Layover in Panama City, Panama
July 18, 2013 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm flying back to Santiago, Chile, on Saturday, and I have an overnight layover in Panama. Should I do my best to explore the city in the time I have? If so, what to do/where to stay?

I am leaving for Chile from Newark Saturday afternoon and arriving in Panama (PTY) at 9:37 pm. My flight for Santiago leaves the next day (Sunday) at 12:06 pm. I know that lots of people with overnight layovers in Panama decide to just stay in the airport and wait it out, but I would really like to try to experience at least a small fraction of the city. I was hoping to get some insight from people who have been to Panama before or also experienced a long layover there.

Given that I'm arriving so late, does it make sense to leave the airport? Will I run into any problems with customs when leaving or coming back the next day? What part of the city should I definitely see since I have so little time to explore? I have very little knowledge of Panama so any suggestions or advice are very welcome! Thanks a ton!

A little background: I speak Spanish and have a lot of experience traveling through South/Central America. I should only have a backpack since the rest of my luggage will be checked all the way to Santiago.
posted by luciernaga to Travel & Transportation around Panama, Panama (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not a Panama expert but I did spend a few days there in 2008. Quite frankly I didn't really have a lot of love for Panama but it's an interesting place to see where development (ie, Trump Towers) and foreign dollars are impacting a place. Downtown Panama offers some nightlife and a peek at the upcoming highrises which are changing Panama City.

The "neatest" area in my opinion is Casca Viegjo -- which is a bit tricky to get to and is bordered by some very poor areas of the city. Do some research before you venture here -- particularly at night as it may be unsafe and somewhat deserted at night.

The Causeway has a number of restaurants/bars and is a neat vibrant area -- if not a bit touristy. It may offer some nightlife options but again, I would research before heading out. It can be difficult to get a return cab ride from the Causeway (if you are relying on cabs).

I stayed at La Casa de Carmen which offered to arrange airport transportation. We had a great driver to and from the airport who was prompt and reliable.

If you had more time, I would recommend the Miraflores Locks to see the Panama Canal but I suspect this doesn't at all fit in your time frame.

In 2008, the somewhat funny advice passed on was an emphatic "DO NOT RIDE THE BUSES!" I thought this perhaps overstated and then I saw the very very full buses which appeared to be retired school buses decorated graffiti and lit up like discos. I still would not recommend trusting the bus for return airport transportation unless reassured by locals about reliability. In 2008 the highway between the airport and the city was also prone to backup/delay during rush hour so you may want a local opinion about managing comings and goings.

The Panama airport, in my recollection, sucks. Very few amenities or food options, uncomfortable furniture, and not many people waiting around between flights. I'd take the gamble and get out of the airport if you find somewhere to stay and have transportation taken care of.

Again, my advice is outdated and I don't love Panama -- but I do believe in seeing what there is when offered a long layover! I also suspect you'll find a radically changed Panama from my 2008 encounter. Have a great trip!
posted by countrymod at 12:36 PM on July 18, 2013

I lived in Panama for a year in high school and have been back many times. I love it, it is one of my favorite countries! This may be because of the relationships I have with people there and also the city is not that great-- but you should definitely see it since you're there.

Take a cab from the airport and maybe stay in a hostel. I haven't spent much time in the city as a tourist so I don't have a lot of specific recommendations but you could see the canal or go to the causeway.

You can definitely ride those painted school buses. They are super cheap and I have never, ever felt endangered anywhere in Panama. Panamanians are great and very outgoing and friendly.
posted by queens86 at 1:30 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't spend the night at the airport, however the airport is a ways out of town and it's not that easy to get to and from. Here's a Wikitravel article about it.

There is apparently one hotel at the airport and it's a Casino Resort. Riande Aeropuerto.

Now, for me, this is right up my alley. A nice hotel where I can have a nice meal, do some gambling, bathe and have a nice night's sleep, before heading back to the airport.

I just don't think that by the time you get a cab, drive into town, check into a hotel, and then hit the streets that there will be that much to do, before you go back to the hotel, sleep, wake up, get a cab back to the airport.

Seems like a lot of work to me Uncle Charlie.

It's apparently $140 per night which seem eminantly reasonable to me.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:54 PM on July 18, 2013

I have not been to Panama in quite a while, when I was there a few things stood out for me.

The ruins of Old Panama
Visiting the Canal up close
Getting a "surf and turf" at Jimmy's. I don't know if they are still around....
There was a great surfing beach about an hour away, North. Don't remember the exact location.
The views from the Amador Causeway were great

Have fun!
posted by Leenie at 2:40 PM on July 18, 2013

Casco Viejo is great during the day. Kinda quiet at night. Know where the border is, though, I once wandered a bit too far and several pedestrians stopped me and told me that I shouldn't be in that neighborhood because it was dangerous.
posted by zug at 2:47 PM on July 18, 2013

Please let us know what you end up doing and liked the most as I am curious to know for future reference.
posted by profiledefenders at 9:50 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey everyone! Thank you so so much for all of the advice - it was my first time asking a Mefi question and it was great to hear everyone's ideas! I ended up deciding to leave the airport and stay in a hostel in Casco Viejo called Magnolia Inn. It was lovely and only $15 for a bed. They called a taxi for me too when I left for the airport this morning (the ride was $28 each way, for those who are curious). I got up early and spent an hour or so walking around the neighborhood. It was beautiful and also offered great views of the high rises on the other side of the city. All in all it was a very pleasant layover.

Unfortunately, for a funny twist, I'm currently still in the Panama airport because they overbooked my flight and I don't have a seat (they wouldn't let me check all the way through to Chile). Sooo looks like I might be here another night. Not a bad place to spend two nights though :-). Thanks again!!
posted by luciernaga at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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