|Casco Viejo, Panama City|
The fantastically diverse scenery that Panama (a.k.a. the ‘bridge of the Americas’) offers means that no single visit can do justice to all its attractions. This is doubly true if you’re an adventurous type of traveler. Oceans, mountains, jungle and hip urban nightlife… Panama really does have something for everyone.
The following itinerary takes in a few of the places I visited last year, on a route that (more or less) follows the Interamericana Highway from Panama City to the border of Costa Rica. It’s a guide only, and while it’s possible to cover the sights in 10 days, don’t let that stop you spending more time in any one of the suggested locations – after all, if I was forced to spend a few extra days sipping coffee in Boquete, I wouldn’t exactly be disappointed.
Things to see & do in Panama City
As a major thriving capital lying — quite literally — at the heart of Latin America, Panama City is more than just a transit lounge. Although it’s perhaps true that few tourists spend a lengthy period of time in the city itself, nevertheless there are plenty of attractions to make for an enjoyable three- or four-day stay. Whilst New York-style skyscrapers dominate the Pacific coastline, Westernization hasn’t yet become suffocating, and the city has retained its distinct Latin pulse.
|The Panama Canal Locks|
In terms of sightseeing, the Casco Viejo neighbourhood is a particular highlight, with colonial architecture, old churches and laid-back narrow streets making an ideal place to while away an afternoon, if not longer. The coastline also affords great views of the city’s skyline from here.
The Causeway at the south of the city is also worth visiting – both for the restaurants, bars and stunning ocean vistas, and also as a boarding point for boats to Isla Taboga, a picturesque island just off the coast. Panama Viejo, a series of ruins of the old city that now lies at the eastern edge of today’s city, is also worth a visit if you’ve time on your hands.
For nightlife, many travellers hang out in the Bella Vista area of town, which is awash with restaurants, bars, clubs, and even the odd casino, all of which mean there is something for all ages. Salsa, electronic music and rock predominate. The Causeway is also worth checking out – as one of the most popular new spots in the city, you can just walk amongst the range of bars and clubs to find something that suits your mood. If it’s the specific Latin vibe you’re after, you can do worse than simply asking the locals for their recommendations.
Of course, no trip to Panama City is complete without a visit to the nearby canal. Best viewed via the Miraflores Locks, with its large museum, platforms for fantastic viewing plus an excellent open-air restaurant, the Panama Canal’s awe-inspiring size as an international shipping canal is an absolute must-see. If you’ve time, it’s even possible to arrange a Panama Canal transit tour. Partial transits take place each Saturday morning (lasting about 4.5 hours), with one full transit taking place one Saturday each month.
El Valle de AntÃ³n
Located about 120 km (75 mi) west of Panama City, El Valle is a quaint rural town surrounded by lush forest and mountain peaks. At an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 ft), the valley has a lovely climate, offering a welcome respite from the baking coast. Although it’s possible to do a day trip from the capital, El Valle merits more than just an afternoon, so my advice would be to relax, stop over and enjoy the soothing tranquility.
|The waterfall at El Valle|
One of El Valle’s main attractions is its handicrafts market, browsing through which you will encounter anything from traditional Indian items to colourful baskets and Panama hats. There are also scores of good forest trails for exploring on foot, as well as the gorgeous 85-meter (278-ft) high waterfall Chorro El Macho, which is a must-see. After a good few hours’ hiking, the Thermal Baths complex found on the west side of town, where healing mud can be applied to the skin, is the perfect way to unwind on a sunny afternoon.
This beautiful palm-lined beach lying just over 10 km (6.2 mi) south of the Interamericana on the road to David (Panama’s second-largest city) is the perfect place to chill and relax for a couple of days – or longer, if you’re like me and take pleasure in having a beach literally all to yourself. I was here last year and had a wonderful few days watching the Pacific tide surge in and out whilst topping up my tan. There were rumours of a golf resort being planned for development; it is to be hoped that such speculation remains just that, for it would be a tragedy for the laid-back, tranquil vibe to be ruined. All of which, of course, makes it all the more pressing for travellers to enjoy the beach in its present state.
Although weekends are obviously busier with native families being lured to the seashore, during the week the entire beach can be virtually yours for the taking. There are only one or two restaurants, but the food is generally fine (especially the fresh fish) and the ocean views make any wait for service worthwhile. Watching the sun turn violet as it goes down over the Pacific is one of life’s little treasures.
Lying amidst the highlands roughly seven hours’ drive west of Panama City and 40 km (25 mi) north of David, this delightful alpine town is one of the true highlights of the country, both for its unspoilt natural splendour and its wonderfully fresh climate. It’s also one of the best places in the country to buy coffee.
With its quaint cafes and restaurants, this is the ideal place to recuperate, whilst at the same time taking advantage of the stunning scenery to explore the region on foot. Aside from the surrounding natural beauty, Boquete holds a few attractions of its own. Mi JardÃn es Su JardÃn (My Garden is Your Garden) is a stunning garden open to the general public. There are also excellent coffee-estate tours offered by both Kotowa Coffee Estate and Café RuÃz, with visits to coffee plantations and roasting facilities rounding off with soothing cupping sessions for avid caffeine-lovers.
The laid-back atmosphere is addictive, although it belies how many travellers use the town as a base from which to explore the mountainous terrain, including the national parks of Volcán Barú and Cerra Punta, as well as white-water rafting on the RÃo ChiriquÃ or chilling out for an afternoon in the Caldera hot springs. Simply put, it’s a place where you can choose to do as much or as little as you like, without feeling guilty. I came expecting to stay a couple of nights and ended spending over a week.
This challenging hike up Panama’s highest summit is well worth the effort if you’re fit and healthy. There’s no real need to hire a guide as the trekking path is pretty clear, but you’ll need to take plenty of water and nibbles, as the trek takes around seven to ten hours depending on your level of fitness and/or how much time you spend taking in the sights.
Ideally you should try to make it to the summit within an hour after sunrise, otherwise clouds are likely to dash all hopes of seeing both oceans. The downside is that this necessarily means starting out in the early hours (think five o’clock) by the light of the moon. The eerie early morning breeze and the ominous outline of the volcano against the black background is enough to make even the drowsiest alert, however. Alternatively, you could do the trek in daylight, camp on the summit and watch the sunrise the following day. Just remember that it’s a bit lonely on top, as well as windy.
The spectacular vista from the summit makes all the effort worthwhile. Literally the whole country seems to be within view, and the stark physical contrast between the lush green highlands and the barren lowlands as they slide towards the beaches becomes all too apparent. It’s a genuinely humbling experience.
You will also do yourself a disservice if you fail to take time to observe the abundant wildlife that thrives in the woodland that adorns the slopes of Barú. If you are lucky you may even spot a quetzal, the sacred bird of the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples, and whose brilliant green and blue feathers and crimson breast cannot but impress.
Be warned, though, that taxis don’t just hang around waiting at the entrance to the national park. It’s therefore highly likely you will be faced with seemingly having completed the trek, only to find you’ve another few kilometres’ walk back to Boquete. So do your homework, try and arrange a rough estimate pick-up time from a taxi, and savour the moment of having conquered Panama’s highest point.