I usually take one trip with my partner a year, and this year we decided to head to a part of the world that both of us had never visited. When we told people we were heading to Panama it was immediately followed by a ‘really?? What made you choose there?’
There were a few reasons. It was recommended on Lonely Planet’s list of best places to visit in 2019, we also heard that it was cheaper than its more popular neighbour Costa Rica, and there were two geeky reasons too. One of my favourite video game series Uncharted has a significant Panama link – the British pirate Sir Francis Drake who was buried off the country’s coast plays a part of the story (I have his motto tattooed on my arm) and some seasons of Survivor were also filmed there (something which my partner and I bonded on when we first met years ago).
We flew from Dublin to Amsterdam and then got a connecting flight to Panama City which was about 12 hours in the air. The itinerary which I wrote up in advance took us across most of the country. I had booked everything via Booking.com in advance.
If you would like a whirlwind look of what we got up to, you can click into the video below that I put together! It’s in the Irish language but there are English subtitles available (you must click ‘Irish’ in the subtitles to get them for some reason).
We had booked an airport pickup from the hotel which cost $30 (€26) and the driver was there waiting for us when we arrived. We did this because it was a completely new experience for us to be in Central America and we were jetlagged. Between us, it worked out at a decent enough price. You can get a bus to the city, but we just weren’t in the mood for it and the airport is about 30 – 40 minutes away depending on traffic.
Riande Granada Urban Hotel
As mentioned, we began in Panama City where we stayed in the Riande Granada Urban Hotel for nights. The lobby area was very cool and had that ‘urban’ style that the hotel’s name suggested. Concrete was the décor of the moment and it heavily featured downstairs. There was a pool table, lounge, bar and the pool was also on the ground floor.
Our check-in was straightforward, we paid for the room and they scanned our passports as usual and gave us our key cards. They don’t bring your bags to your room for you. This was fine for us, but I presume had someone asked for help they would have.
When we went up to our room our key cards didn’t work (which became a regular theme). Our room was on the top floor and we had a spacious double room with a view of the city (but not the ocean). We had an ensuite with a shower but what really surprised us was the lack of amenities in the room. The décor looked nothing like the lobby, it just looked like any generic hotel. The safe didn’t work either, there was no toothpaste, but we did get our shower cap. There was no mini-fridge either.
This really surprised me for a supposed ‘four-star’ hotel. There was no information on what to do in Panama in the rooms or anything about the hotel facilities. We were left to figure it out on our own and this, to be honest, made the hotel feel basic.
The hotel itself seemed to cater to a lot of tourists and this became an issue at breakfast when there would be a lack of food available as the rush came in. The food for breakfast definitely wasn’t four stars. It was a basic buffet aimed to cater to an average palate. There were no signs telling people what the food was, so you had to guess – again this is not a requirement always but when you’re at a four-star, you expect some sort of personality.
The staff were pleasant at the lobby and at breakfast, but I was unimpressed when I left a review on Booking.com and received a copy and paste answer from management which was on multiple other reviews.
It cost €183 for both of us for the four nights including breakfast so €91.50 each which we thought was good value but as hotels go, it was a very vanilla experience.
Note: The location of the Riande Granda Urban was in the new part of the city near all the skyscrapers and very close to the metro but it is a hefty walk to the Old Town. We were super ambitious and walked from the hotel to the Old Town which took over an hour in the heat, but a metro or UBER would make more sense. The metro is incredibly clean and new, but you need to buy a special card in the station to use it. Also, UBER is your best friend in the city. It’s super cheap and the set price means you don’t have to be worrying about haggling.
We travelled from Panama City to Santa Catalina via two buses which took us nine hours. It was quite the experience to get there and we were absolutely exhausted by the end of it. We had booked a place called Casa Maya which was about a 15-minute walk from the centre of the village. It was right by La Punta which is mostly for surfers (though we only discovered this properly towards the end) and about a 25-minute walk to Playa Estero. Near the village was another beach called Playa Santa Catalina where I hung out on a swing and relaxed. It was low season so there were barely any tourists around.
We booked a small apartment that came equipped with a kitchen and it was just lovely. The owner Paula was fantastic and left us notes in case we were late and needed any help. It was exceptionally clean and comfortable.
Our apartment felt very homely and had that seaside-esque décor with lots of wood and tiles and there was a folder with all the information on what we could do in the area as well as all the facilities Casa Maya had to offer. We also had air conditioning and free wi-fi which were greatly appreciated. To save a few bob it was handy to have our own kitchen as we had our own breakfast every morning and, in our apartment, we felt very safe.
As mentioned, it’s about 15 min walk to the main Santa Catalina village and it got a bit dark at night and we didn’t want to eat out every night so we had to venture into town. There’s pizza in the nearby Jammin Hostel (also owned by Casa Maya) and the food was delicious but because we visited in low season it wasn’t open every night.
Note: I get bitten by mosquitoes a lot so I think it would be wonderful to have a mosquito net or a net for the door. There was one for the window but they could still get in the front door, so it was kind of pointless when you wanted to open everything. Use cat nip oil! The mozzies hate it.
Overall it is a wonderful place and would highly recommend venturing out there. We spent four nights in Casa Maya that cost €204.
We travelled by shuttle bus to Boquete in the mountains and right at the foot of Volcan Barú (the Barú volcano). Boquete has a temperature like Ireland so it was a lovely change from the heat of the Pacific Coast.
We checked into Arte Hostel with ease. The owner didn’t speak a lot of English so we used a lot of gestures. Our private room was upstairs and was on the corner of the outdoor stairs, so we heard everything as people were going to their rooms. I was so glad I had my earplugs. There was a fan but no air conditioning which was fine because it wasn’t that hot at all. We shared a shower and a bathroom which was spotless.
There was so safe as we had our own key, but it took multiple reminders over two days for our lock on the door to be fixed which was annoying because I hated the idea of having my possessions unguarded. Instead I brought my passport everywhere with me.
We booked a private room for about 4 days and even though the owner spent every day cleaning the rest of the hostel our room was never cleaned. We also felt that the hostel didn’t feel very homely. There was no real common area apart from small place upstairs connecting the rooms which wasn’t comfortable as there were two wooden benches with no cushions and you had to be quiet anyway at night. The kitchen was small and narrow which I imagined would be a nightmare during high season when people would be trying to make pancakes in the corner stove. As hostels go it was fine but very plain.
Location wise, it’s right in town and perfect. We were able to stroll around with ease. The hostel itself was good value and we stayed there for 4 nights and it cost €100.
BOCAS DEL TORO
Barrbra BNB Over the Sea
This was by far our favourite place in Panama to stay. It was like home away from home. Right on the water (seriously, the building is built on top of water), Barrbra BNB is paradise. Owned by French Candian Marco, he was an incredibly attentive host but was never overbearing. The location was also his home so there was a homely feeling to the place. Marco owns two labradoodles called Barrbra and Luiza and they were the sweetest dogs and we loved being able to cuddle them daily!
The BNB was a bit outside the main town, Bocas is known for being both an expat and a party town, so it was nice that we were away from the madness. Google ‘Filthy Friday Bocas’ and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Myself and my partner aren’t party people, so we were so happy we weren’t near it!
Our room was small but decorated with wood. We were upgraded from the room we booked for free. Initially, we were to share a bathroom, but we had our own ensuite which was lovely. There was also an outdoor shower which you could hop into after a swim. We really chilled here. There were swings, hammocks, deck chairs and you were able to jump straight into the sea from the deck. The sand in the ocean wasn’t soft so we wore our waterproof sandals as we swam but it’s shallow with no current, so we were very comfortable.
The BNB had two kitchens, one for own use and one for Marco himself as his own personal space. Our kitchen was on the deck and had a gas stove, fridge and sink so we had everything that we needed. Marco also said that we ever needed certain ingredients like extra sauces we could just ask him, so he didn’t end up with a million mayonnaises! Marco also cooked dinner which you could opt into if you liked. We did a few times and it was delicious.
Our breakfast was included each morning and it was magnificent. I repeatedly had the omelette with coconut bread, crispy fried potatoes and fruit and Marco’s skill in the kitchen was clear. We loved our breakfast.
Marco’s BNB had a tab system in place. We had a fridge with things like beers and soft drinks in it and then you would mark it on a board that you had taken one. Drinks were very reasonable – beer was $1.50 (€1.30) and you could also have coffee, tea, and filtered water. We also did a big load of washing for $5 (€4.40). The property is gated so we felt very safe at night.
We stayed six nights in Bocas del Toro, and it was the perfect place to unwind after an amazing tour of Panama. Total cost (not including our tab for drinks, laundry and the dinner we chose to get): $345 (€307) or around €150 per person for 6 nights!
Instead of taking a 12-hour bus journey back to the city to fly home, we chose to take an internal flight with Panama Air. This just took less than an hour and landed in Albrook Airport in the city. The main international airport is Tocumen.
Remember I said that I wasn’t a party person? Well choosing Selina was a bit of a mistake on my part, as it IS a party hostel. I chose it because it was in Casco Viejo and not in the new city. Not that it was bad but when we arrived after flying from Bocas del Toro the place was absolutely hopping. Partly because Pride was on, there were party people everywhere and the hostel itself has its own nightclub!
Décor-wise it’s super cool. Like the Riande Granada I mentioned earlier, they also must have got the ‘concrete is SO IN’ memo. In one way it was hard to tell whether it was a hostel or a hotel. It was massive. Because it was so big it was hard to get to know anyone and we mostly kept to ourselves. The hostel is impressive, and I’d recommend checking out the photos on Booking.com. There was a cinema, library, bar, co-working space, rooftop bar, restaurant, pool and kitchen – facility wise it had a lot.
The power went out at least 20 times when we were there, and the taps and shower didn’t work a few times so there was one day where we were feeling pretty grubby. We had a basic room with a window that lead to the corridor. In the booking it said that one of the features of the room that it was ‘soundproof’ – it was in my hoop soundproof! We heard EVERYTHING and I made good use of my earplugs.
We saw an Irish family with three young kids checked into Selina and honestly, I’ve no idea how they coped. It’s a hotel for energetic partygoers.
Pro-tip: If you’re booking and want a relatively ok sleep, choose the 4th floor. The 2nd floor is right above the nightclub, the 3rd floor has the kitchen, library and cinema. There are no extra features on the 4th floor. Then the 5th floor is just below the rooftop bar where there’s also a dancefloor.
It cost us €159 for three nights.
Have you been to Panama? Where were you thinking of staying? Don’t forget to check out all our ‘rated and review’ archives on the blog and if you like what you see, please feel free to share this post!