Sprawled along beautiful Panama Bay, modern Panama City is a lively place, perfectly blending Old World charm and 21st century sophistication in first world infrastructure that includes a dynamic nightlife, a delicious restaurant scene, and the only rainforest in the world within city limits. Countless leafy residential neighborhoods add to the city’s charm, and a solid core of international chain and boutique hotels—and more are coming—add to the city’s visitor comforts.
#1 The best views of Panama City are from atop Ancon Hill, the capital’s highest point, offering spectacular bird’s-eye views over the old and new parts of the city, the Bay of Panama and the Panama Canal.
#2 On the outskirts of the capital, travelers can capture a bit of Panama’s earliest grandeur amidst evocative stone remains of Old Panama (aka Panama La Vieja), the first European settlement on the Pacific, founded in 1519 and destroyed by pirate Sir Henry Morgan in 1671. The Visitors Center & Museum offers an interesting historical account of early Panama as well as a large scale model of the original site.
#3 Right at the Panama La Vieja ruins is the Mercado Nacional de Artesanias, one of the city’s best handicraft centers.
#4 Casco Antiguo in Panama City, founded in 1673, is enjoying a new life, for the once-dilapidated historic quarter is undergoing a large-scale gentrification. The neighborhood is a tangle of narrow streets, centuries-old houses and neo-colonial government buildings, and its oldest part, the San Felipe district, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. New to the old town is a trendy arts district with galleries, coffee houses (try the combo: Diablo Rosso cafe/art gallery), street musicians, bars (of note: Cafe Habana) and some of the city’s most stylish restaurants and boutique hotels.
#5 Recommend a walk in Casco Viejo, following cobbled streets lined with pastel-colored residences and historic mansions to the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral, 17th century convents and churches including the San Jose Church (home to the famous Golden Altar), the Santo Domingo Church and Convent and the Presidential Palace.
#6 In your client’s tour of the city, include harbor-side Casco Viejo, which enjoys spectacular city views from Santa Ana Park and the Plaza de Francia, dedicated to the 22,000 Panama Canal workers from France, Martinique and Guadeloupe who lost their lives to yellow fever. A row of restored dungeons (Paseo de las Bovedas) is here, home to a French bistro and art galleries.
#7 Staying in Casco Viejo’s a treat: Canal House is a small hotel with the ambiance of a private colonial home (Daniel Craig stayed here when filming “Quantum of Solace”); Casa de Horno, a classy boutique hotel with balconied apartment suites, occupies a former bakery; and Las Clementinas, originally a 1930s apartment building and totally refurbished, offers rooms the size of the former apartments, complete with kitchens, WiFi and access to a rooftop terrace.
#8 Elsewhere, the Panama City experience has no shortage of deluxe accommodations for capital stays. For instance, there’s the Trump Ocean Club Hotel and Tower—at 70 stories transforming the city skyline—and the elegant Bristol Panama with its own new tower. New in town is the Waldorf Astoria with its first entry in Latin America; coming soon The Ritz-Carlton, with its first hotel in Central America.
#9 Visitors should definitely take a hike or ride a bike along mile-long Amador Causeway, a paved breakwater that is located at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and offers spectacular views of Panama City’s skyline.
#10 Recommend clients dine out along the Causeway. They can have lunch at one of the many cafes and restaurants and watch the ships passing by, or gather at sunset over cocktails (the Wine Bar’s one good choice) and a seafood dinner (try the garlic shrimp, sea bass and other Panamanian fare at El Ranchito) to see Panama City light up at night like a Christmas tree.
#11 Biomuseo is the newest and most celebrated attraction on the Amador Causeway; work is finally wrapping up on the colorful Frank Gehry-designed showcase for Panama’s natural and cultural history. Biomuseo will be officially inaugurated in February 2014.
#12 Your clients will find it fun to say they’ve been in the 655-acre Metropolitan Natural Park, the only protected rainforest within capital city limits in Latin America. Two main hiking paths—the Nature and the Titi Monkey trails—join to form one large loop, with observation points along the way. Among the natural attractions, the park’s official bird list includes 260 species, and for a bird’s-eye view, recommend an airborne tour of the forest canopy aboard the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s canopy crane.
#13 A must is a visit to a local market in the capital, specifically the Mercado Publico, a covered farmer’s market with exotic fruits and vegetables, meats, dried spices and nuts, and a food court of fondas, cheap food stands serving Panamanian fare. Next door is the Mercado de Mariscos, a vibrant market with lots of action as fishmongers shout while they deftly fillet corvina, tuna or octopus. Upstairs, there’s a restaurant and food stands selling seafood snacks like ceviche.
#14 The malls of Panama City are a big draw for visitors. Shopping the malls takes them to Multiplaza Pacific, a multi-story complex with seven department stores and 52 shops; Multicentro Mall, a shopping complex complete with casino and walkway to Radisson Decapolis Hotel; and Albrook Mall with more than 100 stores and just steps away from the brand new Hard Rock Panama Megapolis.
#15 Travelers can shop for authentic Panamanian handicrafts at the Balboa Artisans Market, which is a particularly good source for fine, award-winning basketry, at Reprosa, which is dazzling with original jewelry work, and Flory Saltzman Molas, offering an outstanding (and pricey) selection of molas.
#16 Teatro Nacional, the turn-of-the-century opera house in the Old Town, is a small architectural gem seating only 850 people. Recommend clients come for classical music concerts and tell them to look up at the ceiling, with its fantastic fresco of angels and muses.
#17 Mi Pueblito, a recreation of three traditional Panamanian villages, sits in the foothills of Ancon Hill on the western side of the city. It contains full-size replicas of different villages of the central provinces, each with a traditional eatery serving specialty dishes. Here, there is also a row of fine craft shops.
#18 The folkloric dance show at Restaurante Tinajas, a traditional 20-year-old show, is popular with both Panamanians and visitors. For traditional Panamanian food and folkloric dancing combined, recommend Restaurante y Cafeteria El Trapiche.
#19 Panama City offers endless choices for cuisines from all nations. To experience Panama’s seasonal best in 10 courses, recommend Manolo Caracol. For French-inspired dishes, Restaurant Las Bovedas is a good pick. Travelers should head to the rooftops for the sunset, drinks and an Italian dinner at Tantalo in Casco Viejo. In the same area, hanging out for an evening in the sophisticated DiVina Wine Bar is a must.
#20 There is no shortage of casino gambling in Panama City. The capital’s largest casino is at the Veneto-A Wyndham Grand Hotel, with 40,000 sq. ft. of gaming action, while Panama Marriott’s Fiesta Casino is popular with foreigners and expats.
#21 Tell visitors to join the Panamanians in February 2014 when a new mode of transport debuts in the capital: line #1 of the city’s first metro.
#22 Recommend clients tour Panama City aboard the new hop-on, hop-off bus, operated by City Sightseeing Panama. It’s the first such service in the capital, and the covered, double-decker bus stops at Multicentro Mall, Albrook Mall, Miraflores Locks, Biomuseo, Isla Flamenco at the end of the Amador Causeway, and Casco Viejo.
#23 Visitors should take to the water in an Aquabus of PMA Tours, an amphibious bus tour starting at the Albrook Mall for a ride that includes Casco Viejo and Amador Causeway and takes three dips along the way.
#24 Golf aficionados can tee off near Panama City at the Radisson Summit Hotel and Golf, home to an 18-hole course plus a 6-hole executive course for juniors or beginners, all designed by Jeffrey Myers.
#25 Visitors should take off for Taboga, the “Island of Flowers,” where bougainvillea, hibiscus and jasmine bloom everywhere. An hour away from the capital, the isle is also known for fine beaches (Playa Restinga the best) and a shelter for one of the largest colonies of brown pelicans in the world. The second oldest Spanish colonial church in the western hemisphere, Iglesia San Pedro (1524), is also here.
While it’s true that Panama is so much more than the Panama Canal, every visitor wants to see this engineering marvel, one of the world’s most notable waterways. It cuts across Panama at the narrowest point between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
#26 The Miraflores Locks offer the primary land view of ocean-going vessels being raised or lowered to meet different levels of the Pacific Ocean when transiting the Panama Canal.
#27 The Panama Canal Transit is an unbeatable way to witness the canal locks up-close: partial transits that pass through two locks, and full transits that include all three lock operations.
#28 Boat tripping on Gatun Lake, an integral part of the Panama Canal system, takes visitors past large ships in the process of transiting the canal, and offers some up-close sightings of birds, sloths and monkeys. Better yet, visitors should take more time to explore this whole watershed area on treetop jungle tours, wildlife walks and canal encounters while staying at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, overlooking the Chagres River and the canal.
#29 Recommend a day-trip from Panama City to Soberania National Park, occupying the former American Canal Zone and protecting the Panama Canal Watershed; it’s chock-full of outstanding ecotourism activities, including birding along the famous Pipeline Road.
#30 Fishing is idyllic in the islands of the Panama Canal Zone and Gatun Lake; the catch is peacock bass, snook and tarpon.
Travelers head out by car from the capital to find their place in the sun along the Panama Riviera, at the beaches stretching from Playa Bonita to Coronado, Farallon and Santa Clara. Or they can take a short flight or a longer boat ride to the Pearl Islands, just 20 minutes by air or two hours by boat from Panama City to an archipelago made up of more than 100 islands and islets.
#31 Playa Bonita is closest to the capital, about a 45-minute drive, and shares white sands with two big resorts: the 330-room InterContinental Playa Bonita Resort and Spa, where each room has a view of the sea and the ships waiting to transit the canal; and the Westin Playa Bonita, with 600 rooms and three swimming pools.
#32 For Panama’s widest and whitest beaches along the Pacific coast (an hour-plus drive from the capital), travelers can head for the Panama Riviera, embracing Santa Clara and Farallon beaches and in general great for swimming, body surfing and lazing about, while specific beaches are pegged for surfing, wind surfing and kite surfing. Hotels here include two all-inclusive resorts: the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort and the Royal Decameron Golf, Beach Resort & Villas.
#33 On Farallon Beach, the newest international resort entry is the luxury oceanfront JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort, the property that was formerly the Bristol Buenaventura.
#34 There’s great golf at the beaches. The Randy Thompson-designed Mantaraya Golf Club by Royal Decameron plays 18 holes, 7,098 yards, par 72, and includes two driving ranges, a practice putting green, and six flood-lit par 3 holes for after-dark enjoyment. The Buenaventura Golf Course (part of the JW Marriott property) has an 18-hole, 7,383-yard, par 72 course designed by Jack Nicklaus; much of the play, of course, is by the sea.
#35 Valle de Anton (aka El Valle) in the province of Cocle is a popular excursion from the beaches and an overnight or 2-night destination from Panama City. Outdoorsy types—hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and birders—adore this countryside town, huddled in the crater of an enormous extinct volcano and set into a landscape of cool, lush woodlands, mountain streams and waterfalls. Visitors also come to see ancient petroglyphs and enjoy the thermal waters.
#36 El Valle is also known for its weekend markets, when dozens of indigenous Indian communities bring their wares to sell, including the Ngobe Bugle carved woods and soapstone figures, the Embera basketry, the Kuna molas, Panama hats, hammocks, and bamboo bird cages.
#37 From El Valle, travelers can follow the Sombrero Pintado (“Painted Hat”) tourist route that aims to exhibit the rural area crafts of Cocle province. They ride or walk from village to village (Vaquilla, Pajonal, Membrillo, El Gauila and Machuca), stopping to observe and purchase handiwork, most famously the painted Panama hat.
#38 A short air hop (20 minutes) or two hours by boat from Panama City are the Pearl Islands, an archipelago made up of more than 100 islands and beloved for their lovely beaches and brilliant marine life. Contadora Island is the most developed and best known, and has a dozen beautiful beaches—some noted for snorkeling, others for jet skiing, all for sun and sea.
#39 Isla del Rey, the largest of the Pearl Islands, offers some of Panama’s best sportfishing, scuba diving and whale watching.
#40 At Pearl Islands, travelers discover that Panama is the only country in the world blessed with humpback whale migrations from both the southern and northern hemispheres; best time for sighting is July and October.
#41 The 17-cabin Hacienda del Mar resort on the private San Jose Island is the most exclusive in the Pearl Islands; anglers fly in from the capital, check into the 2-bedroom Admiral Suite, and sign up immediately for excellent deep-sea fishing.
David is the capital and air gateway to Chiriqui’s cool, humid cloud forests, home to a variety of birds, including quetzals, bellbirds, solitaires and redstarts; landscapes dotted with flower, fruit and vegetable farms and coffee plantations; and activities from horseback riding to white-water rafting on rivers. On the Pacific coast, the action is around—and offshore—the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park.
#42 The highland town of Boquete is a charmer, well-known for its coffee and oranges, but most famous for its Flowers and Coffee Fair (January) or smaller Orchid Fair (late March, early April).
#43 On everyone’s list of favorite places to eat in Boquete is Art Cafe, starring excellent savory and sweet crepes and vibrantly painted furnishing.
#44 Calling all birdwatchers to one of Panama’s most famous birding spots, Finca Lerida, a working plantation near Boquete whose 650 acres produce gourmet coffee, and primary and secondary forests offer prime-time, guided birdwatching and best-chance quetzal spotting. Recommend clients stay awhile in the Finca Lerida ecolodge, set in beautiful gardens, and dine at Restaurante Monniche.
#45 The Boquete Coffee Route is a bean-to-cup tour that starts at the Kolowa Coffee plantations, with a chance to sample some of their coffee varieties, stopping next at Cafe Ruiz with its own world of aromas and production, and ending with a visit to Finca Lerida.
#46 Zipline rides are popping up all over Panama, but Boquete Tree Trek is particularly impressive and the longest one to date: 12 stages and 14 platforms passing over two waterfalls.
#47 For the picture-perfect view of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, travelers should rise early for the 4×4 ride up Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest peak and located along the Talamanca mountain range; or, if clients are physically fit, they can make the 4- to 5-hour ascent on foot. Sunrise is optimum viewing time.
#48 Panamonte Inn and Spa is a Boquete institution, whose famous guests have included Charles Lindburgh, Ingrid Bergman and Admiral Richard Byrd. Within an easy walk to the town center, its welcoming bar and charming restaurant are worth a visit even for non-guests.
#49 White-water rafting is solidly on the map among international river runners who head for Panama’s challenging Rio Chiriqui (east of Boquete) and Rio Chiriqui Viego (west of Boquete), with high waters during the rainy season May to December. Depending on the river sectors, rafting levels run from Class II to V.
#50 Trout fishing is tops in the rivers running down Volcan Baru near the towns of Boquete, Volcan, Bambito and Cerro Punta.
#51 The four-star, Alpine-style Bambito Hotel is Panama’s only full mountain resort, offering guests an indoor pool, jacuzzi and sauna, spa services, tennis, and a good restaurant. Activities include fishing in trout ponds, hiking and riding in the forest.
#52 Flower-fanciers and orchid lovers go right to the source when visiting Finca Dracula, revered as one of the most important orchid farms in Central America. More than 2,200 species are on display, cloned to produce 250,000 plants annually.
#53 Hiking in La Amistad National Park’s lush cloud forests is reason enough to visit this region. Three trails begin at the main entrance, four miles from the town of Cerro Punta: the Sendero La Cascada, a mile-long with a gorgeous waterfall en-route; Sendero El Retoño, a bit longer and ascending into the cloud forest; and Sendero La Montaña, the most challenging. Amistad, shared by Panama and Costa Rica, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
#54 The pretty European-style lodge, Los Quetzales, with a comfy lobby and panoramic mountain view windows, is a good pick for accommodations in this corner of Chiriqui; the inn is located in Guadalupe and within the cloud forest of La Amistad National Park.
#55 Special to Chiriqui is Sitios Barriles, an archaeological site of the extinct Barril culture that once lived on the slopes of Volcan Baru; the site guide explains the writings on the stones (petroglyphs) and enlightens visitors with the history of the culture.
#56 On the Pacific Coast of Chiriqui, west of David, the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park protects an area of 25 islands, 19 coral reefs and marine waters. While the beaches attract nesting leatherback and hawksbill turtles, dolphins and humpback whales migrate through these waters from September to November. Birdwatchers have recorded more than 275 species on Boca Brava alone, while on the largest island, Isla Parida, forests are alive with parakeets and howler monkeys.
#57 The Gulf of Chiriqui is especially renowned for snorkeling, diving and surfing, while anglers head out for legendary catches of black marlin, rooster fish, sailfish and cubera snapper.
#58 Surfers will find paradise at Morro Grito Surf Camp, located on Isla Ensenada, two miles off the Chiriqui Gulf coast. Attractions are 10 different breaks averaging between four and eight feet, and sand breaks with small waves that are good for beginners.
#59 Chiriqui has its boutique, island-bound hotels, including the lovely Cala Mia on Boca Brava with two private beaches, lots of activities and a short boat hop from Boca Chica. Much farther out is the privately owned Islas Secas Resort, offering deluxe cabins with ocean views and all meals, as well as pristine sands, abundant birdlife, dozens of wildlife species, and trails with observation points high above forests on uninhabited islands.
#60 Isla Palenque Resort is the newest of the Gulf’s offshore paradises. It occupies a 400-acre private island with 12 beaches and a 220-acre forest preserve; guests occupy 16 Estate rooms (with tented suites coming) and enjoy a waterfall pool, fine dining and spa opening in January.
The Azuero Peninsula is Panama’s heartland and culturally its richest region, one dotted with colonial towns and famous for its music and costumed festivals. Offshore the action is swimming with sharks. The peninsula embraces three provinces: Veraguas, Los Santos and Herrera.
#61 The peninsula’s Veraguas province is cattle country, and the peaceful mountain town of Santa Fe, the place to saddle up for horseback riding trips through pasture lands and rolling hills.
#62 The peninsula’s Los Santos province is the heartland of folk culture, and its capital, Las Tablas, is known for having the finest national dress in the country: the ruffled, layered, full-skirted pollera, usually white with floral lace embroidery and all laboriously made by hand. It’s worn in folk dances like la cumbia, el punto and el pasillo. Recommend clients head for the picturesque villages of Santo Domingo or San Jose to visit the ateliers of the pollera-makers, and plan to come in July for the Festival of the Polleras, when both men and women dance the days and nights away showing off their traditional attire.
#63 When attending Carnaval in Las Tablas, clients will join in the biggest pre-Lent party north of Rio.
#64 Guarare is a center for pollera- and guitar-making, showcased in the excellent little Manuel F. Zarate Museum, with a collection of costumes, masks, musical instruments and cultural artifacts. Guarare’s most important event takes place in September: the Mejorana Fair, celebrating its distinctive five-string guitar, the mejorana.
#65 Villa de los Santos, a town of handsome colonial buildings and a genteel pace, is a pleasant base from which to explore the southern Herrera or upper Los Santos province. Its Corpus Christi Festival (May/June; 40 days after Easter) is famous for its reenactment of a Bull Hunt and the Dance of the Dirty Devils, followed by the Dance of the Clean Devils.
#66 Visitors should take a detour from Chitre, capital of Herrera Province, to the town of La Arena (aka Ceramics City), indeed entirely devoted to making pottery based on pre-Columbian designs. Famous throughout Panama, the most traditional piece is the tinaja (pot) that was once used to store household water.
#67 Azuero’s most immaculately preserved Spanish town is Parita, an 18th century colonial charmer located 10 miles from Chitre. Here, visitors can tour the 17th century Santo Domingo de Guzman Church with lavish, baroque interiors and the adjoining little Museum of Religious Colonial Art.
#68 Pretty Pedesi is the resort capital of the Los Santos coast, and just outside town on Los Destiladores beach is one of Panama’s most luxurious lodgings: Villa Camilla, set on lushly landscaped and expansive grounds. The property has seven sophisticated guestrooms, and open-air lounge and dining areas face the sea; meals are prepared with the villa’s garden produce.
#69 The stretch of coast between Pedasi and Tonosi has dozens of great surfing and wildlife beaches. Playa Venao is Panama’s top venue for international surfing competitions.
#70 West of the Azuero Peninsula on the Gulf of Chiriqui is Playa Santa Catalina, recognized as the finest surfing spot in Panama, with the most consistent breaks in Central or South America. La Punta is the celebrated break here (for experts only), and the main surfing season is March to October. Santa Catalina is also a pretty place for non-surfers as well as divers and snorkelers who want to book excursions to Coiba Island.
#71 It takes advance planning to venture out to Panama’s most resplendent, mostly uninhabited Coiba Island to trek beach and jungle trails rich in flora and fauna and to be amazed by the surrounding marine treasures. From many points on the Pacific coast of the Azuero Peninsula, excursion boats depart for the 3-hour ride out to Coiba, whose forests serve as a haven for birds and mammals found nowhere else on earth, as well as for species that have largely disappeared from the mainland, such as scarlet macaws. Panama nature tour specialists offer programs with overnight stays at the Park Ranger Station, with accommodations in several 2-room, air-conditioned cabins, with five to six beds and shared bath.
#72 Waters around Coiba Island National Marine Park offer an embarrassment of scuba diving riches along the second largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific; this is the quintessential dive location for swimming with whale and hammerhead sharks. Common sightings also include pods of dolphins, orcas and humpback whales.
Just cross the canal from Panama City to the port city of Colon, and guests are in Atlantic Panama country—aka the Caribbean, actually embracing the provinces of Colon and Bocas del Toro. Along this coast, the San Blas Islands float offshore in Caribbean waters, and the rain-forested highlands and lowlands of Darien Province anchored to the jungles of Colombia on its southern border, remains mostly as remote and inaccessible as ever. Until the last quarter-century, there were no roads in the Darien; today the Interamericana cuts through as far as the town of Yaviza, with the remaining 60 miles to the Colombian border, the only impenetrable gap in the Pan-American Highway.
#73 Recommend an early morning, 1-hour ride across the Isthmus from Panama City to Colon on the Panama Canal Railway to explore the Caribbean entrance to the canal. The railway was first built in 1855 to meet the needs of the forty-niners seeking quick passage from the east to the west coast of the U.S during California’s gold-rush days. Today’s coaches are refurbished (19th century style), carpeted and air conditioned, and observation platforms provide sweeping views of the canal.
#74 While on this side of the Canal, tell clients to make a day of it and spend some time in the San Lorenzo National Park, a 24,000-acre reserve of wetlands and forests where the U.S. forces and astronauts once learned jungle survival. Birders flock here to walk the El Camino de Achiote and Sendero El Trogon trails (430 bird species counted here), and everyone comes to see the Castillo de San Lorenzo, a fort looming magnificently above the Chagres River that was once stormed by Henry Morgan and his pirates.
#75 Close to Colon is Portobello, a settlement named Puerto Bello or “beautiful port” by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and today a UNESCO World Heritage site. As a crossroads for gold and silver moving from South America to Europe, Portobello was once one of the richest towns in the world; today this laid-back and appealing place shows off the fortified remains of Fort San Jeronimo, while Fort Santiago is a short boat ride across the bay. The town also has an interesting Customs House and the San Felipe Church, which is home to the famous Black Christ statue.
#76 On stage in Portobello are some fabulous festivals: July 16 is the Festival of the Virgin del Carmen, marked by a land and sea procession, mass and baptisms. On a lighter note, Carnaval is celebrated here with great gusto, a time for Congos (as those locals who are descendants of African slaves call themselves) to don colorful costumes and masks to perform a spectacular tribal dance ritual originated by slaves to poke fun at their colonial Spanish masters. Congo folklore is also a colorful part of the Black Christ Festival on Oct. 21, which draws thousands of supplicants and spectators to this historic Caribbean town.
#77 Portobello is the closest mainland gateway to Isla Grande, a Caribbean island getaway popular with Panamanians. It’s three miles long, less than a mile wide and relatively peaceful during the week; on weekends it rocks to the reggae beat. Place to stay: Bananas Resort, complete with pool, open-air restaurant, snorkel gear and off-island excursions.
#78 El Otro Lado, a new boutique hotel across the bay from Portobello, brings a new luxury experience to the area. Dotted around a central pool are four houses with brightly colored interiors, designed originally to accommodate the friends of the 270-acre private estate’s owner. Assets include handcrafted furniture, fantastic food and a day’s helicopter charter to the San Blas Islands.
BOCAS DEL TORO
Christopher Columbus beat us all to many of today’s favorite resort destinations, including Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of seven main islands and a couple of hundred islets off the northwestern coast of Panama. Five hundred years later, Bocas is booming in an off-the-beaten-path sort of way as Europeans and North Americans have settled here to invest in restaurants, pubs and lodgings, adding comfort and a low-key cosmopolitan flair to a rustic destination that offers a quintessential Caribbean vibe and eco-adventure. Flights land in Bocas Town on Colon Island.
#79 Visitors come to Bocas to snorkel among the mangroves and coral reefs, to dive (clearest waters end of August to November), to relax on beautiful beaches, and to enjoy the colorful houses, seafood specialties and reggae groove served up in Bocas Town.
#80 Bocas Town offers visitors a host of colorful little hotels sitting right over the water, right in town. For instance, guests at Hotel Bocas del Toro enjoy one of the best seats in the house for cocktails and dinner at sunset, while the Bocas Inn has comfortable rooms and an equally prime location.
#81 Just 15 minutes offshore from Bocas Town is Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, whose nine 2-story bungalows are built on stilts high over the Caribbean waters and connected to each other and the dining and lounge area by a boardwalk. Guests can slip into a sea of spectacular coral and marine life directly from their bungalow terraces.
#82 On Isla Bastimentos, travelers visit the Salt Creek village of the Ngobe Bugle indigenous community, with a chance to purchase handicrafts such as painted woodcarvings and handbags.
#83 Visitors can dive Bocas del Toro in many places: the best dive spot on the outer reef is Cuevita, with lots of caves and swim-throughs; a little farther out are the most beautiful, Robinson Crusoe-style islands; and best dive sites of all, the protected waters and reefs around Zapatillas Cays.
#84 For clients seeking a bit of sophisticated rusticity, accommodations in thatch-roof bungalows on stilts by the water’s edge, good food and a place dedicated to marine activities, Au Natural eco-resort on Bastimentos Island may be just the pick; it’s a bit remote, 30 minutes by boat from Bocas Town, and snorkeling, windsurfing and kayak equipment is included in the price, although the big draw is diving.
#85 Another lodging pick on Bastimentos Island and top on a birdwatcher’s list is the upscale Tranquilo Bay Eco Lodge, located on 200 acres in the rainforest adjacent to the Caribbean Sea and Bastimentos Marine National Park, where recorded bird species include 180 onsite and 400 from daily excursions.
#86 For eons, faithful sea turtles return to Bocas del Toro, with good islands to see them from. Depending on the species, the nesting season is from March to September, with tours offered 8 p.m. to midnight; the hatching season lasts from May to November and hatchings happen any time of day.
#87 Recommend clients spend a full day at San-San Pond Sak Wetlands, a habitat for manatees and great for spotting marine turtles along the beach.
#88 A must is experiencing flying through the rainforest on Isla Bastimentos: tell clients to sign up for the newest outdoor adventure, the Bocas Zipline Canopy Tour. It’s fitted out with seven ziplines, a Tarzan swing, a suspended sky bridge, a ropes course, and vertical rappel. Zips are up to 1,000 ft. long, traveling at speeds of up to 42 mph.
#89 Plan for vacations in Bocas in September, when the International Festival of the Sea is held in Bocas Town; it’s a 5-day event with food stands serving local cuisine, handicraft booths, folkloric dancing and a special presentation by the Smithsonian Institute.
GUNA YALA ISLANDS
A half-hour flight from Panama City, yet occupying a world of its own, is the Comarca Guna Yala, known to the rest of the world as the San Blas Islands. This is the autonomous territory of the Kuna Indians, the best-preserved of all of the indigenous cultures in the Americas. Made up of some 365 islands, of which 49 are inhabited, the San Blas is a place for swimming off white-sand beaches, snorkeling along pristine coral reefs and schools of dazzling fish, swinging in a hammock, and visiting thatched-roof villages by local cayugas. There is frequent air service to Porvenir, as well as to other air strips on the Islands.
#90 Accommodations are limited on the islands. On Iskardup Island, guests stay at the Sapibenega Kuna Lodge and enjoy an idyllic location, comfortable lodgings in water-side cabins, and a welcoming owner organizing well-thought-out excursions.
#91 Uaguitupo (Dolphin Island) offers the charming Dolphin Island Lodge and accommodations in bamboo cabins set on a grassy oceanfront plot, each with hammock terraces and private cold-water showers. Fresh fish is served at meals in the dining room with gorgeous sea views, and there is a full menu of nature tours and snorkel trips.
#92 Coral Lodge, 30 minutes by boat from Porvenir, lies just outside the jurisdiction of the San Blas Comarca. It’s a luxury-style place to dive, trek, go kayaking or ride horses to discover the area further. It’s also an eco-friendly retreat with spacious overwater villas, just a step-down into the sea.
#93 Watch molas in the making and “shop ‘till you drop” for the islands’ most distinctive art and Panama’s most famous handicraft. Along with beaded arm and ankle bracelets and gold nose rings, molas are the traditional, decorative appliques that the San Blas women wear set into the front and back of their blouses. Traditional mola designs often center on turtles, fish and birds or are geometric in style.
#94 Snorkeling is superb in the San Blas, where Wichub-Wala Island is renowned for its surrounding snorkeling spots; on island is the Kuna Niskua Lodge with a dozen comfortable rooms with private showers, and with rates including meals and tours. Around Nusatupo Island, the big draw is the coral reefs, wrecks and numerous fish at Cayos Los Grullos, one of the prime snorkeling spots in San Blas.
#95 Meeting and mingling with local people is central to the San Blas experience. Older, longer-settled islands have larger communities and more varied interactions, from visiting mola-making homes (Ukupseni Island) to attending village congresses (Achutupu Island).
#96 Touring the islands by private yacht or kayak are the optimum ways to get up-close and personal with the islands: snorkel along fish-rich coral reefs, picnic on uninhabited beaches, or drop in at rarely visited villages.
Near the Colombian border in eastern Panama, the Darien Province, a remote, sparsely populated expanse of tropical rainforest, is considered Central America’s last grand, untamed wilderness. Access to Darian is overland, by scheduled air (not daily) aboard Aeroperlas from Panama City and Chitre, as well as charter flights to interior landing strips. The Darien complex of preserved lands includes the Punta Patino Private Nature Reserve and the Darien National Park, the largest national park in Central America (1.5 million acres) and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
#97 Overlooking the Gulf of San Miguel, Punta Patino Nature Reserve is the largest private natural protected area in Central America and part of the Darien National Park complex of preserved lands. Visitors can stay here in one of 10 air-conditioned cabins with private bath at the Punta Patino Lodge, located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Excursions include a motorized dugout canoe ride up the Mogue River to spend time in the village of the Embera people, learning about their culture and traditions—the men are expert carvers and the women weave extraordinary baskets—and taking time to go on an excursion into the forest and along the shore on foot, by tractor, or by boat. Ancon Expeditions owns and runs the lodge.
#98 From Punta Patino Lodge, clients can head up the Mogue River and, on a long day’s walk accompanied by Embera guides who know the rainforest and eagle nesting grounds, head into the realm of the harpy eagle, the world’s most powerful bird of prey and Panama’s national bird. Advantage Tours recently built a small lodge in the Embera village of La Marea; accommodations are basic but comfortable in rooms with private baths and no electricity. The village stay combines two unforgettable experiences: living among the Embera Indians and being in close proximity to a harpy nesting site.
#99 The penultimate adventure in Panama? The Darien National Park experience, one usually pursued by avid birdwatchers, but perfectly suited to nature lovers. Ancon Expeditions offers 4- and 5-day trips, including charter air into the landing strip at the Cana Field Station, remotely but gloriously located on the southeast side of Cerro Pirre peak. Accommodations come with comfortable beds with sheets and shared baths with hot water, as well as separate dining and roofed areas fitted with hammocks.
#100 Off the southern Darien coast, world records for landing the big ones—black marlin (December to April) and sailfish (December to June)—have been set and broken by anglers staying at Tropic Star Lodge in the Bahia de Piñas.
One of the most comprehensive, informative, comfortable and luxurious ways to experience Panama is on a 6-night Journey Between the Seas exploration cruise, navigating the first night to the Darien jungle, cruising on to the Pearl Islands (San Telmo & Mogo Mogo), transiting the Panama Canal and cruising on Gatun Lake, stopping at Barro Colorado, exploring the Chagres River and Fort San Lorenzo, visiting Portobello and taking the Panama Canal Railway train back to Panama City.
#101 Experience Panama on a Journey Between the Seas aboard the 24-passenger Discovery, a purpose-built catamaran providing six queen and five twin cabins. The dining area, bar and lounge are located top deck and fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass walls providing nonstop spectacular vistas. The vessel is equipped with a platform that lowers and raises kayaks and zodiacs gently into the water for excursions. The itinerary operates northbound (as noted above) and in reverse southbound.
of note: BIOMUSEO
For the Museum of Biodiversity (aka Biomuseo), American architect Frank Gehry designed a fractured walled, Crayola-colored, 43,000-sq.-ft. oceanfront building. Inside, exhibits celebrate the unique cultural, ecological and geological origins of the Isthmus of Panama, with eight state-of-the-art galleries that tell the story of continents colliding and mountains rising, leaving Panama with 12 distinct ecosystems that shelter one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. The tale of two oceans is represented by two separate aquariums.
of note: COIBA ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE PARK
Covering 124,000 acres, Coiba Island National Marine Park is one of the largest marine parks in the world: 80 percent is oceanic, and the rest encompasses Coiba Island and 38 other islands. Marine fauna includes hundreds of fish species, as well as 23 whale and dolphin species that inhabit the waters year-round. Half a dozen shark species have been sighted, as well as large numbers of migratory humpback whales. On land, 147 species of birds are recorded, with 21 endemic including the largest population of nesting scarlet macaws in Panama. The list goes on in this wildlife-rich place, including two species of crocodile, and agouti, howler monkeys, possum and white-tailed deer unique to the island.