Panama See And Do
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro, on the northwestern coast, is one of the country's most popular ecotourism destinations—but it's still relatively untrammeled. Isla Colón, which has the island group's only real town (and airport—it's an hour-long flight from Panama City), is sparsely inhabited, but if you need even more seclusion you can escape to dozens of smaller islands. Here you'll find accommodations ranging from seaside shacks to luxury cabanas.
Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts shouldn't miss Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. This underwater reserve, which surrounds an island near Isla Colón, is the best place in the archipelago to see waving sea fans, blossoming corals, and more than 200 varieties of tropical fish. The most popular areas in the park are the waters around Cayos Zapatillas, two islets where scientists study the life cycle of sea turtles—but there are dozens of other sites. Starfleet Scuba, based on Isla Colón, runs regular day-trips to the park; you can arrange to visit as many sites as you like (507-757-9630; www.starfleetscuba.com).
Bocas is also popular with serious surfers, although they must bring their own boards (there's no place to rent them). The best breaks can be found on the north shore of Isla Colón at Bluff Beach and Paunch Beach. Panama Surf Tours runs multi-day surfing trips to these spots as well as others on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts (like Santa Catalina and Cambutal in the south); tours include transport, basic lodgings and some meals (www.panamasurftours.com).
Chiriquí Province, in the southwestern corner of Panama, is muy fresco, thanks to the cool mountain air. It's the same air that makes the hills outside the main town of Boquete (where the region's hotels are all based) perfect for cultivating coffee. If you're interested in learning about coffee-growing—and sampling some flavors—a visit to Café Ruiz, a coffee shop that organizes tours of neighboring plantations, is a must; the café is right in downtown Boquete (507-720-1292; www.caferuiz.com).
Chiriquí's towering wooded volcanoes evoke the famed cloud forests of Monteverde in Costa Rica—a country you can actually see from some of the tallest peaks here. Hikers and wildlife-spotters head for Volcán Barú National Park, a 35,390-acre preserve crisscrossed with trails that includes Panama's highest volcano, the inactive 11,400-foot Barú. More than 250 bird species make their home here, along with pumas and many varieties of bat (seen mostly at dusk). There are several local guides based in Boquete who can take you on a day or overnight trek through the park; contact Boquete's tourism office to arrange this (507-720-4060).
Chiriquí is a major destination for whitewater fans. The region's Rio Chiriquí and Rio Chiriquí Viejo, both near the border of Costa Rica and about two and a half hours from Boquete, have rapids that range from slightly hairy Class III to roiling, adrenaline-raising Class V. Chiriquí River Rafting runs two- to five-hour trips on both these rivers, along with several lesser-known tributaries; the trips include all gear, lunch, and transport to and from your hotel (507-720-1505; www.panama-rafting.com).
This 1.4-million-acre jungle preserve, which separates Panama from Colombia, is the country's biggest draw for nature-lovers—and like a mini–Amazon rain forest in its diversity of terrain and wildlife. Several hundred bird species and more than 100 species of mammal (including wild pigs and capybaras—the world's biggest rodents) live among the cloud forest, mangroves, and winding riverbeds. Ancon Expeditions has treks for small groups lasting from three days (very easy, traveling mostly by boat) to five days (quite challenging, with three to five hours of hiking each day). You arrive by small plane from Panama City then head deep into the wilderness. Along the way you encounter villages inhabited by the indigenous Embera people, where your guide will stock up on supplies. Guests on shorter trips stay overnight in the tour company's own rustic cabins overlooking the Gulf of San Miguel; those on longer trips stay in dorm-style field stations and screened tents (507-269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com).
There are no beaches around Panama City, so resident sun- and sand-lovers head to the islands in the Gulf of Panama. Beautiful and historically rich Isla Taboga is the most easily accessible, just 12 miles offshore from the city. Its best beach is the slightly pebbly but calm-watered stretch right near the town dock. It's an easy stroll (past whitewashed churches and bougainvillea-covered houses) from the spot where daily El Calypso ferries arrive. These carry passengers between the island and the Panama City Causeway; the trip is less than an hour each way (507-314-1730; www.taboga.panamanow.com/ferry/boats.html).
Farther out in the Gulf of Panama, the Archipiélago de las Perlas has more than 30 idyllic islands, with white sandy beaches and turquoise sea for snorkeling and deep-sea fishing (several of the islands were featured in the reality TV show Survivor). You can easily get here by plane: Both Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) and Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com ) run daily flights to the islands from Panama City, and the one-way trip takes just 15 minutes. Flights land on Isla Contadora, or "Accountant Island"—legend has it this is where Spanish conquistadors used to count their booty. There are a number of palm-fringed beaches, a few hotels, and a handful of B&Bs—but not enough to make it feel crowded.
Locals like to call it the "Eighth Wonder of the World," and the Panama Canal, completed in 1914 at the cost of $375 million and 5,609 human lives, really is an engineering marvel. Just south of Panama City in the town of Balboa, you can drive across the graceful Bridge of the Americas spanning the canal's mouth, and look down on the massive container ships moving in and out of the bay. But for a closer look at the locks that raise and lower to let the ships through, go to the Miraflores Visitor Center, about 20 minutes' drive north of Panama City, at the eastern edge of the Miraflores Locks (507-276-8325; www.pancanal.com/eng/anuncios/cvm/index.html).
If you want to navigate the canal itself, you can take a boat tour with Canal and Bay Tours. But be warned: Much of the canal is nothing more than an oversized ditch. A better option is to take one of the company's bay cruises, which take in some beautiful scenery as well as the entrance to the canal (507-209-2009; www.canalandbaytours.com).
The Barro Colorado Nature Monument, a world-renowned biological preserve, sits on Isla Barro Colorado, in Lake Gatun—the reservoir that feeds into the canal. Here you'll find about 100 species of mammal, including five types of monkey native to the country. Tourist access to the island is limited, so you'll need to arrange a visit in advance by contacting Panama's Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (507-212-8900; www.stri.org/english/visit_us/barro_colorado).
It's impossible to avoid hot and humid Panama City; chances are you'll have to stay overnight before moving on to the beaches of Bocas del Toro or the volcanoes of Chiriquí. But the city is actually an interesting place to spend a day or two.
The Casco Viejo, or Old City, has colonial buildings that evoke a scruffier version of New Orleans's French Quarter. But unlike the dives along Bourbon Street, the bars and restaurants here are some of the city's trendiest. Among the beautiful old buildings are the 1688 Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, which is still in use today (Plaza de la Independencia), and the turn-of-the-century Teatro Nacional, with its elaborately frescoed ceiling (Calle 3; 507-262-3525; www.teatronacionaldepanama.com). Visitors interested in an even older part of the city should visit Panama Viejo, the 1519 settlement that was burned to the ground by pirates led by Captain Henry Morgan in 1671. The tower of the cathedral is still standing (you can climb it for a bird's-eye view), and there's a museum displaying treasures that the marauders didn't cart away (Via Cincuentenario; 507-226-8915; www.panamaviejo.org).
Panama City is short on green spaces, but the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a ten-minute drive from downtown, is an oasis for locals. It has lovely landscaped grounds and walking paths through a tropical forest (507-232-5516; www.panamatours.com). Within day-trip range (75 minutes from downtown Panama City, in the region of Gamboa) is the Parque Nacional Soberanía, which has 48,000 acres of rain forest for hiking, birding, and wildlife-watching (507-232-4291; www.panamatours.com).
This string of 365 islands off the Caribbean coast is, hands down, the best reason to visit Panama. The indigenous Kuna people run it as a semi-autonomous region, and it's one of the only places in Central America where much of the population still wears traditional dress. People live here as they always have, in simple thatch-roofed huts shaded by coconut palms. Women stitch molas —brightly colored cloths embroidered with animals or geometric patterns. The men use spears to catch much of the seafood served in Panama City restaurants.
Visiting the islands requires taking a small plane from Panama City, then a transfer by dugout canoe to a smaller island, where you'll stay in spare lodgings and dine on local fare (mostly lobster and other fresh seafood). There's not much to do but explore the village and take trips to deserted islands for snorkeling and swimming. You can arrange a trip on your own, but it's much easier to explore with a tour company. Ancon Expeditions offers excellent two-night trips to San Blas, where visitors stay in the Dolphin Island Lodge, a cluster of simple cottages owned by a Kuna family (507-269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com). For more active explorers, Mountain Travel Sobek runs multiday kayaking trips around the archipelago (888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com).
This ancient fort on the Caribbean coast, originally built by Spaniards in the late 16th century, is set on an isolated, windswept promontory near the entrance to the Panama Canal. Attacks by pirates (among them Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan) as well as British admirals meant that the fort had to be repeatedly rebuilt; what you'll see today are the incredible remains of the last refurbishment, in 1751—now a UNESCO World Heritage site.