By Penny Zibula
Photographs by Simon Lock
It’s easy to spend a bundle in Panama City on accommodations, food, and entertainment, but enjoying this vibrant, historic city can be affordable. Here’s how.
To get your perfect day started on the right foot, you will need to have spent a comfortable night, followed by a substantial breakfast. Hotel Centroamericano will meet these needs and more for $70 per night, double occupancy, including a tasty, full breakfast for two. Hotel Centroamericano, Avenida Ecuador y Justo Arosemena — Ciudad de Panamá, (507) 227-4555, http://hotelcentroamericano.com/
The historic Old City is within walking distance of the hotel. Here you can wander at will, stopping at churches, government buildings, plazas, and palaces, each with its own unique history.
Stroll through Simon Bolivar Square to the waterfront, and gaze out at the causeway, the harbor, and the “new” city, with its concrete and glass skyscrapers.
Be sure to visit The Panama Canal Museum, located on the Plaza de la Independencia. Here you can see the planning, construction, and daily operation of one of man’s most ambitious undertakings. Just $2 for adults and $.75 for children under 12 allows you to explore this fascinating collection of artifacts, models, and videos. Signage is in Spanish, but audio tours are available in several languages, including English, for $5.
Shops and restaurants are everywhere, but if all you want is something light and refreshing, there’s nothing better than shaved ice. Select a fruit-flavored syrup. Watch the street vendor fill a large cup past the rim with ice shaved from a giant block, and drizzle it with your flavor of choice and a thin stream of coconut milk. Grab a straw, a long plastic spoon, and some napkins, and find a shady spot to sit. For $2 you have a treat you can spoon, slurp, and once you get a little farther down, stir.
Thus rejuvenated, you can walk back to the hotel for a siesta in the hottest part of the day. Not quite that rejuvenated? A cab will cost you about $3.
The Mercado del Marisco, or Seafood Market, about a 20-minute walk from Hotel Centroamericano, will do nicely for dinner.
The walk takes you through Cinta Costera, a public park that runs along the Pacific. Don’t be in too big of a hurry. Watch families walking together, fathers teaching sons to ride their bikes, and teens playing sports.
Your nose will tell you when you’re getting close. The Mercado del Marisco is a long, warehouse-style structure featuring several outdoor eateries with limited menus that are almost identical. The lower-priced offerings are around the back of the building.
Everything is served in styrofoam: ice-cold beer for $1, several types of ceviche ranging from $1.75 to $2.50, and fried fish, patacones, and salad for about $6. What they lack in presentation, they make up for in flavor and freshness.
But the food isn’t the only draw. This is a place where families, couples, singles, tourists, and locals congregate. The atmosphere is friendly and jovial, and people at adjacent tables will talk to you.
Perhaps in part because of a visible but unobtrusive police presence, the beer-drinking crowds and the teens in the park behave. You can feel safe walking back to the hotel even after dark.
If the best things in life aren’t always free, they don’t have to max out your credit card either. You can enjoy a perfect day in Panama City for a small amount of cash, and take home memories that money can’t buy.
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