I have friends from all over the globe who want to know what to see and do in Panama. I’ve put together a sample itinerary to help you get a feel for what you can experience here in a short amount of time.
Day One – Fly to Panama
Flights from the US typically get in late, so consider this a travel day. When you get to the airport, customs is a breeze and taxis are plentiful. Just tell the driver where you want to go. Ask the taxi driver before you get into the taxi what it costs. There is a standard rate, but sometimes they try to supplement their income by inflating the price for gringos. If you’re going to a hotel on Balboa, plan on paying $25 + tolls ($30 total including tip).
Stay at the Le Meridian Hotel on Avenida Balboa and Calle Uruguay. (I can get you a special rate of $165 per night for a deluxe room!) If you want a late dinner, just step outside of the hotel and find one of dozens of restaurants on or near Calle Uruguay. One of my favorites is Gusto’s. It’s two blocks from the hotel and has handmade pastas and the best grilled corvina in the city. Just ask the concierge how to get there.
Day Two – Panama City
Wake up early and walk across Avenida Balboa to the Cinta Costera. Take a stroll down the Cinta Costera on the Bay of Panama, do pull-ups in the strength training area (or watch someone else do them), and then enjoy a ceviche at the Fish Market. (Ceviches cost $2-$4, so bring cash.) Keep walking or take a very short cab ride to Casco Viejo. Tour the old historic town and browse the artisan stalls in the main square. Have lunch at one of the many area restaurants. Take a $3 cab ride back to Le Meridian and do what the locals do: take a siesta. Have dinner at one of the many fabulous restaurants near Avenida Balboa.
Day Three – The Panama Canal
Have the concierge make lunch reservations for you at the Miraflores Restaurant. Take a cab to Miraflores mid-morning and take a tour of the Panama Canal. You can watch a brief movie and then see the locks in action while a guide explains what is happening in English over a microphone. After seeing the locks, eat in the buffet restaurant and watch the ships continue to move through the canal. I’ll be honest, the locks are a “tourista trappa” but it’s something you need to do at least once. After all, the Panama Canal is what helped shaped Panama into the country it is today.
After lunch, go back to your hotel for an afternoon siesta, or walk down Avenida Balboa to the MetroCenter Mall. Browse four levels of shops and stop at one of the kiosks for an empanada and café. A casino is attached to the mall, so bring some extra dollars to try your luck. When you’re done gambling, go across the Sky Bridge on Level 2 of the mall and enter the Hard Rock Hotel at the bar level. Order a lychee martini (fruity but not sweet) and a lobster roll sandwich. It can be shared as a pre-dinner appetizer or eaten alone as a meal. The pizzas are also outstanding.
Go back to your hotel to freshen for dinner. Panama City is glamorous, so feel free to bring your glitzy garb. Men, you won’t get kicked out of a restaurant for wearing shorts, but you may feel under-dressed. Bring at least one pair of long slacks for dinner. Almost all of the restaurants are air-conditioned and many give the option of sitting inside or outdoors. Some recommendations for dinner at nearby restaurants are:
Luna: A higher-priced Peruvian restaurant with great seafood and the most amazing bread pudding outside of New Orleans. Portions are small so don’t plan to share anything but an appetizer.
Petit Paris: This is a local’s French café that has slow service but really great food. I love the seared tuna, but it isn’t always available. The Chicken Florentine is another favorite. The food is abundant and rich, so feel free to get a few items to share.
The Market: This restaurant is within walking distance of Le Meridian. It’s not a fancy restaurant, but it has the best locally-raised beef in the area if you want steak or an upscale burger.
Day Four –Coronado
An hour from Panama City, Coronado is the main beach area on the Pacific Coast side of Panama. There are many small towns that make up the beach region, but Coronado is the hub. It has two grocery stores, a dozen or so great restaurants, a Machetazo (like a Target that sells both home items and groceries), and just about everything else you need to live comfortably, from paint stores to nail salons to an upscale wine store. Spend the day at the beach, looking at property (aren’t you at least curious?), and eating your way through the fabulous restaurants. Stay at a rental condo on the beach for the best experience, but you can also stay at a larger resort hotel further down the coast.
Day Five – Coronado & El Valle
Start the day with a walk on the beach. The Coronado beaches are a swirl of black volcanic sand and traditional tan sand. One of the reasons I moved to Panama is because my body doesn’t hurt here. All of the broken bones and pulled tendons that caused daily pain in Dallas are gone. I am not sure if it’s the magnetic properties in the volcanic sand, the negative ions from living on the beach, or just the warmth and humidity. Regardless, I recommend a long walk on the beach. Let the black sand squish between your toes and see how good you feel.
El Valle is an inactive volcano, and an entire town was built inside the volcano. At the base of El Valle, there is a local market that sells plants, produce, and native goods. This is a great place to get fresh produce and souvenirs for all your friends back home. Inside El Valle, you can hike to a waterfall or zip line through the canopy.
There are many great restaurants in El Valle, but here are my top three:
Casa de Lourdes: This Italian restaurant looks like an Italian villa. It’s stunningly beautiful with food that’s just as lovely.
Taverna Firenze: This is an exceptional Italian restaurant on the way to El Valle.
Restaurante Rincon Vallero: It’s a little hard to find, but it’s worth the search. The stream that runs through the restaurant is filled with fish and turtles, and the food is superb. You’ll wonder why every lunch isn’t paired with a bottle of wine and lasts three hours.
Day Six & Seven – Relax by the Pool at the Westin Playa Bonita
Every vacation should end with some hardcore relaxation. Just outside of Panama City is the best resort in Panama. It’s a one-hour drive back from Coronado, so leave Coronado early and plan on de-stressing at one of the many pools at Playa Bonita Resort.
You can eat at one of six restaurants, drink at one of four bars, walk the beach, get some sun, work out in the gym, get a massage in the Clarins spa, and generally let the beautiful surroundings wash away your troubles.
While you’re here, come see me at Casa Bonita, the new condo building nestled inside of the resort. I live here full-time and am in love with permanent resort living.
(When you make your reservations at the Westin, don’t make them online. Email me for the scoop on special IPRE pricing.)
If you can extend your stay by four or more days, visit the mountain region of Boquete. It’s a short flight or an all-day drive from Panama City. Boquete is one of the most temperate regions, with year-round spring weather in the 70-degree range. You can also spend more time in Coronado. This itinerary just gives you a place to start.
Cheers to living the good life in Panama!
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