Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fly In, Fly Out - 10 Hours in Panama City, Panama

A slew of emails from my quaint Quito hotel room drastically changed the course of my Panamanian layover. Instead of spending ten hours in Panama City's Tocumen International Airport, it was decided that I would venture out into Panama City, especially considering the city isn't terribly far from the airport. Needless to say, exploring a new city beats wandering from one section of the airport to another, failing to pass time with half-interested reading and over-priced food that preys on your wallet, regardless of the currency which currently rests inside it.

Reading forums and interrogating Google, I was able to get the names of several guides who I felt might help me get the absolute most out of my day. For me, every minute counts during a layover, as you feel like you're on borrowed time while visiting the city.

I came across someone who had recommended "my friend Mario" on a forum. Intrigued, I sent out an email (, and was able to work out a very reasonable price for the day. Of course, this post was part of the bargain, but there was absolutely no obligation for me to write a positive review. None. Why just trust my review? There are plenty on TripAdvisor as well for you to ponder over. These tours are operated under the umbrella of Almiza Tours (founded in 1994), and they're top notch.

It's difficult to surmise what it is I'm trying to accomplish with this creepy, forced smile captured by my iPhone, but it's not difficult to explain what Mario accomplished on our day in Panama City. His depth of knowledge about the city and country was fantastic, and he was personable on top of that. Furthermore, his knowledge was very personal as he was born in Panama City and currently lives there. Let me also mention that the price was very reasonable, and, for me, it was worth every penny. I was picked up from the airport around 9am and was dropped off around 3pm. It appears they're very flexible in accommodating your layover.

The tour company itself is operated by ten gentlemen, and three of them are named Mario. Mario noted, "It's the only company in town where if you don't like the first Mario, another Mario can replace him right away." Let's talk about what the tour includes.

1) Panama Viejo

Located in the suburbs of the new city, Panama Viejo includes the remnants of the city, founded in 1519,  that was the first European colony in this region. The city was sacked by pirates on several occasions due to its prominence in the transfer of gold for Spain, including by the famed Henry Morgan in 1671 (ever drank Captain Morgan's rum? Yup, same guy).

2) Casco Viejo/San Felipe

When Panama Viejo was essentially destroyed, the city was moved to the now historic Casco Viejo in the late 17th century. It has gone through its ups and downs, but since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1997, it appears to be on the rise again as a premier tourist destination. Here you'll find a unique, delicate mixture of Spanish and French architecture.

3) Ancon Hill

Ancon Hill is the almost 700 foot peak in an area that essentially acted as US headquarters while they were operating the Panama Canal. The area is distinct from the rest of the city, as it tends to be a little greener, lusher, and contains more wildlife. The view provides an opportunity to see where the old town and new town converge.

 4) A Fruit Market

This place was essentially a drive-thru fruit and vegetable market. Literally, the best pineapple that has ever graced my lips. I've posted a video for proof - I swear that pineapple was infused with the juice of ten other pineapples. I don't know if this is a standardized part of the tour, but Mario and I were loving this.

5) The Panama Canal (Miroflores Locks) 

This was the big reason I left the airport, to check this off the bucket-list. It's something I've always wanted to see, and it was indeed a marvel. I was lucky enough to arrive as a ship was coming through the locks, as well as watch a video in the pleasantly air-conditioned movie theatre and museum. It's a whole experience to be honest, and I hope that the Panama Canal will continue to bring prosperity to this deserving nation.

It was blistering hot all day in Panama, and since I was flying in from Quito, it's safe to say I was sweating all day (Quito is a surprisingly cold capital because of its elevation). Not to mention I hadn't exactly slept on the flight over. Though, if I can be sweating and exhausted and still appreciate a city this much, it must be something special. I owe a large part of that to Mario and Almiza Tours who, quite simply, made this one of the best layovers of my life.

Much love,



  1. Cool post Chris, way to get the most out of your layover! If it's over 4 hours, I'm out of the airport for sure!

    1. A rule to live by, my friend. Thanks a lot man.

  2. Nice post. I look forward to seeing Panama myself in Oct.

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