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Panama: Beyond the Canal

By John Mitchell

After the United States invaded Panama in 1989 and carted its
drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega off to a Florida jail, this troubled Central American nation all but disappeared from the travel map. Panama languished in a tourism vacuum while armies of eco-tourists overran neighboring Costa Rica. Only recently has Panama returned to the spotlight, when the U.S. officially handed over complete control of the Panama Canal on December 31, 1999.

American president, Jimmy Carter, and Panamanian leader, General Omar Torrijos, signed treaties in 1977 that would pass ownership of the US-occupied Canal Zone and the canal over to Panama by the end of the millennium.

Read Panama City hotel and vacation reviews

This important event has triggered a renewed interest in the other Panama that lies beyond the canal: a land rich in protected forests and exotic wildlife, with thriving indigenous cultures, uncrowded tropical hideaways, and plenty of history to explore.

Panama City, an international business center and the most cosmopolitan metropolis in Central America, makes an excellent base for exploring much of the country. A forest of mirrored skyscrapers bearing the logos of Panamanian and foreign banks marks the city’s financial district, and pencil-thin condominium towers, home to the conspicuously wealthy, rise from Punta Paitilla on the shores of Panama Bay.

Stores in the capital’s busy commercial districts overflow with jewelry, clothing, electronic gadgets and other consumer goods transported through the Panama Canal. The city’s international restaurants and vibrant nightlife also reflect Panama’s location at "the crossroads of the world." But venture further from the capital and you’ll discover a natural paradise, filled with activities and attractions that should put Panama on the eco-tourism map.

The conquistadors founded Panama in 1519 and it soon became an important jewel in the Spanish crown. Gold from Peru and Spain’s other Pacific colonies was hauled from what is now Panama City across the isthmus to the Caribbean. These riches lured pirates such as Sir Henry Morgan, who sacked the city in 1671.

The ruins of Panama Viejo or "Old Panama" can be visited today. A lonely cathedral spire surrounded by the crumbling arches, pillars, and walls are all that remains of this once grand Spanish colony. The city was rebuilt three years later on a peninsula five miles (8 km) to the southwest. This area, now known as Casco Viejo, is one of Panama City’s most historic neighborhoods. Along its narrow streets, rundown tenaments rub cornices with old Spanish churches, ruined convents, and handsome 19th-century buildings constructed by the French during their failed attempt to dig the Panama Canal from 1878-1889.

One of the first things most visitors to Panama City do is head for Miraflores Locks, only 30 minutes from downtown, where viewing platform overlooking the locks allow them to get up-close and personal with ships passing through the Panama Canal.

Miraflores Locks border Soberania National Park, a 55,000-acre (22,104 ha) nature reserve with virgin rainforest abounding in flora and fauna. Another popular destination is the Sunday market in El Valle, a sleepy town cupped in the crater of an extinct volcano west of Panama City. El Valle springs to life on weekends as Guaymí Indians and other country folk come to market with handicrafts and produce. Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast often sell their vibrant molas at El Valle. These hand-stitched, reverse appliqué panels can depict anything from traditional Kuna religious symbols to Mickey Mouse and are a familiar sight throughout Panama.

The picturesque mountain town of Boquete in Chiriquí, Panama’s westernmost province, appeals to hikers and birders. Many come in pursuit of the elusive Quetzal, which can be more easily seen here than in other parts of Central America.

Bocas del Toro on the other side of the mountainous Continental Divide is fast becoming Panama’s hottest Caribbean hideaway. Weathered architectural relics built in the early 1900’s line Bocas Town’s main street, lending it an air of faded romance. Enterprising foreigners have turned many of these decaying wooden structures into funky restaurants and pensions. They cater to increasing numbers of adventurous travelers who come to soak up the tropical ambiance and explore pristine beaches and coral reefs.

MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

Most of Panama’s major attractions are in Panama City or within easy reach of the capital.

  • Panama Viejo (Old Panama)
    The crumbling ruins of what was once the largest Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast can be visited anytime. The National Artisans Market next to the ruins is open 9 am to 6 pm daily. An on-site museum is open weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm (closes at 1 pm on Sunday). Admission is US$1.00. Panama Viejo stands on the eastern edge of Panama City
  • Casco Viejo
    Panama City’s most historic neighborhood is located on a peninsula west of the city center. Somewhat seedy, but has many fine old Spanish and French colonial buildings, a sea wall walk, plus several museums. Plaza de Francia, dedicated to workers who died building the Panama Canal, contains busts of canal pioneers and stone tablets recounting the waterway’s construction.
  • Panama Canal Museum (Museo del Canal Interoceánico)
    This spanking new museum facing the Plaza Central in Casco Viejo occupies a beautifully refurbished building used by the French as their canal-building headquarters until 1903. Artifacts, photographs, and videos trace the canal area’s history from pre-Columbian times to the present. Hours are Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Admission is US$2.
  • The Panama Canal
    The best place to watch ships passing through the Panama Canal is at Miraflores Locks, where there is a viewing platform and visitors center. The locks can be reached by public bus or taxi from Panama City. Hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily. Admission is free. Boat tours of the canal may be booked through travel agencies in Panama City (see Touring below).
  • Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo
    Located six miles (10 km) past the Miraflores Locks, these gardens contain 15,000 plant species and extensive nature trails. The zoo’s main attraction is its large Harpy Eagle Compound. The endangered Harpy Eagle is Panama’s national bird. Hours are 8 am to 4 pm on week days and 8 am to 6 pm on weekends. Admission is US$0.25
  • Parque Nacional Soberania
    This huge park bordering the Panama Canal is one of the most accessible rainforest areas in Panama. It has several hiking trails, including the 11-mile Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Road), which attracts bird-watchers from around the world. May be visited anytime. Admission is free
  • Portobelo
    An easy-going town on a beautiful Caribbean bay 62 miles from Panama City, Portobelo’s claim to fame is its well-preserved 18th-century forts built by the Spanish to protect their booty from pirates. There is also a museum (open Tuesday to Sunday 9 am to 5 pm) in the restored Casa de la Aduana (Customs House). Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Marine Exhibitions Center (Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas)
    On an island called Isla Naos, connected to Panama City by a causeway. Operated by the Smithsonian Institute, this center has a museum with marine exhibits, two aquariums, and a nature trail through a small forest harboring sloths and iguanas. Open Tuesday to Friday 1 pm to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is US$0.50.
  • Isla Taboga
    Only a one-hour ferry ride from Panama City, this small island boasts fine swimming beaches, gardens, and nature trails. It gets crowded on weekends. Ferries leave from Pier 18 in Balboa. Fare is about US$7.50.
  • El Valle
    A picturesque mountain town 77 miles (124 km) west of Panama City famous for its Sunday market (see Shopping below), gardens, nature walks, and pre-Columbian petroglyphs. El Valles’s cool temperatures make it a favorite weekend retreat for wealthy Panama City dwellers.
  • Archipiélago de San Blas
    Coconuts are still used as a form of currency throughout this archipelago of some 350 idyllic islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast. The San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna Indians, an independent people who retain many of their traditions. Kuna women wear colorful mola blouses, nose rings, along with forearm and ankle bracelets. The islands can be reached on a short airplane ride from Panama City.
  • Boquete
    This misty coffee-producing town in Chiriquí Province, about 300 miles (473 km) west of Panama City, is known for its flower gardens and gorgeous mountain scenery. Boquete is the most popular starting point for treks to the summit of Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest peak, and the 5-mile-long (8 km) Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales).
  • Archipielago de Bocas del Toro
    A chain of islands and coral reefs skirting Panama’s isolated northwestern coast, their name -- which means "Mouths of the Bull" -- was reportedly bestowed by Christopher Columbus in 1502. The famous explorer is said to have spotted a waterfall shaped like a bull’s mouth on one of the islands. Bocas del Toro town (Bocas Town) on Isla Colón is an up-and-coming destination among snorkelers, divers, surfers, and those seeking a laid-back Caribbean hideaway.

UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS

  • Mi Pueblito
    A full-size replica of a rural Panamanian village is the last thing you would expect to find in gritty Panama City. Mi Pueblito (My Little Town) has a pretty main square, a colonial church, a museum, stores, and a restaurant. Located in Ancon on the west side of town. Open from 11:30 am to 11:30 pm, Tuesday to Saturday and 10 am to 10 pm Sunday. Free admission.
  • Parque Natural Metropolitano
    This 655-acre wilderness park lies totally within the limits of Panama City. Parque Metropolitano has nature trails and more than 250 species of birds and 40 types of mammals. This park is also the site of a tropical research center and a towering crane used to study the forest canopy. The visitors’ center is open 8 am to 4 pm daily. Admission is $0.50.
  • Isla Barro Colorado
    Barro Colorado Island in the middle of man-made Gatún Lake was formed when vast areas of Panama were flooded during the building of the Panama Canal. Because of its isolation, the island teems with plants and animals and has become an outdoor laboratory for tropical research scientists. Barro Colorado can be visited on small-group tours given by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Tel: 507-227-6021/6022 in Panama City for information. Cost is about US$30. See Touring below for other options.
  • Canopy Tower
    An abandoned radar tower--once used to track down drug smugglers’ aircraft--in Soberania National Park has been turned into a one-of-a-kind eco-lodge and nature observatory popular with bird-watchers. The owner, Raúl Arias de Para, offers both day trips and overnight stays. Tel: 507-264-5720 or 612-9176 in Panama City. E-mail: stay@canopytower.com, canopytower.com. (For more on the Canopy Tower, see the BEST PERCH IN PANAMA)
  • Canopy Adventure
    Designed to bring out the Tarzan in even the most timid traveler, this network of cables, pulleys, and harnesses takes visitors on an exciting ride through the rainforest canopy. The Canopy Adventure is in El Valle near Chorro el Macho, a 195-foot-high (60 m) waterfall. Tel: 507-264-5720 or 612-9176 in Panama City.
  • Parque Nacional Darién
    Parts of Panama’s largest national park, an almost impenetrable wilderness between Panama and Columbia, are crawling with drug smugglers and guerillas. Nevertheless, Darién’s rivers, jungles, and indigenous communities can be explored safely on tours from Panama City (see Touring below).
  • La Iglesia de Natá
    The oldest colonial church in Panama can be found in Natá, a sleepy town in Coclé Province. The church was built in 1522 and has been beautifully restored

ACTIVITIES

With 1800 miles (2850 km) of Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, thousands of islands and coral reefs, plus 12 national parks and 19 protected areas harboring dense jungles and mountains, Panama offers inexhaustible opportunities for outdoor activities. Many can be done independently, but you can also work with a local tour operator or guide.

  • Swimming
  • Snorkeling
  • Scuba Diving
  • Surfing and Windsurfing
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Sea Kayaking
  • Bird Watching
  • River Rafting
  • Cycling
  • Deep-Sea Fishing
  • Golf

TOURING

  • Viajes Cora
    Experienced English-speaking guides who know the country well. A wide variety of tours throughout the country including visits to Embera and Kuna villages
    Tel: (507) 264-4436   264-4670
    E-mail: info@viajescora.com
    Internet:ways2panama.com

  • Ancón Expeditions
    Destinations include the Darién, San Blas Islands, Isla Barro Colorado, Boquete, Volcán Barú, and Bocas del Toro.
    Tel: 507-269-9414/9415
    E-mail: travel@ecopanama.com
    Internet: anconexpeditions.com.
  • Chiriquí River Rafting
    Organizes rafting trips on the Río Chiriquí (US$75 to US$210).
    Tel: 507-236-5218
    E-mail: hsanchez@panma.c-com.net
  • Bocas Water Sports
    Offers diving and snorkeling trips, along with nature tours in Bocas del Toro.
    Tel/fax: 507-757-9541
    Internet: bocasdeltoro.com

ALTERNATIVES

Volunteering

  • The Asociacion Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza (ANCON) provides opportunities for volunteering on nature conservation projects throughout Panama. Food and shelter are provided, and lengths of stay are flexible. Their office is in Panama City
    Tel.: 507-314-0060
    ancon@ancon.org

Language Learning

  • Short-term and intensive (4 weeks or more ) Spanish-language courses are offered by the Language & International Relations Institute (ILERI) in Panama City. Groups are small (maximum 4 people). Rates range from US$130 for one week to US$485 for four weeks of instruction (4 hours daily, M-F). Homestay programs are also available.
    Tel: 507-260-4424
    espanolinst@cwp.net.pa

LODGINGS

Panama City has hotels in all price ranges. Most moderately priced lodgings (US$20-$55) are located in the La Exposición neighborhood near downtown. Almost all have air-conditioning and television, but furnishings tend to be basic. Top end hotels (US$55-$250) can be very luxurious. The majority of these are in the Bella Vista and El Congrejo areas east of the city center.

Lodgings outside Panama City vary tremendously, from modest guest houses to upscale resorts. All hotels on the San Blas Islands are owned and run by Kuna Indians. Reservations must be made through tour operators or travel agents in Panama City.

Recommended Lodgings

Panama City

  • Hotel Covadonga
    English-speaking staff. Clean 24-hour restaurant and rooftop pool. Rates: $US22-$30.
    Tel: 507-225-4011. Fax: 507-225 4011.
  • Hotel California
    Popular budget hotel on busy Avenida España. About US$25.
    Tel: 507-263-7736. Fax: 507-264-6144.
  • Las Vegas Suites Hotel
    Conveniently located in El Congrejo near banks, shops, and restaurants. Kitchens and refrigerators. Rates start at about US$40.
    Tel: 507-269-0722. Fax: 507-223-0047.
  • Hotel Caesar Park
    Five-star hotel with all the luxuries one would expect. Rates: $US150-$250.
    Tel: 800-228-3000. Internet: caesarpark.com

El Valle

  • Hotel Campastre
    Beautifully landscaped grounds surround this rambling 1920’s hotel. There’s also a popular restaurant. Rates: $US60 -$75.
    Tel: 507-983-6146. Fax: 507-983-6460.

Boquete

  • Hotel Panamonte
    Perhaps the most attractive hotel in Panama. An atmospheric old European-style lodge furnished with antiques. Good restaurant. Rates: US$45-$55.
    Tel: 507-720-1327. Fax: 507-720-1324.

Bocas del Toro

  • La Veranda
    Cheerful, well-kept guest house. Canadian owner. Rates: US$8-$15.
    Tel/Fax: 507-757-9211
  • Cocomo On-the-Sea
    Very comfortable, nicely decorated rooms right on the ocean. Rates: $US40-$45.
    Tel/ fax: 507-757-9259.

Colón

  • Hotel Washington
    A once-grand holdover from the early days of the Panama Canal. Rates: US$55-$75.
    Tel: 507-441-7133. Fax: 507-441-7397

EATS

Multicultural Panama City offers restaurants of all kinds. The selection is very limited in other parts of the country. An exception is Bocas del Toro, which has numerous good seafood and Italian restaurants. Traditional Panamanian food is heavy on meat and seafood dishes accompanied by rice and beans (gallo pinto). The national dish is sancocho, a spicy vegetable and chicken stew.

Recommended Restaurants

Panama City

  • Caffé Pomodoro
    A very popular, reasonably priced Italian restaurant next to the Las Vegas Suites Hotel. Open daily noon to 11 pm.
    Tel: 507-269-5836.
  • Crepes & Waffles
    Casual and airy creperie in the Marbella district. Has dishes for meat eaters and vegetarians. Open daily noon to 11 pm.
    Tel: 507-269-1574.
  • El Trapiche
    Serves typical Panamanian fare. In the Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) handicraft market building. Open 8 am to 11 pm daily.
  • Restaurante Las Bóvedas
    Upscale dining in Casco Viejo’s 18th-century fortifications. On west side of Plaza de Francia. Open Monday to Sunday 7 pm to 11 pm.
    Tel: 507-228-8058
  • Restaurante Vegetariano Mireya
    A good bet for vegetarians. Inexpensive. Calle Ricardo Arias and Avenida 3 Sur. Open every day except Sunday 6 am to 8 pm.

Bocas del Toro

  • Albertos Tasty
    Italian dishes served on the top floor of a funky old wooden house on Bocas Town’s main street.
  • Le Pirate
    Dependable seafood and pasta dishes right on the water. Lively atmosphere. Open from 10 am until late at night.

SHOPPING

Boutiques and markets in Panama City and the Sunday market at El Valle offer the best opportunities for buying traditional handicrafts. Kuna molas, basketry, wood and tagua nut carvings, and huacas (replicas of pre-Columbian gold ornaments), are some of the items available. Grand Morrison department stores also have good selections of crafts, as well as English-language books and magazines.

The Zona Libre on the outskirts of Colón is the second largest duty-free zone in the world (after Hong Kong). However, most of the stores cater to wholesalers. Goods purchased here are shipped to the airport and can be picked up only when leaving the country. Stores in Panama City offer especially good deals on jewelry.

HAPPENINGS

  • The biggest event of the year in Panama is Carnaval, celebrated during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Music, costumes, dancing, and a large parade in Panama City all form part of the festivities.
  • As in other Latin American nations, Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) is an important time for religious processions and special events.
  • On October 21, thousands of religious pilgrims descend upon Portobelo for the Black Christ ceremony.
  • There is a 10-day flower and coffee fair (Feria de las Flores y del Café) in Boquete every January.

GETTING THERE

Delta, Continental, and Copa (Panama’s national airline) all fly to Panama City from North America, with nonstop flights from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Miami.

Iberia flies from Madrid and KLM from Amsterdam.

PANALINE has daily deluxe bus service between San José, Costa Rica, and Panama City. The trip takes about 15 hours and fares are roughly US$25 one-way and US$50 return.
Tel: 507-255-1205 in San José or 507-262-1618 in Panama City.
Bus tickets can also be purchased from travel agencies in both cities.

GETTING AROUND

Panama has good roads and a well-developed intercity bus system. However, Panama City’s public transportation is very poor. Taxis are inexpensive and the best way to get around town. All the major rental car agencies operate in Panama City. Rates begin at about US$20 per day. Some companies, such as Budget (Tel. 263-8777; e-mail: budgetmg@sinfo.net ), offer special deals for multi-day rentals.

Aeroperlas, Panama’s largest domestic carrier (Tel. 507-269-4555), has regularly scheduled flights to destinations throughout the country. Aero-Taxi (Tel. 507-264-8644) and several other small airlines fly to the San Blas Islands from Panama City. There is regular high-speed launch service between Chiriquí Grande and the town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón.

WEATHER

Located only nine degrees north of the equator, Panama has a tropical climate with a wet and a dry season. The tourist season is year-round, but the dry season, which runs roughly from mid-December to mid-April, is the most comfortable time to visit. Expect daily afternoon downpours and high humidity during the wet season.

Temperatures in Panama City seldom drop below 75º F (25º C) and highs usually exceed 90º F (32 ºC). Mountain towns such as El Valle and Boquete are considerably cooler than lowland areas. Panama’s Caribbean coast receives much more rain than its Pacific side. Panama lies below the main path of hurricanes.

MONEY AND ATMS

Panama mints its own coins but uses the American dollar (officially called the Balboa) as its currency. Panama City is an international banking center and ATM’s that accept major credit and bank cards can be found throughout the country.

The easiest bank in which to cash traveler’s checks is the Banco de Istmo, which has branches in Panama City and in several towns throughout the country. American Express checks are the most readily accepted. US$100 bills are not usually welcome in restaurants and stores.

COMMUNICATIONS

Most of Panama City’s cybercafes are clustered in the upscale El Congrejo district.

  • Cybercafé de Panama Torres de Alba
    Behind the El Panama Hotel on Calle Eusebio A. Morales.
    Tel: 507-265-1257
  • Stratos
    Via Argentina in the Edificio Don Julio.
    Tel: 507-612-9174.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Panama is a relatively healthy and safe country to travel in. However, malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis A, rabies, and yellow fever do present some risk for visitors. Discuss preventative measures with a doctor before leaving home. Tap water is potable in Panama City. Stick to bottled purified water outside the capital.

Rural areas are generally safe, but robberies have occurred in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City. The impoverished Chorrillo district of Panama City should be avoided altogether. The seedy port city of Colón is very dangerous for tourists (except for the Zona Libre and Hotel Washington). Panama has established a special tourism police force to help protect visitors.

VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS

Citizens of the United States, Canada, and most western European nations must have a valid passport (good for at least six months) plus a tourist card to enter Panama. Tourist cards allow stays of 30 days, cost US$6.00, and can be purchased upon entering the country. Tourist cards may be extended for another 30 days at the Departamento de Immigracion y Naturalizacion in Panama City (Tel: 225-8925/1448/1175).

Citizens of Austria, Britain, Chile, Costa Rica, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Uruguay currently require only a valid passport. Visitors from Asia, Africa, Cuba, and several eastern European countries may also have to show a Panamanian visa (US$20) purchased from a Panamanian embassy or consulate abroad.

For up to date information, contact the Panamanian Embassy or Consulate in your home country.

RESOURCES

Recommended Guidebooks

  • Lonely Planet Panama Guide by Scott Doggett (Lonely Planet Publications, 1st edition, January 1999).
  • Panamá (Ulysses Travel Publications, 3rd edition, November 1999).
  • Getting to Know Panama by Michele Labrut (available at Gran Morrison department stores in Panama City).
  • A Guide to the Birds of Panama by Robert Ridgely and John A. Gwynne Jr. (Princeton University Press).

Web Sites

panamainfo.com
The most comprehensive site on Panama

ipat.gob.pa
Official site of Panama’s tourism office

pancanal.com
Official site of the Panama Canal Commission. This is a very cool website!

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