When you first see the waterfront skyline of Panamá City you immediately think Dubai, Miami or the Gold Coast in Australia.
It’s a modern city that’s filled with the latest fashion, casinos, international restaurants and glitzy apartments and hotels that reach for the sky. It’s also a city with neighbourhoods of squalor, dilapidation and grit.
A ‘city of contrasts’, as the cliché goes.
The time we spent in Central America’s booming metropolis was based in El Cangrejo, a bustling area that’s a mix of residential and commercial. Plenty of eateries, tacky tourist stores, nightclubs and a very obvious seedier side to the city.
Ceviche at Mercado de Mariscos.
Centrally located and a short metro-ride away from one of the city’s biggest attractions – Mercado de Mariscos – the city’s seafood market. Walk through aisles that are home to dozens of vendors selling the freshest seafood, and something not to be missed (not that you can avoid them) are many stands selling ceviche.
Ceviche in Panamá is generally served Peruvian-style in strips that are mixed and served immediately, or Panamánian-style in chunks that are let to pickle for much longer. Plus the condiments are different, as well.
Here at the mercado it’s Panamánian-style all the way, and at $1 for a small cup, it’s cheap!
New York Bagel Café – Calle F, El Cangrejo
Mentiritas Blancas – Avenida 2B Norte, El Cangrejo
Wandering the bustling streets of El Cangrejo revealed a handful of places we sunk our teeth into, and having the variety was the most exciting thing about it.
From real bagels at the New York Bagel Café – they even do everything bagels – to excellent and meticulously-made coffee at Mentiritas Blancas. Seriously, it’s damn marvellous and was so good drinking fine espresso after so much un-fine de-presso in South America.
For a little local Panamánian stodge, line up with the weekday workers at Asados Victoria on traffic-choked Avenida Central. Here you’ll find a bain-marie filled with local staples, rotisserie chicken and so much more. And it’s cheap. The chorizo pita (3) may not look like much, but it packs a wallop in the flavour department. You’ve gotta love the choice of complimentary sauces and condiments at the counter, as well.
The decor may feel a tad sterile and the service a little lacking, but excellent curries make up for it at Avatar Indian Cuisine. From good old mulligatawny to dosa to the absolutely divine samrat mung (black lentils & chicken; 13) and saagwala (lamb with spinach purée; 16). Definitely worth checking out.
And then there’s Pomodoro, a name that can be seen in a couple of locations in town, and one that’s very popular with the locals and their families. Convenience played a big part in dining at this one, due to being directly opposite our hotel, but it payed off with good and generous pasta, speedy service and very decent house vino.
Asados Victoria – Plaza Girasol, Avenida Central España, El Cangrejo
Avatar Indian Cuisine – Vía Argentina, El Cangrejo
Pomodoro – Downtown Plaza, Vía Veneto, El Cangrejo
What could be the biggest draw to the city, aside from the Panamá Canal which we drove past on the way into town, is its historic district of Casco Viejo; an area recognised by UNESCO in 1998. Ten years ago is was very much a no-go area that was rife with crime, and despite its very close proximity slums, it’s had a major turnaround.
Many of the French colonial buildings have been fully restored and converted into hotels and residences, and as a lot of them still sit in disrepair, they’re being snatched up by private developers at high speed.
Many boutique and specialty stores, restaurants and cafes can be found along its narrow streets, with a handful of leafy squares to sit and shade yourself from the typical heat.
Cool down with a deliciously fruity popsicle from Palettamérica, or an ice cream from the iconic Granclement a couple of blocks away. There are plenty of flavours to choose from.
Nõmada Eatery – Calle 9, #3-28, Casco Viejo
Dodó Bon Pan Café – Plaza de Francia, Casco Viejo
There’s plenty of food and drink to be tried in Casco Viejo. Start off in Nõmada Eatery with a burger, cocktail, vino or craft beer, then walk around the corner to Casa Sucre Coffee House and finish off with an espresso or hot chocolate.
If you like your homemade cakes, desserts and pastries, take a seat at Dodó Bon Pan Café and see what goodies they have in their French-themed hideaway.
Pizza lovers can go mad with one of the excellent wood-fired beauties at Barrio Pizza. And don’t forget the local beer. When in Panamá, right?
Palettamérica – Calle 8 Este, 909, Casco Viejo
Granclement – Corner Agenda Central & Calle 3, Casco Viejo
Barrio Pizza – Agenda Central, Local 1
Our captain on the Quest called ahead and organised a minivan to take up from Portobelo to Panamá City, dropping us wherever we were staying. The van carried six of us and cost per person was $25. It took 2 hours to get there.
Alternatively you can get a taxi to Panamá City for $100 or the chicken bus to Sabanita, then a regular bus to the city.