If you’re ever heading from the Caribbean to South America it’s highly likely that you’ll have to stop in Panamá’s Tocumen International Airport. Do yourself a favour and try as hard as you can to score a layover of at least five hours (excluding clearance & check in time). With this you’ll have enough time to leave the airport and discover Panamá!
I didn’t intend to visit Panamá at all but I got lucky as while planning my trip to Colombia, I realised that I had enough miles for a one way trip. These miles from my trip to Brazil were enough to score me a $40 USD flight (one way) to Panamá from Trinidad in December. These flights often go for well over $350 USD so it was a great deal – especially as I needed to save money for my Colombia trip.
This deal only got better when Copa Airlines who I was flying with, cancelled my flight and flew me in one day earlier resulting in a free stay at an all inclusive hotel in Panamá City! Because Panamá connects people around the world to South America many tour companies have actually created a layover tour specifically for people with little time who wish to see as much as possible.
There are so many of these and they’re all crazily expensive. The one I opted for was the cheapest but still not as cheap as I would have liked. I found my guide (Orville) through stalking TripAdvisor posts and he turned out to be a lovely old man, fluent in both English and Spanish with great knowledge of the city and patience for the number of pictures I kept stopping to take.
If you have a layover in Panamá of more than five hours and wish to see some of the country, you have two options. Go brave and order an Uber from the airport to your first destination (I regret not doing this) or book a layover tour. Layover tours range from USD$90 to $200+ but come with the ‘guarantee’ that you’ll be picked up on time, have a safe and comfortable journey and be returned to the airport to make your flight. The Uber option on the other hand is much cheaper but advisable only if you speak Spanish as your Uber driver may not speak a word of English. It’s also risky because traffic can get crazy and you run the risk of missing your flight onward.
Whichever way you decide to see Panamá , be sure you see Panamá. It’s one of the more interesting cities I’ve been to – it looks like the Caribbean and New York City had a baby.
Start your day at the Panamá Canal – it’s best to go really early as this increases your chances of actually seeing a ship pass through. Even if you miss the ship – which I did – it’s more than worth the drive. The entire Canal consists of three locks – the most popular set of locks for people visiting the city is the Miraflores Locks. Entrance to Miraflores is $15 USD and gives you access to the entire building.
The first thing to do when you arrive is ask whether a ship will be passing soon. If not, whether you’re familiar with the Panamá Canal or not, the movie theatre should be your first stop. The theatre is big and comfortable and the short film gives you a great overview of the Canal and its history.
You can then enter the museum which is four floors of history and interesting facts about the Canal. It is definitely one of the more comprehensive museums I’ve been to but of course very crowded. You can move around the museum alone and even linger around tour guides to get some more information.
If you’re in Panamá for longer than a layover definitely get a tour guide but as you’re likely to want to see other places, you can opt out. The final floor opens out into a balcony where you can actually see the canal (and hopefully see a ship passing). Take some time to reflect on the magnificent technological masterpiece that is the Canal, take some pictures and then take the elevator down and head to the next place of interest; the Amador Causeway.
On your way to the Causeway it may be a good idea to stop at the Artesanato which is a craft market where you’ll get beautiful souvenirs which are on the cheaper side – this is a much better option than buying in the airport.
The Causeway is an interesting place – it was originally built in 1913 with rocks which were excavated during the construction of the Canal and was recently converted to a tourist site. It’s now the second longest boardwalk in the city and home to great restaurants, bars, pools and shopping. It is one of those places I have to return to because of number of things to do around the area – from taking an Aquabus to visiting the Biodiversity Museum. If you have it, spend some time at the Causeway by the water or in one of the malls and restaurants.
If you don’t have time you can walk around a bit, grab something to eat, snap some pictures and head back toward Panamá City. While heading back, on your left you’ll see the Bridge of the Americas. This bridge spans the entire Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal.
It’s now time to head to Casco Viejo- Panamá’s old city. Unfortunately because of the amount of traffic heading in that direction I was unable to go. It was the biggest disappointment of my whole trip. I love old cities – there’s always so much history surrounding the cities and Orville would have been the perfect tour guide for this part of the tour. If your layover is short like mine was and you really want to get to the old city, maybe skip the Causeway and head to Casco Viejo right after the Panamá Canal. I’m certain you won’t regret it.
After leaving the old city, the practical thing to do would be to drive through the new City. Panamá City is stocked with tall buildings, all attempting to outdo the other. There were some really interesting ones and other highly glamorous ones.
This is where my tour ended but if you have some more time definitely check out Coronado (beach town), spend more time at the Amador Causeway, check out an Embera Village Tour and hang around the Panamá Canal to see a ship pass (have brunch there too- I’ve heard it’s great).
As I mentioned before there are many other options for your layover. If you wish to go with Orville (the cheapest at USD$90) contact him at (+50765008815) and be sure to let him know Paige sent you! Another good option would be this tour with My Friend Mario.
The next time I’m heading to South America I’m definitely going to spend at least two days in Panamá – there’s so much more to see!