Tuesday, November 17, 2015

12 Hours in Panama City

When we started researching flights early this year for our trip to Peru, S was initially discouraged by the lack of options without a long layover somewhere. I wondered, though, if it could be turned into an opportunity. 

Instead of settling for sitting in an airport somewhere for 4 to 6 hours, what if we actually chose a flight with a day-long layover?

That's how we ended up with 12 hours in Panama City, Panama. We embraced the inconvenient flight schedule and turned it into a mini vacation on the way to our vacation. 

Wondering what the heck to do with 12 hours in Panama City? I'm so glad you asked.

This might seem a little obvious, but Panama City is tropical. Maybe you already knew that, but if you're on your way to somewhere not tropical like we were, its worth noting that you'll want to make an appropriate outfit change before you leave the airport. Also, don't forget the sunscreen.

We arrived in Panama City around 6am and shed our long pants and shirts from our red-eye flight before heading for the rental car counter. 

Panama City has a decent public transportation system, plenty of legitimate taxis and a supply of Uber drivers, but we opted to rent a car and drive ourselves. For $75 all-in it was nice to have the autonomy to go wherever we wanted, when we wanted, and to not have to worry about bus schedules or anything like that when it was time to head back to the airport to catch our flight. 

Driving in Panama City is not difficult per se, just be ready for a little bit of chaos, prepare to be a little aggressive, and rent the optional GPS like we did so you know where you're going.

First stop: the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal. (TripAdvisor here)

It may seem like an obvious place to go, because, well, it is. Its obvious and popular for a reason though

The locks originally opened in 1914. They've had a little work done since then, but they are still an engineering marvel that will make you feel small in comparison.

Entrance to the visitor center is $15 for adults and $10 for students, seniors, and children. The visitor center has a multi-level viewing platform and a multi-floor museum. 

We were here at about 9am and the ships were lined up coming through the locks one after the other. The crowds were light and we were able to dominate a spot on the rail for our entire visit.

We really enjoyed watching the water levels rise and fall, the lock doors open and close, and the ships slowly moving past with their cog-rail escorts.

If you love things with moving parts then you must visit here. The locks, trains, and well-coordinated staff make for a great show to start your day in Panama City.

When we were here, there was a docent-type man with a microphone on the loud speaker explaining all the action. He was informative and punny, a perfect combination. 

The attached museum has exhibits related to the locks like this one showing the old mechanical mechanism for opening the gates and the newer hydraulic ones that replaced them. There are also exhibits about the rain forests and oceans that are not far from the Panama Canal. 

We left the canal and headed to Casco Viejo, the second oldest neighborhood in Panama City. 

We parked the car and set out on Frommer's walking tour of the neighborhood which you can find for free here. Give yourself 1-2 hours to do the tour.

We did the tour in reverse, having parked at the north end of the neighborhood in Plaza Herrera. First stop: the Iglesia de San Jose. No photos allowed, but the altar is a gold leaf masterpiece.

 Next, the Iglesia de la Merced.

Originally built in the area known as Panama Viejo, the oldest settlement of the city, the stones were moved and reconstructed on this site in 1680 after a pirate attack.

I loved these doors.

Next stop, the Catedral Metropolitana in the Plaza de la Indepentencia. Construction began in 1688, but wasn't completed until 1796.

The interior is simple, but lovely.

Casco Viejo is an interesting neighborhood to visit. On the one hand, there are beautiful colonial style buildings lining every street.

On the other hand, many of the buildings sit in various states of disrepair and decay. As if they have been forgotten about for decades. Its easy to wander in wonder through the streets snapping photos.


The Plaza de Francia sits on the tip of the peninsula, jutting out toward the Pacific Ocean. It was the original Plaza de Armas or main square of Panama City, but is now a commemorative monument to the French effort to build the Panama Canal. (You can learn more about the canal's history here.)

Its a great spot to see the ships lined up waiting for their turn in the canal.

Another picturesque spot. (This long layover thing was paying off!)

Built in 1678, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo burnt in 1781 and was never rebuilt.

The arch, known as the Arco Chato survived the fire and seems to defy gravity.

We saw these other ruins on our walk back to the car. Again, everywhere you look in Casco Viejo is another beautiful building just waiting to have its photo taken.

When we got back to to car in Plaza Herrera ominous clouds were gathering. Our plans were to stop by Panama Viejo on our way back to the airport. 

However, clouds quickly turned to heavy rain, which were then joined by pretty epic lightening. Not wanting to stand in an open field in a thunder and lightening storm, we opted to go back to the airport early. 

I'm really glad we embraced the long layover. It allowed us to see a beautiful and interesting city that we otherwise would have missed. Or at least not visited for a long time.

Yes, I may have required a large cafe con leche frio to stay energized after a red-eye flight, but it was worth it. The next time you're faced with a flight schedule that seems intent on stranding you somewhere, roll with it. Take a deep breath, check the weather, and choose the adventure.

Have you ever had a long layover that you turned into a day of sightseeing? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.


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