If you follow me on Instagram and/or Snapchat – you’ll know that I took a short but sweet vacation to Panama back in May!
Panama City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and a nice detour from other well-known Central & South American cities like Rio, Bogota or Lima. A beautiful skyline and a sophisticated social scene, Panama is definitely a quiet yet refined hotspot for many around the world. Panama has been compared as a less-expensive, less-touristy Costa Rica and while I haven’t visited Costa Rica as of yet, I’ve been told it’s an accurate comparison.
One major point of difference and benefit for those from the US and Canada visiting Panama is how inexpensive it is and close enough that a short trip is feasible. Flight time from JFK, YYZ and/or ORD is roughly 5 hours – 5 hours 20minutes and can offer a different experience than your typical Mexico, Cuba and/or Caribbean holiday for both friends and families. Copa Airlines is your best bet for the most flight options, they do a great job of bridging the western world with Central/South America and PTY being their flight hub.
However, what comes as peaks can also deliver it’s own valleys. Panama is not as robust when it comes to tourist offerings as the aforementioned cities and countries and it’s quite obvious the more time you spend there. While blooming with city landscapes and rural greenery – finding someone who speaks English is a challenge, and that’s putting it mildly. I thoroughly depended on my Google Translate app to get me through some rough times. Whether its at a restaurant, a hotel (which is super frustrating), the tourist-catered mall etc etc. You’re lucky if you find someone that speaks a bit of English and enough to get you going. That said if you speak fluent Spanish or even intermediate, it’s smooth sailing and that won’t be as much of an issue for you as it was for me. Panama uses American currency for notes and the Panamanian Dollar for coins… which was wonderful as minimal exchanging was needed on my part and the cost of social experiences was rather inexpensive.
Uber is widely accessible in Panama City and for a premium you can even request an English-speaking driver! I picked that option when I had arrived at PTY and he was absolutely lovely – I would highly recommend doing that if your Spanish is no bueno. Many different worlds live in Panama and it almost reminds me of Canada for that – both city and country, wealthy and needy, tedious traffic jams and scenic bike paths.
An important mention would be Casco Viejo – this is the old quarters in Panama City and absolutely worth a visit. You see beautiful cobblestones roads and Panamanian heritage, mixed in with a bit of gentrification displayed as boutique hotels, coffee shops and panoramic bars/restos.
Given that my visit was in May, that would be considered off-season (which if you’re a seasoned traveler, you know that it’s sometimes the best times to visit places for steep discounts!). Best times to visit would be in December right through until March as April-November is off-season, however in November there are a slew of national holidays which make for wonderful parades and overall happier citizens! The true difference between peak season and off-season in Panama is the amount of rain, it is consistently hovering around 27-31 degrees all year ’round, which makes it the ideal for sun chasers like me 🙂
Overall, Panama City is beautiful and I would absolutely go again – my advise would be to make it a Central/South America trip and make Panama City your first foray into Latin culture. A great itinerary would be Panama City, Cartagena, Lima then Cusco (Machu Picchu) finishing off in Rio!
Have you ever visited Central and/or South America before? What about Panama? Let me know what you think in the comments down below!