by Karla Erovick
A mesmerizing place that is not readily understood but richly experienced, Panama offers a plethora of rich cultural experiences to keep you coming back, whatever vacation you are in search of: spa resort on a serene island, eco-tourism immersion, cosmopolitan highlife, surfing safari, sport fishing, scuba-diving in incredible coral reefs on two coasts, or living with the Kuna Indians on a compact Caribbean island.
Panama is also a land of greatly varied geography – with distinct communities and authentic cultural flavor, mountains, extinct volcanoes, rain forests and sun-drenched islands in turquoise waters.
Panama has intrigued me for many years even when I knew little about the country, its people and culture. When I had an opportunity to visit Panama as part of a nonprofit group’s tour, I jumped at the chance. Little was I expecting to find a Central American country with a pleasant and safe and modern capital city, well- developed infrastructure, (a tax-free business and investment haven), with beautiful beaches, hundreds of islands and welcoming native Panamanians representing dozens of ethnicities.
Panama has been overshadowed by next door neighbor Costa Rica, making it a more private vacation destination lacking tourist throngs. Panama has it all: mountains, beaches, rainforests, shopping, indigenous culture, nightlife and restaurants. Because of its longstanding relationship with the United States, the infrastructure is quite modern. The water is safe to drink, roads are well maintained, and there are daily flights throughout the country for no more than $65 each way. Many of the friendly taxi drivers know some English and are quite helpful. Hotels are as luxurious or as simple as you require and wish to spend.
Things to See
Panama City is a progressive capital city worth spending at least a couple of days exploring. Nightlife ranks with the top international party scenes. Shopping in Panama City is memorable, with heavily discounted designer merchandise and modern shopping malls. My favorite is Vía España, a five-block shopping district perfect for finding fun, sexy clothing or handcrafted Colombian leather goods for a fraction of U.S. prices. Jewelry stores abound selling gorgeous treasures. While Panama is safe and has a relatively low crime-rate, it is unwise to flaunt expensive jewelry, clothing or accessories. Panama is still a relatively poor country and there is no reason to invite trouble. Most hotels offer in-room safes for storing valuables.
The architecture in Panama City spans an intriguing palette of styles and periods, and is always evolving. There are new condo towers with rooftop helipads and pools. The historic district of Casco Viejo offers French, Spanish and Colonial styles of architecture with a rich patina developed from 300 years of aging under the tropical sun. The Canal Museum located in the heart of Casco Viejo, provides a riveting history of the Canal’s construction. Take a stroll along the beautiful bougainvillea shaded promenade near the bay and view the handicrafts for sale by local vendors. Many of the plazas in Panama showcase Panamanian heroes and villains such as Simon Bolivar, Balboa and Captain Henry Morgan and the Arias family.
A visit to the Amador Causeway is a perfect afternoon adventure and a short taxi ride from any downtown hotels. Stop at the pair of
Smithsonian aquariums showcasing sea life of Pacific and Caribbean marine life side-by-side. Some of the most stunning views of Panama City’s impressive skyline are found here, so get your camera ready. Relax at one of the numerous al fresco restaurants; my favorite is El Barco, featuring fresh seafood.
What to Wear
Panamanian women are sexy- think Jennifer Lopez. Short skirts and halter tops are appropriate while out and about. Only tourists wear shorts and tennis shoes, so save them for the hotel gym. For nightclubs women really dress up, wearing designer jeans or sassy skirts with cute tops and sexy sandals. Nightclubs have an upscale, playful vibe and people are well-mannered. It makes great people-watching as they shimmy and shake to salsa music.
Arts & Crafts
Panama offers a rich heritage of indigenous cultures producing stunning arts and crafts. You will find brightly-colored textiles, called “molas,” from the Kuna Indians that make great placemats or pillows. These are bright and slightly hallucinogenic depictions of flowers, birds, fish and other marine life. Not to be missed are letter openers made from whale cartilage, carvings in the shape of small animals or birds shaped from the tagua nut (or vegetable ivory), hand painted with vegetable dyes by the Wounaan, and Embera Tribe baskets woven so tightly they can transport water without it leaking.
Dining and Nightlife
Traditional Panamanian food can rather bland, but hot Nuevo Latino chefs are whipping up amazing new creations. International cuisine and seafood also abound due to the large populations of Chinese, Swedish, Jamaicans and Arabs. Do not leave Panama City without savoring the ceviche, which is usually exceptional. Tropical drinks with premium rum and fresh fruit juices are plentiful. My favorite is the capariña, which is refreshing on hot/humid days. The local beers are light, refreshing and inexpensive. There are several casinos in Panama City that vary widely; look for the penny slots, a good way to use up that pesky change. The Majestic Casino located in the MultiCentro Mall makes a nice place to refresh yourself from the rigors of shopping and partake in some quick slots or black jack. The nightlife in Panama City is legendary, so go out on the town. The hotel concierge can give you some discos or other clubs to enjoy. We visited the disco Liquid which was a very cool place without the privileged, velvet ropes attitude that you find in L.A. or New York City.
Back to Nature Via the Canal
It’s time to explore Panama’s lush rainforests and beautiful beaches which never cease to amaze. But before you get away from it all, a trip to Panama isn’t complete without a trip to the famous Canal, actually a series of locks. Visit the Mira Flores Locks and visitor center on your way to the remarkable Gamboa Eco-Resort. You can hire a driver from the hotel and have him wait while you visit the Locks and the Museum. Watching a ship pass through the Canal is an engineering marvel. Afterwards take a stroll around the Museum and spend as much or as little time as you like.
Former home to Canal Zone personnel, Gamboa has been transformed into one of the most distinctive eco-resorts to be experienced. The setting is pristine and soothing, with well-appointed rooms and balconies with hammocks from which to enjoy the view of the Chagras River. Imagine having lunch at the outdoor café, feeding crocodiles and sea turtles while ships transit the Canal with the lush jungle as a backdrop. Later, work-out in the exercise facility, get a massage or enjoy the beautiful pool. Book one of the countless tours including the “Jungle Canopy” tour or the nighttime boat cruise. The grounds contain a small orchid farm, snake cave and a butterfly nursery, which are fascinating. The resort is an hour and fifteen minutes from Panama City.
There are seemingly endless beaches in Panama and the surrounding islands. Some are accessed by driving, buses, or ferries, but many are available by plane. We visited the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago near the Costa Rican border, landing on the main island of Colon. It is a short flight from Panama City but Bocas feels like a different world. It has been compared to Goa of 20 years ago. No yuppies here, instead you will find surfers, backpackers, hippies, divers and adventurers all sharing the laid-back island vibe that is distinctly Bocas.
There are a number of resorts on neighboring islands which are a short water taxi away. The Careening Cay Resort, a mere five-minute boat ride from Bocas Town on Colon, offers an idyllic resort with lush grounds, freestanding bungalows, ocean views, and a porch on which to enjoy it all. Or lie in a hammock on the dock and contemplate how great life is. You may never want to leave, and many people don’t; they come for a visit and decide to stay. They become friends with Henry, the resident mischievous monkey. The resort’s gourmet restaurant is open for dinner, tantalizing guests with creative tropical flavors combined with the catch-of-the-day. You will also find snorkeling, SCUBA and surfing adventures with many options of tours and guides. Don’t forget insect repellent as this is a buggy place: mosquitoes, chiggers and sand fleas are the pests. Be especially vigilant on the beach to apply repellant on feet and ankles, you will be glad that you did! Buzz-off brand clothing is also very effective for discouraging insects.
Experience the lushness of the rainforest at several easily accessible parks, including Parque Natural Metropolitano in Panama City, the largest urban tropical forest within City limits. The 1,000-acre tropical forest provides a spectacular 400-foot high lookout with views of Panama City, the Pacific Ocean and the Canal. You can also visit the Parque National Soberanía less than one hour from Panama City.
For anglers, the Pacific Coast fishing is legendary for world-record catches off Coiba Island.
Surfers from around the world head to Santa Catalina for a reliable fifteen-foot break and ten buck surfer cabanas on an isolated beach including meals of fresh caught fish and fantastic pizza, ice cold beers and satellite TV (but no phone service of any type).
River running offer class 3 thrills under the forest canopy on the Charges River which feeds the Canal.
Bird-watching offers more species than found in North America.
Panama offers so much to see and do that I’m already planning my next adventure. Maybe I’ll visit the extinct volcano and orchid farms of El Valle, or John Wayne Island, formerly owned by the actor and designed to be an authentic western town set in the tropics; or I may enjoy one of the many beautiful islands on the Pacific; take surfing lessons; or finally SCUBA dive along the incredibly beautiful coral reefs. All I know is that I will return to Panama for its beauty, inviting culture, and unlimited adventures.
Currency – Panama uses the US currency, which makes it easy when traveling there. They also use a system of coins called Balboas, which are in the same amounts and sizes as US coins pegged to the dollar… There are banks and ATM’s throughout Panama City, so you will never be without cash, and most shops and restaurants accept credit cards. When you travel outside of Panama City this is not the case and you will need cash in small denominations.
Accommodations – The Marriott, Sheraton, and Intercontinental offer Western Style accommodations; I like the Hotel Riande (Continental) and the Hotel Panama, which are owned by local families and have a Central American flair and ambiance with all of the comforts of home. The Hotel Panama has a fabulous pool and bar!
Souvenirs – the best selection and prices on Panamanian handicrafts are found at Gran Morrison on Via España. Also visit the gift shop in the Hotel Panama parking lot. For every purchase, you are given some information about the artisans.
Shopping– The MultiCentro Mall is a beautiful shopping mall. Many of the designer stores are located near the World Trade Center complex. The hotel gift shop at the Marriott offers a wide selection of local area crafts, magazines, books and other essentials.
Getting There – There are easy flights from JFK, Hartsfield, Houston and Los Angeles with COPA, American or Delta for around $600-$800 coach.
Getting Around – Take advantage of the low cost of intra-country air travel averaging $40-50 one way with pre-booking not required in most cases.
Safety – There are only three very dangerous areas in Panama. The Downtown slums of Panama City, which are easy to avoid and are being emptied as the government builds rural housing and relocates residents. The Darían region adjacent to Colombia presents the greatest of all risks. The port town of Colon is a rough and tumble place. Easily fenced personal possessions such as cameras and jewelry should be watched closely and put in hotel safes, when available.
Medical Care – It is first rate and most affordable. Tourists visit just for the low cost of first rate medical treatment. Medical facilities outside of the capital are limited.
Language – It is helpful to know a few Spanish phrases. I found it helpful to request my shoe size en Español in the leather goods store.
Climate – Panama has a tropical climate with a yearly average temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Rainy season is from May to August and from November to January. Dry season is from February to April and September and October. Storm watchers will be glad to know that Panama lies below the hurricane track, though occasionally a weak tropical depression will skirt the Caribbean coast.
General tourism information
Place to Stay
Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Move/Retire to Panama