Touring the Real Panama: Wildlife, Beaches and Tribal Villages

Children of the Embera tribe in Panama
Children of the Embera tribe in Panama

By Stephen Hartshorne

On a visit to Panama, it’s hard to know where to start. Because of its central location, the country is host to more species of plants and wildlife than anywhere else in the world. The country also boasts one of the man-made wonders of the world, the Panama Canal.

But what may be Panama’s greatest attraction is the opportunity to visit the villages of ancient peoples who have lived in America for centuries, at one with nature, long before the arrival of Europeans.

Panama has a lot to offer the solo traveler, but with so many attractions and activities, many people like to travel with the assistance of experienced guides who can take care of day-to-day arrangements and make sure that visitors make the most of their time in this remarkable country.

Panama has some of the most diverse wildlife in the world.
Panama has some of the most diverse wildlife in the world.

If you’re planning a trip to Panama, a good resource is Viajes Cora of Panama, which has a wide variety of tours for families, couples and solo travelers that include snorkeling and diving, ecological parks, tours of the Panama Canal and many other attractions.

Little-Known Treasures

While they have basic tours of Panama City, the Panama Canal and the Colon free trade zone, Viajes Cora takes visitors to little-known treasures like the Boquete Flower Festival in the Province of Chiriqui, the Basilica of Nata, the oldest church in colonial America, or the volcanic basin the the Valley of Anton with its abundant flora and fauna and its picturesque handicraft market.

The company provides experienced, knowledgeable English-speaking guides who have an love of nature and outdoor activities and understand the history, geography and culture of the country.

They also have guides with specialized knowlege in areas like fishing, diving, agricultural tourism, indigenous tribes and outdoor activities.

The Way It Was Before Columbus

Sailing in the San Blas Islands
Sailing in the San Blas Islands

For a glimpse of life in Panama before the coming of European settlers, Viajes Cora offers trips to the Kuna tribe in the San Blas Islands and the Embera tribe on the Rio Sagres.

The San Blas Islands — 378 of them — have been described as “a string of pearl coral atolls marching like emeralds to the horizon, surrounded by crystalline aquamarine water blending to bright blueberry.”

They are inhabited by the fiercely independent Kuna Yala, who run the islands as an autonomous province with little interference from the central government. They have maintained their style of dress, their legends and their dances; and they have avoided the pitfalls of tourism development.

Visiting the Kuna Yala takes you back thousands of years in history. Men still fish from canoes and run up the nearest coconut tree for a cool drink.

Kuna women are famous for making molas, rainbow-colored fabrics emblazoned with fish, birds, jungle animals and geometric designs.

They still wear gold nose rings that Columbus observed on native women when he first landed on Santo Domingo.

The San Blas islands, with their myriad coral reefs, offer some of the most beautiful beaches and the best snorkeling and diving in the world.

The Embera

The Embera tribe in the Rio Sages National Park are skilled boat builders who once supplied canoes for the US government when they controlled the Canal.

Visitors arrive at an Embera village where they are greeted with a ceremonial dance accompanied by instruments made of turtle shells and tree bark. They meet the head of the tribe in the palapa, or community hut, and dine on delicacies like tilapia with fried plantains on banana leaf plates.

Members of the Embera tribe still fish from dugout canoes, as they have for centuries.
Members of the Embera tribe still fish from dugout canoes, as they have for centuries.

The visits also include trekking and canoeing in the surrounding rainforest, where Embera guides point out medicinal plants and exotic wildlife and explain jungle survival skills.

Jesus Siguenza Pena of Curitiba Parana, Brazil, recently traveled to Panama with Viajes Cora and he said he enjoyed visiting the ancient tribes:

“The excursions to the Embera and Kuna tribes are something that I consider genuine,” he said. “It’s amazing how they have managed to keep their palafitos (stilt houses) to protect themselves from wild animals.

“The transference of cultural information from generation to generation works perfectly. Kids are attracted to their way of living and stick to it, no matter how intense are changes in the outside world. Viajes Cora has prepared the trip so the client feels this.”

“The Force of Nature and Man”

Siguenza said the tour of the Panama Canal was another highlight of his trip: “The surroundings of the Canal werre a surprise because it’s exuberant and green as was before the first shovel hit the ground to build the canal. The combination of the force of nature and man is perfect.”

The Miraflores Lock of the Panama Canal
The Miraflores Lock of the Panama Canal

He also enjoyed a trip to the Isla Colon, where he found a rare red sands beach. “I took a boat ride, watching the islets at hand. The right of dolphins frolicking next to me is something I will never forget.

Siguenza said the selection of restaurants and hotels by Viajes Cora was excellent.

“All the restaurants knew I was coming and just the mention of Viajes Cora drew smiles, so I have the feeling they pass by quite often and are active in the areas they visit.”

Since Panama has beautiful island chains on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, there is an incredible variety of destinations for those who wish to sunbathe, snorkel, sail, swim or SCUBA dive. Mirroring the San Blas Islands of the Caribbean is the Pearl Island Archipelago, known as “The Pearls.”

At the northern end of the archipelago is Contadora Island, with eleven white sand beaches and protected coves. Local charters are also available to uninhabited islands nearby.

Jesus Signuenza Pena with friends in Panama
Jesus Signuenza Pena with friends in Panama

The surrounding waters, turqouise in color, are ideal for swimming and snorkeling, but visitors can also opt for jet-skiing, sport fishing or boat tours.

Last-Minute Glitches

Nothing can mess up a well-planned vacation like a missed connection or a lost reservation. That’s one reason many travelers like to leave these arrangements to the experts.

Viajes Cora guides have the experience needed to make sure things go smoothly, and they have the resources to deal with situations where they have to improvise.

Viajes Cora also offers customized tour packages for hunting, fishing and ecotourism excursions; wedding, honeymoon or anniversary packages and group tours and corporate outings.

They use their experience and their flexibility to design just the right tour for every traveler.

For further information visit Viajes Cora’s website.

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