How to Make the Most of a Five Hour Layover in Panama

In June I headed to El Salvador for a long weekend mini-vacay.  When I was booking my flight I had an option with a seven hour layover in Panama City, Panama!  I have had a couple layovers in Panama City before but never had the chance to visit the city.  I wanted to visit for at least the weekend but you never know when it will happen so might as well take advantage of what time we can.  Live in the moment!

Thursday night I left SFO at about 9PM.  However, our plane was a little heavy so they had to remove some cargo.  This made us delayed in leaving and were about 45 minutes late arriving in Panama the next morning.  I was supposed to land at about 6AM but now it was nearly 7AM by time we landed.  I managed to de-plane and get through immigration in about 15 minutes (not bad!) and was grabbing a taxi in to the city by just after 7AM.  The taxi in to the city is a bit expensive (use Uber if you have data!) at $30 for the journey.  I was ok with this as that seemed to be the going rate when I searched online beforehand.

Beautiful colonial streets

What kind of car is this!?

More beautiful buildings

First place I wanted to visit was Casco Viejo!  This is like the old town of Panama City with all its colonial architecture and charm.  Plus, this was an area of the city from where I could witness the incredible views of the Panama skyline!  I loved walking around this quaint little part of the city.  Panama City is like any modern western city and has seen massive growth compared to its regional counterparts fueled by the money that flows through it thanks to the Panama Canal.  The skyline of this city is quite incredible, now to check it out at night next time!

Panama Skyline

Aside from the skyline and this colonial part of the city I also really wanted to check out the Panama Canal!  This canal is an Engineering wonder and one i’ve wanted to visit for several years.  I thought the canal was further from the city but is is right on the outskirts and only a short ~20 minute taxi ride from Casco Viejo.  My plans for this layover were originally just to visit Casco Viejo, maybe grab some breakfast and then head back to the airport.  I spent an hour or so at Casco Viejo and then realized I still had quite a bit of time before my connecting flight that I could make it to the canal in time!

Entrance to the Canal

The thing about visiting Panama City is that the trip from the airport to Casco Viejo can take anywhere from ~30 minutes if traffic is really good to 2+ hours if it is really backed up.  I arrived on Friday morning and figured i’d be waiting in traffic for some time because of rush hour.  However I got lucky and it only took me about 45 minutes to get in to the city that morning.  This allowed me some extra time to visit other places like the canal.

I flagged down a taxi to take me from Casco Viejo to the Panama Canal.  This was only about a 20 minute drive so I knew the price should be fairly cheap.  He started by quoting me $50 for the journey. I said no and began to walk away when he then offered to do the trip to the canal and then to the airport for $30.  That was more like it!

We arrived at the canal at about 8:30AM only to find that it does not open until 9AM so we could not enter.  My flight was due to leave at 12PM and it was nearly an hour drive from here to the airport.  What a let down!  We turned around and started heading back to the airport.  A few minutes down the road my drive pointed towards the canal and exclaimed “LOOK!”.  There was a large ship coming through the canal!  This was perfect timing.  He offered to go back to the canal, wait until it opened at 9 and then wait for 30 minutes for me to visit the canal, see the ship go through the locks and then he would take me to the airport for a mere $40 instead of our original agreed upon price of $30.  This was totally fair to me!  Back to the canal we went.

We waited at the gate and when they opened it just before 9 we made sure we were the first ones in and at the front of the line to get tickets at 9.  I rushed to the top of the viewing deck and was just in time to witness the ship moving through the locks!  It’s an incredible process when you consider all that is happening to move a ship of this size a mere several feet.  The views surrounding the canal are incredible as well!  I stayed my 30 minutes and then we were off heading back to the airport.  I reached back at the airport at about 10:30 with a bit of time left before my flight.

It was a hectic morning in Panama with only 5 hours total between flights but I still managed to see a few of the sights that I really wanted to see in the city!  After all, live today and spend the money on experiences now because tomorrow may never come.

Chris Weber

Hey there! I'm Chris. Travelling is one of my biggest passions in life and I started this blog to provide tips and my own personal experiences from the various places i've been in hopes of helping others who want to travel too! I'm 25 years old and have already been to over 70 countries and every continent (except the Antarctic....for now) with a life goal of visiting every country in the world before I die! If you have any questions at all about travelling email me anytime. I love to help out any way I can!

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