We departed Punta Cana at 12:24 AST on December 23rd and arrived in Panama City at 14:11 EST. We passed through immigration with ease and got our passports stamped. Panama doesn’t require a tourist visa for citizens of the USA. We spent approximately 16 hours in Panama City before departing for San Salvador the next morning at 6:00 EST.
We arranged a taxi tour of the city through Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service. I highly recommend them if you are doing something similar. Our five hour tour to Ancon Hill, Casco Viejo, and the Amador Causeway was $96. It’s a $35 cab ride ($70 roundtrip) between the airport and Casco Viejo anyways. For only $26 more, we had a tour guide at our service that would take us anywhere that we wanted. We also stopped at a food court on the way home to get a “cheap local dish.” I had the traditional Panamanian soup sancocho and Skye had a plate of veges and potatoes. We spent $8.25 on dinner and $3.20 on eclairs for dessert and cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. Our one night stay at the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport ($108) was expensive for us, but it was the closest hotel to the airport and offered a free shuttle service. This was especially important because we had to be to the airport by 4:00 am. We really enjoyed our one night in Panama and felt like we made great use of our time.
We arrived in San Salvador at 7:00 CST. The immigration in San Salvador wasn’t nearly as painless as Panama (and it was even worse on the way home when we tried to overnight in the airport.) I had read online that they like to charge a $37 airport tax and that you need to get proof that you’ve paid it prior to getting to immigration. I printed off our receipt from United ahead of time, which showed that we paid the tax and showed it to the immigration officers. After a few officers got together to talk in Spanish about our receipt, they took our passports and receipts away for a few minutes. They returned a few minutes later and directed us back into the airport to pay the $37 even though we had a receipt showing we already had. We talked to the Avianca information desk and showed them our receipt. Avianca looked up our itinerary and said we had indeed paid the $37 tax and issued us another receipt. We took that to immigration and we were finally cleared to pass after paying $10/person for a tourist visa. Our flight to Costa Rica was at 14:30 CST so we had 7.5 hours to explore San Salvador and get back through security and to our gate.
Once again, we arranged a tour ($135) ahead of time to view the city. We did this for two reasons. First and foremost, San Salvador is currently known as the “Murder Capital of the World” due to a gang war between MS-13 and Barrio 18. We wanted a local tour guide that knows the area to keep us in safe areas. Secondly, we had less than 8 hours in the country so we wanted to make the best use of our time. Our first stop was the lava fields. I had never seen anything like it before so it was pretty cool. We then drove to the top of the Parque Nacional el Boqueron to see the San Salvador volcano. There are great views of the city here too. However, ours were somewhat obstructed by smog over the city that our guide said was completely out of the ordinary.
For lunch, we stopped for delicious popusas. For real, they are amazing. If you’ve never heard of them, you must try them. The three of us ate very well for $4.20. Our next stop was the center of San Salvador for an intense history lesson of the last 30 years from our amazing guide, Roberto. We visited the Iglesia el Rosario, Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, Plaza Libertad, and Plaza Civica. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of El Salvador, it is definitely worth researching.
Our expenses from our 23.5 hours in Panama City and San Salvador are below.