Alrighty, since we’re getting charter bookings (thanks!) we decided it is time to put together a quick guide to Panama City. Getting to us (NOMAD) is simple and fairly quick considering you’ll be going from civilization to a part of Panama that you can only really explore via boat (San Blas/Guna Yala). We handle this, though the cost isn’t included in our prices. It runs about $60/person to get out to us from Panama City.
- Dinero – Money-wise, Panama operates mostly on the US Dollar. If you’re American, you’re cool. Bring a bit of cash, but there are plenty of ATM’s around, just be sure to call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling to Panama. In Panama City you can use your credit/debit card almost anywhere. BUT – if you’re coming out to see us in San Blas/Guna Yala, BRING CASH. The last part of your payment for the charter is in cash and there are no ATM’s out here. Also bring small bills to buy things from the local indigenous folks (who are wonderful) – the Kuna/Guna. They make awesome artwork (molas).
- Language – it’s Central America, so it’s Spanish. That said, Panama City is nearly fluent in English. Nearly. Download Google translate offline and you’ll be just fine.
- Getting around – cab it. It’s easy. If you cab it, negotiate. Uber exists too. If you are planning on renting a car, rent with an American Express card (you’ll be insured for free), decline the insurance at the rental place, and download and use Waze (it’s like Google Maps, but better for S/Central America). Google Maps offline is helpful too.
- Safety – Panama City is safe. That said, exercise the kind of caution you would in any big city. If you feel uncomfortable in an area, just take a cab/Uber. If you don’t know an area, take a cab/Uber. Don’t be flashy or get obviously drunk and then stumble around dark alleys in the middle of the night. You know, be smart.
Let’s walk through getting to the boat.
Getting to NOMAD
- Most importantly, you’ll fly into Tocumen International Airport. Let’s say you fly in on January 1st. There is almost always a travel day on the front end of the trip – meaning you’ll spend your first night in Panama City (1/1 in our example). Tocumen Airport is on the outskirts of town – so you’ll pay anywhere from $15-30 to get into Panama City, to your hotel. As far as hotels go – it’s probably best to use one of the popular hotel sites to book (AirBnB is a viable option too). I prefer staying in El Cangrejo – which is central and has some decent restaurants and some good bars. Via Argentina is good for bars and nightlife. Another (maybe the best) option for a night’s stay is Casco Viejo. It’s an up-and-coming area with some great bars and restaurants.
- Your night in Panama City is the time to do any last-minute shopping for food and drinks. Specialty foodstuff or anything you may have forgotten should be picked up this evening. If you’re looking for specialty food or spices – ask any taxi driver for Riba-Smith. All other shopping can be done 24 hours (yes, grocery stores are open 24 hours) at a Super 99 or an Exito or an El Rey. Too easy.
- The next morning (1/2 in our example), fairly early, a 4X4 which we will have pre-arranged will pick you up and you will begin your trip to San Blas/Guna Yala. The 4×4 trip is a fun one, through the jungle on some windy roads. You’ll have to pay a small entrance fee to get into San Blas, and then you’ll be moved to a pre-arranged water taxi that will drop you off onboard NOMAD. That’s it. Super easy. You’ll probably be onboard around lunch, so we’ll have food and a welcome drink waiting on you!
Then your experience onboard NOMAD begins. And it’s our job to make it unforgettable 🙂
Going home is basically the opposite of coming to see us. Who’d have thunk it? There is one difference though – you can leave NOMAD early in the morning (8-9AM) and make it back to the city by 1-2PM with a reasonable degree of certainty. Meaning you can, 98% of the time, leave NOMAD and Panama on the same day – assuming your flight leaves Tocumen sometime after 3:30PM.
It’s your call.
What to see
Should you decide to stay in Panama City for a night or two – here are the things I think are worth seeing/doing:
- The Panama Canal – let’s be honest, the canal is the reason Panama is what it is. It’s also a very impressive example of engineering and perseverance. I’ve visited it (and plan on going through it), there’s a museum and you can watch a boat go through the locks if you time it right.
- Visit Las Perlas – this is an island chain on the Pacific side that’s an easy day-trip or a weekend getaway. They are pretty and it only takes 90 minutes to get there and come back. There are two companies that run trips out there: Sea Las Perlas and Ferry Las Perlas, just pick one. PS – there are whales here during whale-watching season (August through October).
- Casco Viejo – this is the coolest area of Panama City for sure. Stay there or stop by during the day and walk around. There’s plenty to see and do and eat and drink.
- The Fish Market – very close to Casco Viejo is the fish market of Panama City. Stop in to get fresh ceviche or your favorite fish meal.
Where to Stay
I touched on this earlier, at the top of the page. I don’t spend much time in Panama City, but when I do – I stay around Cangrejo. I usually go out to bars on Via Argentina or in Casco Viejo.
- Casco Viejo – If I were visiting Panama City for the first or second time, I would most certainly stay in Casco Viejo. It’s the hippest area around and there you can see some shocking contrast – the up and coming, freshly remodeled places directly next to the derelict. There are good bars (including rooftop bars) there, some great eats and you can find places to hang out during the day and through most of the night. Specific recommendations for hotels/hostels aren’t my cup of tea – but I’d start with AirBnB and then check out TripAdvisor for reviews.
- Cangrejo – If you want to stay somewhere more central (meaning you want to shop, or in my case: find boat parts) you should check out the Cangrejo district. It has plenty of places to stay in every budget, restaurants, bars, etc. Here you’ll find casinos too. Again – Via Argentina for bars and entertainment.
All ’round contacts – I have several taxi drivers in Panama City that speak excellent English and are very reliable. Just ask and I’d be more than happy to share them or arrange just about anything for you in advance. Here is another one-stop shop for everything Panama City: https://bedsboatsandbeyond.wordpress.com/
So. Hope that helps. Ever more, hope to see you down here soon!