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During a premium-cabin mileage run I did recently to earn AAdvantage Executive Platinum status with American Airlines, I had some time to explore Panama City, Panama. My trip was extremely brief, but was full of delicious food, lots of photo-ops while walking around the historic quarter and, best of all, I got to witness the engineering achievement of a massive cargo ship passing through the Panama Canal.

The view from Casco Viejo during the golden hour.
The view from Casco Viejo during the golden hour.

I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Panama for two nights, which I had booked through Hilton for 16,000 Honors points and $71.50 cash per night, for a total of 32,000 Hilton Honors points and $143. Using Uber, I could easily reach the beautiful streets of the city’s old quarter, Casco Viejo. After checking in and enjoying some time at the hotel pool, I had an tasty Argentinian steak dinner around the corner before heading to the Capital Bistro for a view of the city skyline from its rooftop bar.

The city glows from the rooftop of Capital Bistro at night.
The city glows from the rooftop of Capital Bistro at night.

The must-see Panama City attraction for me the next day was the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. I took an Uber from my hotel for about $6.79 to the Miraflores Visitor Center, a museum with a large, three-level viewing deck so guests can watch as the ships pass through. This was the main thing I wanted to see on this trip, and I had no problem shelling out the $15 for a non-resident admission ticket, which includes access to a series of exhibition halls and a short 3-D film showing the history and function of the canal.

Visitors, many sporting their Panama hats, watch as a container ship passes through the Miraflores locks.
Visitors, many sporting their Panama hats, watch as a container ship passes through the Miraflores locks.

I had not found out in advance when a ship would be passing through next, so I was excited to get to see the entire process, as smaller boats — and a boat full of tourists — were positioned at the front of the lock before the large container ship entered behind them.

A ship approaches the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.
A ship approaches the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.

The small boats helped show the true scale of the operation — passengers were almost completely hidden from view by the time the water level was lowered. Next time around, I would consider taking a ride on one of these boat tours to experience the locks that way.

Tourists ride a boat through the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. As the water level decreased, they were almost hidden by the walls of the canal.
Tourists ride a boat through the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.

I headed back down to the Casco Viejo in San Felipe and walked around during the golden hour, that brief period at dusk (and dawn) when sunlight is softer and makes almost everything look more attractive. 

Children play on the beach.
Children playing on the beach.

I bought a raspao — a shaved ice with fruity flavors and condensed milk — from a street vendor and enjoyed it while soaking in the Old Town’s brick streets and alleyways.

A street vendor prepares the traditional Panamanian street treat raspao, a kind of shaved ice, for me in the Old Town.
A street vendor prepares the traditional Panamanian street treat raspao, a kind of shaved ice, for me in the Old Town.

After my walk, I had an early dinner and enjoyed a fantastic eight-course prix fixe meal at Manolo Caracol. The entire meal was locally sourced, with dishes like bone marrow with sweet onions, yucca ceviche, prawns on a plantain with onions served in a sweet yellow-pepper sauce, beef mole tacos and dessert.

Bone marrow with sweet onions at Manolo Caracol.
Bone marrow with sweet onions at Manolo Caracol.

For my trip home, I bought bottles of Ron Abuelo seven-year and 12-year rum as gifts. I had a hunch this could be an issue when I flew back to Miami, and sure enough, after clearing customs, I was informed by the TSA that the rum would have to be placed in my checked bag. It turns out the clerks at Tocumen International Airport (PTY) hadn’t used the proper tamper-evident bags, opting instead for taped-up shopping bags in a box. Lesson learned: plan ahead if you want to bring any rum back with you.

A glass of Ron Abuelo poolside at the Waldof Astoria Hotel.
A glass of Ron Abuelo poolside at the Waldof Astoria Panama.

All in all, I loved my first trip to Panama City. It was a great place to find beautiful light and pictures and next time, I hope to have enough time to see even more of it.

Have you had a chance to visit Panama City, Panama? Tell us about your experience, below.

All photos by the author.

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