24 Hours in Panama City, Part I

When in Rome, er, Panama…

We had a mere 24 hours in Panama City before our cruise on Windstar’s Star Breeze. I booked the earliest flight possible, departing Miami at 7 AM, to maximize our short time in Panama City. That meant that we needed to leave by 4 AM, return a rental car, get to the terminal, check bags, and be at the gate in plenty of time.  

It was all going according to plan until we reached the check-in counter for Copa Airlines. It seems that they will not let you fly in an exit row seat unless you speak Spanish. The check-in gal was unimpressed with my (non-existent) command of the language. And that is how we ended up in the second to last row of the plane.

The flight was smooth, and just over two and a half hours, during which they managed to feed us either eggs or pancakes. Bonus: In addition to food on every flight, Copa serves complimentary drinks. The 7 AM flight was not when I most wanted to indulge, but the glass of wine on the return flight was much appreciated. Arriving in Panama City, we cleared customs and headed straight to the Grace Panama hotel.

The city fish market. It’s gritty and wonderful.

Even before reaching the check-in desk, we were greeted with a glass of Champagne for FKGuy and water for me. I knew we were early, and there was a good chance we would need to leave our luggage, entertain ourselves and get our room at a later time. Instead, there were many calls from the front desk, furrowed brows, and whispered frustrations. When the manager approached us, it was clear that something was up, and it was not going to be good.

Pro Tip: Be ready to go with the flow, at any moment.

Welcome to Panama City,” he said, with a smile and a handshake, “we have a bit of a problem.” The hotel had some sort of plumbing issue, rendering many rooms unusable. By the time we arrived, they had already booked us at a nearby property. The other hotel would not be ready for us until later in the afternoon. The manager had the hotel driver take us wherever we wanted to go.

Amazing ceviche.

Mercado de Mariscos is the city seafood market, and it is grungy, fishy smelling, and fantastic. We ignored the people outside the market shoving menus in our face. Instead, we headed through the market and to the upstairs restaurant for lunch. This no-frills joint offers a large menu, no air conditioning, and a limited amount of spoken English. The menu, however, is translated, making it manageable for tourists. I impressed FKGuy with my ability to order lunch in Spanish. (I surprised myself, too.)

Fresh, flavorful fish is always available.

We started with the Corvina ceviche, seemingly a house specialty, and for a good reason: it is amazing. Full of lime, red onion, and cilantro, the fresh fish needs nothing else. Next, we enjoyed a Corvina topped with peppers, onions, and a flavorful sweet and sour sauce, along with shrimp in garlic sauce. All of that, plus three beers, came out to about $40, so not only is the food excellent, but it is inexpensive as well. Win-win.

From the fish market, we wandered along the water to Casco Viejo, the old city, now filled with restaurants and bars. The buildings in this area are beautiful, and there seem to be plenty of places to go after dark. There is less to do during the day. Next time we will spend a few days and check out some of the great restaurants in that area.

Casco Viejo, the old city.

After wandering in the hot sunshine, we made our way back via taxi, encountering full Panama City traffic. To say they have a traffic problem is a gross understatement. After sitting through three light cycles a mere two blocks from our destination, I decided we were better off just getting out and walking. The confused cab driver was probably still sitting at that same light as we reached the end of our walk.

Pro Tip 2: If there is a problem, speak up sooner rather than later.

The hotel manager at the Grace quickly called the driver, loaded our stuff in the car, escorted us, and got us checked into the Sortis. This hotel is part of the Marriott Autograph Collection and is a 5-star property, complete with a casino, shops, a Champagne bar, and half a dozen restaurants. Unfortunately, our first room was not clean. As I explained to the front desk, it seems that someone had cleaned, but they had done a lousy job.

Horrified, they found us another room. The bellman escorted me to the new room (to ensure that it was actually clean), then back to the original room to collect our things, then back to the new room, with our luggage. After all his effort, he tried very hard to refuse a tip. We insisted, as he was extraordinarily helpful. Twice. Guest rooms at the Sortis are spacious and modern, with large bathrooms, cold air conditioning, and friendly staff.

At the Sortis, Panama City.

Alas, we finally had our hotel situation settled. We were ready for a pre-dinner nap, perhaps some Champagne, and then a fabulous dinner at a tiny restaurant with no sign. More on that – and our Panama City Uber – in the next post.