A small country linking 2 great oceans, Panamá offers something for everyone.
Most people have heard of the canal, which must be one of the most amazing feats of engineering in the world. But there are also over 1400 palm-fringed islands, idyllic beaches, incredible marine biodiversity, a lively capital city and amazing wildlife in the mountains and cloud forests. Whether you love adventure, watersports or just chilling out on your holidays, you can feel at home in Panamá.
This country of 4 million people is slightly smaller than Ireland or South Carolina. But its location, forming a natural bridge between north and central America, has given it strategic significance. Naturally, this has attracted the attention of some big global powers over the centuries, with mixed results.
A potted history
The early inhabitants of the isthmus traded pottery and other goods with their northern and southern neighbours. Then a new avenue of commerce opened up when the Spanish colonists arrived in the 16th century. Panamá became a major thoroughfare for transporting seized Inca gold from Peru to the Atlantic coast on its way to Spain.
Panamá gained independence from Spain in 1821 but was attached to Colombia until 1903, when it finally gained full independence. By this time the US had gained strong influence in the country, having built the new railway across the isthmus in 1855. President Theodore Roosevelt was keen to pick up on the project to build a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, following an abortive attempt by the French in the 1880s. A treaty was signed giving the US rights over the canal zone, and work began in 1904.
Conditions for workers were poor, and many died of diseases such as yellow fever. However the canal opened in 1914 and was managed by the US. Local Panamanians were not allowed into the US zones, which became enclaves of exclusivity. This led to increasing resentment, and despite a new treaty being signed in 1936, discontent remained. Student riots erupted in the 1960s. The canal was finally handed over to Panamá in 1999.
Since independence, Panamá has been ruled by a series of elected presidents, many of whom have been incompetent, corrupt or both. There have been various attempted coups over the years, including the military one that eventually led to General Manuel Noriega becoming the de facto leader in 1983. His authoritarian rule was brought to an end by the US invasion of 1989 which restored the elected president, Guillermo Endara.
As often happens, the sources of great wealth – whether Inca gold or the canal – have not benefitted everyone. Pockets of deep poverty still exist today, but Panamá has made great strides in recent years towards becoming a successful modern democracy. The canal has been further enlarged and extended. Increasing numbers of expatriates have made their home in the country and more travellers have discovered its many attractions.
Panamá’s tropical climate means that it is hot and humid all year round – up to 32 degrees during the day and 21 at night. And it rains a lot! My visit was in October, and it rained heavily in Panamá City for a few hours every day.
The driest season is from December to April. There are regional variations however, so it pays to check before you go. In Bocas del Toro, for example, there is hardly a dry season at all, and if you’re unlucky you can experience warm, cloudy wet weather throughout your stay. Then again, in the highlands, the temperatures are much cooler and can be quite chilly at night.
I was lucky enough to visit for a work trip, and managed to add on a little extra time for exploring. The trip didn’t start too well, however. I only just made my connecting flight in Miami, but unfortunately my luggage didn’t. It contained my corporate wear for the conference I was to attend. The prospect of having to make my presentation wearing jeans and T shirt was a little daunting.
Here are my top 8 recommendations for visiting Panamá, but it could have been a much longer list!
1. Panamá City
This energetic metropolis sits astride the Pacific Ocean and the Panamá Canal. It’s often compared with Miami, although locals joke that English is spoken more widely in Panamá City! Its different neighbourhoods have a mix of old colonial and modern architecture.
The Casco Viejo or old town is where the attractive colonial style buildings are to be found. These include the presidential palace – the Palacio de las Garzas, so named because of the herons that wander freely in the courtyard. You can easily spend a whole day wandering round the Casco Viejo admiring the churches, artisan shops and pretty squares with tempting cafes.
Old Panamá, or Panamá Viejo is the location of the original Spanish settlement of Panamá City which was burned to the ground during an incursion led by Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1671. Panamá Viejo has been awarded UNESCO world heritage status. For a small entry fee which helps maintain the site, you can visit the ruined buildings, including the cathedral.
In contrast to the old city, Punta Pacífica is the downtown neighbourhood where you can find examples of amazing modern architecture such as the whacky, twisting F&F Tower.
If you haven’t walked your feet off after all that, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy strolling in the city. The Amador Causeway runs alongside a road that links 3 islands: Naos, Perico and Flamenco. It is 6 km long and can be walked or cycled. The Amador stretches into the Pacific Ocean close to the canal’s entrance, so it’s a good place to watch ships entering and leaving. There are plenty of cycle hire and eating places along the causeway.
When it’s time for a picnic lunch, you can find green space as an alternative to the waterfront. The Parque metropolitano – ‘the lungs of the city’ – is an urban National Park which aims to provide a protected environment for native birds, flora and fauna. It also provides residents and visitors with a welcome place for relaxation, shade and retreat. Parque Urraca in the Bella Vista neighbourhood is one of the city’s oldest parks and is an oasis amid the high rises. The Cerro Ancón is a hill overlooking the city from which you can enjoy wonderful views. The walk to the top takes about half an hour and you might encounter some howler monkeys on the way.
2. Panamá Canal
Aptly described by Lonely Planet as ‘the world’s greatest short cut’, the canal is 80 km long. It stretches from Panamá City on the Pacific coast to Colón on the Atlantic side. I went to the visitor centre at Miraflores Locks, and was amazed at the incredible sight of these huge ships passing through the narrow channel with hardly any room for manoeuvre!
Apart from the viewing platform, which will hold you spellbound for long enough, there’s a gift shop, restaurant and exhibition halls where you can read all about the history and technical details of the canal including some of its mind-blowing statistics. For example: the lock system lifts ships up 26 metres (85 feet) to the elevation of the canal, and down again! Around 14,500 vessels pass through the canal every year, and 52 million gallons of fresh water are drained into the ocean with each one.
There are 2 other sets of locks on the canal: Pedro Miguel and Gatún. Another visitor centre called Agua Clara is located on the Atlantic side, but I didn’t get the chance to visit there.
The Puente de las Américas was, for many years, the only link between north and south America after the canal was cut. One of the best views of the bridge is from the Mirador de las Américas lookout, which is located in western Panamá City. At the same lookout you can see a Chinese pagoda arch, which was built to celebrate 150 years of Chinese culture in Panamá. (Large numbers of Chinese and West Indian immigrants were brought to the country to help build the canal).
Panamá City is great for shopping – there’s plenty of retail choice to suit all tastes and budgets. One thing to look out for is that display prices do not include goods and services tax, which is added at the till. So bear this in mind when checking prices. In most places you can pay in US dollars or local currency.
If shopping malls are your thing (and they probably will be during the rainy season) you could try Metromall. This place is huge, and good for those with a modest budget. It’s not far from the airport, and there’s a free shuttle bus, so if you have time to kill before your flight, this could be the ideal place. For higher-end, pricey items, you could try Multiplaza Pacific which has familiar designer shops like Cartier and Louis Vuitton.
For something a little more local and authentic, head to the Casco Viejo where you will find more individual shops. You can buy your own Panamá Hat, from a specialist store like Victor’s Panama Hat. Some of the poshest versions can cost up to $1200!
4. Beach life
When you feel like getting out of the city, there is no shortage of idyllic locations to escape to. You can take a 30-minute ferry to Taboga Island for a great day at the beach.
Further afield on the Atlantic side, the island archipelago of Bocas del Toro is the place to go for those who like a laid-back, Caribbean vibe. To reach this area, you can take a bus from Panama City to Almirante, which takes 10-11 hours (you can do the trip overnight). From Almirante harbour you can take a water taxi to your island of choice.
Isla Colón is the main island and home to Bocas town, which was built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. Here you’ll find traditional clapboard houses and simple, undeveloped communities.
Snorkelling and scuba diving are the main activities in this area, as there’s plenty of fantastic marine life to see. Particularly memorable are the numerous starfish at Playa Estrella.
Guna Yala, or San Blas is a self-governed group of around 350 idyllic islands inhabited by the Kuna people. It’s more difficult to get to without private transport, and things like electricity, internet connectivity and hot water are not always standard. If anyone wants to get away from it all and go truly off-grid, this is the place.
The Pacific side also has a gorgeous coastline. The Pearl archipelago is a group of 39 islands named after the oyster pearls that were once abundant. If you like top-end, exclusive resorts, this is the area for you. There’s also the group of 25 largely uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí, where you can find exclusive eco resorts. One that I would really love to go to is Isla Palenque which looks fantastic.
On the mainland, the fishing town of Santa Catalina has become very popular with surfers thanks to its world class surf breaks. The town is also a great base for exploring the paradise that is Coiba National Park. Based on the Isla de Coiba and nearby islands, the astonishing biodversity within the park includes whale sharks, humpback whales, sea turtles, stingrays and crocodiles.
5. Indigenous culture
Before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Panamá was inhabited by various indigenous groups. Some of these still live in remote areas today, following their traditional lifestyles. For an introduction to indigenous culture, you can visit Mi pueblito in Panama City.
Located on the southern slope of Cerro Ancón, Mi Pueblito is a collection of 3 mock villages celebrating 3 cultural groups: hispanic, afro-caribbean and indigenous. ‘Mi pueblito campesino’ represents a 19th century hispanic village, with cobbled streets and wooden houses with tiled roofs. It has a hacienda, a barber shop, a school and a church.
‘Mi pueblito afroantillano’ has colourful early 20th century caribbean style buildings celebrating those communities of people who were brought to Panama to help build the canal. ‘Mi pueblito indígena’ has simple huts with palm roofs. It celebrates the native groups of the forest – the Kuna, Ngäbe-Buglé and Emberá-wounan.
Mi Pueblito has shops where you can buy traditional crafts made by indigenous people, and also has restaurants and a museum.
Some Indian communities, like the Ngobe in Bocas del Toro, accept visitors to their communities. Joining an organised tour is one of the best ways to do this as public transport is not always available.
6. Wildlife and biodiversity
Elsewhere in this post I’ve mentioned the amazing wildlife in the seas around Panama and in the jungles and forests. A good starting point to learn more about it is the Bio Museo which is located on the Amador Causeway in Panamá City. Designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the building is hard to miss! It looks like a scattering of coloured shapes on a huge pile of driftwood. Inside, 8 galleries of engaging exhibits tell you about the natural history of Panama and its impact on biodiversity.
Panama has 13 National Parks in total. One of these is the Volcán Barú National Park, in Chiriquí province. It’s a stunning area of mountains, jungle, waterfalls and vistas. If you enjoy hiking, you’ll love this area. Most people base themselves in the town of Boquete. As you make your way through the jungle, steeped in low cloud with glittering water droplets everywhere, you can keep your eyes open for the elusive quetzal bird, hummingbirds, monkeys, snakes and lots of beautiful wild flowers.
I heard many travellers say that despite enjoying the islands and beaches, their time spent in Chiriquí was their favourite. The landscape is wildly beautiful and temperatures in the interior are mercifully cooler. This also happens to be the area where some of the best coffee in the world is grown (see next section!)
7. Coffee and chocolate
Two of my favourite things in life!
Before visiting I was unaware that Panama is an artisan producer of high quality coffee. The soil and climate in the Chiriquí highlands are perfect for it. Geisha coffee, grown around Boquete, is regarded as one of the finest in the world and is much sought-after. It has a silky texture and a unique flavour.
The coffee farms are mostly run by indigenous families. You can visit and even stay in some of them, like Finca Lerida. Another farm that welcomes visitors is Finca La Milagrosa. Its owners have taken recycling to the max, making their machinery out of everything from old car parts to washing machines!
Now to the other lovely surprise of the highlands – cacao, which also grows well in the microclimate of the Chiriquí. Like the coffee, the chocolate produced here is of high quality. It’s even exported to Switzerland!
If you visit Bocas del Toro (see ‘beach life’ above), this is a good area for chocolate tours and tasting. You can visit the Oreba chocolate plantation, which is run by a co-operative of over 30 Ngobe indigenous farming families. Proceeds of the tours go to all the families and their businesses. Your guides will show you around the factory and describe how the cacao is grown and made into delicious organic chocolate, which you then get to taste. What’s not to like!
8. Food and drink
Coffee and chocolate aside, Panamanian cuisine is a fusion of influences from the many different races of people who settled in the country. For example, you’ll find rice, chicken and coconut dishes reminiscent of the Caribbean, or ceviche, empanadas and corn-based dishes from Latin American influences.
The national dish is a chicken and yucca stew called sancocho. Beans, lentils, root vegetables and plantains are also popular; green vegetables less so, although herbs such as coriander are widely used.
Fish and seafood are excellent. There’s lots of gorgeous tropical fresh fruit too, though it seems to be appreciated by visitors rather more than locals!
After your meal, you could try alfajores – cookies filled with dulce de leche and guayaba jam – with your coffee.
If you are interested in Latin American culture you might enjoy my post on Buenos Aires.
PS: my suitcase turned up in the nick of time, much to my relief.
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