A Cheat Sheet for Escaping to Panama

american trade hotel king room

  This post is sponsored by Booking.com.  Wing everything. Except your accommodation.


Ever wanted to just get up and go … within a matter of 48 hours?

If you have even an ounce of wanderlust coursing through your veins, of course you have. Jetting off on a moment’s notice is the backbone of any adventurer’s dream; it’s the spark that catches thought, quickens the heartbeat and ignites the thrill of envisioning a new daily routine.

So, why don’t we do it more often?

As fast as the thought can come, it’s just as easily squashed with the resulting practicalities: Where to go? Where to stay? Is this the best time? Would I lose my job? What about airfare? Is this crazy? Is this safe? This is crazy, right?  Am I crazy?

Contrary to what the dream-crushing practicalities may tell you — though, yes, it is a little crazy — it is possible to travel spontaneously while also making smart decisions. To prove it, we teamed up with Booking.com to reveal just how simple a split-decision to travel can be. If you have a place to lay your head, you have a base for seeing the world.

Below, we’re walking you through a spur-of-the-moment trip to Panama to show you how and why that’s true.

WHY PANAMA

casco viejo
It’s an easy flight from almost anywhere in the US; hop on a plane in Denver, for example, and five hours later you’ll touch down at Tocumen International in Panama City. When thinking of a south-of-the-border escape, Panama isn’t the first country that usually comes to mind. However, it’s the country of choice if you’re looking to immerse yourself in Latin American culture and stray farther than the typical tourist. Yet, it’s also stay safe enough to do the trip solo if you should choose to do so.

Additionally, if you’re taking off during the summer months (when travel seems to be on everyone’s lips) you can take advantage of visiting Panama during its low season as compared to somewhere else in Europe, which sees a peak in crowds and prices during the months of June, July and August. No visa, currency exchange or immunizations are required.

Another bonus? With 48 hours notice, you can score a ticket on a roundtrip flight (departing Los Angeles) to Panama City for under $600. That’s cheaper than trying to fly from the West Coast to anywhere in the Midwest during Christmas.

WHERE IN PANAMA

casco viejo brochure
Once you’ve got your country in mind, save yourself from a million decisions and just make one: Head to Booking.com and pick out your new (temporary) address.

Why plan accommodation before anything else?  Because spontaneity thrives when it has one main anchor point. You’ll be able to think clearer, explore better, and get the most out of an on-the-whim trip if you take care of your lodging ahead of time. You can plan everything else by the wind’s direction, but you don’t want to be stressed at the end of a long day about where to brush your teeth.

If you have a place to lay your head, you have a base for seeing the world.

In the process of researching hotels, you’ll also get a feel for what are the best areas to stay in, as well as what other travelers have experienced. Booking.com makes this part extremely easy. After typing in our dates, one quick search led us to the American Trade Hotel (nightly room rates average $175-359 USD). Without knowing anything about the hotel’s Casco Viejo location beforehand, after a few minutes of scrolling photos and reading guest reviews, we were convinced.

american trade hotel cafe

Book it now to explore it later.

In addition to Casco Viejo, we also wanted to spend a few days outside of Panama City. Again, using Booking.com we found a hotel in El Valle de Antón, a sleepy town west of the city that’s located in an extinct volcano crater. The reviews and photos of Hotel Restaurante Valle Verde (nightly room rates average $72-180 USD) persuaded us that this was, in fact, the perfect place to take in the rainforest-esque climate that Panama is known for.

A few clicks later, we were a few steps closer to Panama.

WHAT IN PANAMA

casco viejo streets

Casco Viejo

Once through customs, hail a cab driver just outside of baggage claim. Since you’re visiting on a whim, you’ll save more time and stress by getting into the city this way than by trying to figure out public transport on your own. Impossible to miss in lime green shirts, cab drivers will quote you up front to the hotel or neighborhood that you want to go. (Getting to Casco Viejo averages $30 USD.)

After a breezy check-in at the American Trade’s front desk (where you’re greeted with high humidity essentials like cool towelettes and bottled water) drop your bags and go for a dive in the 3rd floor pool to get your bearings. With a view that overlooks the western edge of Casco Viejo, you’ll feel as if you’ve found the only sliver of stillness in a neighborhood that’s bustling with renovation.

american trade hotel pool deck

Let your eyes scan the roof top bars, majestic churches and taxi cabs that whirl by below. Then, get changed and roam the streets for yourself. In the narrow, one-way alleys surrounding the hotel, it’s easy to avoid the cars and get lost in a mosaic of the old and new. Meandering through centuries of architecture, you’ll find everything from religious relics to shops filled with the country’s infamous hats.

– Want a casual bite?  Visit the Fish Market for deliciously filling fish tacos, discovered right up the street from the American Trade and located inside the ruins of an old building.

– Want a fancy bite?  Head two blocks east of the hotel to Madrigal, one of Panama City’s best and most unique gastronomic experiences. The $60/pp tasting menu won’t disappoint.

– Want a quick bite?  Also two blocks east of the hotel, Super Gourmet houses a deli with fresh, made-to-order panini and an impressive selection of healthy food and dry goods, including locally-made insect repellant.

Back at the hotel, stay up late for a 10pm show at Danilo’s Jazz Club. Surrounded by stone walls and low lighting, here you can discover local songbirds while sipping on cocktails like “The Little Demon” and double-dipping your spiced yucca fries. Run by renowned Panamanian musician Danilo Perez, part of the proceeds from the club go to fund the Danilo Perez Foundation, located just across the plaza from the American Trade.

In the morning, take advantage of the hotel’s cafe for breakfast and next door’s Cafe Unido for lunch. Drink a coffee (with milk, as it somehow tastes better than usual this way) as sunlight floods the airy — almost tropical — space and you fuel up for the day ahead.

cafe unido panama

With the rest of your time in the city, maybe you’ll explore the famed Panama Canal, stroll the Amador Causeway, or visit the Biomuseo, all places located no more than 20 minutes from Casco Viejo by cab. The American Trade can assist you with any plans you might make, from arranging a rental car to taking you to the bus station (at nearby Albrook Airport) as you prepare for the next leg of your adventure.

El Valle de Antón

There’s one main highway in Panama, the Pan-American, and you take this two hours west (2.5 hours if arriving by bus) to reach the tiny town of El Valle. With a vibe that’s distinctly its own, but also vaguely similar to Kauai, El Valle welcomes both locals and visitors alike.

Pulling into Hotel Valle Verde immediately encapsulates all that El Valle represents. Misty mountains frame the backyard, where a hammock gently sways and you catch whiffs of ripe citrus in its breeze. Decidedly more remote and rustic than the American Trade, you’re quick to realize that isn’t a bad thing. To spend the next few days parked in this yard or exploring the rest of the town is serious a toss-up, but considering how close the hotel is to the best parts of town, you’re not at a loss to do both. The front desk will happily point you in the direction of anything that you could want to explore.

A Cheat Sheet for Escaping to Panama | DARLING | Photo by Nicole Ziza Bauer

– Want to relax?  For $3 USD you can get a detoxifying mud facial and spend the afternoon soaking in natural hot springs at Pozos Termales. If you go on a weekday, chances are you’ll have the pool to yourself. (And don’t worry, the water is healthier for you than it looks.)

– Want to taste Panama’s best?  Stop by the Fruit Shop for a melon and pineapple smoothie. Panama is known for its citrus, and you’ll be able to tell after one sip (of anything) from this slightly-hidden cafe.

– Want to feel like a local?  Visit the mercado in the center of town for the freshest selection of fruits, vegetables, weavings and art pieces from the farmers and artists who live and work in the area; it’s especially bustling on a Sunday.

– Want to swim in a waterfall?  Take advantage of staying in a crater basin and hike up to the “Lovers Falls.” A deeper-than-you’d-expect pool of water collects at the base of where two smaller waterfalls meet, creating the perfect place to wash off in the heat of the day.

Leave yourself a good four or five hours, maybe even six if taking the bus, to get back to Tocumen airport from El Valle. Rental cars can be dropped off in the bottom hub near the arrival gates, but be sure you understand the Panapass system (ask your rental company to educate you) to clear the tolls without trouble. If you take the bus, be prepared to walk about ten minutes from the stop to the airport’s main entrance.

el valle de anton El Valle de Anton

The best part about Panama?  You’ll leave with the realization that you have so much more to discover. From city streets to cloud-capped peaks, it’s a country that’ll reignite a passion for seizing the moment in order to attempt slowing down time. Through carving out one set spot, like your hotel, you free yourself up to feeling out the rest.

Ready to go?

What holds you back from traveling spontaneously?

Images via Nicole Ziza Bauer

Working behind the screen as a freelance writer and Darling's Director of Digital Content, Ziza lives between Nashville and Los Angeles with her husband and two lovable (yet laughably big) canines. She believes in being an intentional friend, a spontaneous traveler and, most importantly, a passionate pursuer of that which is true and good.

3 COMMENTS
  • Jennifer July 15, 2016

    Great post! I’m headed to Panama in October and Danilo’s Jazz Club was already on my list! I’ll have to check out El Valle. We have 7 nights and are still trying to plan how we want to spend them.

  • brucerichard October 29, 2015

    I have never read such quality post as yours, ever on the web. Your post is very detailed and insightful yet easy to understand. Please write more frequently for this community.
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  • Brooke August 13, 2015

    Swimming in Lovers Falls sounds fantastic to me! When it comes to spontaneous travel, I think the thing that holds me back is cost. I worry that waiting last minute will leave me with fewer affordable options. Maybe I should look into more often and see what last-minute deals might be available.

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