I know when a lot of you think of Panama the first – and quite possibly only thing that comes to mind – is that engineering marvel the Panama Canal. But I am here to tell you today that although that is definitely a highlight in the country – it is actually one of numerous highlights!
In keeping with my travel off the beaten path theme due to the awareness that this is going to be a preferred way for a lot of you to travel – I have invited Aiden Mullen from NAMU Travel Group to share all of the secrets of this somewhat lesser-known vacation destination. Aiden is my eyes and ears on the ground for me in Panama and although he hails from Ireland, he has been in Central America for nearly a decade.
Below you will come to realize that Panama – which is the southernmost country in Central America – certainly has much more to offer and explore than just it’s famous canal – although of course you want to experience that too! So, sit back – maybe throw on Van Halen’s popular Panama tune from the 1980’s – and read on to learn more about this country truly blessed by nature.
Getting There: Good news – you can easily get to Panama City – which is where you will fly into – from the New York area as well as from the Atlanta area and even from Texas where there are direct flights out of Dallas or Houston. And for my local Austin peeps it would be a quick and simple connection through Houston, Dallas or Mexico City.
Destinations: The only major city in Panama to visit is Panama City however there are plenty of other destinations around the country for you to check out.
- Panama City: When people think about Panama City, they think of – well first – the Panama Canal – but also a metropolitan city filled with restaurants, nightlife, skyscrapers – sort of akin to Miami – and yes you can find all that there – but there’s also another side to it – Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo is the old town of Panama City. It is a quaint little colonial city featuring incredible boutique properties and an up-and-coming food scene thanks to their amazing chefs who have been all over the globe and then returned back home to open up restaurants to showcase the cooking skills they gained.
And of course – the Panama Canal – which runs right through the middle of the city and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean – is an amazing piece of engineering as well as being beyond historical – especially on this side of the world. If you haven’t done a European river cruise and have never gone through locks – this is certainly an opportunity for you to experience what it is like to sail through a set of locks. The lock mechanism is pretty similar to what you would experience on a European River Cruise – but it is just a whole different experience. And Aiden was quick to note that the canal is not just about the experience – but also about what it has given to the city. Because of the Americans coming down to take over the building of the canal at one point – you will find quite a bit of American influence in the city as we left a lot of our culture behind. So much so that they use US dollars in Panama – so no need to exchange currency here! And not only American influence can be felt here – they are actually a multicultural city because of the French influence that was here before the American’s arrived.
While in Panama City there is also the opportunity for some beach time as the Pacific Ocean is only about twenty to thirty minutes outside of the city. Although Aiden did note that Panama is definitely more well known for its Caribbean side beaches.
- Islands: First there is Bocas del Toro which is located in the northwest part of the country and on the Caribbean side of the island – which is home to pristine blue water and white sand beaches. That being said most people will head here for the beach part of their journey. It is here you will find those amazing bungalows set over the water. So, think about this – it’s sort of like going to the French Polynesia but without the price tag and without the awfully long flight!
Another popular spot is the San Blas Islands which are also in the north but little bit more east. This is an archipelago composed of hundreds of islands and a lot of people will rent their own catamaran or sailboat – complete with their own captain – and sail around these beautiful islands. Ummm…count me in!
Sightseeing and Activities:
- Indigenous Tribes: Because Panama is home to a number of different tribes there is plenty of opportunity for cultural immersion. For instance – a lot of visitors will fly into Panama City and stay there a few days then head out into the rainforest where you can find indigenous tribes and learn just how they live. The Emberá tribe – which is probably the most popular one – are located down near the Darien Gap and also in the Portabella region or the Colon region. They are incredibly proud people and happily welcome in visitors to let them see what day to day life, their culture and their food is like. It really turns out to be a life changing cultural experience – especially for families with children – when the kids see how little the children of the tribe have and how they live – but are still so very happy.
- Darien Gap: Ahh the Darien Gap – another work of art that nature has given us! The Darien Gap borders Panama and Columbia. And this is no regular border – this is miles and miles long of pristine, raw, rugged rainforest. It’s an incredible piece of rainforest and it’s probably more raw and rugged than anything else in the entire region according to Aiden and only the most adventurous will venture into Darien Gap to hike.
- Adventures: Panama offers both soft and hard adventure – the latter being the likes of hiking in the rain forest. That would also include white water rafting in the region of Boquete where coffee farms are located as there are a lot of strong running rivers which make for some pretty incredible rafting! And of course – where there is a jungle there is zip lining! Possibly a bit more on the soft side of things is one of Aiden’s favorite activities – kayaking thru jungle mangroves. And for those of you that want a real low key adventurous experience – the bird watching is fabulous in Panama as they are home to hundreds of species.
Gastronomy: Aiden joked that Panama in general certainly has a little bit of an identity crisis when it comes to their cuisine as there are a variety of dishes to be found from a lot of different locales. Of course, they have traditional Central American foods such as patacones, tostones and pico de gallo.
And as I mentioned above – they are also home to some incredible international food especially in Casco Viejo (Panama City’s old town) thanks to the young men who have gone all over the world, studied with Michelin-starred chefs and the like, then returned back and opened fabulous boutique style restaurants in small little townhouses.
There is also the Panama City Fish Market where you can pick out your favorite fish right there and the chefs upstairs will cook it up for you just how you like it! And I also asked about fishing charters – and Aiden confirmed that if you go out on a charter and catch some fish just bring it back to the chefs and they will prepare it for you. In fact, he said the chefs can’t wait to see what you come bac with!
And we cannot forget the coffee! Aiden informed us that it’s always a competition when it if comes to my favorite beverage – because Columbia says that they have the best coffee – and Guatemala says no we have the best coffee – and now Panama says you’re both wrong – we have the best coffee! Panama’s most famous coffee is referred to as black gold – and it comes from the the geisha plant in the Boquete region in the highlands. And it is a fact that it actually fetches the most dollar per kilo anywhere on planet and is usually sold in Japan. Now that’s a claim to fame! The reason for the high price? The lack of beans – as each plant only grows a few beans. And per Aiden it is delicious but it’s definitely for a different pallet as it differs from the coffee we in the US might be used to.
Accommodations: Panama is home to world class lodges like Isla Palenque Resort in Boca Chica. This beautiful lodge has the distinction of being one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World and is located in the Gulf of Chiriqui off the coast of the Pacific. Boca Chica is easily accessible as it has an airport nearby that is only a one hour from flight from Panama City and then it is only a 20- or 30-minute boat ride to the island where the resort sits. Here you will find just eight beachfront casitas and one estate villa with six standalone rooms. The beachfront villa estate is tucked away and is sold as a whole for groups of two to 14 people. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? How great would it be to hold a multi-generational family reunion here!
Another fabulous property is the El Otro Lado Private Retreat in the Portobello area – which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located about an hour and a half by car from Panama City and then a quick 20- or 30-minute boat ride, after which you are in the middle of the rainforest in a boutique luxury lodge! Now that’s social distancing!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Panama. Visitors from all countries are welcome to visit Panama, however, non-vaccinated travelers will have to present a negative COVID-19 test for entry. Non-vaccinated travelers arriving from or that have transited through High Risk Countries in the last 15 days will be required to quarantine for 72 hours in a hotel, and the cost of the stay must be fully covered by the traveler.
And there you have it my friends – your nickel tour of the beautiful country of Panama. One thing I think we can all take away from this is that Panama is great for the mind, body and spirit and is made for social distancing! And, since Panama is very small like the other countries in Central America that makes it very accessible for an eight, nine or ten-day trip to see it all. Also, thanks to its location it would be easy to combine with other countries that are close – such as Costa Rica – to make it a multi destination trip. As Aiden said even if you choose to just do Panama City it is still a very fulfilling trip in a short amount of time.
For more details on things to see and do in Panama, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!