Panama offers a skyline that rivals Miami, the wildlife of Costa Rica, the tropical islands of French Polynesia and the charm of Cuba, yet is still underrated. My theory is those who were unimpressed with Panama simply did it wrong. If you visit Panama to check the Canal off your bucket list, spend half a day in Casco Viejo, and stay downtown, you will indeed have a mediocre trip. Read on for my suggested itinerary for a truly unforgettable Panama experience.
Perfect Panama Itinerary
When I discovered Casco Viejo (aka Casco Antiguo, San Felipe or El Casco) in my trip research, I knew I would build my itinerary around this unique neighborhood. Perhaps because I left my heart in Havana a few months earlier, the similarities to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) jumped out as an opportunity to relive a similar experience. There is nothing better than wandering charming streets, stopping at cafes to have a drink and appetizer, and just people watching. While there is an endless list of things to do and see in Panama – slow down, relax, and enjoy the Latin rhythm.
Here is a good start for an epic trip in Panama.
Day 1: Get Settled / Stroll Through Casco Viejo / Grab a drink & appetizer at Tantalo rooftop bar at sunset / Dinner / Back to Tantalo for a night cap
Day 2: Panama City and Canal Tour / Siesta / Dinner / Tantalo
Day 4: Enjoy another day in Casco Viejo with nothing planned or go back to a favorite spot!
Day 5: Visit San Blas Islands
Longer stay?: Extend San Blas visit, do some fishing or sailing, visit Bocas del Toro.
Where to Stay
Casco Viejo, in Panama City, is where it all starts and is the place to make your basecamp. Those who stay downtown typically regret it, or don’t know what they are missing. Casco is actually quite small, but packs in a lot, with a mix of colorful restored Spanish colonial buildings interspersed with crumbling condemned buildings, lovely plazas, cathedrals, and endless restaurants and trendy bars.
Casco Viejo became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and the construction efforts to restore the historic buildings is quite evident. The pope is visiting at the end of January 2019 so the backlog of building permits were miraculously approved.
I rented an AirBnB for $50/nt (looks like it’s now $70) in the heart of Casco Viejo. It was steps from restaurants, a bodega and the roof-top bar Tantalo. This was good and bad as you can imagine! If sleep is on your list of things to do, I would pay careful attention to reviews (and bring your ear plugs), as music pumps through Casco until 3am. Even high-end hotels such as The American Trade Hotel are not quiet. I’ve read the Central Hotel Panama is quiet and it looks very nice. Despite the noise, you would regret not staying in Casco Viejo. I’ve been home a few weeks now, and still find myself humming the Latin tunes that infused my brain.
Use my AirBnB promo code and get $40 off your first stay!
I loved my balcony in Old Havana, so made sure my choice in Casco Viejo had one as well. Nothing like waking up and sitting on your balcony with a cup of coffee, planning the day, and assessing the weather. A cold beer on the balcony, in the afternoon, isn’t so bad either! I had a view of the renovation of a 400-year-old cathedral to which the pope will be dedicating the alter on his trip.
Panama City and Canal Tour
A great way to get the lay of the land in a new place is to do a city tour. Besides the efficiency of someone dealing with the logistics, you get the irreplaceable local expertise. In a new city, I generally do a 3-hour walking tour, but ambitiously went for an all-day tour that included the Canal, Casco Viejo, and the Punta Culebra nature reserve.
Barefoot Panama balanced the activities in such a way that it was a truly pleasant day rather than exhausting. The tour is a bargain at only $89, including $30 in entrance fees and all transportation. By the end of the day, I had witnessed a massive ship pass through the Canal, enjoyed the views from the Amador Causeway, explored the cathedrals and plazas of Casco Viejo, had a wonderful lunch with new friends, and found 3 sloths chomping leaves!
- Barefoot Panama -Panama City & Canal Tour
- Barefoot Panama – TripAdvisor Reviews
- Panama Canal – My TripAdvisor Review
Where to Eat and Drink
The food in Panama, Casco Viejo in particular, is fantastic. I lived on appetizers as I seemed to be eating all the time. My staples were ceviche, empanadas, calamari, and tacos washed down with mojitos and cerveza. A big part of the perfect Panama itinerary is eating and drinking your way through Casco Viejo.
Tantalo Kitchen, Hotel, Roofbar
A picture is worth a thousand words, so in short, take a look at the view from the Tantalo Roofbar and you’ll know why I list it daily on the itinerary. As the sun goes down, the music goes up, and the fun begins!
Santa Rita Casco Viejo
Santa Rita Casco Viejo is an upscale restaurant, so priced on the higher-end of my Pamama dining experience. With that said, it is well worth it, being the best food I had during my trip. I think I could eat the tuna appetizer every day of my life.
Mandinga Rum Bar
Grab a seat at the Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar and enjoy a rum tasting. I’m normally a bourbon-guy, but really enjoyed sipping rum (ron in Spanish). If you don’t like hard alcohol, they also have a Geisha Coffee Liqueur that is worth trying. After a glass or two of their rum, I suggest finishing with a Ron Abuello 12-year.
Finca del Mar
As I was wandering Casco Viejo, I noticed the swinging bar stools at Finca del Mar and had to try them out. I have a pic on TripAdvisor. It turns out they also have a friendly staff, amazing seafood, and 3 for 2 mojitos!
Try the most expensive coffee in the world, Geisha coffee, at Cafe Unido in the American Trade Hotel. It’s $9/cup, so if you need to justify, it is $68/cup in Dubai!
I asked a local for a good breakfast spot and he pointed me to Cafe Coca-Cola. It was on the outskirts of the manicured portion of Casco, and seemed like a local hole-in-the-wall, as I was the only gringo and it was very inexpensive. I then read their history in the menu and it said it is the oldest restaurant in Panama City, having opened in 1875. You’ll have to visit to read the rest of the history, but the story behind the name is quite interesting as well.
San Blas Islands
No Panama itinerary is complete without some beach time. The San Blas Islands are truly some of the most beautiful islands in the world. In fact, the first Microsoft default wallpaper was from San Blas. You have many options in visiting the islands; in fact, my initial Panama plan was to take a multi-day boat trip from San Blas to Colombia. I ended up doing a day trip, and was able to visit 2 of the 365 islands, get a sunburn, and float in crystal-clear warm water!
The islands are almost treated as a separate country, run by the Kuna Indians. They will even check your passport and may go through your bags when you depart. You must plan your visit with a tour company who partners with the Kuna. I used Panama Travel Unlimited who were very responsive, professional, and provided a truly epic experience.
It is a very long day, taking about 4-hours to get to the first island, but the journey is half the fun! You get picked up at ~5:30am, so sleep the first two hours, have a wild-ride through dense jungle for the next hour (I saw a toucan), and then an incredible 1-hr boat ride staring in disbelief at the numerous palm covered islands you pass. The early departure leaves you with a full day of sun, fun, and island hopping. While sleeping on the island would be cool, the conditions are quite rustic, so going home to my warm shower and soft bed didn’t leave me too disappointed.
Tip: Take your pictures, and then put your camera away and enjoy paradise. Take a nap on the soft white sand and float in the warm clear sea.
Please leave any questions or comments below or feel free to contact me directly. Share your perfect Panama itinerary recommendations so others in the community may benefit.
- Related Post: Panama – What to Know Before you Go
- TripAdvisor: My reviews of mentioned tours and restaurants
- Canal / City Tour: Barefoot Panama Tours
- San Blas Tour: Panama Travel Unlimited
- TripScout: Panama City Guide (First guide free with promo code: analyticaltraveler)
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