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How to Make the Most of a Panama City Layover

Panama City Layover: Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal
Panama City is a business city and a hub for travel in the Americas. There is a good chance you'll have an opportunity to take a Panama City layover if you travel to Central or South America. Panama City is home to one of the world's engineering marvels: The Panama Canal, so the city is well worth a visit. Read on to find out how to make the most of a short stay in Panama City.

Getting To and Around Panama City

Panama City is a hub for Copa Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance (I have 1K frequent flier status on United and always prefer to fly long haul on Star Alliance). We've transited through Tocumen International Airport twice: once in 2017 en route to 3 days in Lima at the start of a South American sabbatical and in February 2020 on the return from our 10 day Costa Rica itinerary. On this most recent trip, the connection from Costa Rica was too tight to make so we decided to plan an overnight layover in Panama City into our return itinerary. We arrived around dinner time and our flight to Frankfurt left about 24 hours later. 

Thankfully, our flight from San Jose, Costa Rica was on time. We arrived in Panama City and took an Uber Black to our hotel instead of a taxi. It took about an hour from disembarking the plane to get through immigration and customs to our ride.
Panama City Layover: View from the Westin Panama Hotel

Where to Stay In Panama City

Since Panama City is a business city, there are plenty of hotel chains to choose from. I have Platinum status with Marriott Bonvoy and we were able to use points for a one night stay at the Westin Panama Hotel in Costa del Este. We even got upgraded to a suite! We also enjoyed lounge access where we got to sample some local rum.
Panama City Layover: Lobby of the Westin Panama Hotel
The Westin Panama Hotel is located about a 10 minute drive without traffic from the heart of Panama City which sits just across the water from Costa del Este along the beautiful Corredor Sur.

Things to Do on a Panama City Layover

A Panama City layover is all about efficiency. Let's discuss some recommendations for how to make the most of your short time in Panama. 

Drink Panamanian Craft Beer

We arrived in the evening but still ventured out and walked a couple blocks to La Rana Dorada for Panamanian craft beer pints. We especially enjoyed a delicate Berliner Weisse with a lovely sour tinge and a complex Porter with chocolate notes and a bitter coffee finish.
Panama City Layover: La Rana Dorada craft beer
La Rana means "frog" in Spanish and we just loved the frogs wearing Panama hats on the beer taps. La Rana Dorada also serves some small bites but we had filled up on snacks and rum in the hotel lounge so decided to call it a night after our pint. We had an early start in the morning for a Panama City tour including a visit to the world-famous Panama Canal.
Panama City Layover: La Rana Dorada craft beer taps

Visit the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is the number one must see in Panama City. We booked a 6 hour tour with Tony's Panama Tours ($65 USD per person). We chose a guided tour rather than exploring on our own mainly to make it easier to get to the Panama Canal. The canal is located outside of the city centre on the opposite side of the city to the airport and where we were staying. We took an Uber from our hotel outside the city center to the pickup point (one of several Panama City Center hotels) and arrived at the Miraflores Visitor Center 10 min before they opened at 8 am. Go early to get a good spot on the viewing platform. 
Panama City Layover: Closed Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal
We were lucky and had the opportunity to watch the Ernst Oldendorff transport a container ship full of windmills through the Miraflores Locks.
Panama City Layover: Ernst Oldendorff transiting the Panama Canal
We watched as tugboats lined up the ship and then two small tourist boats squeezed in behind since there was room. Vessels pay based on size and cost which ranges from $1600 for a yacht to $1.2M for a container ship with more than 10,000 containers on board.

We watched the Ernst Oldendorff transit through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Traffic goes one way. The Ernst Oldendorff was the last boat through in this direction before the canal changed over to accommodate ships going the other way. 
Panama City Layover: excited crew member aboard the Ernst Oldendorff container ship crossing the Panama Canal
Apparently going through the Panama Canal is a big deal even for the staff onboard the vessels. One guy was taking selfies. I waved and he gave me a heart sign.

We watched the ship transit the Panama Canal for about an hour. I even got to do some opportunistic birdwatching at the Miraflores Locks while we waited. I knew that Central America was full of amazing birds (e.g., Costa Rica birds are some of the best in the world) but I never expected to see so many birds at the Panama Canal. I saw a yellow-headed caracara, great-tailed grackles, eastern brown pelicans, and great frigatebirds.
Panama City Layover: yellow-headed caracara at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
You'll find a guy doing a play-by-play for tourists at the Miraflores Locks to help explain what's happening. We spotted a liquefied natural gas vessel going through the new lock just beyond Miraflores. Spend 30 minutes after viewing the ships transiting the Panama Canal checking out exhibits about the construction of the canal and more.

Bridge of the Americas

We headed onward to the viewpoint of the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Panama Canal. There is a monument to Chinese people in Panama who helped build the railroad to support the Gold Rush in the 18th century and then construction of the Panama Canal itself.
Panama City Layover: Bridge of the Americas

Learn a Little Panamanian History

Our tour took us through El Chorrillo (one of the poorer and more dangerous areas of Panama City). We saw the site where Manuel Noriega's headquarters was bombed by the U.S. in 1989 (now Amelia Denis De Icaza Park). El Chorrillo in Panama City featured copious and edgy street art.
Panama City Layover: Street Art in El Chorrillo

Walk Casco Viejo

Half-day Panama City layover tours make it easy to make the most of limited time on the ground. We took a brief spin around Panama City's Casco Viejo including a visit to Iglesia de San José which features a gold leaf altar that is closely tied to pirate legends. Look for the exhibits and a diorama tucked away at the back of the church. Walk across the street to the ruins of Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús which have been incorporated into an open-air park. 
Panama City Layover: Panama Casco Viejo Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Panama City Old Town also features stunning views of the modern skyscrapers that comprise Panama City's business district. 
Panama City Layover: skyscraper views from Casco Viejo
I preferred the old world ambiance elsewhere in Panama City Old Town especially ornately decorated church spires and colorful buildings with wrought-iron balconies.
Panama City Layover: Casco Viejo colorful buildings and wrought iron balconies

Lunch in Casco Viejo

Speak up if you take a tour and are short on time on your Panama City layover. Tony's Panama Tours made a mistake in selecting a restaurant on the day of our Panama City Layover. Panama Hat in Casco Viejo took almost an hour to bring our food and we didn't get to make the stop on the Amador Causeway since we needed to get back to catch our flight. This was supposed to be a (max) 6 hour layover tour but ran long due to the lunch fail.

Back to the Panama City Airport!

With that, we took an Uber back to the Westin Panama Hotel for a quick shower before heading onward to Tocumen Airport. We took advantage of a late check-out at 4 pm (another perk of Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status). It's hot and humid in Panama City and it felt good to clean up before our long haul flight back to Europe.  

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Panama City Layover: Must see attractions in Panama for a short stayPanama City Layover: Must see attractions in Panama for a short stay
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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: How to Make the Most of a Panama City Layover
How to Make the Most of a Panama City Layover
Learn how to make the most of a Panama City layover. Discover things to do in Panama City in a day. Spend 24 hours in Panama City Panama.
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