After living for a month in Panama City, I’m glad to sum up my favourite moments in the most modern city in Central America in this Panama City layover guide. As part of my 7-month adventure to explore some of the best dive sites in Latin America, I will keep using Panama City as a connecting hub. Let me show you that Panama City is much more than its famous canal. What if I tell you, it’s possible to scuba dive in both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans from Panama City?
Citizens from 123 countries (!) can visit Panama visa-free for up to 3 months. Check if your country is on the list (including the US, the EU, the UK, Australia and Japan). The current entry rules regarding COVID make it easy for international travellers to enter Panama as long as they are fully vaccinated and fill up the official health form before arrival.
I’m hoping to prove with this Panama City layover guide that it is worth not overseeing Panama on your way to other destinations. Hopefully, you will give it at least a couple of days instead of spending 2 or 3 hours at Tocumen International Airport.
Where can you fly direct from Panama City?
You can fly direct to Tocumen International airport from Europe (Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt) or Northern America (New York, San Francisco, Montreal). For affordable flight offers, I highly recommend checking out Kiwi.com. Once in Panama City, some pretty exciting destinations are just one flight away:
- Guayaquil in Ecuador is where you fly to the Galapagos Islands
- Cancun in Mexico to explore the cenotes of Yucatan
- San Pedro Sula in Honduras to then reach Utila or Roatan, the Bay Islands
- San Jose in Costa Rica is equally interesting for diving and surfing
- You can get to Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Aruba, Curaçao or Barbados.
During my 7-month adventure in Latin America, I will keep using Panama City as a hub to explore two more world-class diving destinations on top of Panama’s best dive sites: the cenotes of Yucatan and the Galapagos Islands.
How to travel from Panama City airports to the city centre?
Panama City has two airports. Albrook Airport is in the heart of the city, Tocumen Airport is about 25 km away. Except for two flights to Columbia, Albrook Airport is only for domestic flights in Panama. It means you’ll need to find a way to get to the city centre from Tocumen.
The distance to the city centre isn’t that long, and a taxi ride will be around 30 USD, while an Uber ride will be about 20 USD. There is a possibility to make the journey on public transportation. Still, I sincerely don’t think it is worth the hassle of finding the bus stop and negotiating with passengers to let you use their card against cash (a card you can only get at the metro stations in town).
If you want to ride Uber, you’ll need data or wifi. Like me, you won’t have a SIM card letting you use data at a reasonable price. You’re left with the airport’s wifi, which is ok but will stop working from the moment you step outside the arrival hall. So, wait until the driver arrives and then go outside, where you’ll see different lanes with numbers. It should be 15 or 16, which is the second lane on your right, as indicated in the instructions on the app.
Generally speaking, even in a month in Panama City, I have only been using Uber as my rides were as low as 2,50 USD for short commutes, up to 7 USD when I was crossing the entire city.
How much time do you need to visit Panama City?
Panama City, or Ciudad de Panama in the original version (locals only say la Ciudad, and the cool kids, P-T-Y in English), has the advantage of being a big city with not such a big centre. As a visitor, the main areas of interest are Casco Antiguo, Ancon Hill, the Amador Causeway and the Costa Cintera promenade. As they are near each other, it’s easy to plan a layover for two or three days. If you book your flights with Copa Airlines, they let you do a stopover for free for up to 5 days.
If you want to take the opportunity to go scuba diving while in Panama City, 5 days won’t be too much, knowing you’ll need a minimum of 24 hours of decompression before flying again. It’s possible to dive in both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans in one day, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s better to do it in two days, but I get to the details in the scuba diving section. Here are some ideas for scheduling your visit depending on how much time you’ll stay in Panama City:
- Less than 24 hours: Cerron Ancon + Mercado de Mariscos
- 2 days / 1 night: + Casco Antiguo + Panama Canal Museum
- 3 days / 2 nights: + Diving in Taboguilla, going through the Pacific entrance of the canal + Amador Causeway
- 4 days / 3 nights: + Diving in Portobelo, on the Caribbean Coast
- 5 days / 4 nights: + Panama Viejo’s archaeological site before going back to the airport.
- With one week, you can immerse yourself in the rainforest while getting a fantastic but unexpected view of the canal at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.
What to do during a layover in Panama City?
You’ll read everywhere that if there is only one thing you should do in Panama City, it’s head to Casco Antiguo. There is a reason for that: it’s incredibly charming, it has fabulous museums, and you’ll find the best restaurants (and the best parties) in town. However, as a nature lover who always loves a bit of action, I’d argue for Cerro Ancon, or Ancon Hill, to be the one thing to do.
Note I haven’t included anything in the modern part of the city centre since it’s mostly an office area without much to do except if you are into shopping sprees. If so, no worries, just head to the MultiPlaza mall; even as someone who’s not really into shopping, I loved it (big, clean, bright, lots of food options). The most beautiful part of the modern city centre is looking at its skyline from a distance. And for that, there is nothing better than Ancon Hill, the rooftops of Casco Antiguo and the Amador Causeway.
Ironically, it was one of the last things I did while staying in Panama City. I was waiting for the perfect weather with the perfect light to make sure I could catch a killer shot. I needed the golden hour before sunset to have the skyline lit beautifully with the immensity of the Pacific Ocean in the background.
But watch out, there is a solid 30-minute climb to the top of the hill of Ancon, and the gate closes at 4 pm. There was no issue staying later, but towards 6 pm, the police made sure everyone went down. If you are coming by taxi, the best point to start the walk is “Mi Pueblito”. It’s a tourist attraction recreating the architecture of the Afro-Caribbean regions of Panama. The cars can’t go further. As you start walking, you might notice how the architecture of this residential area is different from the rest of the city. Ancon Hill used to be part of the American-controlled Canal zone. So, these are the houses where the canal workers and their families lived.
Once you pass the last house (whose owner is kind enough to let walkers use a water tap for free) and the gate, it’s all about wild nature. Yes, right in the middle of the city. So, watch out and open your eyes. With some help from Panamanian families on their Sunday walk, I saw toucans and sloths! The slope is not that steep but long. After following the curved road in the humid heat of Panama, I sure did good cardio training by climbing to the top of Ancon.
When you see the antennas, there is one steep stair left to climb, and you’re finally there. At the top of Ancon Hill, it’s not one but three viewpoints you’ll be able to enjoy: first, on your left, you’ll get the view over the Casco Antigo with the Costa Cintera road circling it, then on the right, after the fence of the big antenna, you’ll get the viewpoint of the Panama Canal, the Bridge of Americas and the Cocoli locks.
The last one, in the back, after a tiny last bit of climbing, is over the modern skyline of Panama City. What a sight between palm leaves, surrounded by the jungle, to see another jungle of steel and glass reflecting the sun’s light before it sets. If you are more interested in the canal, note that Ancon Hill is the best viewpoint. But, you’ll need to come in the morning if you want good pictures and avoid backlit.
Don’t miss the giant Panama flag flying over Ancon Hill at the very end of the path. This flag has a tremendous significance for Panamanians. It’s relatively recent history: on the 31st of December 1999, the US retroceded the Canal Zone to the government of Panama. Ancon Hill was a part of it. This flag is a commemoration of this major event. So, breathtaking views, wilderness and history all in one place? That’s why it’s my number one spot in Panama City.
I don’t count all the times anymore I went to Casco Antiguo, the old town of Panama City. Either to be a tourist for the day or just treat me to brunch, drinks or dinner (or all) in the most scenic district of Panama City. If you don’t want to sound too much like a tourist, say Casco Antiguo and not Casco Viejo. Panama Viejo is another place, the archaeological site of the first settlement by the Spanish in the 16th century (see further below).
Walking around Casco Antiguo
People understood the potential of the charming streets of Casco Antiguo, and in recent years the pace of building refurbishment has been incredibly fast. Like me, you’ll still see an abandoned building with falling balconies next to a newly refurbished hotel with bright coloured walls and shiny ironwork. Everywhere you look is a delight for the eyes. Be careful as you walk; the sidewalks, when existing, are often uneven. Get lost but not too much towards the northwest, as the district also borders one of the ill-famous neighbourhoods in town, El Chorillo.
On my first day in Panama City, I started by the south tip of Casco Antiguo, named Plaza de Francia (France Square). Intrigued, as I arrived, there was indeed the French Embassy. But more than that, in the middle of an elegant, flamboyant trees garden, an obelisk stands with a rooster on top (the rooster is the national animal of France). I understood what was going on as I read behind the obelisk, engraved in stone, the story of the construction of the canal.
It goes from the Spanish Conquista in the 16th century to the end of the American project at the beginning of the 20th century. But in the middle, there was first a French project that never succeeded. In the meantime, it saw the death of 22,000 workers doing the first part of the digging, mostly from malaria and yellow fever which used severely hit Panama before the Americans found the cause of it. Shockingly enough, almost the entire team of workers for the French project came from Martinique and Guadeloupe. My two cents, the square should be named “Plaza de las Antillas”.
As you walk from Plaza de Francia, you’ll notice stylish stairs and find at the top, the Paseo de Las Bovedas. It offers a stunning view of the modern skyline and Costa Cintera road circling the district (oh, the stories I heard about this surprising road around the old town which should have been a tunnel). As you keep walking, you’ll find a tunnel of bougainvillaea flowers, below which there is an indigenous arts and crafts market. If you want to buy souvenirs, such as a tote bag decorated with Guna Yala’s Mola (embroidery), it’s a good spot.
Like me, you might be tempted to continue all along the shore before returning to the shade of the interior streets, but unfortunately, it’s not possible. Casco Antiguo is also the home of the Presidential Palace, the Palacio de las Garzas. You can continue until the National Theatre and have a quick look at the official buildings of the ministry of foreign affairs. Take the opportunity to relax in the shade with a drink below the trees of Plaza Simon Bolivar and listen to the birds that will make you feel you’re in the middle of the jungle.
Visiting the museums of Casco Antiguo
At the heart of Casco Antiguo, make sure to visit the Canal Museum. Its entrance might be 15 USD, but I absolutely recommend a tour. The canal history is complicated; this museum can help you grasp some of it. The 19th-century green French windows building in itself is stunning. It was the original Panama Canal Company building. Be warned, there is a lot to read throughout the exhibition. All explanations are both in Spanish and English. They also have audio guides in other languages.
You’ll learn how Panama has always been a strategic point. For nearly 200 years, there have been many projects led by the English, the Scottish, the Spanish, the French, and the Americans. They also looked at the Darien region, East of Panama, and Nicaragua. You’ll learn what went wrong with the French project, whereas Fernand de Lesseps succeeded with the Suez Canal in Egypt. You’ll discover how the US manage to get exclusive use of the Panama Canal zone by trading the independence of Panama from Colombia. You’ll see how the two worlds used to coexist for good and worse. If you need a crash course on Panama History, this is where to go.
Sincerely, to discover the Panama Canal, it’s better to climb Ancon Hill and visit this museum than go to Miraflores locks like everyone else (especially if you join a diving day trip to Taboguilla Island through the canal). The visitor centre of Miraflores costs 30 USD and will require extra transportation costs since it’s further away.
Talking about museums, there is a fabulous tiny museum of the indigenous art of Mola. The intricate embroidery work features patterns inspired by nature. The Mola Museum hosts pieces that are more than a century old. This is an excellent way to look at the heritage of Panama from another perspective, and it’s free.
The best restaurants & rooftop terraces of Casco Antiguo
Last but not least, Casco Antiguo is the place to enjoy some of the best cuisines in Panama City. Most of it is a fusion between Panamanian recipes and ingredients with international influences such as Mexican, Italian, French and Japanese. Panama City is a cosmopolitan city. The project of the canal brought people from all over the world. It’s no wonder why it was such a melting-pot in each plate I savoured.
Casco Antiguo is famous for its rooftop terraces, displaying some of the city’s best views. You won’t be able to enjoy them for lunch as the heat is way too intense at that time. Even if you are visiting another part of the city, you can always come for drinks and dinner right in time for sunset (Be there at 6 pm). This is the way to enjoy the lively atmosphere of Casco Antiguo, which almost never sleeps (more about this is the where to stay section).
During the day, either for lunch (or for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays), my favourite address got to be Mahalo Cocina y Jardines. You can either enjoy the shades of the trees of their inner garden or, on a sweltering day, their stylish air-conditioned bar. For brunch, you’ll get a choice of egg dishes, avocado toast, pancakes and tropical smoothies.
For me, at night, there is no better place than the rooftop of Lazotea. It has a killer view of the skyline and a delicious menu of fusion dishes inspired by the best international cuisines, all made out of local products. Lobster tacos, anyone? I gladly celebrated my first and last night in Panama City there. Make sure to book your table ahead; you can just pass by during the day. It’s not cheap, but not that expensive either (count from 40 to 50 USD per person). I didn’t regret any cent.
For a casual and cheaper alternative, by just walking 10 minutes out of Casco Antiguo towards the Costa Cintera, you’ll find the Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market). It has a large food court where you can eat the best and cheapest ceviche de corvina (raw seabass salad with lime juice) for as little as 2,50 USD. My recommendation? Ask for a maracuya (passion fruit) juice and a side of yuca fries (manioc) to go with it! And if you still have energy and time left, walk to the Panamian flag by continuing walking after the market along the Costa Cintera. It’s another incredible view of the city.
If you feel like going on a rooftop night crawl, you can also check Tantalo, Casa Casco and Selina; they all offer a different perspective on the city. The highest is slightly outside Casco Antiguo, near the Mercado de Mariscos. I highly recommend taking at least one beer, just for the view: the Faro del Casco Antiguo is on the 24th floor of the Bayview building and opens at 4 pm.
Amador Causeway & Biomuseo
The causeway was built between the shore and three tiny islands with the rocks excavated from the excavation of the Panama Canal. Today, it’s a local favourite to enjoy some of the best views of Panama City, delicious ice cream or after-work drinks. It gives you a perspective from the ocean as if you were on a boat.
A bicycle lane along the causeway makes it a great place to rent one. It’s just too bad it doesn’t connect with the Costa Cintera. So, you have to get there by taxi first. The rental bikes companies and ice cream shops are both located in the small mall of Isla Perico.
While at the Amador Causeway, you will surely notice a colourful modern building. This is the Biomuseo, or “la Casita de Lego“, as locals nicknamed it. The building was designed by Frank Gehry, who also did the Guggenheim modern art museum in Bilbao and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.
The exhibition is about exploring the rich biodiversity of Panama. It explains why biodiversity is so important to humankind and then digs into the geological reasons that made Panama such a rich natural environment. It has 255 mammals, 972 indigenous bird species, 222 amphibians, and more than 10,000 plant species. Panama is also the home of 30 shark species, 12 dolphin species, and 5 sea turtle species. Besides, humpback whales, minke whales, blue whales, sperm whales, and orcas visit its waters between July and October every year.
I learnt that the Isthmus of Panama didn’t exist first between North and South America. A chain of underwater volcanoes formed it by rising above sea levels 3 million years ago. The exhibit includes lots of videos and large-size models.
If you are a bit short on time in Panama City, here is a visit you can make on your way back to the airport, as it is halfway from the city centre. You can do it in one hour like you can spend 4 hours like me if you want to see everything and take many pictures. The archaeological site entrance is 1 km away from the Plaza Mayor of the first Spanish settlement (1519) and its museum. You can take the shuttle taking you there in less than 5 minutes to speed things up.
I decided to walk on my way in to enjoy the natural side of the Panama Viejo site. It is located along a mangrove of the Pacific Ocean, and you’ll cross wild animals, including many birds, squirrels and iguanas. As 99% of the visitors take the shuttle, I got all the sites in between just for myself. Note the opening hours are from 9.15 am to 3 pm, so it’s better to come as early as possible.
Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage site worth the visit. But I couldn’t believe the site was somehow only 350 years old. As someone whose Parisian home base has buildings over a thousand years old, I was baffled. What happened to get this level of destruction? The highlights of the visit include the Cathedral bell tower and the Covent of Conception.
I’m usually not into so many museums, but here is one again not to be missed. I learnt there about the native communities of Panama and their customs, how the city was founded, organised and then destroyed in 1671. Again, many videos, models and exhibits of original objects found by archaeologists on the site make the visit enthralling. The entrance to the site and the museum together cost 10 USD.
Gamboa Rainforest Reserve
If you have more time, let’s say a week, to spend in Panama City, you can also get a jungle immersion nearby by exploring the Gamboa rainforest reserve. You can either visit on a day trip or stay at the Gamboa Resort to extend the experience.
My recommendation? Stay at least one night (but two is better to enjoy the resort fully). Even if, in theory, Gamboa is only 20-30 minutes driving from the city centre of Panama City, sometimes the traffic can be terrible (avoid at all cost 5-7 pm).
From the activity centre, you’ll get to choose between:
- taking a boat tour on Gatun Lake, an artificial lake that is part of the Panama Canal infrastructure
- zip-lining or mountain biking in the jungle
- riding the aerial tram to reach an observation tower over the canopy
- visiting the sloths’ sanctuary
Let’s be fully honest, it is pretty touristy but in a good way. What I mean is don’t expect real exciting adventures. However, I did enjoy each experience I did (despite some quite steep prices): the aerial tram – 38 USD – and the sloths’ sanctuary – 22 USD.
I wished the aerial tram tour could start earlier to see more wildlife, but at least make sure to book the earliest one at 9.45 am. The aerial tram works the same way as a ski lift, except you’re surrounded by green. I had one car just for myself, and thanks to the distance between the cars, you can really appreciate the immersion peacefully and only listen to the sounds of the jungle. I started listening to my audio guide thoroughly initially, but I quickly gave up to appreciate the climb more. As people get on or off, you’ll stop a few times on the way, so it takes a good 20-30 minutes to the top.
The observation tower over the canopy impressed me too. First, it was way higher than I expected, and it took me a solid 10 minutes to the top! The view of Soberania National Park and the Panama Canal (yes, in the middle of the jungle!) is just breathtaking.
Bird watching lovers will be potentially in awe. I saw a Baltimore oriole and the naturalist guide on site told me it was way cooler than a toucan! Whereas I’m terrified of snakes, I couldn’t help finding the baby one with the cartoon characters’ eyes which had climbed to the top of the tower, absolutely adorable. As I went down, I came face to face with a brown-red squirrel. I had zero clue you could find squirrels in tropical climates.
I ended my wildlife dream day at the sloths’ sanctuary. Please note that this is not a zoo but a real sanctuary where they care for orphaned or wounded sloths before returning to the wild. It was the first time I had seen sloths. It was love at first sight. This animal has pure contentment on its face: “El animal el mas feliz del mundo“, I claimed to a fellow visitor (the happiest animal in the world). I didn’t know it yet, but I would see many more in the wild later during my trip across Panama.
The botanical gardens of the sanctuary have a lovely collection of orchids and are also the home of tropical butterflies and frogs. All I can say is, if you come to the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, prepare your cameras with plenty of batteries.
Scuba diving in two oceans from Panama City
What if I tell you it’s possible to scuba dive in two oceans from Panama City? Yes, strategically located on the Isthmus of Panama, you can dive in the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Panama is the only country where it’s possible to do so (or do my dives in Tierra del Fuego count?). You can even do it in one day with Scuba Panama! The adventure is an intense 12-hour dive expedition from Panama City to Portobello, from 6 am to 6 pm.
If you’re short on time, why not? But if you can, try to extend your stay and do it on two different days. That’s the option I took. The differences between the two marine environments are staggering: pelagic species on the Pacific side, colourful coral & sponge reefs on the Atlantic/Caribbean side. In both cases, the shallow depths of all the dives allow all levels of scuba divers to join the two-ocean adventure.
Scuba diving in Taboguilla island, Pacific side
South of the Amador Causeway, there are three islands: Taboga, Uraba and Taboguilla. The latter is the wildest and the best dive spot in the Bay of Panama City. To get there, I boarded Scuba Panama’s boat at the Diablo spinning club, located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. What a departure to slalom between colossal container ships and pass below the Bridge of the Americas. The return trip is equally impressive as you get the best view of Panama City from the ocean: the modern skyline, Casco Antiguo, Ancon Hill and the Biomuseo… you see it all!
By doing the two ocean dive adventures on two different days, you can scuba dive twice in Taboguilla Island. It will give you more opportunities to spot interesting pelagic species. Like in most spots of the Pacific Ocean, the currents and the visibility can be tricky and change in a blink of an eye. Still, at 12 m deep, I spotted a flock of spotted eagle rays, my favourite underwater animals! There were also stingrays, Haller’s round stingrays, king angelfish, plenty of butterflyfish and sergeant major fish, and long-spine porcupinefish, among the exciting species I spotted.
Our meeting time in Diablo spinning club was at 8 am. The boat ride to and from Taboguilla Island is 30 minutes, so we returned at 12.30 pm for a sandwich break offered by Scuba Panama. Usually, they do it on Taboga Beach, but we had to beat the bad weather that was approaching that day.
My dive parameters
Dive #1: max depth 13 m – dive time 50 min – water temperature 26°C
Dive #2: max depth 13 m – dive time 54 min – water temperature 26°C
Scuba diving in Portobelo, Caribbean/Atlantic side
97 km. That’s the distance between Panama City on the Pacific coast and Portobelo on the Caribbean coast, which is technically part of the Atlantic Ocean. Depending on what time you leave Panama City, it can be as short as 1h30 to drive the distance, thanks to the Panama Colon Expressway. But, a little too late, and the traffic will make it a solid 2 hours. Scuba Panama can organise transportation from Panama City to their own dive centre in Portobelo: Scuba Portobelo.
Like Taboguilla, by doing your two-ocean dive adventure on two different days, you’ll have time for two dives in Portobelo, which I recommend. Unfortunately, it had been raining for several days when I went, so the visibility was lower. Anyway, the reef was so beautiful with so many colourful gorgonians and sponges dancing with the waves that I didn’t mind. The size of the barrel sponges was impressive. Have a look inside, you’ll often find fish and other marine critters hiding in them.
If the Pacific side is the kingdom of the King angelfish, the Queen angelfish reigns on the Caribbean coast. I saw only one of these extra colourful angelfish, but there were many grey angelfish that I initially mixed up with the French angelfish(they have a darker blue colour). Among the diversity of colourful tropical fish, I also saw squirrelfish, porkfish, surgeonfish and spotted drum fish.
Unfortunately, the lionfish was here too, like on all the Caribbean coast now. I understand if you wonder why this flamboyant (but highly venomous) fish is a problem in these waters. Most divers are in awe when they see them. But we need to remember that the Atlantic Ocean it’s an alien species that arrived due to some (not so) accidental aquarium releases in the 1980s. They have no natural predators and reproduce faster than rabbits. Their ferocious appetite affects the fish population, which affects coral reefs if fewer fish eat fewer algae covering them.
I arrived in Portobelo at 10 am. The ride to the dive sites was only 10-15 minutes. We did our surface interval at a lovely beach on one nearby small island. After lunch at the resort located at Scuba Portobelo, we were back in Panama City at 4 pm.
My dive parameters
Dive #1: max depth 16 m – dive time 61 min – water temperature 28°C
Dive #2: max depth 16 m – dive time 58 min – water temperature 28°C
When is the best season to visit Panama City?
Panama has two seasons: the dry season, or summer, from the end of December to April, and the wet season for the rest of the year. So, indeed the wet season is a little longer than the dry season. But even if I was in Panama City from February to March, with mostly sunny days with temperatures going up to 35°C (especially if you consider humidity and the feel temperature), we had a week with quite some rain. So far, my experience with rain in Panama was it never rained the whole day; it rains in the morning, then it clears up in the afternoon.
Obviously, you want to avoid too much rain for scuba diving to get the best possible visibility. Indeed, rain carries a lot of particles into the seawater. But to be honest, on the Pacific side, with strong currents, it will both be great, then poor, then great, then poor visibility during your dives. At the time of my visit in February/March, the water temperatures were 28°C on the Caribbean side and 26°C on the Pacific Side.
Where to stay during a layover in Panama City?
With so many things to see and do around Panama City, you might wonder where is the best or most strategic place to stay. While most of the things to do in Panama City are on the west side between the canal and Casco Antiguo, the international airport of Tocumen is on its east side, and so is Panama Viejo. If you can travel outside of the rush hour time (approx. 7 am-9 am & 4 pm-7 pm), getting on a taxi or an uber can take you from Casco Antiguo to Tocumen Airport as fast as 20 minutes, thanks to the Pan-American highway.
If you are a short-term visitor, the west side of Panama City, especially Quarry Heights or Casco Antiguo, is one of the best places to stay. You might be tempted to stay in one of the towers of the modern city centre (the districts of El Cangrejo, Marbella & Punta Pacifica), but the truth is, there is not much to do as a tourist there. The cherry on top for those who have time would be to stay at the Gamboa Resort as an extension to your layover trip.
Casco Antiguo vs Quarry Heights
With its charming streets and its mouth-watering dining options on scenic rooftops, you’ll want to stay in Casco Antiguo. But the very reason everyone is attracted to it, basically to have fun, is also why you might want to sleep somewhere else if you want to sleep.
If you are a party animal, by all means, find yourself a guesthouse in the heart of the action in places such as Selina. Just make sure not to go to bed before 3 or 4 am. If you have a comfortable budget, only luxury options offer prime locations in Casco Antigo while being at a sufficient distance from all the rooftop bars. This is the case, for instance, of the Central Hotel Panama or, even better, the Sofitel Legend with its stunning seafront location.
Knowing a short uber ride can be from 2 to 3 USD, why not find something nearby? This is the option I took on my two first nights in Panama as I booked a small family hotel in the district of Quarry Heights, near Ancon Hill, aka the former American residential neighbourhood of Panama City. Staying there, you’re surrounded by nature, and all you hear is tropical birds chirping.
With a plane that landed after 8 pm at Tocumen Airport, I got a warm welcome from the owner of the Balboa Inn after my late arrival. He helped me with my luggage to my large bedroom on the first floor of this big villa turned into a hotel. I had my ensuite bathroom, a walking closet and a beautiful view of the surrounding gardens from the windows cornering my room for 50 USD a night.
If you add a lovely garden with a decent-sized swimming pool to start your day in style or relax in the afternoon after some exploring, I’m sure you’ll be sold if you are looking for a good night’s sleep. The only drawback was maybe a (too?) basic breakfast (toast, fried eggs and coffee), but at this point, I didn’t care at all. And if you’re motivated enough, you can just jump directly in a uber car and have breakfast in Casco Antiguo in less than 10 minutes.
The Gamboa Rainforest Resort
It was love at first sight with the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. I’m usually not into this kind of all-inclusive giant resort, but… wow, this view of the Chagres River… the surrounding nature… the hammock on the balcony… the large bedroom… the cloud-like bed… I could go on and on for quite some time. I loved it.
I’m just so lucky to spend 3 days there. It was paradise surrounded by nature but with luxury comfort. There was even a wild sloth near the main entrance of the hotel!
Near Tocumen International Airport
This Panama City layover guide wouldn’t be complete without a recommendation of an airport hotel. If you leave Panama on a very early flight, you might want to stay next to Tocumen Airport. I had the opportunity to stay one night at the Crown Plaza Panama Airport. Their large air-conditioned bedrooms are very well sound-proofed, and they have a flowered garden at the back with a sizeable swimming pool. They also offer a free shuttle to and from the airport. In a nutshell, they have everything and more to relax before catching an early flight.
Kudos to the staff for opening the breakfast at 5.30 am (I was expecting a breakfast box) as the group I was with at that moment, had to leave at 6 am.
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