My favorite memories of traveling the highways of my home state in the US were the diners. Little “hole-in-the-wall” places where the traveler is the odd man out in the midst of locals who all know each other and get their “usual” breakfast everyday. I usually picked a booth in the corner and imagined that I lived there, just another local hollering “Good morning, Joe! What’s cookin’?” as I sit in my usual corner with a newspaper. These were the people that knew the ins and outs of the area and here was where the coffee was the freshest, and the food always prepared with love.

Living in Panama, a country with barely 4 million people, it’s very easy to find a place like this. After you leave the hustle of the McDonald’s breakfast and street empanadas of the capital city (Panama City), you can easily find yourself in a small town along the Pan-American highway, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve gone right back to Route 66.

Many of the locals have grown up there, and many of these local diners or fondas, as they are referred to in Panama, are the places to start if you’re looking to be a true explorer of the interior. Aside from the most authentic dishes made with soul, these are the hubs where you can socialize, put in to practice the Spanish that you’re working on (or at least attempt to) and get the best recommendations for local places of interest to check out on your journey. In my time exploring the Panamanian interior, here are just a few that I can recommend to you.

Fonda Las Hamacas, Penonomé, Coclé

After leaving Panama City, heading west for about two hours, you’ll arrive to the geographic center of Panama, Penonomé. A quaint town in the province of Coclé, Penonomé is a hub for artisan goods of the interior, picturesque farming communities, and of course, delicious interior-style food. In Panama, signature breakfast items can win over the heart of any traveler. During my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama, I was introduced to Fonda Las Hamacas by a fellow volunteer, and breakfast lover. He recommended to me the bistec al caballo. This is a stir-fried beef in sauce with onions and sweet peppers with a fried egg on top. He requested it served with two corn tortillas on the side and a cup of coffee. A breakfast like this will give you energy for no matter what lies ahead of you that day! Located on the Pan-American Highway just as you enter Penonomé, Las Hamacas is easy to miss, unless lunch time is approaching and you can spot it by the smoke coming from the outdoor grill where they’re roasting chicken (and of course, the delicous smell!).

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Bistec al Caballo

“The Cage”, San Félix, Chiriquí

A Peace Corps Volunteer favorite, the cage is located at the entrance to the Comarca Ngobe Bugle in the town of San Félix, in the province of Chiriquí. If you’re heading to check out the tour in nearby Cerro Ñame, this is an excellent spot to have a good meal beforehand. “The Cage” has a real name, but most Peace Corps Volunteers never bothered learning it. It’s called the cage, because as you enter the town of San Felix, you’ll see a small restaurant about a half mile in on the left hand side of the road surrounded by security bars resembling a bird cage. Don’t let the exterior fool you. San Félix is quite safe. Since many houses and restaurants in Panama have outdoor porches, it is common to put up iron bars to prevent thefts at night. The most noteable aspect of the cage is the bang you get for your buck. For just a few dollars, you can get quite the filling lunch complete with rice, your choice of meat or fish, potato salad, and fried plantains. It will also give you a chance to mingle with local Ngobe indigenous people who use San Félix as a point of embarcation for the many mountain towns of the indigenous reservation.

Tom’s, Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro

It is very possible that during your time in Panama you will find yourself on Isla Colón in Bocas del Toro. As far as food goes in Panama, you will be in heaven there! There is just about every type of international to please any traveler! If you’re looking for the best inexpensive and authentic local cuisine however, I suggest Tom’s. Whether you’re heading to the province for island tours, or visiting the local Oreba Cacao Farm nearby, at some point you’ll find yourself in Bocas Town looking for something good to eat. Follow the main street in bocas (along side the park) all the way to the end until you collide with Hotel Brisas. Turn right and walk a few doors down until you come to the public market building. You’ll notice a staircase going up and a sign directing you to Tom’s. One of the favorite local’s spots in Bocas Town, you can get authentic Caribbean dishes here like pescado al escabeche (fish in a spicy mustard sauce), or langosta (lobster). The best part is as you enjoy your authentic local luch with a glass of fresh juice on the side, you can look out over a beautiful view of the water and surrounding islands.

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Typical dish in Bocas del Toro – courtesy of www.panamaamerica.com.pa

Restaurante Lissette, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro

Heading to Costa Rica? If so you’ll be following the path of many travelers before you through the town of Changuinola on your way to the border at Guabito in Bocas del Toro. Many pass through Changuinola, not sure what to do with the acres of banana plantations or even doubting if they should get off the bus. The truth is that Changuinola is a bustling hub of the former banana empire, and an excellent stopping point for a weary traveler looking to get a good bite to eat. For it’s variety and convenience, travelers and locals alike tend to flock to Restaurante Lissette, a roadside stop with everything from chicken with rice, to lasagna, to chocolate cake. Lissette has it all and is great if you’re looking to make friends with the locals along your journey and hear stories from the United Fruit Company days of the region from decades prior. On the main street as you pull into Changuinola, just tell the driver to let you off at Lissette, and let your adventure begin!

El Ciruelo, La Villa de los Santos, Los Santos

If the best part of the Azuero peninsula is that there’s always a good party, then the second best part is that there’s always a great place to eat when the party is winding down! Those that come to the provinces of Herrera and Los Santos for Panama’s famous Carnaval celebrations will tell you that the spot you can’t miss is El Ciruelo, a roadside fonda in the town of La Villa de los Santos, right on the divide between the Herrera and Los Santos provinces. From baked tortillas to roasted chickens and sausages, to a delicious bowl of sancocho (chicken soup), El Ciruelo has everything you need to take the edge off the party from the night before, and provide a delighful recharge for the road that lays ahead!

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Corn creations of the interior – courtesy of www.boyds.org