To get to Panamá City, we decided to go by bus. From Tamarindo we went by local bus to San Jose, which cost ₡5,500 per person (~$10 USD) and took about 6 hours. This bus leaves from the stop in front of the “Centro comercial” at 7:30 am and 2 pm (we hopped on the 7:30). Once we arrived in San Jose we walked from the bus terminal to the city center (there’s a very nice pedestrian shopping area) and met our Couch Surfing host Chepe at the Plaza de Cultura.
Chepe also had another couch surfing another guest, Kati from Austria. While we waited for Kati to arrive, we hit up Taco Bell, which is quite popular in Costa Rica. There’s different stuff on the menu; we tried the chifrijo burrito (chifrijo being a local dish) which was tasty but unexceptional. Overall though, it was crazy expensive, pass. You can get casados for much cheaper at a local diner.
Once we collected Kati, Chepe gave the three of us a ride to his house. One of Chepe’s hobbies is teaching yoga, and he has configured his house accordingly, including a studio space complete with aerial hammock. He teaches a weekly class in his home for friends, and afterwards we all hung out for dinner and drinks. Dan and Kati aren’t yogis and they did a great job cooking while the rest of us practiced.
The next day we got our last meal of casados before hopping on our longest overnight bus ride yet: 17 hours. We arrived at the TicaBus terminal at noon (tickets were purchased online for $40/person) and got to the Panamá border around 6 pm. It was a baffling process. We got off the bus and were funneled through Costa Rican immigration where we paid the exit tax ($8/person including the TicaBus $1 convenience fee) and got our stamps. Then we were left on our own to walk through the small lively border town of Paso Canoas to find Panamanian immigration, where we were electronically finger printed and our bags were searched perfunctorily with much bureaucratic fanfare. Still this represented the most extensive border crossing process we have experienced to date.
Note for anyone considering overnight bus travel in this part of the world: it’s freaking freezing. They crank the AC down to below 60 F/14 C and next time I am going to keep my down jacket with me, because I was shivering in my hoodie. Supposedly it’s to help the bus drivers stay awake.
We arrived in Panamá City at 4:30 am. The Albrook bus terminal where we arrived is huge, and its food court was already open, so we got coffee, snacks, and set about planning our visit in Panamá, because we are super organized types.
The bus system in Panamá City is very extensive and is integrated into Google navigation by design. But it’s still super confusing, so make sure to ask your driver about your stop even if Google says its the right bus. For both the bus and metro you need a RapiPass (a rechargeable prox card) which costs $2, but you can use one card for multiple people, and if worst comes to worst, you can pay someone else for a fare off their card.
After a few hours in the food court we headed to Hostal Loco Coco Loco in the Punta Paitilla neighborhood, and encountered a strange thing that became a theme with hostels in Panamá City: the price they quote you when you arrive is higher than whatever you found online. In this case, they gave us the Booking.com price ($11/night instead of $12/night) when we asked why it was higher.
When we moved two days later to Hostal Danicole in the Los Angeles neighborhood (the map location they have on the FB looks wrong btw), we were quoted $12/night on the phone, but we were able to make a booking on Hostelworld for $6.5/night, which they honored when we arrived. Yes, yes, I know I said we would avoid Hostelworld, but look that discount (and Danicole wasn’t available on Booking.com).
So, general review of Loco Coco Loco. The free coffee and breakfast are solid, the common spaces are nice, the location and the common kitchen are decent. Oh also, there’s a monkey named Coco. But in the large dorm (Room F, 18 beds) they blasted the air frigid, freezing, colder than a witch’s you-know-what cold. There were people sleeping in their coats with three blankets. The only reason I survived was because of two blankets, and the walking space heater that I sleep next to (yes, in a twin sized dorm bed). The room also had only one functioning bathroom available for the 18 person room, and so it was always occupied and dirty. So we give Loco Coco Loco a rating of “eh”. You come away with a different experience in a private room.
Of course, our first tourist stop was to the canal. The locks on the Pacific side and near Panamá City are called Miraflores. It is possible to go and look at the boats in the canal without paying entrance to the visitor center; there’s a parking lot north of the visitor center where you hangout and watch the boats for free. But the only way to see the actual locks in action is to cough up the $15/person non-citizen entrance fee at the Miraflores visitor center.
The two recommended time frames for watching the locks are 9-11 am and 3-5 pm, because the boat traffic switches direction at noon (every 12 hours), and so there’s a lull in activity around that time. When we arrived around 9 am the viewing deck on the second floor was sparsely populated, but by 9:30 am it was packed, so it pays to go early. There is another viewing deck on the 4th floor, but I didn’t like it as well because of the overhanging ceiling which loomed unavoidably in the tops of photographs.
One of the cool things about Panamá City is the Cinta Costera, which is a multi-use path that runs along the waterfront, and then in a giant loop over the water around Casco Viejo, the hip-ening-est neighborhood in the city as far as we could tell. We went for a run one day and absolutely loved it.
Something else we (okay mostly I) loved was the ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos (the Fish Market). The actual commercial fish market is under construction currently, but the restaurants are still in full swing. You will get harangued aggressively by waitstaff hawking menus and cell phone photos of the food their restaurant serves. We didn’t find a good way to deal with it except “No gracias”.
There are probably about twenty restaurants, selling mostly the same thing at very similar prices, but not all ceviche is created equal. We hit up at total of four restaurants in two visits, mostly sampling fish and octopus ceviche. Of those we sampled La Benedición had the best octopus ceviche and Delicias del Mar next door had the best pescado (corvina) ceviche. Don’t bother with the 2×1 on Saturdays at Mirador del Pacifico, they just serve it in smaller cups. Consider trying the Mediterranean which is mixed with olives and olive oil, but the concha negra (black clam) that we got tasted fishy in the bad way.
While eating ceviche we made another possibly questionable eating decision: we bought eggs from wandering vendor. We got 4 x $1 small hard boiled eggs that I am guessing were quail, but in reality I have no idea. We also got for 75¢ a piece, turtle eggs. When I was told what they were I asked if they were legal and, well, of course he said yes. I figured that if they were turtle eggs from some endangered species, they would cost more that 75 cents a piece. I hope I’m not wrong! The surprising thing was that a soft boiled turtle egg really just tastes like an egg. It just looks like a collapsed ping pong ball.
After two nights at Loco Coco Loco we moved to Hostal Danicole. Los Angeles is not in the most happening neighborhood, but there were two good grocery stores nearby and fast bus transit to and from Estación Marañón in city center. The staff was very friendly and helpful with suggestions. The hostel had a great kitchen and patio areas; there was even an array of exercise equipment. My one (big) complaint would be the noise. We were in the Italy dorm (all rooms were assigned a country for a name) which is sandwiched between the main patio and the kitchen; we got the late night patio noise through the window, and the early morning kitchen noise through the thin door. If you stay there, don’t stay in the Italy dorm.
On Sunday we took the opportunity to go see a local league soccer game at the Estadio Manacará (not to be confused with the one in Brazil), where we saw Chorillo play Plaza Amador for $6 per ticket (I think you can get tickets online cheaper if you do so in advance). The game was very lively, with impassioned arguing with the ref, all kinds of yellow cards, and a nearly avoided mass brawl on the field, and it ended in a 1 to 1 tie.
Getting to Manacará via bus was easy, Google will tell you there’s no way to walk there, but Google is a lying sack of doo doo on that matter; there is a beautiful pedestrian bridge across the otherwise death defying 6 lane highway. Just head to the “INADEH Chorillo” bus stop and you’re good to go. Getting away was trickier because we heard a lot of bad things about the Chorillo neighborhood, where our Google-recommended return bus stop was located, and we couldn’t get an Uber driver to touch us (we have 5 drivers accept and almost immediately cancel). So we just walked back to Casco Viejo along the Cinta Costera, which was very lively at 8 pm on a Sunday night and had lots of playground space a kids in that region.
Panamá is also beer country. It has the second highest per capita consumption rate of beer of in the Americas (beating the US in beer consumption per capita by 1.6 liters) and is 16th in the world for beer consumption. The national beers (Panamá, Balboa, Atlas, and Soberana) are cheap at $0.65 a can at the grocery store, and we also found lots of other imported beers stocked as well.
One of our excursions involved a visit to a Panamá City’s independent brewer, Casa Bruja. They have a good selection, including several gose. They were good though they seemed a little thin to me, but the Tres Tristes Tigres whitbier was my favorite, and not just because of the pun! The joke with the name is that there is a Spanish tongue twister that goes like this:
Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal en tres tristes trastos.
En tres tristes trastos tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres.
Which translates to:
Three sad tigers swallowed wheat in a cornfield in three sad utensils.
In three sad utensils swallowed wheat three sad tigers.
Another interesting tidbit is that there is a large Chinese population in Panamá City and accordingly, a lot of Chinese food, though with it’s own particular spin. We went to something that I would say is roughly equivalent in style to Panada Express, but its plates also came with fried plantains and a wide variety of salad options, including a beet salad that I ordered called “remolacha” (which it turns out just means “beet”). The go-to famous place for Chinese is Lung Fung, right near Danicole, but we looked at the entree prices ($15 and up) and decided to be kind to our budget and take a pass.
On our way out to the airport we killed some time at the Albrook Mall, which it turns out, is the largest shopping mall in the Americas, and the 18th largest mall in the world. You can get a coffee or soft serve for a reasonable price and chill in the main food court (there are three) watching the carousel, and there’s also a bowling alley with an insanely overpriced arcade. $1.50 for a game of skee ball? No. But it turns out that carousels and arcades are good for light paintings.
Getting out of Panamá City we hit a surprise bump. When we went to check in for our Air Panamá flight (no online check in, side eye), we were told that to enter Colombia we would need to show a ticket for transit for leaving Colombia. Our reservations in Peru and Chile in coming months were not acceptable proof that we would not loiter in Colombia. And we’re super organized, remember? So after assessing our options I was at the point of throwing down for a flight from Bogotá to Quito when I realized there was a “reserve now, pay later” option, and that got us on the plane. Another traveler later pointed out that you can always cancel an airline ticket within 24 hours, so there’s another work around.
However, after our short and uneventful flight to Medellín, the Colombian immigration agent we saw (who we saw before collecting our baggage, which was a first), didn’t ask for anything of the kind. This was something I had been told to expect entering Costa Rica, but never happened. But with that anticlimax, we made it to our first stop in South America!