Panama City stay

This item appears on page 51 of the October 2011 issue.

I had never really thought much about Panama City beyond its canal, but my wife, Rose, and I ended up making plans to join a Friendship Force (Atlanta, GA; 404/522-9490) group from Olympia, Washington, for four days there in April ’11 before the group went on for a week’s home hosting in Santiago, Chile, and then Alajuela, Costa Rica.

This home, painted in a bright pink, now faded, was in the old part of Panama City. Photos: Phelan

Travel arrangements for the 15 of us, including a four-night hotel stay (with breakfasts), airport transfers and a half-day tour of the canal, were made by Marnella Tours (Raleigh, NC; 866/993-0033) at a cost of $514 per person, double occupancy.

Panama City turned out not to be the sleepy little town I had expected. Instead, the city was bustling with activity, even burdened with heavy traffic.

The city waterfront is lined with many modern, high-rise apartments and offices that tower over the few remaining little waterfront shacks. It seems the city is growing both outward and upward.

The city buses, called “red devils” because they are driven so crazily, are decorated like something inspired by jeepneys in the Philippines or tuk-tuks in Bangkok — lots of lights, painted images and bright colors. Houses in the city are painted with lots of color too, many faded into lovely pastel pinks and yellows.

Our group stayed at the Toscano Inn Hotel (phone 507 265 0018). About an hour’s drive from the airport due to heavy traffic rather than distance, this 91-room hotel in a great location had very pleasant staff and very clean rooms with tile floors.

Toscano’s breakfast buffets were adequate but not extensive. However, each morning a different Panamanian dish was prepared — a nice contrast to scrambled eggs and cold cuts. The hotel offers free WiFi plus free distilled water, coffee and ice in the lobby or delivered to your room.

Panamanian food proved to be another nice surprise. The Toscano is located near a lot of eateries, but, by far, the best (and one of the nearest) was Cafetería Manolo’s (Calle 49B Oeste), located just down the street in front of the Veneto Hotel.

Despite its name, this is no cafeteria. The menu is extensive, with many Panamanian dishes, plus they have a full bar offering many fresh fruit slushes and drinks made to order.

With indoor and outdoor seating, it’s neither fancy nor expensive, but the food is good. At lunch, a platter of carne guisada, a rich beef stew, which was served with fried plantains, white rice and slaw, cost $5, and a huge bowl of sancocho (chicken and yucca in a rich broth) cost $3.75. Don’t miss the killer dessert flan ($1.50)!

On our half-day canal cruise, this woman, in beaded headdress, colorfully embroidered blouse and red skirt, provided photo ops.

La Mar (phone 209 3323), also walking distance from the hotel, is modern and open, with large windows and a glassed-in kitchen so you can see the food being prepared. It had a great atmosphere, but we didn’t care for the food. The dishes we had, while creative, had heavy flavors and were over-salted, in our opinion.

A much better restaurant, we thought, was the nearby Caffè Pomodoro, on the ground floor of Hotel Suites Las Vegas. Rose had delicious meat lasagna and I had a pasta with lots of baby clams — both excellent. Including two glasses of a nice merlot, the tab came to $37.

We didn’t spend all our time eating. One day the group took a half-day tour of the canal. We traveled from the hotel by bus for about an hour before boarding a boat already crowded with tourists. I would guess there were about 300 people on board, but there was plenty of room for everyone.

The upper deck was open — excellent for photography or sightseeing, but the tropical sun was hot. The tour included a buffet lunch, which was fine.

The trip was more like a river cruise than I expected it to be, with trees and mountains around (plus a lot of construction, as Panama is working to increase the capacity of the canal to handle bigger ships). We went through two locks and learned how things worked. It was a pleasant day.

On another day, seven of us took a half-day tour of the city with Viajes y Destinos. It did not turn out well for several reasons. The “trolley” we rode in was cute but uncomfortable; it was hard to take photos; the guide’s English skills were not good, and the air-conditioning was compromised whenever anyone stepped out to the rear platform.

The four-hour trip turned out to be only three hours, and when we paid by credit card, they added a fee for using a card.

Lincoln, CA