7 days in Panama & Costa Rica

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Aerial view of Taboguilla Island

Day 1: Flight to Panama City

We caught an early morning flight from New York to Panama City, landing around 3:00pm. It was an easy Uber to reach our accommodations – by the way, Uber Panama has an option to select an English-speaking driver for a marginally higher price but don’t bother – you’ll be waiting for Godot.

We resisted the shiny new city center and opted to stay in Casco Viejo, the historic district. A two-bedroom suite at La Isabela housed the three of us comfortably with room to spare. I would happily stay there again.

Glitzy hotels with brands you’d recognize are plentiful in the city center and surprisingly, much more cost-efficient than options in Casco Viejo. However, after visiting the city center, I stand by our choice to stay in the historic district. Alongside the Waldorf and Hilton, the city center hosts grey office buildings and American clichés like the Hard Rock Café and Hooters. The area lacked Casco Viejo’s charm and elegance. Plus, all the nightlife is in the old part of town.

After checking in, we had dinner at Caliope, which was only a few minutes walk from La Isabela – that’s the other great thing about Casco Viejo, everything is concentrated in one corner so we never walked more than five minutes to get to our next destination. The food was exquisite and the atmosphere even better. Would highly recommend making a reservation.

We were there on a Tuesday so the nightlife wasn’t exactly at its peak. But we checked out a few spots if only to familiarize ourselves with the area. First, we stopped at Casa Casco, a rooftop bar so chic that you’ll feel like the glass elevator is actually teleporting you to Miami. Next, we went to Gatto Blanco, which turned out to be a bit much if you’re pushing 30 and it’s a weeknight. Right next door to Gatto Blanco is Tantalo, the perfect medium between hip and handsome.

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View of Panama Canal from Miraflores observation deck

Day 2: Panama Canal + the best meal in town

The next day, we made our way to the Miraflores Visitor Center, which has an observation deck to view the Panama Canal along with a mini-museum and a film about its construction. What we didn’t know was that if you want to see the ships pass through the locks, you have to be there either in the early morning (before 10:00am) or wait until the later afternoon (after 3:00pm). So if you go, might be worth planning ahead for that.

I must have been playing hooky when we learned about the Panama Canal in school because I honestly had no recollection of what it was or why it was significant until we got there. Miraflores did a great job on providing that education. It also gave a sense of what Panamanians are like and how the country sees itself against the backdrop of the rest of Central America.

It was raining so instead of having a terrace lunch on the causeway like we’d planned, we headed to the city center in hopes that there would be more indoor activities. We grabbed lunch at a homey Italian restaurant called Cabana. Our immediate surroundings consisted of a government office and a T.G.I. Friday’s so we ventured out a little further to find Weil Art, a little shop packed full of Panamanian sculptures and paintings. The owner was very friendly and walked us through every nook and cranny of the store. We each left with the perfect souvenir. I brought home an acrylic painting by Enoc Rudas.

That evening, we ate at Donde José, a tiny restaurant that serves a 16-course tasting menu. We sat at the chef’s table and had José himself serve and explain each dish. I won’t attempt to be a food critic and squeeze a review in here but if there is one place you should eat at in Panama City, it’s Donde José.

After dinner, we crossed the street to have a drink at Stranger’s Club, a new cocktail bar with an interesting story. Five bartenders from New York started putting in $20 each to create an emergency fund – in case any of them (or their pets) got hurt or sick. Then, for a while, no emergencies occurred and the fund grew so large that they decided it was time to do something with the money. One thing led to another and after a few years, Stranger’s Club was born.

  • Read the whole story about Stranger’s Club at Eater NY
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Dining room at American Trade Hotel

Day 3: Geisha coffee & lunch at the American Trade Hotel + flight to San José

At home, a good proportion of the coffee I consume comes in the form of Haagen Däaz ice cream and Kopiko candy but I had read about geisha coffee and was curious to try it. I mean, there’s a place in California that imports a special variety from Panama and serves it for $55 a cup! Will people just buy anything these days or is there something truly magical about this coffee?

  • Is it geisha or “gesha”? Apparently, it’s complicated

The original plan was to go to Bajareque Coffee House but it was hot and we were hungry so we headed to the American Trade Hotel for lunch. It turned out they also served geisha coffee so we ordered some along with our food.

Geisha coffee is very light. It tasted more like a tea than a coffee to me. I was too impatient to wait for cream so I drank it black, which I think is actually the proper way to have it. I’m no coffee connoisseur so I won’t comment on whether I think it can ever be worth $600/pound. I can’t remember exactly how much we paid but it was definitely <$10 for a cup.

We left Panama shortly after lunch to fly to San José, Costa Rica. Most people spend a night in San José but we were pressed for time so we went directly from the airport to La Fortuna. Our hotel, El Silencio del Campo, arranged the transportation.

There are so many accommodation options in La Fortuna that we had a very difficult time choosing. We very nearly decided to splurge and stay at The Springs, famous for being the host hotel for The Bachleor. There’s also Tabacon, another luxury resort that offers a pretty incredible thermal experience (which is also open to the public for a fee). Eventually, we left it so long that all the rooms got booked up so we ended up with what was supposed to be a backup option, El Silencio del Campo.

Now, El Silencio‘s website does not exactly scream “fancy” and indeed, the rooms have tile floors and a overabundance of brown linens. But the grounds are pristine and they have their own private hot springs and a day spa, and if you’re into quirks, a working farm. Strolling around one morning, we came across the farm and got to pet a 5-day old cow calf. It’s one of those places that I could imagine being bought by Marriott and transformed into a 5-star resort with limited time and investment. Not that Costa Ricans seemed particularly interested in rampant capitalism. You never have to worry about getting ripped off in Costa Rica.

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La Fortuna waterfall

Day 4: La Fortuna waterfall + Sky Trek

The next day, we woke up early to hike to La Fortuna waterfall. This is probably something you can do without a guide but we played it safe and booked everything including all transportation through Gecko Trail. It was an easy hike for beginners and the views are beautiful. We wore our swimsuits underneath and took a dip. The water is chilly by Central American standards by the waterfall but there’s another shallower pool nearby where it’s warm.

In the afternoon, we went ziplining through the rainforest. This was also booked through Gecko Trail and done with Sky Adventures. I had never gone ziplining before but trusted that gravity would do most of the work. The difficult part turned out to be stopping. There is a way to brake but none of us managed to do it correctly so the guides had to brake us every time. The highest cable is about 60 stories up so if you’re queasy about heights, this would pose a challenge. It’s so worth it though – on one side, you see the rainforest and the other, the ocean. There was also the option to rent a GoPro to strap onto your helmet and I regret not doing so. The views were magnificent.

For dinner, we had a filling and ridiculously affordable meal at Soda Viquez. I could easily live on tilapia, rice, and beans for the rest of my life. Afterwards, we briefly attempted to look for nightlife but it was low season so things were pretty quiet even though it was a Friday.

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Arenal Volcano

Day 5: Whitewater rafting + Transport to Puerto Viejo

We got up even earlier the next day to whitewater raft down Pacquare River. Again, this was booked through Gecko Trail with a company called Exploradores Outdoors. While researching ways to get from La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo, a beach town on the Caribbean coast, many travelers suggested whitewater rafting down Pacuare River. That gave me the impression that the rafting would actually cut down on the transport time but no, that’s not how it works.

If you’re staying in La Fortuna, you’ll get picked up at the crack of down and transported to the Exploradores Center where there are lockers, changerooms, showers, and breakfast. You eat, change, and drop off your stuff. Then, they’ll take you to the river entrance where you’ll begin rafting. When you’re finished rafting, you end up back at the Exploradores Center.

Whitewater rafting is advertised as an extreme sport so as someone who can’t really swim, I was predictably nervous to attempt Pacuare River’s Class III and IV waves. Class III waves are considered “intermediate” and Class IV “advanced” – with exceptional rafting experience required. There were five of us in the raft with a combined total of “limited” rafting experience.

But there was nothing to worry about.

I could have been a baby pig with three legs and everything would have been fine. In fact, our coordination as a group was probably worse than a baby pig with three legs. Our guide had done this trip so many times that he knew the movement of the river like the back of his hand. Along the way, he pointed out unique vegetation and the $1000/night lodges along the river that celebrities frequent. It was a much more low key endeavor than I had expected.

After we changed into our street clothes and collected our belongings back at the Center, they dropped us off at our next and final destination, Puerto Viejo.

Most tourists end up on the Pacific Coast in Jacó or Taramindo when they’re looking for a Costa Rican beach town. There are more restaurants, accommodations, and established activities like surfing and yoga. There are countless articles weighing the pros and cons of each, explaining that the Pacific Coast is more polished and developed while the Caribbean side is more rural and natural. We decided on the Caribbean side because we went during Costa Rica’s rainy season and the Caribbean Coast is supposed to have less rain during that time. However, even in La Fortuna which is smack dab in the middle of the rainforest, we encountered almost no rain the entire trip. I didn’t break out the umbrella one time and felt very silly for packing a raincoat and wellies.

Anyway, we arrived in Puerto Viejo after a 4-hour journey and checked into our hotel, La Costa de Papito. La Costa is impossibly cute and consisted of little bungalows amongst forested grounds along with a full restaurant, bar, and day spa – however, it is not air-conditioned and the combination of heat and humidity wreaked a bit of havoc on my hair and sleep schedule.

  • For a higher end accommodation option, try Le Cameleon

That evening, we had dinner at KOKi, a restaurant so stylish that it could have been one of those restaurants in West Village where you go to be seen. The food was good too.

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Punta Uva beach

Day 6: Beach + A romantic Italian dinner

We went into town to run some errands and then laid around the beach all day. At this point, we felt like we deserved some down time. We had lunch at Nema, which was an absolutely neutral experience and slightly more expensive than the plastic menus might suggest.

For dinner, we went to La Pecora Nera, a restaurant with such a romantic atmosphere that it prompted a discussion about past loves. There was also an extensive wine list that we took full advantage of. I was starting to think that Puerto Viejo would make a unique honeymoon destination.

For drinks, we went to the Lazy Mon, a dive bar on the beach run by three Americans. It seems like a lot of Americans visit Central America and decide to put down roots there. I can see the appeal, it’s such a relaxed pace of life. I could probably extend my life expectancy five years if I gave up the big city.

There was a mix of locals and expats hanging out on a Sunday night. One of us was persuaded to join a game of table tennis. We drank and chatted while wondering how we were going to get home. Up until this point, we had been asking our hotel concierges to call us taxis. Except, they were not officially-licensed taxis, just people with cars. Analog Uber. This seemed safe enough and the concierge’s word was good enough for us. What we were not that keen to do was walk up to any random car with a guy leaning against it and explain in broken Spanish where we were trying to go.

Eventually, we asked the bartender, an American naturally, for help. She walked us to a car with a guy leaning against it and we hopped in. Five stars.

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Toucan at the Jaguar Rescue Center

Day 7: Jaguar Rescue Center + Flight home

First of all, there are no jaguars at the Jaguar Rescue Center and we were all silly for thinking there might be. Once upon a time, there was a sick baby jaguar that was brought to two Spanish biologists to nurse back to health. The poor thing didn’t make it but when the biologists started the rescue center, they named it after the one and only jaguar that they cared for.

While it kind of looks like one, the Jaguar Rescue Center is not a zoo. The goal is to rehabilitate sick and injured animals so that they can be returned back to the wild. Volunteers bring animals into the forest every day for longer and longer periods of time to get them used to be independent. Eventually, they are released.

For dinner, we had authentic Caribbean cuisine at La Nena – fitting for our last night.

We were four hours from San José and our flight was at 7:30am which meant an overnight drive. The hotel arranged the transportation and we made it to the airport in record time. Our driver must have been in a hurry to get home. I wasn’t though. I loved Costa Rica for its lush forests, friendly locals, and good food. If we had more time, I would have liked to spend a night in Tortuguero National Park to see sea turtles.

Next time.

7 days in Panama & Costa Rica