Layover In Panama City

Some of you may remember my friend Nick, who reviewed JetBlue’s A321 Mint Class last August. He’s back with another trip report, this time from his recent trip to South America. Nick is possibly the biggest Delta/SkyTeam apologist funniest person I know, and despite the fact that he toned it down a bit for the trip report, I hope you still find it interesting/amusing. 😉

Unfortunately due to a seat mishap his phone disappeared, so half of his pictures are gone. Or to quote Nick: “can you add an editors note that United ate my phone – to be discussed in UA post – so like half my photos were lost forever hence back off bitchy commenters?”


Introduction
Copa Airlines Business Class Los Angeles To Panama City To Buenos Aires
Layover In Panama City
Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
United BusinessFirst Buenos Aires To Houston


If you do fly Copa to South America, you may want to consider, especially given the limited recline of business class seats, breaking up your journey with a layover in Panama City. We booked our trip as two one-way awards, which meant that our layover in Panama was limited to 24 hours or less, but if you book a round trip award using MileagePlus miles you should be entitled to a longer stopover if you wish. Panama City, done right, is deserving of at least a 48-hour layover.

We had a 20 hour overnight layover in Panama City and were excited to check out the Casco Viejo neighborhood, the historic, atmospheric core of the city in the late stages of gentrification. With limited time, we had to nix a visit to the canal or the more modern parts of Panama City, but we caught a glimpse of the chaotic modern metropolis on the drive in from the airport.

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Panama is fascinating: its skyline is very tall and very modern and the newer part of the city is almost like Hong Kong in its density and verticality. And yet five minutes from downtown the Casco Viejo feels like the love child of Havana, New Orleans and Silver Lake (for this metaphor, assume three people make a baby, I guess).

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In the heart of the Casco Viejo is the American Trade Hotel, which is part of the Ace Hotels chain.

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It’s spectacularly beautiful, totally characteristic of Panama and in sync with the sultry vibe of the city, but also — unlike some of the other Ace Hotels in the world — very sumptuous and luxurious.

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The hotel feels like a set piece from a James Bond movie in the tropics — intricate tiles, vintage ceiling fans gently whirring above you, a gorgeous marble top bar, and a library and terrace on the upper floors that just ooze sexiness.

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We were given bottles of water while we waited to check-in and were led up to a Cuarto Chico room on the third floor.

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The room was absolutely stunning, with high ceilings, a view and balcony out onto the Plaza Herrera and the Pacific Ocean beyond, wood floors and sumptuous vintage details throughout.

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The bathroom was cavernous and all Carrera marble and subway tile, a Nancy Meyers-does-the-tropics wet dream of bougie excess (needless to say, I ate it up).

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The bathroom amenities were Aesop-branded, which were terrific. The room felt very masculine and “of the place,” while also being luxurious and romantic. For those familiar with the Ace brand, the American Trade Hotel has got to be the most high-end of the bunch. It’s a knockout.

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The Casco Viejo is a wonderful walking neighborhood and perfect for a half-day of exploring. Each street offered new architectural surprises, and we eventually stumbled on an enormous town square, the Plaza de la Independencia, fronting a cathedral, on one side, and a stately government building on the other. We happened to walk by both as a wedding party was taking photos in the square and as a carful of nuns exited a minivan, so it couldn’t have been more interesting to look at and ripe for people watching. In short, the Casco Viejo is an Instagrammer’s paradise. There is perhaps nothing more discordant and jaw-dropping than standing in a circa-1673 town square and looking across the bay the futuristic, capitalistic skyline of the new city.

We concluded our late afternoon stroll with a drink at a waterfront bar overlooking the bay as the sun set. There are some great restaurants and bars closer to the hotel, some of them occupying the courtyards of atmospherically-tattered centuries-old buildings, but unfortunately we were there on a Sunday, when most places were closed. The front desk attendant at the American Trade Hotel recommended that we do dinner at the Tántalo, a hotel, restaurant and bar complex down the street with a lively scene. We enjoyed a well-priced meal there and finished the night at the very happening rooftop bar with a view out onto the modern city across the shore.

Our only hitch came the next morning, when we did not allot ourselves as much time to get a taxi as we needed. We had a leisurely, delicious breakfast at the hotel restaurant — where I was so thankful to learn that the limp, sad piece of bacon I had on Copa was not a reflection of Panamanian bacon (the hotel’s bacon was go-ooood) but merely a reflection of Copa’s resolutely crappy catering. As we checked out, I pulled out my phone. Panama has Uber, but unfortunately, as I pulled up the app it showed that the nearest Uber car was 25 minutes away. The city seemed teeming with cabs, so I asked the doorman if he could hail a street taxi for us.

After some miscommunication, I realized he had ordered the hotel’s car service for us, and we ended up waiting 15 minutes for the car service to arrive anyway (as taxi after taxi passed by the front door of the hotel). Although the airport is 30-35 minutes from the Casco Viejo, our flight was at 12:10pm and it was past 10 — I was worried not about making it to the airport on time but about missing our check-in luggage cutoff, having no idea how strict Copa or the Panama City airport authorities were on that matter. In any event, my increased panic was sensed by the doorman, who told the driver to go “as fast as possible.”

We pulled out of the hotel and immediately into one of those only-in-Latin America scenes — a narrow, one lane street with stopped traffic as a dump truck was stuck several blocks ahead. As my panic crept over my face (note: I should take Xanax more often, but it makes me fall asleep instantly) and I begged the driver to get us to the airport on time, and the driver found a way out of the jam, my panic about not making the flight was replaced by panic about dying. He floored it. He cut off car after car and jumped onto the bayside expressway going at least 90mph. There were times when we cruised past 100mph only for the driver to slam on the brakes and switch lanes for a clearer path ahead.

I didn’t pee myself, but if ever there were a time, it would be then, and my husband looked over and gave me a look more or less to the effect of, “if we survive this, I’m divorcing you.” Somehow, once we got out of the old city, we broke a record and made it to the airport in 20 minutes flat and, of course, had no problem checking in for the flight. My suggestion would be to never tell a Panamanian chauffeur to “step on it” or you may well end up flung into the Canal in a rear-end collision.

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All in all, we were very happy we spent the night in Panama City. The layover broke up the trip into two 6-hour-and-change flights over two days, which is totally doable without being too taxing. Panama is a fascinating and beautiful city, and we felt like when Amazing Race contestants visit a place for a 24-hour stint and tell themselves, “we’ll be back someday.”

We will happily and eagerly return to Panama for a longer stay — and we’ll even fly Copa! We didn’t get to see the Canal, or explore the new city, or check out the jungles and rain forests just outside the city’s door, and we have now added those to our bucket list.

Frankly, the American Trade Hotel was a gem and had we stayed at a more corporate hotel in the modern part of the city, our experience with Panama would have been far less charming — we actually concluded that the American Trade Hotel was our favorite hotel of the entire trip, and one of the most comfortable hotels we’ve stayed at, period.

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Enjoy this review? Check out hundreds of other reports on airlines, hotels, and airport lounges worldwide!

Comments

  1. Very interesting to read about Panama City. I am used to reading a lot about the big cities in this blog like FRA CDG LHR DXB AUH SIN etc but this is a welcome change! Very well written with the taxi part leads one to feel the anxiety as almost all the frequent travellers would have experienced this situation surely once.

    Keep it coming.

  2. Panama City is an amazing city and admittedly a lot more cosmopolitan than I had expected. Spent 4 days there last March and am making a return trip this April for another 3 days plus 4 more in Bocas Del Toro.

    Love this new addition to Lucky’s blog. As much as it’s nice to read about SQ first class suites and the lounge at the Park Hyatt I appreciate a chance to read about less popular airlines and cities.

    Keep it up.

  3. This definitely makes me want to visit Panama City more than I already did! I’ll probably be flying to South America somewhere this year on United points (haven’t decided where yet) so a layover in Panama City is probably in my future.

    You definitely have a way with words – I literally LOL’d at “a Nancy Meyers-does-the-tropics wet dream of bougie excess (needless to say, I ate it up).” That hotel looks awesome. Looking forward to the rest of your report!

  4. Thanks for the PTY entry. I have an upcoming mileage run with AA. Purposefully booked a longer layover, as I wanted the chance to check out a new city.

    Re: your UA phone-eating seat: let me guess…PMCO plane? I lost my iphone to the cavernous J seat on their 764 shortly after departure from GRU. Spent the ENTIRE 9hrs to EWR desperately searching for my phone. Two realizations pushed me into panic mode: I had irreplaceable photos that hadn’t yet been backed up (I know, I know…), and I knew the EWR ground staff would be less-than-helpful on arrival.

    We landed at EWR. Still no phone in sight. Gate agent gave me the obligatory spiel about filing a lost property report…followed by a terse warning that I would need to be deplaned in the next five minutes. At that point, no fewer than 8 crew members descended on my seat, effectively pushing the gate agent into the galley. Flight attendants had already ripped the cushions off of my seat when a PILOT got down on his hands and knees, and extracted my phone through some combination of brute force and mechanical prowess.

    I was floored by the selfless efforts put forth by the crew (after working an overnight flight from South America, no less). I was also incredibly frustrated to hear (from the crew) that these seats are known to regularly gobble passenger property. Anyway, the lost phone story hits close to home.

  5. It’s great to read about your experience in Panama. I just spent 8 days in Panama City over the New Year break. Panama City is really nice and a wonderful city, especially the parts you mentioned of Casco Viejo and the old city. We also took a day trip outside of Panama City to do some adventure and see other parts of the country. While Panama City was very nice and great, to me it’s not a destination city but rather a city you would visit on a long layover or if you are passing through to another city (which many travelers whom I met were doing – using Panama City as a base to travel around the rest of Central America)

  6. early last November, they had to shut down the main airport for part of the day due to the volume of migrating Raptors. That must have been a stunning sight to see.

    Sobernia is a wonderful jungle / park not far from the city. So many great pictures of Toucans among the 25 or so bird species we observed, not to mention all the butterflies.

    Frank Gehry

    Partial canal transit was a great way to spend 7 or 8 hours. Our only crocodile sighting!

    Our favorite Casco Viejo restaurant was Diablicos. Very good Panamaneian food, fun service, and dance performances (traditional) on Thurs – Sat nights.

    Waterfront park / path from downtown to Casco Viejo is a gem.

  7. Once you’ve been to Colombia, Panama City holds no interest at all. Terrible traffic, mediocre over-priced food, and the worst city planning imaginable.

  8. Hi, this is a bit of an odd question but I’m having a bit of a hard time finding an answer. I will also have a little less than a 24 hour layover in panama city with Copa airlines, and I’m wondering, do you collect your checked luggage once you get into the panama city airport and recheck it the next day? I’m just not sure how this works and I’ve heard it differs for different airlines. I’m judging by you worrying about not having time to check your bags on the airline on your way out that you did collect your checked luggage when you arrived at your stopover. Thank you!!

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