Here’s how to make the most of your time in the capital.
For centuries, people have been trying to pass through Panama—via the eponymous canal that opened in 1914, or by way of a connecting flight at Tocumen International Airport. And while things are now changing rapidly for this compact destination, due to an influx of new, upscale hotels and an expansion of the canal that permits mega cruise ships, it remains a popular stopover city for airlines traveling between North and South America. Panama's flag carrier, Copa Airlines, is headquartered in Panama City—and lets travelers easilly extend a layover.
Travelers with two or three days to spare can easily extend their layover in Panama City—which was named one of Travel + Leisure's Best Places to Travel in 2017—and see plenty of the key attractions. Instead of searching for the quickest connection, make extra time to explore the newly polished capital of Panama. Because the country uses the U.S. dollar, you won’t even need to exchange your currency.
Check in to your hotel
Immediately drop your bags at the American Trade Hotel. Still one of the most upscale spots in Panama City, this boutique property (run by the Ace Hotel team) helped put the 17th-century Casco Viejo neighborhood on the map. Guests staying in one of the 50 rooms can thumb through vintage issues of National Geographic or sip Panamanian coffee on a colorful Bertoia chair in the interior courtyard.
For something more intimate, check out La Concordia, a 10-room property in the same neighborhood expected to open in April 2017. Rooms here will have private balconies and claw-foot bathtubs, and the hotel will open a rooftop lounge, Numen, with unobstructed views of the city.
Take a tour
Get an unconventional neighborhood tour from former gang members. Fortaleza Tours leads 80-minute walking tours of Casco Viejo—also known as the Old City—led by reformed members of the Ciudad de Dios gang. Travelers will see a scabbier side of Panama City: bullet hole-marked facades, for example, and empty lots. Tours start at the American Trade Hotel, where stairwell a stairwell wallpapered in preserved graffiti may very well contain your tour guide’s tag.
Those interested in the wild side of Panama can arrange a tour with Truly Panama, a tour operator based in Panama City. Book an eco-friendly boat tour of Lake Gatún (a massive, man-made lake created during the construction of the Panama Canal) to see the many populations of monkeys that live in the surrounding forest, including capuchin monkeys and Geoffroy’s tamarins—the latter will eagerly jump into your boat to check out new visitors.
Back in town, try a new, one-hour chocolate tasting at Oro Moreno, where participants can sample eight different types of 100 percent Panamanian chocolate.
With a multi-day layover, consider a kayaking trip through the canal, or a partial transit on a passenger ferry with Ancon Expeditions. But shorter stays still merit a trip to the Panama Canal. Have a cab take you straight to the Miraflores Locks—a 30-minute drive from Casco Viejo—to learn more about the expanded canal system. After ascending through a museum, visitors can watch mammoth cruise ships navigate the 180-foot-wide locks.
Try the street food
You don’t need much time to experience the unique culinary specialties of Panama City. Grab lunch at the seafood market, Mercado de Mariscos, which sits at the edge of Casco Viejo. Outside, vendors serve small plastic cups filled with fresh ceviche of various kinds: shrimp, octopus, drum fish, all in a bright citrus brine.
On a particularly hot day, grab a raspa’o from a street cart. The Panamanian answer to snow cones features flavored shaved ice topped with condensed milk, and a honey or malt syrup.
When night falls, return to Casco Viejo for dinner at the Fish Market, a venture by British chef Mike Thompson. His gourmet food truck, parked inside the ruins of a colonial-era building, serves Asian-influenced seafood dishes on a rotating basis (green fish curry, Thai-spiced jumbo prawns). Grab a seat at a white picnic bench or communal table, and bring enough cash for the local beers or mojitos.