Panama offers the best of all worlds – shuls, kosher food, city life, a beach vacation, plus fascinating things to do and see!
Being that I was born and raised in Panama, I’m lucky enough to get weekly messages, emails and texts from friends and even people whom I’ve never met asking me questions about Panama. Everyone is so intrigued. What are the top restaurants? Is it safe? What is there to do?
Panama has some of the most delicious kosher restaurants in the world, beautiful beaches, resorts and hotels, a vibrant and rich Jewish community, making Panama the ideal destination for the kosher consumer.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when everyone else was let in on the little secret. Panama, a hidden gem and kosher haven, nestled right in the center of the American continent. Once people discovered what Panama had to offer, it didn’t take very long until it became one of the hottest vacation destinations on most people’s wish list. Visit Panama at any given time during the year, and you’ll notice Jewish tourists from all walks of life, and from all over the world.
Conveniently located, Panama is only a few hours flight from most cities in the US, some major cities even offering nonstop flights to Panama. Most major airlines travel to Panama including Delta, United, American Airlines and Copa (yes, this is a perfectly safe and normal airline). You are going to want to fly into Tocumen International Airport (PTY). The airport is about a 20-minute drive from the city. The currency in Panama is the Balboa and the American Dollar.
Practice usual safety precautions as you would if you were traveling anywhere else in the world. Be aware of your surroundings, don’t walk alone at night and keep your valuables safe. You can safely walk around with kippas and tzitzit in Panama, without any issues.
JEWISH AREAS + WHERE TO STAY
There are two main Jewish areas in Panama City, Punta Paitilla and Punta Pacifica.
Some of the best hotels in the area are the Residence Inn by Marriot (suites, most convenient if traveling with kids, walking distance to Chabad and kosher restaurants), JW Marriot, Hilton Panama, Waldorf Astoria and W Panama. If you are looking for a very affordable option, the Plaza Paitilla Inn is great. There’s also Hotel Sortis, which is beautiful and located near some kosher restaurants and driving distance from most, but definitely not walking distance to any shuls if you plan on being there for Shabbos.
Panama sits on the equator which means the climate is tropical, hot and humid. Rains nine months out of the year, but don’t get discouraged, it’s so hot, everything dries up fast, and most of the time, it’s just a quick sun shower. The summer in Panama runs from January to Mid-April which is the best time to visit.
You can certainly rent a car like you would anywhere else, but because Uber in Panama is so reasonably priced (only a few dollars a trip) I always recommend people just take an Uber everywhere to avoid having to deal with a car and parking. Not to mention the traffic gets heavy in some areas in the city, especially during rush hour.
SHULS + DAVENING + SHABBAT
Panama is home to some of the most beautiful shuls in the world. I highly recommend booking a Jewish Sites Tour to see them for yourself and learn about the rich history of the Panamanian Jewish Community
One thing that is important to know and keep in mind is that in order to get into the shuls for minyan and for Shabbos davening you need to fill out a visitors registration form. This is a requirement in order to visit the synagogues in Panama. They will also interview you and request you provide your passport. It helps to know someone in Panama as a referral. You can fill out the registration form over here.
The Sephardi synagogues are Shevet Ahim in Bella Vista (this is the one I recommend you tour), Ahavat Sion in Paitilla and Bet Max Ve Sarah in Punta Pacifica, all three offer regular services throughout the week and Shabbos.
The Ashkenazi shul Beth El is located in Paitilla. They offer a convenient Shabbos dinner and Shabbos day Kiddush weekly, that you are able to sign up for over here.
There are also three Chabad houses. Chabad Panama located in Paitilla, Chabad Boquete and Chabad Bocas del Toro. You can sign for meals at Chabad, they do a fabulous job, and the food is delicious.
KOSHER FOOD + RESTAURANTS
With over 40 spectacular kosher restaurants, covering every cuisine under the sun, Panama has become the kosher foodies’ dream vacation. Rarely you’ll visit a country where you’ll be able to eat at a different kosher restaurant for every single meal during your stay, and still don’t even make a dent. Be sure to make reservations for dinner in advance, especially during popular times like Yeshiva week.
My favorite spots for breakfast are: Jeffreys Bakery and Pita Pan.
If you want a healthy spot, with vegan options such as acai bowls, avocado toasts, etc. check out Vitali or Fitbar Co.
If you are going on a day trip and need to grab a sandwich, wrap or salad to-go, check out Cafein (which also has frozen yogurt) or The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (variety of pastries, coffee drinks, etc.).
Another great idea is to check out the restaurants inside the kosher grocery stores. There is the Super Kosher which has El Restaurante, a meat restaurant with a very extensive menu, and a dairy restaurant called El Café, which has a sushi spot attached called Metsuyan.
The second kosher grocery store, DeliK, which is located inside the Megapolis Outlet mall, also has two restaurants on premises: a meat one, and a dairy one, both are great options.
My top dairy restaurants are: Kava, Aroma, La Spezia and Blame Kiki.
Note that although chalav Yisroel is available upon request at most dairy kosher restaurants in Panama, not all of them have. Be sure to call ahead and make sure they’ll be able to accommodate you.
My top meat restaurants are: Aria (everyone’s favorite), Lula Casco, Grila, Yoss Burger and Fuego.
If you want to experience authentic Panamanian cuisine, be sure to check out Fonda mi Reinita.
There’s a brand new upscale meat restaurant that just opened Adama, I’ve heard incredible things and I’m looking forward to checking it out next time I visit.
ACTIVITIES + WHAT TO DO
The fun thing about Panama is that you get the best of both worlds. The beautiful beaches and the hot weather year-round but also a great city life. There’s beautiful, large and luxurious malls and multiple sightseeing options and museums. Some of my top things to do in Panama city are:
Visiting the Panama Canal, the Gamboa Rainforest and Embera Village where you can see the indigenous people. Also the popular Monkey Island is a great option, especially if traveling with kids.
Be sure to visit the Amador Causeway and Biomuseum and well as the Casco Viejo.
If looking to spend the day at the beach check out Contadora Island and Taboga Island, beautiful beaches only 30 minutes away from Panama City. You can get there by ferry. Playa Bonita is another great option with a nice resort only around 20 minutes away from the city, to which you can get to by car, with some restaurants even offering delivery.
There’s also the magnificent San Blas Island. I highly recommend hiring a driving service to get there, which takes around 3 hours. Very beautiful and worthwhile.
If you are looking to visit other parts of Panama, I highly recommend visiting Bocas Del Toro, a province on the northern coast of Panama with beautiful crystal blue waters and white sandy beaches. You need to take a domestic flight to get here.
Hope this was helpful, and you consider checking Panama out, I guarantee you’ll be pleased!