When I plan a vacation, I have a few key things in mind – location, activities, and budget. The third item probably being the biggest concern of the three. How expensive is it for me to get there, and then how expensive is it for me to do stuff once I am there? In planning my latest trip to Panama, I heard great things about Bocas del Toro and how amazing Panama City really is. Every blogger’s post that I came across made it sound like these two places should be on everyone’s “don’t miss” list. Panama city was supposed to have “character” and be a great walking city destination. Bocas del Toro was supposed to have amazing water/snorkel/diving, a fun town to shop and eat in, and again, character. Above all, Panama was supposed to be cheaper than the United States.
They all lied.
I put Panama on Notice.
I‘m going to tell it true. Granted this is my perspective, But here are my reasons for putting Panama on Notice.
Panama City has been touted for three things – nightlife, resort beaches, and be an amazing walkable city. All are “amazing” and “must see” activities. “Every traveler must visit” writes a budget traveler. I took their advice, and here is what I found.
The nightlife is all about night clubs. Are you into salsa dancing late into the evening? If so, then you will have an amazing time in Panama City. What they don’t tell you is that there really isn’t much more to it than that. Clubbing isn’t so much my scene. I much prefer small venues for live music – that isn’t to be had here. Care for an adult beverage? You can find whatever you’d like, but the nice bar in your hotel will be just as expensive as the restaurants or clubs. No one ever mentioned all the casinos around town either. By no means do they offer a Vegas experience but they are everywhere.
The Beautiful Beaches
People praise Panama City for its beautiful beaches. When you see the advertisements for all the luxury all-inclusive resorts in Panama City – Buyer Beware. If you think that you can chill at the resort during the day and then hop into the city for some fun at night, you’ve got another thing coming. What they don’t tell you about these beautiful beaches is that they are not in Panama City. Panama City does not have a beach. Panama City has sludge on its coastline for half the day and then a thin layer of ocean during the high tide. The Beach – Playa Bonita – is roughly a 40 minute drive away. The beach is beautiful there. If you care to commute on your vacation – have at it.
A Walkable Panama City
Casco Viejo is a UNESCO world heritage site that is located on a peninsula on the western side of town. Casco Viejo has two parts. There is the historic old section that has been restored to the glory it presented in the seventeenth century. This is the UNESCO world heritage site. You could mistakingly think that you are walking through an old Spanish town, it is so beautiful. The buildings are three stories tall, multi colored. Some are inhabited with restaurants, hotels, and shops. There are a few buildings that have been left it their “ruined state” to provide appreciation for what the area once was. Walking through the streets it is easy to slip into the day dream that you suddenly were pushed back in time. It is beautiful. For this fact, all the bloggers are right. The neighborhood is beautiful.
Here’s what they don’t tell you. This pretty section of Casco Viejo is about four city blocks by four city blocks. The “pretty” section is tiny. The traffic is awful. You will most likely not be able to find parking. The biggest hit is that it is expensive. If you’ve ever stayed at one of the famous hotels in the world like the Waldorf in New York or the Raffles in Singapore – imagine it like that – small rooms at gigantic prices. If you have the budget, you could, no, you should, stay there. Two days max. If you are on a budget and love exploring on foot, this is a pass-through area only.
They also do not tell you about the other part of Casco Viejo. The remainder of the peninsula hasn’t been restored, is slightly newer construction, but is the home to your every day middle to low income Panamanian housing. Let me describe. A good portion of the buildings are like those within the restored part, but these haven’t seen a dime of restoration. It is overcrowded. It is loud, and it is busy. Here you can find a guy selling juice on the street and few street stalls for food. The traffic is so chaotic and crazy that I would not consider this a walkable area.
Overall, Panama City is not a walking city. You need a car/taxi/bus to get around there. The city does have one walking path along the waterfront. It begins at the edge of Casco Viejo and runs roughly 6 km long the coast. It is a great place for a walk or a run. Prepare yourself for the low tide smell of rotted fish. Sadly, many of the boats that you will pass within the harbor are stuck in the mud. Poor planning and then poor reaction time to get the boats out of the harbor have beached these boats right at their berth. Not the coolest harbor.
The Other Stuff
Now, I haven’t mentioned the canal. I will be honest, the canal is cool. You can choose to take an organized tour or drive up and just observe. I get a kick out of seeing the machines that work in the docks, but I think the best way to experience the canal would be to take a cruise through it.
So you are probably asking yourself why I put an entire country on notice based on one city. Well, I’m not. You can read about the rest of my adventures in my next post.
For my overall opinion, I would say the following. For a budget traveler, this country isn’t on the must see list. This country is on the go to list for very well-off retirees that wish to expat themselves in the city of Boquete, which is the most redeeming city in the country.
I come back to the many blogs and reviews that I read in preparation for this trip. Not a one mentions a city that smells of urine (See Next Post on Bocas), or meals that are costly, or the general “Meh” feeling of this country. Stay tuned to see more on that. I maintain, that is is important to see everywhere once, but I would prioritize this much much lower on your list.