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Playa Veracruz is dotted with about a dozen small ranchitos (concessions) and bars. During weekends, it's especially popular with young locals, who come here to let loose and dine on super cheap grub. The offerings are good: ceviche, fried fish, and plantains. One of the bars is Karimar Aventura. Veracruz Beach is about seven kilometers (roughly 4.5 miles) from Playa Bonita. Image courtesy of Karimar Aventura.
Rincon de Filo, in the seaside village of Veracruz, is worth the short trip (about 6 kilometers, or 3.5 miles) southwest from Playa Bonita. Classic Panamanian seafood, such as paella, is the specialty. The nautical decor is refined yet comfortable. And there is a funky blue playhouse and swing on the tree-shaded grounds for the kids. The website has a video map to help get you there. Photo by Frédérique Voisin-Demery/Flickr.
The Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity is finally finished. The guide on the Panama Canal called it a building from someone who has done too much partying in Panama. I guess he hadn’t been to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.(view from the Panama Canal) For more info, see my post on Panama on my website.
The anticipated Museum of Biodiversity, designed by Frank Gehry, opens this year, and the Panama Canal will soon double its capacity. To prepare, luxury hotels, such as the Trump Ocean Club and Le Méridien, are cropping up. And in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, Spanish colonial buildings are reopening as restaurants, boutiques, and trendy hotels such as Tántalo, home to the city’s first rooftop bar. Photo courtesy of Tántalo/Facebook. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Karimar, popular with locals for its beachside restaurant and bar, also offers Karimar Aventura outdoor activities, which include boating, fishing, and jet skiing. Excursions provide some fun in the sun for teenagers and groups. Image courtesy of Karimar Aventura.
Head to Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, a stunning mix of Art deco, Caribbean, French and Colonial architectural styles. Hungry? Look for the Havana Club. I thought I'd walked onto a set. 'Buena Vista Social Club’ was playing on a small screen in the corner of the room. A red barbers chair guarded one of the four wooden doors. I couldn't help but stare at the wall to wall wood panelled bar. The rum stained floor and the overpowering chandelier probably rescued from the ruins of an old ship envelops the room with echo of countless tall tales. No better way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Panama City's colonial neighborhood, called Casco Viejo, is a beautiful peninsula full of a mix of crumbling colonial decay and dutifully restored colonial dreams. The area is great for a day of strolling and stopping for occasional drinks when the tropical sun becomes oppressive. Look out for indigenous Embera and Kuna women selling their vibrant multicolor handicrafts.
For a change of pace, head southwest from Playa Bonita to the small fishing village of Veracruz. Go to VeraMar for seafood dishes like fried whole corvina (sea bass) with yucca, salad, and plantains. Pair your meal with beer, and you've got a quintessential Panamanian combo. Fresh, simple, delicious seafood—does it get any better? Photo by David Berkowitz/Flickr.
Panama City is best known for its fish market, but a few blocks away on Avenue B near the Chinatown Gates lies the equally interesting Mercado Público. The market is divided into four main sections: meat, produce, dried goods, and a court full of fonda food stands. The market is a great place to get a sense of Panamanian cuisine and a cheap place to buy food. After exploring the market, I recommend cutting across Calle 15 to the bustling Avenida Central, a festive street full of cheap clothing shops, rowdy vendors, and food markets.
Café Maritano´s, a boutique coffee shop located in the International Business Park (the IBP) of Panama Pacifico, specializes in the best coffees of Panama. They also offer truffles, pastries, and panini, as well as breakfast and lunch items. The cafe's baristas are professionally trained by Master Barista José Miguel Coto. Image courtesy of Cafe Maritano's.
Casco Viejo (the old city) is currently undergoing a massive revitalization. Everywhere you look new construction and remodeling is underway. Already a major attraction of Panama City, this charming, colonial location will soon be able to host even more hotels, restaurants, and bars. As I strolled around Castro, I was reminded of Havana, Cuba. Indeed, the city consists of Spanish Colonial architecture, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Being that I love rooftop bars, I was more than delighted to stumble on Tantalo, a new, modern bar and restaurant with great views of Panama city. Get there early, at sunset the place is packed!
Vibrant yellow, orange, white, and blue designs were painted on the pedestrian crosswalk to Omar Park in Panama Pacifico. The designs were inspired by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez to help promote the arts and commemorate the 2013 summer Festival Abierto (Open Festival). Cruz-Diez, a kinetic and optical painter, is renowned for transforming cosmopolitan venues in Miami, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris into artistic spaces. Panama Pacifico is an emerging master-planned community on the less developed side of the canal. Image courtesy of Panama Pacifico.
Pappa Pizza, a popular Panama cafe and bakery, is located in the Town Center of the quiet neighborhood of Panama Pacifico. After a slice of pizza, order a take-out coffee (and perhaps a pastry) and stroll the tree-lined boulevards to explore one of the newest master-planned communities of Panama City. Image courtesy of Panama Pacifico.
Where to stay in Panama City? Casco Viejo, the old district, is the edgy, cool area where the creative restaurants, historic squares and native markets convene. Tattered neglect is rapidly giving way to tasteful renovations and vibrant renewal. Think of photos of Havana, Cuba’s crumbling colonial manses of faded glory. Picture heavy stone buildings with missing roofs and woody weeds rising to the sky. In Casco Viejo, trash-strewn shells are being revived with polished wood and buffed ironwork, with sparkling lights, sophisticated foods, music and goods. We stayed in Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel in a refurbished bakery. An Italian designer couple exposed the brick walls, created apartment suites with balconies and iPod speaker-decked sitting rooms. Breakfast is delivered on a beautiful tray by a smiling gracious concierge. It’s a lovely little place just steps away from historic churches, squares and the Presidential Palace. (And yes, I should have straightened the bed).
The Panama Canal, an early 20th-century industrial marvel, continues to amaze engineering, construction, history, and maritime buffs. An expansion to double its capacity is in progress and slated for completion in 2015. The upper deck of the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, on the Panama City side, offers views of massive cargo ships being raised and lowered (depending on the direction) through the giant lock gates.
Casco Viejo is a UNESCO site located in Panama City, Panama. We stayed in the quarter at Las Clementinas (www.lasclementinas.com), a really lovely and comfortable hotel with an amazing rooftop patio and view of downtown. Casco is a great mix of locals and visitors. As we enjoyed the sun on the balcony of the hotel, we could see the locals gather down below on the sidewalk to play an informal game of bingo. Casco is in the process of being revitalized but it still has the old colonial feel and is a great spot for unique restaurants and nightlife.
Walking the narrow, cobbled streets of Casco Viejo—Panama City’s colonial quarter—is, these days, like exploring a vibrant art gallery. The neighborhood has suffered a bad reputation as dangerous since it became inhabited by undesirables after the 1989 invasion flattened it and chased out most legitimate residents. But significant investments in restoration and security in recent years have transformed Casco into a safe, charming, and hip enclave of quiet shops and coffee houses on the historical plazas, and local artists are responding and adding to the beautification effort. With all the reconstruction underway, construction sites abound, and scaffolding and safety walls are bedecked with humorous paintings of voluptuous dancing ladies. Trashcans are all painted with bright patterns and scenes. And on Avenida A between Plaza Herrera and the Iglesia San Jose, muralist Rolo de Sedas has adorned the wooden shutters on the street-level windows with his coquettish series “Mamis, Panamá Siempre Verde,” the Mamas of an Evergreen Panama. Each window frames a face of a different color, with different features, all within the spectrum of “typical Panameñas.” These ladies were painted after the dramatic 2011 protests against copper mining in Panama, and serve to remind us that Panama’s “green heart” is an environment that we should love and care for like a mother.
So many stylish restaurants are popping up on the gourmet scene in the old quarter, and Veggie Moon is a fairly new one with quite a following. The decor of white chairs and tables against a backdrop of stone walls creates an inviting setting for a meal of healthy and beautifully presented dishes. The creative pasta, seafood, vegetarian, and vegan dishes featuring seasonal and local produce will take you on a gastronomic journey, from starters like lentil soup to the entrees of risotto and shrimp salad to desserts such as creme brûlée. Champagne complements the courses. Image courtesy of Veggie Moon.
Avenida Central is a lively street outside Casco Viejo, full of discount clothing stores, cafes, restaurants, and food carts. Many of the businesses feature hand-painted signs, which add to the festive atmosphere of the street.
The old quarter of Casco Viejo is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also the emerging gastronomic epicenter of Panama City. There are myriad trendy bars and restaurants to choose from, but when it's time for dessert, head to Granclement. Try the all-natural, French artisan ice cream in flavors such as coco (coconut) and dulce de leche. Order yours on a crispy waffle cone or take a tub of sorbet to go.
In the heart of Casco Viejo, Bajareque provided a perfect location for a timely break in the day. The outdoor seating combined with a fresh cup of coffee (or wine) created a lovely afternoon.
You are (almost) guaranteed the sight many an iguana and at least one sloth while on a visit to Punta Culebra. This small treasure is a Smithsonian museum outpost on Amador Causeway. The grounds are made of a forest and beach, as well as interactive touch pools. There are large tanks that serve as homes for sharks and marine turtles and you'll be sure to see pelicans while they're fishing. Make sure you don't miss the view of watching the ships sail under the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Be sure to make the trip to Punta Culebra while you're in the hustle and bustle of the dynamic Panama City. The hidden and obvious iguanas (and possible sloths) won't disappoint.
The public buses on the streets of Panama City are recycled school buses which used to chug along suburban streets in the United States some thirty years ago. Plain yellow has been traded up for brilliantly multicolored designs of birds, flowers, sexy women, Carlos’s name…whatever… The city is phasing them out, slowly replacing the old school rattlers with sleek air conditioned coaches with sun-glazed windows. In the meantime, the city buses are shots of brightness, sometimes even trimmed with flashing disco lights at night.
Just 20 minutes outside of Panama City, Playa Bonita is the best location to experience the sprawling city's urban excitement as well as its natural wonders. Hugging the Pacific Ocean, the resort offers dramatic views of ships lining up for the Panama Canal. Playa Bonita provides excursions to the lush Panamanian rain forest and the lakes and waterways that feed into the Canal, with Gamboa Tours.You can also quickly dive into the city, exploring Casco Viejo and the restaurants and nightclubs that never seem to close. The resort boasts six elegant restaurants and four pools. I loved the beach views but the rocky terrain and high waves make it best for lounging. I especially enjoyed the Oasis Lounge, where live bands served up an energetic supply of cumbia, salsa, and romantic boleros. The passion fruit mojitos were my nightly relaxation tonic.
These fuzzy little creatures look a lot like the cute Mogwais from the movie Gremlins, but are actually monkeys, called Cotton Top Tamarins. These tamarins are virtually extinct in Central America and only remain in isolated pockets of forest in and around Panama City. Cerro Ancon is a forest covered hill and a tranquil oasis surrounded on all sides by the frenetic city. The hill maintains some charming buildings and former residences of important Canal Zone employees. One such building has been converted into a charming bed and breakfast, called La Estancia. At La Estancia you can enjoy a long leisurely breakfast on the patio and view more urban dwelling wildlife than wandering through the virgin rainforest all day. The list of animals viewed in a single morning is nothing short of incredible. Tamarins, sloths, tit monkeys, armadillos, agouti, parrots and toucans are all actually easy to spot on the hill, especially in the morning and late afternoon. Cerro Ancon occupies a central location in Panama City and offers easy access to the Mira Flores Locks of the Panama Canal, the colonial Casco Viejo neighborhood and the modern highrises of downtown. Most importantly, Cerro Ancon provides a quick escape after an exhausting day of exploring these exciting destinations in the tropical heat.
Palm-lined Amador Causeway is a breezy locale for renting and riding bicycles. Sights along the way include the Museum of Biodiversity designed by Frank Gehry, boats on the bay, a marina, and, across the canal, the Bridge of the Americas (pictured). Stop at some of the shops like the Flamenco Shopping Plaza and restaurants such as the family-friendly, thatched-roof Mi Ranchito toward the end of the causeway. Bikes & More offers rentals.
If you'd rather pass on trendy bars but want to enjoy a beer in Casco Viejo, then perhaps La Bencidad, with its outdoor patio, would be more up your alley. It's very popular with locals for live music and dancing. It's at Avenida A, between Calle 4 and 5. Let vibrant art murals and loud reggae lead the way.
Had a great stay at the PanAmerican Hostel in Panama! It is clean and safe. Located in Caso Viejo, it is close to many tourist sites. It is not in the safest area, but is closely patrolled with police and is locked up safely with 24/hour front desk service. It is also very cheap, I would recommend buying a two bedroom because it is not much more costly and has a lot more privacy. You may have to walk a little to get to an area with cabs, however Casco Viejo is within walking distance.
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