The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Colombia: Eric Sheets of Latin Excursions.
Eric has lived in six Latin American countries—he was exposed to the region from an early age by his globetrotting American father and Ecuadorian mother. After organizing trips for business colleagues to his favorite Latin American destinations, he founded his boutique trip-planning firm in 2001 so he could help even more people get the true flavor of these countries. Today, based in the U.S. with an office in Ecuador, Eric arranges everything from custom itineraries that highlight different local cultures to family reunions, exotic honeymoons, and even villa vacations. Travelers have their own private guide and vehicle—to allow maximum spontaneity and flexibility, not to mention rare access to places most travelers don’t see—and stay in top-drawer hotels that share Eric’s commitment to sustainability.
What to See and Do
Most underrated places
The province of Azuero contains the country’s most authentic displays of local culture and customs. While once there were few good hotels in the area, today you can stay in comfort at the Santa Catalina. From here you can also take day trips to Cohiba island, which is know for its diverse marine life such as manta rays and whales, as well as its jungle animals including white-faced monkeys. This area is also an up-and-coming surfing spot.
Avenida Central (or “La Central,” as it’s known to locals) was the city’s great commercial hub in the first half of the 20th century. It is a vibrant neighborhood full of shops, bars, hotels, and restaurants.
Most overrated place
Mi Pueblito, in Panama City, claims to show how some of the country’s ethnic groups live, but it is touristy and contrived, with no soul or charm.
Make a meal of tropical fruits and ceviche from Panama City’s markets. The Mercado Público sells granadilla, guanabana, and other exotic produce; the Sabores de Chorrillo stand in the nearby Mercado de Mariscos serves Panama’s trademark ceviche, flavored with local fruits.
La Tapa de Coco is a hole-in-the-wall place next to a car wash in Panama City. Come here for amazing seafood and a focus on Afro-Panamanian food and culture.
Regular tours of the Panama Canal limit you to time on the water and at a few visitors’ centers. Eric’s V.I.P. tour gets you into the buildings that house the machinery that runs the locks and the engineers who manage them. You can speak to these experts and get a sense of how the Canal was developed to allow gigantic ships to traverse from one ocean to another.
Most of Panama’s best beaches are a plane ride away from Panama City, but the Pearl islands are accessible as a day trip via speedboat. Here you’ll find beautiful remote beaches, whales, and plenty of nature.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Stroll along the bay on Panama City’s Malecón, or La Cinta Costanera. One lane is closed on Sunday afternoons for locals to come to bike, run, or walk. The government has invested heavily to beautify this area, and it shows.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Best-value splurge hotels
Panama City has a glut of characterless business hotels; the American Trade Hotel is a break from the norm, a boutique property located in the colonial town near the charming Plaza Tomás Herrera and right next door to the best jazz bar in the city (Wynton Marsalis has played there). When Eric’s travelers book the most basic Cuarto Chico room, he can usually get them an upgrade to a Cuarto room, or even higher.
La Compañía is a new boutique hotel in Casco Viejo. Although it’s branded a Hyatt, it exudes plenty of colonial charm and historic grandness.
Meals worth the splurge
Mahalo Cocina y Jardin offers a blend of Panamanian and international cuisine with a focus on fresh and light fare. It has great ambience and is located inside the colonial Las Clementinas hotel in Panama City’s Old Quarter.
Also in the colonial area, Fonda Lo Que Hay (meaning “whatever’s around”) serves a different menu each day—though the signature dish is cocolon (toasted rice) with garlic clams. This place is a gem, but it’s only open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday.
Salvaje, meaning “wild “in Spanish, is a Panama City restaurant serving Asian-fusion cuisine surrounded by modern decor. A night out here is a fun culinary experience, even for families.
The dry season, from mid-December through March. January and February have the best weather, with less humidity and a cool breeze in the mornings and afternoons. The sun goes down a bit earlier, but the sunset is amazing.
During the “green season” from September until mid-November, it rains daily, sometimes even twice a day—though usually for no more than two hours.
Not realizing that Panama City has two airports on opposite sides of town; most international flights arrive at one (Tocumen), most domestic flights at the other (Albrook). If you’re transferring directly from an international flight to a domestic one, allow at least three hours between landing and take-off to make your way across the city.
If you’re arriving at Tocuman between 6:00 and 7:30am, it may take up to two hours to get to your hotel.
Walk up Ancon Hill early in the morning (before the locals arrive) for a 360-degree view of Panama City and the Canal; from here, you can clearly see how Balboa Avenue divides the capital into new and old sections.
The colorful molas made by the Kuna Indians are Central America’s biggest contribution to indigenous art. Many of the shops on Avenida A, near the American Trade Hotel, sell authentic versions of these textiles (check out Reprosa in particular for these and other native crafts); or you can buy straight from the source on the Paseo Esteban Huertas, where Kuna Indians set up tables under a canopy of flowers.
For good service, tip 10% to 15% in restaurants and $1 per bag for bellboys and skycaps.