In this edition of our Explorer’s Journal we experience the luxurious side of Central America with Destination Expert Sarah Dib, joining her on private tours through Panama City, the most famous of canals, and tropical Palenque Island.
Sarah here, Destination Expert at SA Expeditions. I just returned from an unforgettable trip through Panama, one of Central America’s hidden gems.
I started my trip in Panama City, the country’s lively capital and a convenient hub easily accessible by direct flight from most big cities in North America. From there, I journeyed north into the Panamanian tropics to visit the coffee-growing highland region of Boquete before some R&R and soft adventure on an eco-resort on the private island of Palenque.
Yours truly enjoying the history and architecture of Casco Viejo in Panama City. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
A private walking tour of the Casco Viejo neighborhood – built following a 1671 pirate attack that destroyed the original Panama City – takes us to key historic & cultural sites like the Nuestra Señora de la Merced church, the defensive bulwark known as Tiger’s Hand, La Plaza Catedral, and the ruins of La Compañía de Jesús church & Arco Chato.
A closeup of Arco Chato, the architecturally-mystifying “flat arch” that was considered proof Panama would be geologically sound enough for a Canal. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
Casco Viejo boasts a beautiful mix of Spanish, French, and American colonial, neo-classical, and art nouveau architecture, and the stunning Arco Chato is what re-inspired US interest in building the Panama Canal in the early 1900s.
A sampling of Casco Viejo’s historic and charming architecture. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The highlight of my time exploring Casco Viejo was admiring the festive lights adorning Plaza Herrara and being treated to an unexpected concert put on by the Fundación Sinfonía Concertante de Panamá, which exists largely to inspire new generations of musicians & music lovers, regardless of economic status. The energetic three-piece band played salsa favorites like La Negra Tomasa, and hits by the beloved Rubén Blades (a native of Panama) and the Buena Vista Social Club – surrounded by holiday cheer and a gallant statue of Tomás Herrara on horseback.
Admittedly, I knew little about the 82-kilometer-long (almost 51-mile) Panama Canal prior to traveling to Panama. A visit to nearby Gatun Lake & the in-demand Miraflores Locks made it easy to understand why the Canal is often considered an 8th Wonder of the World.
No visit to Panama City is complete without marveling at the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The little-known yet expansive man-made Gatun Lake – protected by 5 national parks – is critical to the passage of the approximately 40 vessels per day that cross the Isthmus of Panama close by. Gatun is also home to three species of monkeys and other fauna that can be spotted during a speed-boat tour.
Three different monkey species call Lake Gatun home. I think this one, the mono titi, resembles a tiny hyena. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The Miraflores Locks are the culmination of impressive engineering feats that have made the Canal simultaneously so famous and so profitable – take, for example, the eye-watering $200,000 toll for vessels like the Grand Orion that hauls 6,000+ vehicles, which had to apply two years in advance to make the crossing.
Did you know that the Canal is the largest employer in Panama, with about 9,000 Panamanian employees? Moreover, a Panamanian captain & crew board each vessel before it enters the Canal, raise the Panama flag (next to the ship’s native flag), and take control of the vessel until after it leaves the Canal.
Our speedboat received an official visit from a local Panamanian, much like the ships passing through the nearby Canal do. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The 1914 Panamonte Inn – located in the heart of Boquete – is currently managed by the third generation of the Elliott/Collins family, with award-winning chef Charlie Collins at the helm. Over the years, the inn has hosted notables like President Teddy Roosevelt and Casablanca actress, Ingrid Bergman. We had the pleasure of staying in the Lindbergh room, named after famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh, who “dropped in during a flight through Central America.”
An idyllic escape in the Panamanian highlands of Boquete. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The accommodations are not exactly luxurious, but the property oozes with charm – they’ve got the perfect blend of carefully preserved history and modern amenities, and expansive tropical gardens dotted with white wrought-iron benches, decorative string lights, trellises of bougainvillea, and oversized hydrangeas.
Some of the world’s best coffee beans – pictured here in the raw – are found in the Boquete region of Panama. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
The Panamonte Inn is the perfect jump-off point for exploring Boquete and the nearby cloud forest, with ample opportunities to sample the local coffee, to go birdwatching, to discover the Lost Waterfalls Trail of La Amistad National Park, or (for the more adventurous) to zipline or hike a series of hanging bridges.
We spent one day exploring the treetop canopy via a hanging bridge network, and marveling at the sheer enormity of the surrounding jungle. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
Palenque means “sanctuary” in the local indigenous language, and it’s no wonder they chose such an apt word for this boutique, luxury accommodation. The 400-acre private island feels remarkably remote but is relatively easy to access from the David airport in the Chiriquí Province of western Panama. After a 1-hour flight from Panama City, the luxury Isla Palenque eco-resort is just an hour-long drive and a 15-minute boat ride away.
Our private “casita” at Isla Palenque was tucked away among a magical section of tropical forest. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
Remarkably, only 5% of the island has been sustainably developed – featuring a secluded, six-bedroom villa, eight beachfront casitas, a prolific restaurant & bar, and a small but sublime pool.
The inviting plunge pool at the luxury Isla Palenque eco-resort. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
With five miles of coastline and hiking trails to explore (complete with pre-Columbian artifacts scattered along the routes), and options for island-hopping among the nearby landmasses, Isla Palenque won’t disappoint – whether visitors seek active adventure or an idyllic place to kick back & relax.
The jungle at Isla Palenque positively glowed. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
Excursions range from birdwatching and jungle hikes to dance & cocktail classes. You can go on a stand-up paddleboard or kayak adventure in the morning and get an in-casita massage in the afternoon.
At Isla Palenque you can partake in the included excursions or simply relax on a private beach, where your only worry involves the occasional gravity-stricken coconut. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
No matter how you spend your time at this eco-luxury lodge, you can count on warm, personalized service and locally sourced, gourmet food (much of which is grown on the island’s two “huertas”).
The locally sourced gourmet breakfasts served each day at Isla Palenque were heavenly. (Photo: Sarah Dib)
For me, the most memorable part of the Isla Palenque experience was enjoying the hospitality offered by the warm and welcoming staff, and the truly show-stopping food – though encountering a sea turtle while paddleboarding around Punta Ballena and listening to the calls of the resident howler monkeys at sundown were close contenders.
Isla Palenque offers the perfect blend of luxury, relaxation, seclusion, and adventure – making it the perfect choice for a honeymoon or babymoon, as was the case for me! (Photo: Sarah Dib)
Everything about my visit to Panama felt idyllic, down to the parting view from Isla Palenque’s private dock. Until next time, Panama! (Photo: Sarah Dib)
About the author: Sarah Dib expertly orchestrates private trips to South America and beyond from her home in sunny Orange County, California, where she lives with her growing family.