Panama, Casco Antiguo – Casco Viejo, San Felipe
It is so hard to combine experiences in a vacation trip. You want it all, and you only have a week (or less). So you can´t take chances, you want everything to be just right. While there is no way this is a foolproof combination, I think this combination is my favorite. You can do it all in a week or less, it depends on how much you want to learn and experience.
It all starts and ends in Panama City, and nowhere else but in our romantic Casco Antiguo. It is the perfect place for afternoon strolling, hand by hand with your beloved best half. Even when it rains is romantic. Each building tells a story of beauty, as I recently read in a book called “The architecture of happiness” (which by the way is not a self help book, is an architecture and philosophy book) there is a very human relationship between emotions and forms, where we as humans translate an emotion into certain types of shapes. If that is so, each building in Casco truly “speaks” to you of happiness, poetry and personality. Every plaza, every tree. But lets get to concrete stuff.
#1 How to get the best out of Casco Viejo while you are here on vacations? Your romantic getaway in Panama must start by staying at an apartment or a hotel in Casco Antiguo. There are very few, so be sure to book in advance. If you really want to impress your girl, go for the Canal House Panama . You may also rent short term rental apartments like Café de Asis or Los 4 Tulipanes. Romantic backpackers might stay at Hostal San Felipe or Luna’s Castle. Romance comes in every budget!
The best of Casco are mornings and evenings. Midday in Panama in general tends to be really hot, so be prepared with hats and sunscreen lotion. Evenings especially, have a rhythm of their own. Strolling is the local prefered activity .Have an ice cream at Grandclement in Calle 3era and A Avenue and check out if there is anything going on that afternoon at Casa Gongora or at the National Theatre. Then walk under the bougainvilleas at Calle 1era and go all around Las Bovedas. You’ll see the entrance of the Panama Canal and the ships in line to cross it.
When it comes to activities, there is always something going on in Casco Viejo, although it is very uncommon to have a thousand things at the same time. We take it easy here…. But there are some steady nights: Wednesdays and Fridays are jazz and bolero nights at Gongora. If you are here in a weekend, after dinner you should head to Platea. They usually have live bands from Thursdays to Saturdays. Jazz on Thursdays, salsa on Fridays, and rock on Saturdays. For more bohemian souls, then La Casona might be your best spot, at Plaza Herrera.
Cocktail time is my personal favorite, when the sun goes down. Check out the different restaurants at Plaza Bolivar. Nothing like having a mojito and mixed ceviche at Ego. You can choose to have tapas all night under the stars or walk to another restaurant to have dinner. There are at least eight restaurants in the area, ranging from Spanish to Brazilian. Al fresco or not, your choice!. Check out my reviews here for most of them.
# 2 But the best of Casco Viejo is that is the perfect base to visit the rest of the country. Feel free to explore the mountains, the beaches, the islands. The local airport is 15 minutes away from Casco, which means Chiriquí “sweater weather” is an hour away, Bocas del Toro white beach sands are also an hour away and the Kuna Indians at San Blas islands are … well, in fact, they are right outside your door, as they are always selling their best crafts in the Casco. Here are my personal romantic picks throughout the country:
Bocas del Toro: All Natural in Bastimentos. At night, don´t miss the fluorescent weed in the ocean. At night, when there isn´t full moon, the sky is an explosion of stars. But then, as you sit on their dock, take a flashlight and point it out to the water. You´ll see how the water responds in a bunch of little stars of its own! Tip: if you don´t mind cold water (skinny dipping allowed!) go into the water with a snorkel and a mask. If someone flashes from outside, you´ll see yourself surrounded by tons of little bright dots!
Bastimentos is an island a bit away from Isla Colon (Boca Town) where the action is. You can combine staying a night or two at the town so you can party and then go to All Natural to relax. My heart is with Om Cafe for indian food. Those breakfasts are good.
Chiriqui: if in Boquete, I would stay at a coffee farm. My best pick: go hiking at La Amistad park. It is great weather and if you are quiet and lucky enough, you´ll see the Quetzal. But even if you don´t see them, you can enjoy hearing them: they have a distinctinve flute sound. You´ll be in the middle of the cloud forest surrounded by flutes. Especially in October, when they mate. Go to Volcan or Cerro Punta and have strawberries with cream. There is a spa called Los Quetzales with an outdoor jacuzzi. You can arrange a great massage and use their installations.
Note: the road from Chiriquí to Bocas is one of the most beautiful trips in Panama. However, notice buses between the two provinces drive like crazy, so be careful. You can see the transition between wonderful cloud forest (mountain) to fully tropical rainforest in less than 2 hours.
San Blas: Haven´t been there in a while, but wherever you go make sure you hire a boat to go “island hopping”. You should not miss Isla Tigre, as it is the more traditional one, a splash of mola and color. If you go during Carnivals (which I did many years ago) it is fantastic, they have their own version and is great.
You can do as much or as little as you want. Panama’s beautiful diversity is at your reach. On your way back, be sure to have a reservation for a massage at the Canal House in Casco Antiguo. Without rushing, without hurrying, unless you want to. And don´t worry if you can´t do it all in one trip!