We have many blog posts on the Ambler about things to do and where to stay in Panama City, but if you are just spending a short time there, or have a layover on your way to and from Isla Palenque, as most of our guests do, you might just want some quick advice. This post is a condensed and frank version of how to make the most use of your time in transit to and from Isla Palenque, written from my opinionated perspective ; )
Photo by Adam Elliott
Why to Layover
Many people visiting Panama for the first or second time want to spend some time in Panama City, regardless of where else they are visiting. However, some of Isla Palenque’s returning guests, homeowners, or those who simply want some quality “island time” find themselves having to layover in Panama City for anywhere from a few hours to overnight. If this is the case, a little planning can make this layover an enjoyable part of the journey instead of simply a pit stop. Panama City really only has two sights that “need” to be seen, and both can profitably visited in just a few hours.
What to Do During Your Layover
While there are a number of sights within Panama City that might be worth seeing if you have special interests or extra time to kill on your layover, there are two sights that any visitor to Panama should see in the city: the Panama Canal (or more properly, the Miraflores Locks, which form the Pacific gateway into the canal), and Casco Viejo, Panama’s UNESCO preserved historic district.
Conveniently, both are just 10 minutes (without traffic) from the regional airport Marcos A Gelabert, known colloquially as “Albrook Airport”. Even more conveniently, as Panama City’s only truly pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, Casco Viejo is the best area in Panama to not just wander around an historic district, but also shop, eat, and experience some nightlife. It’s also filled with the city’s best boutique hotels. This makes it a good home base, and a good option for spending the night (see below for recommendations): even if you just have an overnight layover, you can still fully experience the district if you’ve got an afternoon and evening to spare.
The Canal’s Miraflores locks are not just the Pacific’s gateway to the Panama Canal, but also the location of the Canal Museum and a great viewing platform to watch a ship go through if your timing is right. You can spend anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours here, so in addition to visiting while staying in Panama City, it is also a good activity when you have a layover between your regional and international flights that leaves you with an extra hour or three. All you need is a driver you can trust to hold on to your luggage while you visit (for example by using our Panama City Transport Package).
If you find yourself with additional time to kill there are a handful of reasonably nice museums in the City outside of Casco and the Canal. You can also visit the Amador Causeway to people-watch on the boardwalk and see the yachts, or 500 year-old Panama Viejo if you are into ruins and archeology. But as I mentioned above, if you just want to see the essentials, stick with the Canal and Casco Viejo.
When to Layover
One frequent determining factor in the decision of when to spend the night in Panama City on your way to and from Isla Palenque is the timing of your international flights and Air Panama’s flights. These frequently make the most efficient travel plans include an overnight stay in Panama City on your way in, and then to go back home in one day on the return.
Because of the need to switch airports, arrive early, get luggage, and go through immigration and customs upon entry, it is best to allow three full hours between arrival and departure times. While it might be possible to make two hours or two and a half hours work, you are increasing the chance you may miss a flight.
From early December to mid-May, the last flight each day from Panama City to David is usually at 5pm; the other seven months of the year it is typically 4pm. So unless your international flight gets in by 2pm during high season or 1pm during low season, you can avoid potential travel headaches by just taking your time to enjoy a bit of Panama City before coming to Isla Palenque.
On the other hand, the first flights out of David back to Panama City are almost always at 8:15, though sometimes it is 9am or thereabouts. So on your return leg, you can almost always catch a flight back to North America, South America or Europe in the same day. And if you end up with a layover of four hours or more, then simply plan a visit to the Panama Canal to break up the travel day.
Where to Layover
I have a hard time recommending anywhere to stay in Panama City except Casco Viejo, for the reasons mentioned previously about why you should be sure to visit it: since it is the only walkable neighborhood in Panama, and it has a number of sights you will want to see anyway, staying here allows you to make the most use of your time.
Exception: The one exception I would make to this is for those who are arriving in Panama City after about 7pm and leaving before 10am (if you are a night owl, make those hours 9pm and noon). If this is the case, then you may find it simplest to just stay in a large chain hotel that has everything you need right in the building. The Trump, the Hard Rock, the Waldorf are some of the obvious choices if this is the case, but my personal first choice when I need to spend such time in Panama City is the Tryp Hotel. It’s connected to the city’s largest mall (Albrook) in case you need to pick up some last-minute travel gear, and just down the street from Albrook airport, which makes it super convenient for catching your flights.
There are plenty of nice hotels in Casco Viejo, but I have two top choices. One is the American Trade Hotel, which is part of the Ace brand out of the US but which captures the spirit of historic Casco perfectly. If you are traveling with a family, however, you might find Los Cuatro Tulipanes a better option: it was (I think) the very first hotel opened in Casco during the renaissance of this neighborhood some ten years ago, and it is actually five apartments, with 1 to 3 bedrooms each. The owner is a good acquaintance of mine, and while they typically only allow stays of three nights or more, if you contact them and tell them I sent you they will make an exception for you if their occupancy permits.
Enjoy Your Layover!
That’s the basics for making a layover in Panama City a memorable part of your journey to Isla Palenque instead of just a pit stop. If you have any questions, though, let me know in the comments section below or email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be sure to steer you in the right direction.