Panama was full of surprises for me. It was strikingly more American than expected for a Central American locale yet still managed to hold onto that warm, relaxed feel of a distinctively Latin American country. The streets felt safe to roam day or night and the Panamanian people were friendly and acommodating to the U.S. traveler.

Before I arrived, I thought I would take that not-to-be-missed quick trip to the Panama Canal and then spend the rest of my time comfortably ensconced at the JW Marriott pool, taking in the expansive water and city views, enjoying a warm tropical breeze while sipping a Pina Colada but instead I found myself enticed by the all the interesting places to go and explore in Panama City.

Panama Canal

One of the highlights, without question was the Panama Canal visit. It’s one of those wonders of the world that we all have read about and want to see. To be able to watch a small sailboat float through the lock with a massive cargo vessel on its’ tail is pretty spectacular. It’s a flawless expression of true engineering ingenuity and craftsmanship that has remained unchanged for decades. They recently added an additional lock to accommodate even bigger ships that can be seen working parallel to the original lock. Simple amazing!

My next favorite was Casco Viejo, the UNESCO heritage old-town neighborhood and the old quarter of Panamá City. This was by far my favorite spot to wander and discover the beauty of the Panamanian people and culture. It’s full of good restaurants and rooftop bars with great views. I was enamored with all the colorful tile floors found everywhere.

Tile floors everywhere

The combination of Colonial-era landmarks, refurbished hotels, cathedrals and even the Palacio de las Garzas presidential home mixed closely together with local shops selling traditional handicrafts and Panama hats makes for an interesting visit.  The architecture and feel of this part of the city were very reminiscent of French influenced New Orleans.

Mandinga Rum Bar

While in Casco Viejo, I fell in love with the Geisha coffee infused rum liqueur at the signature Pedro Mandinga rum bar. We just popped in for a drink and that chance visit led us to the Mandinga local artisanal rum distillery, where we went for a tasting and tour the next day. The brand pays homage to Pedro Mandinga, a Panamanian Cimarron chieftain, who was strong, charismatic and friendly. The rum distillery is attached to the La Rana Dorada brewery, which has a cute well-dressed frog as its signature motif and appears to be a local favorite beer.

We could not resist returning back to the JW Marriott for dinner most nights as we were completely impressed with the chef at the Tejas restaurant. The Panama-influenced international menu was fun and accessible while still sophisticated enough for the foodies. But whatever you do, don’t miss the desserts.

A Tejas restaurant dessert

It is always good to be surprised by a travel destination and find those unexpected gems of culture and connection. Panama felt easy and interesting. I would definitely add it to your lists of places to see and explore.

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  • Dr Sharon Ufberg

    Dr. Sharon Ufberg is a freelance writer, entrepreneurial coach, founder of Borrowed Wisdom and hosts Force of Nature on NPR’s 51% radio.

    Dr. Ufberg is a radio host and freelance journalist who writes and talks about human spirit, people and places that make a difference, women, musicians and philanthropic initiatives.She creates and teaches online personal growth courses and privately coaches individuals as the senior consultant for Borrowed Wisdom and Good Advice Works, companies she created to assist people to turn their dreams into reality.