The Republic of Panama combines a culturally rich experience with all the trappings of a fun holiday destination.
Panama’s indigenous society and colonial past coupled with its transcontinental location bring together a variety of culturally rich experiences. The weather this time of the year is bright, sunny and dry but not too hot, making it an ideal vacation spot. We explore three different places, offering a diverse list of things to see and do.
Start at the Panama Canal, an 82-kilometre manmade waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans which has great historical significance as a trade route. In order to fully experience it, book a tour at Miraflores Visitor Center. While two of the four exhibition halls at the centre’s museum are temporarily closed, you can visit the other two to learn more about this engineering masterpiece. Head to the observation decks to watch ships transit.
Next, visit Panamá Viejo or Old Panama, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest European settlements on the Pacific coast. Located about a 10-minute drive from the current Panama City, it’s home to the Old Panama Cathedral and various ruins, as well as the iconic bell tower; climb up to enjoy views of the city skyline. Once you’re done sightseeing, head to the nearby markets to shop for souvenirs and traditional crafts, but not before you make a pitstop at a local restaurant or café.
Casco Viejo, which translates to Old Quarter, is part of the same UNESCO Site. An aesthetic paradise of terracotta rooftops, brick-paved streets, colourful buildings and murals, this district is known for its lively dining and nightlife. Enticing aromas of grilled seafood and breathtaking sunset views from atop rooftop bars await. Major attractions include the famed golden alter of the Church of San Jose or Museo de la Mola, a museum dedicated to the traditional textile art of the indigenous Guna tribe. Tired of walking around? Try raspados, a refreshing local shaved ice-beverage with condensed milk and flavoured syrup.
If you’re planning a holiday from February 17 to 22, you simply can’t miss the carnival. Experience local traditions such as the coronation of the queen and burial of the sardine – symbolic of burying the past to allow society to be reborn and transformed. Parade alongside dancing groups and brass bands, get drenched when the water trucks come by – kids can play with water guns sold on site – enjoy the fireworks, go all out with local street food… Panamanian beef empanadas are popular. Whatever you do, don’t miss patacones or crispy and savoury fried plantain bites. Yuca fritters, stuffed with spicy beef and made from a type of cassava root, are also a must-try.
BOCAS DEL TORO PROVINCE
Easily reachable via a 50-minute flight from Panama City. Protected by UNSECO and home to Panama’s first national marine park – The Bastimentos Island National Park – Bocas del Toro Province is an ecotourism destination. Relax at a luxurious eco resort or lodge, with spa treatments and tropical drinks, or spend a day at the beach.
Red Frog Beach, located on Isla Bastimentos or Bastimentos Island, is popular with surfers. The beach is backed by tropical rainforests, where you can spot a variety of wildlife from sloths to monkeys. The more adventurous can book a canopy tour and explore this natural haven gliding across a zipline. Sea turtles are seen on the beach during the nesting season and a variety of birds too. As the name suggests, the local red frog is common.
Zapatilla Islands, located off the east coast of Bastimentos Island, are a pristine paradise. Escape the crowds, explore scenic trails and discover the exotic marine life while snorkelling in the surrounding waters.
Located near Isla Colón or Colón Island, Playa Estrella, better known as Starfish Beach, is a scenic spot worth visiting. It’s so named because of the many starfish found there. There’s a popular bird island about 20 minutes from Isla Colón, where you can see many native and migratory species.
Isla Carenero, a two-minute boat ride from Bocas Town, the capital of Bocas del Toro Province, has some small beaches, ideal for a day trip. Bocas Town has a thriving indigenous Panamanian community of Ngäbe-Buglé people, one of the largest indigenous groups of Panama. Book a tour to learn about their way of life; medicinal plants, cocoa plantations, handicrafts, architecture and more.
Most beaches on Bocas del Toro are equipped with the basic amenities, including toilets, and have restaurants that serve delicious local staples. Some dishes to try are: sancocho, a type of stew made with chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices; rice with pigeon peas, arroz con pollo or rice with chicken and ropa vieja or shredded beef stew.
This is one of the most picturesque regions of Panama, known for its varied landscapes, from mountains to beaches and botanical gardens. It’s said that some of the world’s best oranges and strawberries are grown here. The province is also popular for its coffee plantations, which bring forth a variety of aromatic and flavourful beans.
Standing at almost 1,000 metres, Volcán Barú or Baru Volcano, said to be the highest point in the country, offers many hiking trails. The most popular Los Quetzales Trail, which goes through Baru Volcano National Park, is indefinitely closed. However, if you’re lucky, you may spot various bird species at the trailhead.
Visit the picture-postcard town of Boquete. A major attraction here is the annual flower and coffee festival or Feria de Boquete, which is usually held from January 11 to 21. During this time, the streets are buzzing with food stalls where you can delight in local favourites – don’t miss the speciality Panama geisha coffee. The park next to Caldera River transforms into a colourful expanse of flowers arranged in decorative patterns. There’s lively Latin music and dance, a vibe not very different from that of the infamous Panamanian carnivals.
Caldera River, which runs through the centre of Boquete, has many hot springs, which are said to have healing properties. Book a tour to experience them yourself. If nothing else, this will surely help you relax, which is what holidays are about, after all.
The Gulf of Chiriquí National Park, which comprises beautiful islands, coral reefs and mangroves, offers a lot to see and do. Explore the tropical islands teaming with wildlife, on foot or hiking. It’s a great site for bird watching too. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, then unwind at the beach. The beaches here are ideal for diving, kayaking and snorkelling should you crave one last shot of adrenaline before taking a flight home. ✤