and cast iron architecture would fit right into the French Quarter of New Orleans. Travelers will find boutique hotels, back alley bars, fine dining, and the best places to buy ice cream or indigenous crafts in Panama. Welcome to the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Streets and architecture of Casco Viejo, Panama

An atmospheric mix of old and new in Panama City’s Casco Viejo area, the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Casco Viejo (which means old quarter in Spanish) is also sometimes called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe or, more commonly, just plain Casco perhaps because it’s not quite as old as it used to be. Casco Viejo was built by the Spanish in the 1600s after Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by residents ahead of an attack by the pirate (and rum lover) Henry Morgan. That means that Casco Viejo really should be called Casco Nuevo, but whatever.

Catedral Metropolitana Casco Viejo Panama

The Metropolitan Cathedral in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.

Pirates, dictators and US bombs in Casco Viejo

The site for Casco Viejo, a narrow peninsula ringed by a treacherous reef, was chosen because it seemed easy to defend, especially with the help of  a massive sea wall which was built around Casco Viejo to keep pirates out.

Those walls couldn’t protect Casco Viejo from bombs which fell in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama which was part of the hunt for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (one of his stomping grounds was a waterfront club in Casco which is now being turned into a hotel). After that, squalor and crime pretty much moved in and Casco became a no-go zone swallowed up by an ever-expanding Panama City.

building renovations, real estate Casco Viejo Panama

For sale signs are an increasingly common sight in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City as gentrification spreads through the area.

After recent waves of gentrification and hipsterification, however, the walls around Casco now seem to be there to keep the cool in as some of the most compelling and creative hotels, restaurants and shops in Panama move into the neighborhood alongside renovated buildings, artists of all stripes and a growing expat community. Thankfully, not all of Casco’s original inhabitants have been pushed out and the place retains enough diversity, edge and gritty reality to give it balance. For now.

Casco Viejo Streets

Welcome to Casco Viejo where derelict buildings full of squatting families, like the one in the foreground, rub shoulders with boutique hotels like Casa del Horno seen in the background.

Clapboard building - Casco Viejo Panama City

This clapboard building was one of our favorties in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.

Hip stuff to do in Casco Viejo

Mostly, Casco is about wandering through its streets, admiring the architecture (the remaining ramshackle, squatter filled shells were as beautiful to us as the many lovingly restored homes), sharing the sidewalk with the cool kids and the poor kids, looking at street art, indulging in all kinds of cafe society, getting happily lost and soaking up the hip.

Street Art of casco Viejo, Panama

Street art at every turn in Casco Viejo.

The Canal Museum of Panama (US$2) in Casco is a great place to bone up on your Panama Canal history. We actually thought this museum, which focuses more on the history rather than engineering, rivaled the more famous canal museum at the Miraflores lock right on the canal. However, all displays are in Spanish so if you’re something less than fluent it might be worth investing in the English language audio tour (US$5).

Football in the streets of Casco viejo, Panama

Street life in Casco Viejo.

You can’t miss the atmospheric remains of the crumbling church of the Convent of Santo Domingo at the corner of Avenida A and Calle 3. But don’t just stand and stare. Walk inside the roofless shell and you’ll notice a weirdly flat brick arch spanning the 50 foot (15 meter) width of the building.

Iglesia Santo Domingo and the flat arch, Arco Chato, Panama

The Santo Domingo Church in Casco Viejo with its flat arch, an engineering marvel. Note the traditionally dressed Kuna woman walking past on the sidewalk.

Dominican friars built the church with the flat arch (Arco Chato) and though all reasonable engineering wisdom tells us that arches get their strength from their, well, arches, this ancient nearly flat one survived fires, hundreds of years and many earthquakes–a fact that helped convince skeptics that Panama was a suitable place to build the Panama Canal despite its natural disasters.

The original flat arch finally collapsed in 2003 but multiple engineers and architects were unable to rebuild it the way the friars had and ultimately reconstructed the arch with a supporting core running through it.

Security Casco Viejo Panama City

The Presidential Palace is in Casco Viejo, hence the presence of security forces like this guy.

Hip places to sleep in Casco Viejo (and one stern warning)

Downtown Panama City can keep its business hotels and mutli-national chains. The best boutique hotels and B&Bs are in Casco Viejo and more are opening up all the time.

Conservatorio is a ground breaking group in many ways. They’ve been involved in the overall preservation, restoration and renovation of buildings in Casco Viejo for years and those efforts now include two of the best hotels in the hood including the stylishly homey, all-apartment Las Clementinas (read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop) and the 55 room American Trade Hotel which was in the final stages of renovation when we were in Casco Viejo.The always innovative Ace Hotel Group is managing the American Trade Hotel, which is the largest and most full-service hotel in Casco, and it’s the only international Ace Hotel property.

Apartment-like room Las Clementinas - Casco Viejo, Panama

Every room at Las Clementinas in Casco Viejo is set up as a full apartment with chic decor, a full kitchen and plenty of space.

You know that moment when you come across the website for a hotel and it lodges in your brain, assuming an undeniable place on your travel wish list? You WILL stay there. That’s how we felt when we discovered the website for Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel built in a former bakery (casa del horno means house of the oven in Spanish).

Sadly, our first impressions were not good. Yes, our room was chicly appointed and enormous with a kitchen and dining/sitting area separate from the bedroom. But the A/C in the bedroom didn’t work. Neither did the TV and after two staffers hauled the monster out and replaced it with a TV from another room I discovered, to my grave disappointment, that the jetted tub wasn’t working either.

These initial disappointments were eased by an enormous and fantastic included breakfast featuring fruit salad, freshly-squeezed OJ, well made coffee any style you like, a proper croissant and toast with sliced meats and cheeses.

Casco Viejo roofs with Catedral Metropolitana

Casco Viejo roofs with the Metropolitan Cathedral in the background.

We ended up being more excited about Casa del Horno’s sister hotel, Casa Nuratti. Built as an inn in the 19th century, the building has been restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$97 including breakfast). 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.

children Casco Viejo Panama

Girl talk in Casco Viejo.

The reigning poo-bah of hip hotels, however, is Tantalo. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is THE place to hang out. Rooms have each been decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop.

There are also some notable budget hotels in Casco Viejo including Luna’s Castle which dominates the hostel market and is often full and newcomer the Panamaricana Hostel which calls itself a “design hostel” and actually lives up to that claim with cool stencils on the walls, bright colors and modern furniture.

One warning: Do NOT stay at the White Lion Hostal in Casco Viejo unless you like super shady characters, dirty rooms, all-night noise and staff that tells you one price then charges you another.

Plaza Bolivar - Casco Viejo, Panama

Plaza Bolivar in Caso Viejo with the requisite ode to Simon Bolivar.

Hip eating and drinking in Casco Viejo (sometimes with the Vice President)

Residents and travelers come from all over Panama City to eat and drink in Casco Viejo. Here’s why.

La Rana Dorada is a Panamanian microbrewery with four brew pubs in Panama City (the hippest, of course, is in Casco). It’s a shining example of the brew revolution going on in Central America (which we wrote about for TheLatinKitchen.com). The beer is good and fresh and the food is worth a splurge too (try the plantain pizza). The staff knows what they’re talking about when it comes to beer and you get a free tasting flight when you sit down.

La Rana Dorado microbrewery cerveceria - Panama City

The free tasting flight of craft brewed beer at La Rana Dorada brew pub in Casco Viejo.

La Rana Dorado Brew pub - Casco Viejo, Panama

A friendly bar scene, great beer and good food keep La Rana Dorada brew pub in Casco Viejo lively.

Veggie Moon was opened by budding restaurant mogul Claudia LaForgia who also owns nearby Diablicos which serves modern Panamanian food. Despite the name, Veggie Moon is not entirely vegetarian with fish, seafood and homemade pastas also on the menu. We enjoyed some of the best ravioli we’ve ever eaten and the Panamanian Vice President and his wife looked pretty pleased as well as they dined at a nearby table. When we were in Casco Viejo Claudia was planning a third restaurant as well.

Veggie moon Restaurant - casco Viejo, Panama

Inside Veggie Moon restaurant in Casco Viejo.

Ravioli Veggie moon Restaurant - casco Viejo, Panama

This homemade ravioli that we had at Veggie Moon in Casco Viejo ranks as some of the best we’ve ever had.

Eric Theise, a transplanted New Yorker, opened Mojitos sin Mojitos in Casco and it’s a haven for anyone looking for affordable and delicious fresh-grilled burgers (US$5) and vegi burgers (US$6), good bar prices (US$2 beer; $US4 sangria) and a lovely open-air patio environment. Just don’t order a mojito. As the name implies, there aren’t any.

Granclament has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years. It is not a secret. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter and remember that they do give out samples if you’d like to try any of the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.

It can seem like there are more bars than anything else in Casco (the gringos and the fancy Panamanians that party there are thirsty). However, one stands out. But you have to find it first. Look for a graffiti-esque sign that says “La Vencidad”  then head down the narrow alley into an open air space with tables, more graffiti and a small bar. Nico is probably behind that bar and he’s ready with US$1.50 ice cold beers and one amazing story.

La Vecinidad Casco Viejo, Panama

La Vecinidad bar in Casco Viejo is worth the hunt for the cheap beer and the amazing back story.

Nico used to be just another gang member living in Casco as gentrification began. KC Hardin, who runs Conservatorio with his wife Patricia, recognized that community integration had to be part of any sustainable rise in Casco so he made a deal with Nico: KC would give him the right to use part of one of the buildings he owned rent-free if he promised to turn it into a business and drop out of the gang. La Vencidad (which means neighborly in Spanish) was born.

Capital Bistro Panama was created by Venezuelan (by way of France and Spain) chef Elias Murciano in the fully re-imagined shell of what was a fire station on the water’s edge. After a two-year renovation, there are now quilted leather booths, a hip soundtrack and gorgeous wait staff. We were given a tiny, dry hand towel when we sat down which was reconstituted in water so we could use it. But CBP, as it’s called, isn’t all flash and gimmick.

Elias Murciano Capital Bistro, Panama

Capital Bistro Panama gets the elegant bistro vibe and menu right.

Our hours-long dinner included perfectly cooked scallops, succulent kofta on a bed of lentils, homemade breads and mushroom ravioli in pasta so delicate it was like eating clouds.The top level open-air bar is a fantastic place for breezy drinks with a view of the Panama City skyline.

Perfect scallops Capital Bistro, casco Viejo Panama

Just one of the perfectly prepared (in this case, scallops) and perfectly presented dishes we enjoyed at Capital Bistro Panama.

At Manolo Caracol Spanish chef and owner Manuel Madueño conjures a delicious farm-to-table experience. There is no menu. You simply sit down at long communal tables and get ready for a cavalcade of dishes, many of them made with ingredients grown on nearby farms. Our meal consisted of eight balanced and unexpected small plates including imaginative (but never silly) soup, meats, seafood dishes, salad and dessert preceded by homemade bread with homemade butter. The set price of US$38 per person is a bargain, even if it doesn’t include alcohol. Reservations are a must and some special dietary needs (including kosher and vegetarian) can be accommodated.

Since we explored Casco we hear the street food scene has evolved considerably thanks, in part, to the fact that road construction crews are finally done tearing up and re-doing the streets. Another highly recommended option for affordable eats in Casco is the nearby fish market where tiny restaurants turn the freshest of fresh catches into fried fish platters and ceviche for just a few bucks. Delicious, cheap and the people watching is fantastic.

Casco Viejo Panama

As the facade would suggest, this building in Casco Viejo is home to a factory that makes playful floats for parades and festivals in Panama.

Hip places to shop in Casco Viejo

There’s a lot of cheap tourist crap being sold in Casco, including a long, long expanse of street stalls where traditionally dressed Kuna women sell a lot of cheap junk. Skip that and head to Papiro y Yo run by Zaira who designs new incarnations for traditional indigenous weaving and fabric crafts. Think modern clutch purses and beach bags made using traditional reed weaving techniques and one-of-a-kind coasters made from rolled paper.

Panama City’s Trump Tower ordered 40 of her hand-made hats to use as décor in one of its restaurants and when we were there Zaira was planning on opening a second shop across the street from Papiro y Yo where she planned to sell fashionable takes on the classic “Panama” hat (which originated in Ecuador, by the way).

Footnote: Casco Viejo was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, however, the construction of the Cinta Costera elevated highway which travels over the bay and arcs around the neighborhood, has residents up in arms and UNESCO making noises about rescinding Casco’s World Heritage Site status. The project was the brain child of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli who was voted out of office this year. You will see the Cinta Costera clearly from many vantage points in Casco. If you pay attention, you may also see Panamanian actor/singer/one-time Presidential candidate Ruben Blades. He lives in Casco.

Ruben Blades House - Casco Viejo Panama City

That’s where Panamanian actor, musician and one-time Presidential candidate Ruben Blades lives in Casco Viejo.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

 

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Travel Gear Review: Hydro Flask Insulated Water Bottles & FREE Giveaway

As loyal readers know, we do everything in our power to avoid buying bottled water as we travel through the Americas. Since the beginning of our little road trip we’ve poured water into re-useable plastic vessels (CamelBak bottles or Nalgene bottles) and used our SteriPEN to purify the contents. This saves us money and has meant we’ve avoided leaving tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles in our wake as we travel. But as the health news about plastic bottles goes from bad to worse we’ve finally ditched the plastic and shifted to stainless steel Hydro Flask insulated bottles – and we’ve got 10 of their new 32 oz. bottles to give away to you too.

Hydro Flask

The growing line up of BPA and BPS free stainless steel Hydro Flask insulated water bottles. Want one? Keep reading for details about our exclusive Hydro Flask water bottle giveaway.

Ditching our reusable plastic water bottles (finally)

A few years ago warnings emerged about bisphenol A (aka BPA) which is a chemical that’s been used to manufacture all sorts of plastic products since the 1960s. New research showed that BPA can seep into food or beverages stored in containers made with BPA. Once in your body, some studies have shown that BPA can lead to cancer, miscarriages and other medical problems.

The plastic-making industry, including makers of water bottles like the type we’ve used for years, shifted to a new formula with no BPA. However, the chemical that replaced the BPA, something confusingly called BPS, has been shown to disrupt hormones and wreak health havoc as well.

We drink out of our water bottles every day so, yeah, clearly it was time for us to ditch our reusable plastic water bottles once and for all. Plenty of stainless steel and glass water bottles are now on the market, in part as a response to fears about BPA and BPS. We chose Hydro Flask after reading this piece from Outside magazine which convinced us that these things were tough enough for our Journey.

Hydro Flask in the truck

Our Hydro Flask 18 ounce wide mouth stainless steel insulated bottles with sipping tops keep us hydrated while driving and they don’t spill no matter how rough the road is.

But we need our water bottles to be more than just tough. We need to be able to drink out of them in the truck while we’re driving without ending up with water spilled all over us.  They need to be portable and leak proof so we can take them on the trail. And they need to accommodate our beloved SteriPEN.

We chose two different sizes of wide mouth Hydro Flask stainless steel water bottles so our SteriPEN would fit inside them. Here’s how they’ve stacked up.

Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated water bottle PROS

No BPA or BPS. Duh. And, incredibly, that includes the plastic lids and straws. That’s because BPAs and BPSs are used in polycarbonates and epoxy resins, neither of which are used in the manufacture of Hydro Flask lids or straws.

The lids are dishwasher safe on the top shelf, but the bottles must be hand washed.

Because stainless steel doesn’t get dinged up allowing germs and gunk to grow inside the bottle our Hydro Flasks always seems perfectly clean.

The wide mouth bottles are large enough to take in regular-size ice cubes.

Three lid styles are available which turn each bottle into a regular screw-top bottle, a straw-style sipper (which is what we use in the truck) or a slide-top hot beverage sipper and anything that does triple duty is a great thing when traveling.

Hydro Flask’s happy guy water droplet splash logo makes us smile.Hydro Flask Happy Guy water droplet splash logo

The double-walled, vacuum-insulated construction really keeps contents cold or hot which means we can fill our Hydro Flasks with cold water and it’s still cool even after leaving the full bottles inside our hot truck for days. No more forcing down hot water from a funky plastic bottle left inside the sauna-like cab.

Hydro-Flask-Insulated-Bottle-Hot-Cold

Hot or cold, Hydro Flask insulated bottles can take it and keep it that way for hours.

We love the matte, tactile look and feel of the bottles and the old-school, canteen-like clanking sound they make.

It was super easy to cut the straw for the cold beverage sipper top to fit our bottles perfectly.

The bottles do not sweat so there are no more puddles in the cup holders in our truck.

The ring which holds the standard Hydro Flask lid onto the bottle is secure, but easy to remove if you want to switch to one of the two other lid types.

The straw-style sipping top and straw is super easy to drink from without the need to bite down on a mouth piece.

The lids are totally leak proof except for the slide-top hot beverage sipper top.

Dirinking from Hydro Flask

Working on our truck is dirty, sweaty work and it’s important to stay hydrated.

Every Hydro Flask bottle comes with a lifetime warranty.

Five percent of the purchase price of every Hydro Flask bottle goes to your choice from a long list of charities including the Surfrider Foundation, WWF, Special Olympics and many more.

Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated water bottle CONS

The 32 ounce bottle was too fat for the cup holders in our truck because the insulated construction adds girth. As of this writing there is no 24 or 21 ounce wide mouth Hydro Flask bottle so that left us with 18 ounce wide mouth bottles to use while we’re driving. These bottles are a bit too small for the cup holders so they wobble around a bit as we drive. Also, 18 ounces isn’t a lot of water.

Hydro Flask bottles are a bit pricey. For example, a 32 ounce Hydro Flask bottle (like the ones we are giving away – details are below) is US$31.99 while a 32 ounce plastic Nalgene bottle is US$10.99.

Hydro Flask bottles are a bit heavier than the plastic bottles we’d been using.

The bottles are not dishwasher safe or freezer safe, but that’s not much of a con since we don’t have a dishwasher or a freezer anyway.

Hydro Flask water bottle giveaway

We’re giving away 10 – 32 oz. Hydro Flask stainless steel insulated wide mouth bottles (a US$31.99 value each). This bottle is the latest addition to the Hydro Flask lineup and we’re using one on our Journey. Want one? Input your email in the entry form below so we can notify you if you win. To get earn multiple entries, like our Facebook page, like Hydro Flask and send a Tweet about the giveaway with a just a few clicks in the entry form. Some entries can be repeated every day, so come back for more.

One entry option is a special favor for us: vote for us as in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards as your Favorite Couples Travel Bloggers. Simply follow the link in the entry form and select us ( “Trans-Americas Journey – Karen & Eric”) from the list of bloggers, then click VOTE. You’re allowed to vote once per day.

The contest ends on Friday August 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm eastern time and 10 winners will be chosen at random. Winners will be notified via email shortly after that. The entries of winners (liking pages, tweets, etc.)  will be confirmed before prizes are awarded.

NOTE: Anyone can enter, but bottles can ONLY be shipped to addresses within the continental USA (sorry Alaska and Hawaii).

 

 

Hydro Flask supplied us with water bottles to use and review on the road.

 

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Watch Your Back Miami – Panama City, Panama

As we were traveling to Panama City we found ourselves driving across the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the entrance to the Panama Canal. That’s when we saw it–a shockingly familiar skyline that made us both sneak a sideways glance at the other. Did we just see what we just saw? We would have slammed on the brakes if not for the line of traffic behind us. Not since we were in Mexico City, more than four years earlier, had we seen skyscrapers and highways and joggers and sports cars and traffic and real big city trappings like this. We had arrived in Panama City, Panama aka, Miami South.

Bridge of the Americas crossing the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal

The Bridge of the Americas spanning the entrance to the Panama Canal on our way into Panama City. You can see a hint of big city skyline in the distance.

panorama of Panama City skyline

A panoramic shot of the impressive and Miami-like skyline of Panama City.

Panamanian officials have taken great pains in recent years to create a thoroughly modern city which offers Latin businessmen and businesswomen what they need to ditch Miami as the de facto meeting place for Latin American business transactions in favor of Panama City.

Miami South, Panama City skyline

The Panama City skyline.

In 2006 a multi million dollar expansion turned Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport into the only airport in Central America with two runways and even further expansion is going on right now. During the past few years Panama City has experienced a hotel boom, including the opening of the only Trump International Hotel in Latin America (a second one will open in Rio in 2016). In 2014 the multi billion dollar Panama Metro began running, making Panama City the only city in Central America with such a transportation system.

Waterfront Cinta Costera Park and skyline - Panama City

Part of the miles-long Cinta Costera waterfront park in Panama City. The twisty, glass building was our favorite structure in the skyline.

The waterfront has also recently been renovated and turned into the Cinta Costera Park which includes miles of paths and areas for sports ranging from soccer to volleyball which Panama’s indigineous Kuna people are crazy about.

Kuna playing vollyball on Cinta Costera park - Panama City

A traditionally dressed Kuna woman joins in a game of volleyball in one of the sports areas in the Cinta Costera Waterfront Park in Panama City.

The Kuna also sometimes dance in Panama City’s waterfront park. Check out some traditional Kuna choreography and traditional Kuna clothes (on the women at least) in our video, below.

So Panama City is working up a sweat to Miami-ize and attract international business travelers and expats. When we interviewed Panama’s minister of tourism he pretty much told us leisure travelers are an after thought at this point. But does this slick, steamy, skyscrappered capital city have anything to offer non-business travelers?

The answer surprised us.

What to do in Panama City

It’s not all business meetings and power lunches after all.

After 10 years of construction the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo is about to, sort of, kinda open to the general public this year. We got a sneak peek inside the museum during final stages of construction to find out why it takes 10 years to build a museum and take a look at the impressive installations that await visitors inside the Biomuseo.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The Biomuseo, designed by Frank Gehry, in Panama City.

If that’s not enough science and smarts for you, continue down the Amador Causeway to the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Nature Center (US$5) to see marine life like sharks, turtles and reef fish in tanks and displays including a touch tank, walk along two short trails where iguanas, sloths and armadillos can be spotted.

Starfish Punta Culebra Nature Center Smithsonian Institution

A starfish in the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Nature Center in Panama City.

The Panama Canal is one of the most hyped things on the planet, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. You can experience the Panama Canal in a few different ways (which we’ll be telling you all about in an upcoming post) including visits to massive, canal-side observation facilities, Panama Canal museums and on board tourist boats which take passengers through the canal. Get a taste for the latter in our time-lapse Panama Canal video which takes you from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal and all of the impressive locks in less than 11 minutes.

Every January Panama City hosts the Panama Jazz Festival and while new Orleans doesn’t have anything to worry about, the event is star-studded and world class drawing names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Bill Frisell. It’s organized by Panamanian jazz legend Danilo Perez and we were impressed from start to finish, particularly by students of the Danilo Perez Foundation who brought the house down as they opened the festival.

Herbie Hancock piano 10th annual Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend and snappy dresser Herbie Hancock at the Panama Jazz Festival in Panama City.

The International Beerfest Panama, started in 2013, will be happening again in 2015 (the exact date is tbd as of this writing). The event showcases craft beers from around the world including some impressive beers being made in Panama right now by producers including La Rana Dorada which also has three brewpubs in the Panama City.

You wouldn’t know it to look at her shiny new trappings, but Panama City, founded in 1519, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the Pacific coast of the Americas. Standing like a sentinel to that history is the Panama Antiguo archaeological site and museum.

Belltower and ruins of Panama Viejo Cathedral

Ruins of a belltower and cathedral that were part of the original Panama City settlement, now part of the Panama Viejo arcaheological site and museum.

Not to be confused with Casco Viejo (which is a neighborhood of Panama City), Panama Viejo (sometimes called Panama Antiguo) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a small but well-done museum (US$3, most displays are in English) where maps, artifacts, dioramas and re-creations take you through the founding of the original Panama City by the Spanish to its sacking by Sir Francis Drake which was followed up by a devastating earthquake, pretty much ensuring the settlement’s demise.

Catedral de Nuestra-Senora de la Asuncion - Panama Viejo

The Cathedral of our Lady of Assumption sits in ruin as part of the Panama Viejo archaeological site and museum in Panama City.

Beyond the museum you can walk a short path through the remains of some of the original buildings. Panama Viejo is on the waterfront and the least smelly and most photogenic time to visit is during high tide.

Panama Viejo Towers -old and new

The shiny new Panama City skyline as seen from the ruins of the original Panama City settlement.

Every visitor to Panama City also needs to spend time exploring the ultra-hip Casco Viejo neighborhood where there’s so much to do (from museums to eating to shopping to the city’s best hotels. That we decided that Casco Viejo deserved it’s own separate post.

Where to eat in Panama City

You will not go hungry in Panama City and here are our foodie finds from the heart of the city. There are even more amazing places to eat and drink in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood.

The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Central America. One exception can be found in Panama City. It’s called the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) and after 10 years in the restaurant business its eateries continue to draw locals, expats and visitors.

Beef Carpacio La Ches HRG restaurants Panama City

Beef carpaccio, real Parmesan cheese and fried artichoke hearts at La Chesa restaurant in Panama City.

HRG’s Market is chic/casual bistro-style spot for gourmet comfort classics like sliders, fish & chips and cheesecake (US$8 to US$38)La Posta has an Italian/seafood focus (US$15 to US$32) and a more formal look and feel. There’s a real wood burning pizza oven in the back garden and a fantastic wine list. La Chesa, the most elegant and upscale of the HRG trio where diners were historically welcomed with a glass of c, is currently closed with a new location emerging shortly.  Bonus: HRG co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously appearing in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series Dark Shadows.

Swiss chef Willy Diggelmann (yes, that’s his real name) has another collection of restaurants in Panama City. Most are far less compelling than the HRG restaurants but there is one stand out. Cafe Pomodoro delivers delicious Italian food (including homemade pastas) in a garden setting for a budget price. You can get a big plate of very good pasta for around US$6. We did that repeatedly.

Ancon Hill at Sunset - separating Panama City from Balboa and former canal zone

Ancon Hill, which separates Panama City from Balboa and the area formerly known as the Canal Zone, at sunset.

Panama City’s budget hotel star

While business class hotels and multi national chains are the dominant hotel options in Panama City, there are also quite a few hostals for the budget traveler too.

For our money, Hostal Amador Familiar is the best among them and we should know. We spent a total of more than 50 nights in this place over our many trips through the city and during one extended stay while we worked out the details of shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia.

Here’s why we recommend Hostal Amador Familiar to any budget traveler in Panama City.

  • The place is spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point. We defy you to find a place this woman has failed to keep scrub. Go ahead. Check the tops of doors, or behind the toilet or in the tracks of the shower doors.  We did. And we never found any gunk.
  • There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen (kept spotless by the same cleaning woman who even religiously scrubs the fridge) which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies.
  • Breakfast is included.
  • There’s a large and secure parking lot.
  • Hostal Amador Familiar is in a multi story wooden building in the American Zone of the city. It was built as a home for US workers during the construction of the Panama Canal. It’s creaky and homey and atmospheric.
  • At US$1 per load (to wash and dry) the guest laundry facilities at Hostal Amador Familiar were the cheapest we’ve seen so far.
  • It’s in a quite neighborhood from which you can still easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.
  • It’s cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan for $30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it. Panama gets very, very hot.

If you have a bit more in your travel budget and want to hang out with the cool kids, the Casco Viejo neighborhood is bursting with amazing boutique hotels (one starts at $97) and even a few innovative hostals.

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