Fortunately for us, the city was huge, especially coming from tiny Flores, Guatemala. We found many things to fill our 5 days in the city which was just 1 day over what I think would have been the perfect amount of time.
Getting Around on Public Transportation
Since Panama City is so huge, to get around you need to either take public transportation or taxis. Since we are on a limited budget and are both used to taking public transportation at home, we decided to try out the Panama City transit system.
Buying our tickets
We purchased a reloadable transit card for $2. Once we had that, we could load the card as much as we needed throughout the trip at the automated kiosks.
The most shocking thing to us is just how cheap public transportation is. You can take the metro train for 35 cents or a bus for 25 cents. Compared to the $2.50 and $2 respectively that Chicago charges, this is a huge bargain.
The metro train
Our first journey was on the newly built metro train. Currently there is only 1 line, but the city is working on creating several more lines. I personally think this would be a great thing for Panama City as the traffic can be pretty terrible, even with many people taking busses instead of driving their own vehicles.
We thought that we might be hot as we waited for the train but were both surprised when the train platform had air conditioning. This is a far cry from the oven like temperatures during summers on the subway platforms in both Chicago and New York City.
Even though the metro train is new, I was always impressed with just how clean the stations and the trains were. I never once saw any spilled beverages or garbage anywhere. In addition to the cleanliness, there were police at the stations as well as on board of the train. While I never felt unsafe in Panama City, it was reassuring to me that if something were to happen, that there were police that could diffuse the situation.
The train came every 5 minutes on the dot. All of the platforms had a screen which called out when the next trains were due to arrive. I was impressed with how punctual the trains were, especially after taking the El in Chicago where the trains seemingly ran whenever they wanted to.
Getting on the train was the hardest part. When the train pulled into the station, those wanting to get on the train would rush the doors. People trying to get off the train would sometimes have to push their way through. I am not quite certain why people couldn’t wait for the train politely, but I think it is because the doors are only open for a few seconds. While it keeps the train punctual, it creates a sort of mayhem for the riders.
The trains are quite wide, which allows for many passengers even though they are only 3 cars long. The city planners have built room to grow the number of train cars that will fit within the metro station as ridership increases.
When you exit the train, there is a detailed map of the surrounding area on the train platform. This allows you to determine what exit you should exit and what roads to take to your destination. We loved this as we did not have a Panama City map during our time in the city.
To get out of the station, you simply tap your transit card which allows you to exit the turnstile. While you aren’t charged by distance, I believe that the transit company is tracking ridership routes with the data collected.
The metro bus
While the metro train is super easy, the bus is the exact opposite. The bus lines do not have route numbers, only bus line names. The bus stops do not have any signage or maps so you never know what route runs there, what direction the bus is headed or where the route goes.
In order to get to a few of the places that we wanted to go, we had to brave the buses. Luckily Andy is good at learning transit lines and placing our location within the city. Had I been alone, it would have been a lost cause and I would have blown the budget taking taxis everywhere that the metro didn’t run.
They also have another form of public transportation that is mainly used by the locals in Panama City. They are buses as well, but they are old school buses that have been painted and some even updated with fancy chrome mufflers.
The school buses are even more confusing than the other metro buses. You have no clue where they are going except for when the guy that stands in the doorway yells out as they are driving down the street. We had no clue what most of them were saying. To add to that, the buses do not usually come to a full stop. They roll along at a slow speed and people jump on and off.
Things We Saw and Did
We took the metro to the bus station where we connected with a bus which took us directly to the Miraflores Locks. Our transportation costs to get there were only 60 cents per person each way. This is an amazing deal compared to the transportation options offered by tour companies.
The only hook with taking public transportation is that the bus only runs once an hour. It leaves the bus terminal at the top of the hour and arrives at the Panama Canal 10-15 minutes later. While we were lucky to catch the bus to the canal pretty quickly, we had to wait nearly an hour to get back to the city.
Once we arrived we paid $15 each for foreigner tickets and waited a few minutes for the next movie in English. Once the movie was finished, we headed out to the locks as there was a ship that was due to clear the canal. While it was interesting to see the ship clear, it is a very slow process. Once the ship cleared, we decided we would head to the restaurant and grab a Balboa beer. Since the restaurant has a balcony, we could set up our camera to take a timelapse of the next ship clearing the canal.
Afterwards, we briefly checked out the museum. While it is well done, museums have never been either of our thing. We enjoyed the air conditioning and picked up some tidbits of information about the construction of the canal as well as the importance of it in not only Panama’s economy but also world trade.
Seafood Market (Mercado de Mariscos)
Since Panama City is right on the coast, there is a lot of seafood that flows through the city daily. One of the things that we wanted to check out was the seafood market. While we got a little confused about how to get there from the train, a super friendly Panamanian woman didn’t just tell us where to go, she physically walked us to the market.
Once we arrived, our noses were flooded with some very fishy smells, I believe that they were coming from a nearby dumpster as once we entered the market, the smell subsided. There was every kind of seafood that you could want there – all sorts of fish, octopus, shrimp, crab and lobster. While we were not prepared to buy when we went, it was good to check it out before we would purchase.
The market was very interesting as we were the only foreigners in sight. You could tell that a lot of the people purchasing were restaurateurs who were purchasing in large quantities.
We went back the next morning and purchased some shrimp to cook for dinner. They were the biggest shrimp that I had ever seen in my life! We purchased half a pound which was only 6 shrimp. I wish that we had a grill where we were staying as I can only imagine how good those shrimp would have been if we had been able to prepare them how I really wanted to cook them. We used what we had at our apartment and made a dinner of shrimp stir fry which was really good.
Cinco de Mayo Plaza Area
Central Avenue off Cinco de Mayo Plaza was my favorite part of town. There was an entire street that was for pedestrians only, no automotive traffic. Locals flooded the area, picking up everything from produce to clothing to bootleg DVDs.
There were a number of different clothing stores that were super inexpensive – I’m talking $3 pairs of jeans, $1 shoes and more. Had I had more time and been in the market for any “temporary clothing” that would likely fall apart after a few washes, I would have been in heaven.
There were a number of fruit vendors that were selling produce at extremely reasonable prices – apples 4 for $1, pineapples 3 for $1 and pears 3 for $1. Some stands sold all sorts of produce but whenever there was not posted signage, we steered clear, knowing that we would get charged gringo prices. The pineapple that we picked up, while small was the perfect ripeness, sweetness and super juicy. Had we been in Panama City longer I would have picked up more to snack on.
As you can imagine the people watching was amazing. There were all walks of life from families to teenagers to a religious preacher. Ironically, the locals were just as fascinated by us as this part of town is not frequented by tourists.
We were on the fence if we wanted to go to Panama Viejo, the historic ruins of Panama City. While we really like going to ruins, all of the pictures that we saw online were of only 1 building. Since we had the time, we decided we would make the journey to see it.
We took our most complicated bus ride to date as we had to get off in the middle instead of the end of the route. Luckily our bus had a working screen which called out the next stop so we were able to pull the stop cord at the correct time.
Once we arrived, we went to the ticket booth to get our tickets. The cashier asked us what tickets we wanted and we were confused why she was asking as the sign only showed one option for foreigners. We ended up $2 ahead as the option she gave us was only $7 per person instead of the $8 per person posted on the signage.
We first went to the museum where we learned about the history of the Panamanian natives. Afterwards we walked down to the ruins. Similar to Tikal in Guatemala, we nearly had the place to ourselves which was really nice. Surprisingly, there were quite a few different ruins, many more than we had expected when looking online. The level of restoration varied by the ruins with the church and tower being the most restored.
When we were ready to head back home we crossed the street and waited for the bus. Luckily one of the locals asked us if we were waiting for the bus and when we said yes, told us that the bus was re-routed to another street. We walked a few blocks where he directed us and caught a bus pretty quickly back to our apartment.
We didn’t spend a ton of time in the old town, but really enjoyed the French architecture which reminded us of the weekend we spent in New Orleans. We checked out the historic churches and looked at the skyline of the city from the water.
Sadly, the weather in Panama City is terribly hot and humid without much breeze. We would have loved to spend the day walking around the old town, taking in the sights but it was simply not possible for us as we were melting in the heat.
We were both really excited to visit the Amador Causeway. It’s located on an island off the city and hosts the marina as well as the Frank Gehry’s Museum of Biodiversity. We figured that we would go, spend the day walking along a park, checking out the skyline then head back to the city.
The first challenge was the bus. We made it to the terminal and found the bus stop where our bus stopped. A driver for another line told us that our bus should arrive in 15 minutes. We continued to wait, so long in fact that the same driver arrived back from his route to still find us waiting. Luckily, he got someone to get a bus to take not only us, but the 30 or so other individuals waiting for the bus. Over an hour after we arrived, we were finally on our way.
Once we got on the bus we paid our quarter fee and rode to the causeway. We rode to the end of the line and got off. Others that got off the bus were just as confused as we were – the area had a marina but there was no sort of park and all of the dining was overpriced chain restaurants. We figured that we waited for the bus forever so we should at least explore the area a little bit. We walked around but were quickly ready to head back to the city.
Before we left for the bus stop, we stopped to get some water. When we asked the cashier when the bus was due to arrive she kind of laughed and basically said that the bus comes at completely random intervals. We sighed and headed out to the bus stop. Nearly 45 minutes later the bus finally arrived. We got seats in the back of the bus where the air conditioning was broken. I could not get back to the city soon enough as the Panama heat is bad enough, add in hot air from the bus, body heat from everyone on the bus and no breeze and it was excruciating.
I wish the bus had run more frequently so we could have checked out the Frank Gehry’s Museum of Biodiversity. I really liked the architecture of the building but could not stomach the idea of waiting for the worst bus in the world a 3rd time.
Panama City Weather
If there are 3 words that describe Panama City’s weather they would be:
Things are so humid in fact, the temperature feels around 10 degrees hotter than the actual temperature. There were many times during our time in Panama City that we would be melting in the heat, see an air conditioned store and decide to slowly browse, making sure to completely cool off before we went back out to the elements.
During this leg of our trip, we decided that weather.com knows nothing about Central American weather. Based on the forecast, we should have expected constant rain almost all of our 5 days there. In actuality we only had 2 afternoon showers. While I still glance at the weather every once in awhile, I have learned to use it as a general idea of the weather, not what will actually happen.
During our time in Panama City we had a mix of locals who were extremely friendly and helpful as well as those that seemed annoyed and avoided us.
Both Andy and I were extremely surprised with the extreme diversity of the Panamanian people. There were many Latins, but also a large number of Africans and Asians. After our visit to the Panama Canal museum, we believe that many of those who came to Panama to work on the canal decided to stay instead of returning back to their home country.
Andy’s First Haircut
Both Andy and I got our hair cut quite short before we left Chicago. It was about 5 weeks since Andy’s haircut and he knew he knew it was time for a trim. We had passed some barber shops on the sidewalk several times during our walks around Panama City. I told him if he got a cut that would probably be the best place, after all, their only job is cutting men’s hair quickly and cheaply. He googled the term for “same but shorter” and took the plunge.
I have to say I was quite impressed with the job that the barber was able to do so quickly and in the environment that he had. About 5 minutes after Andy sat down, the cut was done. Andy has his fingers crossed that the rest of the haircuts he needs on the road are as good and easy as this one was.
- Accommodations – we knew going in that we were going to be over budget but decided that having our own bathroom and a kitchen was worth the extra cost
- Transportation – we took public transportation instead of taxis which kept our costs extremely low
- Dining – having breakfast included in our room rate and utilizing the kitchen instead of dining out kept our dining budget way below our estimated cost
- Miscellaneous – many of the things that we did in Panama City were free or nearly free which kept us well below our budget
I was very surprised to find out that Panama uses US dollars as their currency. I totally embraced it as it was very easy for me to count my change and I didn’t have to do any currency conversions in my head. Coming from Guatemala where nobody took credit cards, I was happy to be able to use my card again. I figure if we are going to spend money on our trip, I might as well keep earning all my airline miles so we can save up for our next trip!
We had a good time in Panama City and enjoyed exploring the city. I think we could have done the city in 3-4 days, but it was nice to have a 5th day where we could relax and not feel rushed. Also, if we had left before our 5th day we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get photos of the blood moon eclipse. We weren’t able to see the moon from our hotel for the longest time and thought we might miss it, but I walked down to the street and was able to see it. Andy came down with the camera and the zoom lens and we were able to get some nice shots of the moon the night before we left.