Oh Panama! You stole a little piece of my wanderlustin’ heart! A beautiful country with so many unexpected contrasts, Panama exceeded my expectations. I fell in love with the vibrant colors, people, culture, architecture, food!, beaches, and music. We did not get to do everything we wanted to and did some things we never planned to do (The beauty of traveling, right?).
I cannot say that i have checked Panama off the bucket list yet so I will be back! Here are 10 Panama experiences i enjoyed immensely and left an incredible impression on me. These are not in particular order of awesomeness!
- The Donde Jose dining experience: A 9 course (yes!) culinary experience that tells the story of Panama. The ingredients, cooking techniques, and serving presentation are Panamanian based. Chef Jose is quite passionate about what he does. I have to say we enjoyed every single course. Your taste buds will be blown away – everything was rich, flavorful, and delightful. Every course had a story related to Panama, some of them personal to Chef Jose. The restaurant has only 16 seats, of which 4 are located right in front of the chef (Chef’s table). We chose the regular seats (didn’t want to smell like cooked food! haha). Though it didn’t seem like there was much cooking by the chef, just a lot of food construction. Note that wine is not included in the pricing. Portions are small for good reason – its 9 courses. Trust me, when you are done, you won’t be able to eat anything else. Any experience that educates me and feeds me amazing food is definitely a winner in my books! Book early! I hear it takes a few weeks to get reservations, we called just four days ahead and lucked out because a party cancelled. Visit Donde Jose online for reservations and more on this incredible culinary experience. The restaurant is located in Casco Viejo.
- Exploring Casco Viejo: (“The Old Quarter”). Also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe is a big contrast from downtown Panama City. For me, it was very reminiscent of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico or The French Quarter, New Orleans. Despite the apparent and ongoing gentrification of this UNESCO world heritage site, there’s still a lot of dilapidation around. This neighborhood has been around for 340 years and its constantly changing and evolving. Casco Viejo has a large concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops. We did not base ourselves here but found our way back here literally every day we were in Panama City. I loved the diversity of Casco Viejo – in architecture, people, culture, and cuisine. There’s much to see and do. For more, check out my blog post on exploring Casco Viejo!
- Weekend chilling with the locals on Starfish Beach: If you want to see how locals do beach on Saturdays, check out Starfish Beach on Isla Colon, Bocas Del Toro. It was an interesting experience. The beach is buzz-i-n-g-g – Several DJs are spinning, rustic restaurants serving local delights, thatched bars serving yummy drinks, and just a lot of people around. Don’t come here for a calm beach experience (I have a recommendation for that below!). Come here to people watch and experience life with the locals. I can best describe it as a beautiful sensory overload! Check out my Starfish Beach blog post for more pictures and tips on this experience.
- Exploring the pristine Cayo Zapatilla Islands: The complete opposite of Starfish beach above! Cayo Zapatilla islands are uninhabited, pristine, and untouched. They are located in Isla Bastimentos, another island within the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago. It was an incredible experience to be able to explore these two islands with no other visitors on the island. The beaches have no facilities so you need to bring everything you might need. For more beautiful pictures and tips, check out my Cayo Zapatilla blog post.
- Discovering the best seafood at Peach Fuzz International: I still have mouthwatering memories of the food at Peach Fuzz! It’s located in Curundú area of Panama City. The fried fish is seriously the best I’ve had! Every bite was bursting with flavor. The menu changes daily depending on what the owner (Danny) picks up from the fish market that day; so its guaranteed to be fresh from that day’s catch. If you get a minute to chat with Danny, make sure you do so. He’s a walking history lesson and he gave us a lot of insight and background on Panama and particularly on Curundú. Don’t be put off by the surroundings, it’s not fancy and you’ll pass some sketchy areas to get to the restaurant. We never felt unsafe. One thing to note is that the restaurant signage says “Pescado Frito” (Fried Fish) and not Peach Fuzz International. (This is as of June 2017). Check out their Instagram page for more details. Don’t forget to ask Danny on the history behind the restaurant name. I’ll let him do the honors;)
- Hiking Ancon Hill: For the most breathtaking panoramic views of Panama City, a hike up the 654 foot Ancon Hill is in order. The hike takes about 30 minutes; there were parts of trail that were steep but overall not too bad if you are in decent shape. The trail is full of beautiful lush dense vegetation, but not much animal life. Check out my Ancon Hill blog post for more pictures and tips for making the hike. Here’s also a video I made on the way to the top.
- Live Music at Bubba’s House Isla Bastimentos. If you happen to find yourself close to Isla Bastimentos on a Monday evening, take a water taxi ride to the Old Bank water port of Isla Bastimentos and seek out Bubba’s House hostel. Everyone – locals, backpackers, and other tourists, congregates here on Monday nights for live music. The music is popping, drinks strong and inexpensive, and its a fun, interesting, and diverse crowd. I made a couple short video clips here and here.
- Titillate your taste buds at Firefly Restaurant, Isla Bastimentos: Can you tell yet that I love to eat?? 🙂 The food was amazing! Fresh, full of flavor, and a wide variety of options offered. Most items were tapas style plus a few entrees. They are a little pricey but worth it. They also have an amazing cocktail menu. We dined here on our last night but visited several times for cocktails. The staff is really awesome, another reason why we kept coming back. Visit the FireFly online for contact info, directions, and more on the restaurant.
- Experiencing the Panama Canal: We stopped at the Miraflores lock to see how ships transit the 48 mile (80 km) long Canal. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it but it’s pretty cool seeing ships getting lowered and raised through the lock. Best times to catch a ship going thru the lock are 9-1030 am and 3-430 pm. We went at the 3 pm time and saw 2 ships going thru. It was crazy crowded and hot as hell.😩 But it’s one of those things worth checking out for the engineering feat that is the Panama Canal.
I recommend a stop at the very informative 4-level museum. The most mind blowing memory for me were the almost 20,000 people that died during the construction of the Canal and the incredible diversity of races involved.
- Living Isla Bastimentos: For our time in Bocas Del Toro, we had to choose between staying in Bocas Town on the main Isla Colón or Isla Bastimentos. Both are very different- Bocas Town is party central, lively, and very touristy. Isla Bastimentos is much quieter, colorful, less developed, sees fewer tourists, and has an abundance of lush vegetation. For this reason, we decided to make Bastimentos our base for exploring Bocas Del Toro. We are glad we did! It was close enough to Bocas town (10 minutes by water taxi) if we wanted to have a night out at the bars and restaurants. We rented a beach house in the Old Bank area, which doesn’t even have a road; just a sidewalk. It was a great experience for us. Check out my blog posts on Old Bank and on experiencing Isla Bastimentos.
Thank you for coming along on my adventures!