Central America
September 29, 2020

By: SA Explorer

From boutique coffee country to Caribbean archipelagos, splendid Panama has it all

Most folks only know about the (admittedly awe-inspiring) Panama Canal and the skyscrapers of Panama City. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a fascinating history of pirates and conquistadores, out-of-this-world snorkeling and beaches, incredible birdwatching opportunities, and a sophisticated highlands coffee route… 

If you think it all started with the Canal, think again. As Samir S. Patel notes in Pirates of the Original Panama Canal, the 28-mile shortcut through the isthmus separating the oceans has long been used to avoid the 8,000-mile detour around Cape Horn. As early as the 1500s: 

"Ships unloaded cargo at the mouth of the Chagres River, seven miles from the modern canal entrance. Flat-bottomed river barges then moved people and cargo upriver to within 13 miles of Panama City, where donkeys took over on the Camino de Cruces trail. “For four centuries the Chagres has been the bond of union between the two great oceans of the world, the way between the East and West,” wrote C.L.G. Anderson, an early-twentieth-century historian. 

It goes without saying that Panama’s strategic location makes it a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. But this exotic land also boasts an incredible array of landscapes and a natural biodiversity that is second to none. Here are a few of our favorite spots… 

The intoxicating contrasts of Panama City 

Cities across Europe, Asia, and Latin America boast contrasts between old and new. But nowhere is the divide more crazily bewitching than Panama City – as the photo below attests. The modern city, with its glitzy skyscrapers and Armani-clad venture capitalists, watches over the Casco Viejo, a colonial peninsula of cobblestones and crumbling churches that positively oozes pirate lore. (The colorful building in the extreme foreground is the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, another must-visit). 

A large body of water with a city in the backgroundDescription automatically generated
A prime example of Panama City's intoxicating contrasts. (Photo Panama Trails)

Home to some painstakingly restored boutique accommodations and a whole host of innovative fine dining (and drinking) options that celebrate Panama’s position at the center of myriad culinary intersections, Casco Viejo is at once languid and happening. Little wonder, then, that we advise spending at least a couple of days exploring its many charms on foot. 

Panama Canal: A modern engineering marvel 

You don’t come all the way to Panama without checking out the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal. Measuring 40 miles from shore to shore and featuring 12 locks which raise (and then lower) the megaships a total of 85 feet, the Canal has to be seen to be believed. 

Although the idea of a canal was floated as early as 1513, the first serious construction began in the 1880s under a French consortium. The French ran out of money in 1894, but 10 years later the US picked up where they left off. The inauguration of the Canal in 1914 revolutionized global transport shaving 22 days of the journey from New York to Los Angeles! 

We highly recommend taking the Panama Canal Railway to the visitors center at Agua Clara locks on the Caribbean coast before returning to the city by private transfer. The train doesn’t just provide fantastic views of the Canal, it’s also a very important piece of history which predates the Canal by half a century. The railroad was built during the California Gold Rush, and quickly became one of the most profitable rail routes in the world. Fascinating though the railway may be, the main attraction is still the Canal. Watching these enormous ships pass through the even-more-enormous locks and then sailing onwards through the jungle is an experience like none other. 

The massive locks never fail to impress.

Bocas del Toro: sun, starfish, and Caribbean sand 

Panama – intrepid travelers will soon discover – is so much more than an economic powerhouse. It doesn’t get more chilled than Bocas del Toro, a sun-bleached Caribbean archipelago of clapboard homes and powder white beaches on the western extremity of this long country. After flying into the region’s only airport, you’ll be transferred by boat to an island of your choosing. Accommodations in this neck of the woods are typically understated but charming … Think bungalows overlooking azure waters, lush grounds, and pristine swimming pools and beaches. 

After a busy few days, Bocas del Toro is the perfect spot to kick back with a good book and a cocktail (Ron Abuelo, Panama’s favorite rum, is so good you can even drink it on the rocks). This is not to say that you’ll be short of things to do in Bocas. Charter a boat to (aptly named) Starfish Beach for a dip with a difference. Or go on a snorkel tour to Cayo Zapatilla (which just happens to boast gorgeous beaches too) and Cayo Coral whose delicate corals and sponges attract all manner of brightly colored marine critters. 

Snorkeling never disappoints in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama.

Get a natural high in the coffee country of Boquete 

With their boutique coffee fincas, sophisticated highland panoramas, and myriad birds and waterfalls, the highlands of Chiriquí should be far more popular than they are. Not that we’re complaining – the lack of tourists, coupled with the more temperate climes, are all part of the charm. Boquete produces some award-winning high-altitude Arabica coffees, and we’d recommend going on at least one coffee tour while you’re there. The region is also known for its hanging bridges and incredible birdlife (Panama actually boasts more species than Costa Rica), so it’s a great place for a guided stroll. 

One of the best things about Boquete is the array of boutique accommodations that dot the hilly, forested landscape. While there are many lovely places to stay, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The 106-year-old Panamonte Hotel, a luxurious country lodge owned and run by famous Panamanian-Swedish chef Charlie Collins, offers a full board and lodging experience that will stay with you forever. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, the spa is gloriously indulgent, and the grounds are a treasure trove of rainforest delights. It goes without saying that the cuisine (and the homegrown coffee) is out of the very top drawer. Delicacies include locally caught trout and fresh Pacific seafood, not to mention Charlie’s famous cream of zapallo (pumpkin) soup. 

Espresso enthusiasts will adore Boquete.

The verdict 

Many countries claim to be ‘lands of contrast’ and ‘melting pots of climes and culture’ … But in Panama’s case the clichés really are true. This travel journal has merely touched on a few of our favorite spots in this nation of surprises. But really, Panama has to be experienced to be believed. 

Enjoy the colonial charms of the Casco Viejo, the sophisticated highlands of Boquete, and the Caribbean swagger of Bocas del Toro on our eight-day Panama Highlights adventure. Or speak to one of our Central America Destination Experts about crafting a bespoke itinerary that takes in the best of Panama and neighboring Costa Rica. 

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