May 25, 2024

Panamá

Panamá

From clear turquoise seas to the coffee farms and cloud forests of Chiriquí, Panama can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish.

Endless Summer

With a plethora of deserted islands, chilled Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of beach life. And a whole other world begins at the water’s edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in the Pacific, snorkeling the rainbow reefs of Bocas del Toro or setting sail in the indigenous territory of Guna Yala, where virgin isles sport nary a footprint. Meanwhile, surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. Hello, paradise.

Cosmopolitan Panama

Panama City is culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. And there’s much that’s new or improved. Central America’s first subway is operating, the historic Casco district has been beautifully restored and a massive canal expansion completed. Take in the city’s funky particulars. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn’t only about salsa: that’s just the backbeat.

The Great Outdoors

In Panama, nature is all about discovery. Explore the ruins of Spanish forts on the Caribbean coast or boat deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe. Wildlife is incidental: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail, an unruly troupe of screeching howler monkeys outside your cabin or a breaching whale that turns your ferry ride into an adrenaline-filled event.

Adventure tourism means zipping through rainforest canopies, swimming alongside sea turtles or trekking to sublime cloud-forest vistas. One small tropical country with two long coasts makes for a pretty big playground.

Lost-World Adventure

You don’t have to make it all the way to the Darién to get off the beaten path – though if you do, you’ve hit one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Soak in the spray of towering waterfalls near highland Santa Fé. Visit one of Panama’s seven indigenous groups through community tourism. Live out your castaway fantasies in the Guna Yala or idle on a wilderness beach in Península de Azuero. Howl back at the creatures sharing the canopy. Panama is as wild as you want it to be.

Miraflores Visitors Center

The easiest way to visit the Panama Canal is to head to the Miraflores Visitors Center, just outside Panama City. This modern center features a four-floor interactive museum that looks at the canal’s history, operations, expansion and ecology, an instructive 15-minute film and several viewing platforms, including the main one on the 4th floor with panoramic views of canal transits (the best times are from 9am to 11am and from 3pm to 5pm when transits are more frequent).

Museum in Panama Canal

The easiest way to visit the Panama Canal is to head to the Miraflores Visitors Center, just outside Panama City. This modern center features a four-floor interactive museum that looks at the canal’s history, operations, expansion and ecology, an instructive 15-minute film and several viewing platforms, including the main one on the 4th floor with panoramic views of canal transits (the best times are from 9am to 11am and from 3pm to 5pm when transits are more frequent).

There is a direct bus to the Miraflores Visitors Center from the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City, but it is infrequent. Otherwise take a Paraíso or Gamboa bus from the terminal. These pass along the canal-side highway to Gamboa and will let you off at the ‘Miraflores Locks’ sign (US$0.35) on the highway, 12km from the city center. It’s about a 15-minute walk along the main road to the locks from the sign. You can also take a taxi; drivers will typically wait 30 minutes at the locks and then drive you back to the capital. Expect to pay no more than US$30 round trip, but agree on the price beforehand.

Celebrating Panama as the land bridge that has permitted astonishing biodiversity in the region, this world-class museum is a visual feast. Exhibits tell the story of Panama’s rich biodiversity through engaging, oversized visuals, examining human presence throughout time, how the Atlantic and Pacific evolved differently, and the interconnectedness of all species. A more abstract than literal approach creates a fresh view. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who created the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), designed this landmark museum of crumpled multicolor forms.

Audio guides come in five languages. There’s also a botanical gardens of native plants in the works.

One of the joys of visiting Bocas is touring the ‘Monkey Farm’ botanical garden a couple of kilometers northwest of the center. Painstakingly carved out of 10 hectares of secondary rainforest over almost two decades, it contains hundreds of species of local and imported trees and ornamental plants, and is teeming with wildlife.

Co-owner and guide Lin Gillingham will point out howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths and various bird species. Tours, on Fridays and Mondays, must be booked in advance; garden tours depart regularly while birding tours are on demand.

Parque Nacional Coiba

This national marine park contains Panama’s largest island, the 503-sq-km Isla de Coiba, as well as astounding biodiversity; more than two dozen species of dolphin and whale have been identified, including humpback, killer and sperm whales. Several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake roam the island as well as myriad birdlife. Santa Catalina is the best place to base yourself if you’re interested in reaching the park.

National Park in Veraguas Province

This national marine park contains Panama’s largest island, the 503-sq-km Isla de Coiba, as well as astounding biodiversity; more than two dozen species of dolphin and whale have been identified, including humpback, killer and sperm whales. Several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake roam the island as well as myriad birdlife. Santa Catalina is the best place to base yourself if you’re interested in reaching the park.

 

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