En route to Aruba, Copa Airlines had a flight option through Panama City and I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to take the “abroad” step in solo travel — EEK. I’ve spent the past 2.5 years popping around the states on my own and got up to Toronto for a work trip, but this was adventure time for real. I took a one-day layover on each end and it. was. awesome.
Besides all the internal excitement, anxiety and empowerment that comes from stepping into foreign, non-English lands solo for the first time, Panama was my first experience in a 2nd-world country and completely unlike anyplace I’ve yet to see.
Round 1: En Route to Aruba
I used AirBNB to book La Belle Cite last minute (typical), and they really shaped the experience positively from the start.
Patrick + Nadine recommended I spend my few hours in Casco Viejo, the old town, and pointed me towards the buses. I chose the regular $0.75 bus as a more direct route since I was short on time. My other option was a chicken bus:
^ This baby costs $2.50/ride and bops you around town with dance music and sick graffiti designz all Lisa Frank meets urban street art. Kind of like the KuKoo Kanuku in Aruba, only this is run by the city for your day-to-day errands. They’re aptly named “chicken buses” as they’re the fastest means of transporting livestock between villages and towns throughout Central and South America. Fun fact.
I hopped off at my stop and made my way towards Casco Viejo. Or so I thought. I walked in the wrong direction and if I have ever wanted to snap my little iPhone away at any place ever this was it. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and I was doing the whole solo abroad thing so I resisted my temptations to point and shoot and attempted to hide the overwhelming curiosity in my eyes while taking it all in.
Just as I was running low on “purposeful strolling” steam, I hopped in a cab and was dropped off at Las Bovedas $2 and less than 2 minutes later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dichotomy in such a small distance was striking. Historic Las Bovedas sits along the old Panama City seawall in Plaza de Francia and is surrounded by some of the oldest European structures in the Americas (La Cathedral, etc.). I enjoyed the ambiance with a fantastic meal (especially the Tarte Tatin) and made my way to check out the nightlife.
My AirBNB hosts greeted me cheerily in the morning with a breakfast of freshly sliced local fruits, toast, peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, Panamanian coffee (necessary) and more at 8am and we laughed and practiced our languages with each other chatting about my eventful Casco Viejo evening and their journey to Panama City. Solid round 1.
Round 2: Headed Back Stateside
Since I covered a small dose of Panama food/nightlife on the way in, I knew I wanted to a more cultural perspective and at least to see the Canal on my way back to the states. I found www.YourManinPanama.com on TripAdvisor and enjoyed an intimate day-long history lesson with a man named Nicolas. (Full post on that experience here – Panama has some serious history and is a prime spot for investments right now.)
I wanted to see a different part of town this time so I used Hotel Tonight to book the Continental Hotel + Casino for $40. The 5-star super spot left me smack in the middle of the financial district and I wasted too much time putzing around the hotel + room and not enough time exploring the immediate area. (Why does this happen in hotel rooms? They’re like black holes!)
An old colleague in Aruba recommended BITS rooftop lounge at the new Hard Rock Megapolis as another place to dance the night away. I’ve been in love with rooftop bars since living in NYC the summer of 2010 and my Hard Rock-fan parents had a wedding anniversary the day I’d get back to the U.S. so it was an easy sell.
Megapolis is right. Minus the outdoor areas the size of this place is comparable to the Hard Rock Hollywood, FL with a higher sex-appeal Las Vegas style. I took a self-tour of the hotel (impressed by the modern decor), grabbed a bite at the pool bar and met an awesomely friendly Colombian couple with whom a bottle of Aguardiente was quickly consumed. My night in Panama again consisted of dancing until my cab to the airport… this time with a rooftop view and salsa and merengue soothing my soul (my feet, not so lucky).
Panama City is a layover you’ll want to extend. And when I come back to dance at Teatro Amador again, I’m going to be sure to leave time to get out to the rain forests and countryside!
BEST FOR: Cultural travel, outdoor experiences, cheap shopping, investment property, business opportunity
SOLO TRAVEL DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate. You’ll want to have a good amount of Spanish and a place to land when you get there, but it was navigable with some effort. As always, be aware of your surroundings.