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What to do on a layover in Panama City Panama with a big family
Panama City, Panama in the Rainy Season
On our big family's trip to Costa Rica, we arranged an intentional 22-hour stopover in Panama City (for the same airfare price as a 3-hour layover), so we could see a bit of Panama. Considering the need for 6 people to take a shower, eat, and get one night's sleep during that brief time, this didn't leave a whole lot of time for exploring the area. However, with some planning, we were able to...

...enjoy our short time in Panama, without busting the budget. Here are our big family's tips to help you plan your layover or stopover in Panama City, Panama.

#7:  Don't Acquire any Balboas
The first thing to know about money in Panama is that if you are traveling with U.S. dollars, you will have no need or incentive to ever get any local currency at any time. The Panamanian Balboa is set to an equal match with the U.S. dollar, and is fixed, so it doesn't fluctuate from day to day.  1 Balboa is worth exactly 1 U.S. dollar.  If you're thinking this means that Panama will not be an inexpensive place to visit, you're right.

Just like there are 100 U.S. cents to the dollar, there are 100 centisimos (Spanish for cents) per Balboa, and those coins come in 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50-cent denominations, all with the same value in-country as a corresponding U.S. coin.

What denominations do Balboas come in?
Balboas: Once they are in your hand, they are yours to spend or keep.  
No exchanges; no take-backs.

The main difference between these two currencies is that you can't do anything with a Balboa except spend it in Panama. No one will be interested in exchanging your unused Balboas back into dollars. I've found this to be the case in various countries, particularly when you have a lot of smaller denominations of local currency (5s and 10s, for example), or worse, coins, and especially when you are at a border about to leave the country. Nobody wants your unused currency, especially the small notes and coins.

But the phrase I've seen used repeatedly is that you "can't" exchange Balboas for dollars. So my strategy for this was a simple one:

Don't get any Balboas. 

Don't even get any Balboas from an ATM, much less from a currency exchange business.

My second strategy was to bring a good quantity of small-denomination U.S. currency with us: a small stack of U.S. bills in 1's, 5's, 10's and 20's.  US $100 would basically be the worst denomination to have. This is because if someone has to give you change for a larger-denomination U.S. note, your change will be in Balboas, which, again, are useless for anything other than spending them inside Panama.

Many times in our short visit I needed to pay someone either US$5 or 5 Balboas, and I was happy to be able to whip out a US$5 bill, and not have to pay with a US$20 and get 15 Balboas in change. These two strategies saved me an estimated twenty to thirty dollars worth of unused foreign currency.

#6:  How to See the Panama Canal 
For most visitors, the first order of business is to see the Panama Canal itself. This is best done early in the day, because there are no ships in the locks for long stretches of the day. Going at the wrong time of day could mean a wasted trip, or a very long and boring day of waiting to see some ships. Check out our full post on the Panama Canal for our tips on seeing the Panama Canal with kids, and how to see it for free (that post is here).

Is there any place you can go to see the Panama Canal for free
Our Big Family at the Panama Canal


#5:  Walk Casco Viejo
A self-guided walking tour itinerary of Casco Viejo (Old Town, or, literally, Old Helmet) can include:
  • Metropolitan Cathedral, a good starting point
  • Plaza de la Independencia, the main square
  • Palace of the Herons, which is the Presidential Palace, although he doesn't live there
  • Plaza Simon Bolivar (with statue of him, for any Simon Bolivar fans out there)
  • Conjunto Monumental / Plaza Francia, originally the main square of the walled city
  • Wander around the shops and dining choices
For more on dining in Casco Viejo, see Tip #1 below.

#4:  The Best Map for Panama
I read repeatedly that the app called Maps.me was the preferred maps program in Panama, so I downloaded it. I found it wholly unnecessary. Google Maps worked fine for everywhere we wanted to go, and since I'm already used to Google Maps, trying to use Maps.me was just an unnecessary complication. Plus, when I did try using Maps.me, it had never heard of the places I wanted to find to eat, whereas they were listed on Google Maps.

I also read the advice that Waze is supposedly the preferred map program generally in many countries in Central America, but time after time, I found that Google Maps had heard of my destination and could get me there, even when Waze had never heard of it (in such cases, it responds "No results found"). On the other hand, Google Maps did bring me to multiple, well-reviewed restaurant options that either no longer exist or which are not actually located where Google Maps thinks they are located.  This made for an extremely frustrating afternoon. So in the end, using a combination of maps, and cross-verifying locations, might be the best approach.

#3:  Airport Transfers
Although we ended up using a hotel, our first booking in Panama (later, cancelled due to non-responsiveness of the host) was at an apartment in Casco Viejo. The host enthusiastically offered to arrange taxi services for us, which he said would cost US$35. He mentioned that by law, each airport taxi could only carry a maximum of 4 passengers. Whether this is true, I don't know - but it's what he told me.

When I reminded him that there are 6 people in our party, he replied, "No problem! In that case, you will need 2 taxis, and the cost will be US$70 total." I advised him that I'd be using an Uber instead, and that's when he lost all interest in our visit. If I wasn't going to be using his services to book ground transportation and tours of the Panama Canal, then apparently he had no more time for us. After waiting 30 days for him to respond to an email about another matter, I contacted the rental platform and cancelled the booking. I didn't want another Hong Kong fiasco, where we'd be taking the chance of finding ourselves locked out of the apartment with no way to contact a totally non-responsive host. This particular host had hundreds of reviews, but the reviews regarded a total of over 30 properties around Panama, which says a lot about how available this host would be in the event of issues like being locked out or finding the apartment hadn't been cleaned after the previous guests left.

Strange exotic architecture in Panama City, Panama, with kids
El Tornillo seen from Panama's El Cangrejo Neighborhood

Instead of the US$70 pair of prearranged taxis, or having the stress of dealing with sly airport taxistas and touts, we instead opted for an Uber XL (the larger Uber vehicles, which carry up to 6 passengers plus the driver) for US$17. Due to the legal limbo in which Uber operates, the driver was a little edgy and wanted the whole transaction to be as discrete as possible (for instance, he made sure to pick us up at the parking lot, rather than the arrivals area which is closer to the taxi stand - but this was only another 50 steps for us). Once we got away from the airport, we had a very pleasant conversation in English with the driver, who gave us some good advice and tips about visiting his city.

Uber added a few extra charges, including their opaque "service fee" and miscellaneous "tolls and other fees" even though we didn't take the toll road, and I added an optional tip, but still, we were able to travel from Tocumen International Airport (PTY) to the Cangrejo neighborhood in Panama City for under US$22 - saving nearly US$50 compared to the middle-man offer our apartment rental host had made.

#2: What to Wear in Panama
When we visited in June, the average temperature was 82F (28C), with a high of 88F (31C), with rain expected at least every other day. So, shorts and hot-weather clothing are in order, and you might consider throwing some lightweight rain ponchos into your daypack. In a single afternoon outing, we got rained on a little bit, twice. For getting around the neighborhood, Uber XLs were fast and cheap (US$3 to $4 per short ride) so we just called a ride whenever it started raining heavily.

#1:  What to Eat in Panama with Kids
We walked from our lodging to our first choice, which was Coffee Max. Based on the delicious-looking photos we saw online, and the fact that it is a converted food truck with outdoor patio seating, I was excited to try it. I dig food trucks; they tend to have creative dishes and the meals are always memorable. However, we were blown away by their prices rather than their food options. Prices were even higher than we were expecting: US$10 to $12 for the least expensive options on the menu. And these were just burgers. According to reviews, these are supposedly "very good prices" for Panama, and "prices for locals, not tourists." After scoping out their menu for 30 seconds, we decided to move on to option two.

And we were very glad we did. We really enjoyed the hot and fresh food choices served cafeteria-style at La Luncheria. The servers and cashiers were patient with us, and friendly and helpful. At present it's open Monday to Friday 6am to 330pm, and Saturdays 7am to 330pm, but closed on Sundays. So they serve only breakfast and lunch, since they are closed at dinner time. We found this place to be very popular with locals in the neighborhood. The cuisine is a mix of Caribbean, Latin, Spanish, and international, with many options being things your kids will likely recognize. It varies by day, but you might find things like pancakes, spaghetti, fried chicken, or fried fish. A plate of food comes with your choice of carbs and a side of veggies, in the $4.50 to $6 range. We also had their smoothies in tropical flavors for US $2.50 each. It's good food in large portions for reasonable prices. We devoured it and left satisfied. This was a great first meal in Central America for the kids.

Where to eat with a big family in Panama City
Our exhausted kids eating cafeteria-style at Panama City's La Luncheria

I also spent several hours researching options in Casco Viejo, since originally our plan was to stay at an apartment there, rather than in a hotel in El Cangrejo neighborhood. Casco Viejo is a trendy, gentrified area where it would be easy for a large family to drop well over US$100 on a lunch or dinner. Some options that made it onto my list are below. Bear in mind that I haven't personally visited these next places, to verify they exist or that they are any good. This is just where I would go with my wife and kids, if I was in the area. Basically this is a shortcut to your own research; a starting place for you, if you're going to be in the historic and yet super-trendy and accordingly super-pricey Casco Viejo area:

  • Cafe Coca Cola, for Panamanian food that isn't US$20 or $30 per plate. It's a diner where locals eat, and is unpretentious and informal. It has been in business since 1875, and has served Teddy Roosevelt, Fidel Castro, and Julio Iglesias, among others. This diner is about 5 blocks west from the main plaza in Casco Viejo, and it is on the edge of a rougher neighborhood, so an Uber would be a good idea if returning after dark.
  • Near the Cafe Coca Cola (with the same warnings about the neighborhood) there is a Casco Burger. If you're thinking, "But what about local food?" my reply would be, "Is that worth $25 per person?" And this place isn't all that much cheaper but at least I know my kids would eat it (probably).
  • In Casco Viejo itself, the main plaza, called Plaza de la Independencia, sometimes has food stalls, particularly at night.
  • Super Gourmet is a Casco Viejo deli serving sandwiches and breakfast foods, on Avenida A between Calle 6 and 7, open Monday to Saturday 8am-5pm. A deli isn't my idea of the perfect place to eat with kids, but this is one of the least expensive dining options in Casco Viejo. A group of 6 would still be about US$50 for a meal and drinks, but at least it wouldn't be $150. They serve breakfast all day, like English muffin sandwiches $3-5, eggs with bacon and toast $6.50, omelette $5.50, French toast $5, fruit bowls $3.50, and sandwiches (turkey, ham, roast beef, Italian chorizo, or grilled chicken) for $6.
  • Ice cream places are on every corner in Casco Viejo and prices are often eye-popping, but a good bet if you're up for the expense would be Granclement Ice Creams and Sorbets. They operate on cash only and are open from noon to 830pm daily. They are about one and a half blocks east of the main plaza. Mondays is 2x1 day.
What neighborhood to stay in with kids in Panama City, Panama
Infinity Pool at our Hotel in El Cangrejo Neighborhood in Panama City, Panama

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