I’ve previously written about how Panama is like two countries, Panama #1 consisting of Panama City and Panama #2 consisting of the rest of the country, called “the interior” by natives.
The population of Panama is about three million. About half live in Panama City and the rest are scattered over an area slightly smaller than South Carolina. We focus on this interior area, which is principally rural.
Panama #2 offers a huge spectrum of tourist options including cloud forests, beach and mountain activities. Most tourists experience the Canal, which passes through Panama City, and they don’t leave the capital city. They think they’ve seen Panama, but unless they see Panama #2, they really have a lot more to know about the country.
Two principal indigenous groups live in the interior. The Ngöbe–Buglé lives in Chiriquí, a province to the far west bordering Costa Rica. The Kuna Yala lives in San Blas, on the northern, Atlantic coast, near Columbia. Each has its own traditions and language.
The Kuna live mainly on tiny pristine ocean islands. Highly worth exploring, but the Atlantic seas reputedly are the same routes used by drug traffickers from Columbia; so it is best to visit with an experienced tour operator. The best way to get there is on a roller coaster of a road, preferably in someone else’s four-wheel drive, or you can also fly to San Blas. Although close to Panama City, it still isn’t easy to get to.
Chiriquí is where flowers, vegetables and fruits are abundant in an eternal spring climate due to its higher elevation in the mountains. Dairies and horse farms are plentiful. A drawback is that it takes about eight hours by car to get to Chiriquí from Panama City, depending on exactly where you are going. You can fly, around $60 one way to the main city there, David, Panama’s third largest city.
Two of the nicest places in Chiriquí are Cerro Punta, on the edge of La Amistad International Park and Volcan, a dormant volcano, which you can climb in good weather during the day. Make sure you’re physically prepared. Volcan is Panama’s highest spot. You can camp at the top to awaken to a magnificent sunrise in the morning and a simultaneous view of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Part of Amistad extends into Costa Rica and offers great hiking. It’s a jungle cloud forest with thick vegetation. You can easily get lost, so take an experienced guide.
A popular ex-pat haven is Boquete where you might not even feel like you’re in Panama. Its surroundings are home to many coffee plantations. In town you’re likely to find a bagel shop.
North of Chiriquí, the province of Bocas del Toro is another popular destination. Again, you have to get there by plane or a very long car ride on winding mountain roads. Bocas, a series of islands connected by water taxis, is known for the beauty and quiet of its remote beaches, as well as natural habitats for turtles and other wildlife.
If beaches are your thing, closer to Panama City you can more easily access the beautiful beaches on Tobago Island or the upscale Perlas Islands. Catch a ferry early in the morning to either from the Balboa Yacht Club next to the Country Inn and Suites Hotel near the entrance to the Amador Causeway.
Mainland beaches, many with all-inclusive resorts, are concentrated near Santa Clara, which is about a two hour drive from the Panama City airport. An international airport to serve this beach area is currently under construction. With the lowest rainfall in Panama, beaches in this crescent are likely to have good swimming weather, but watch the riptide warnings.
El Valle de Anton, a mountain resort built in the crater of an old volcano, is close by. Known for its farmers’ and artisan market as well as amazing weekend mansions, it is also attracting many ex-pats who run restaurants. See the El Nispero Zoo with its Smithsonian research center involved in preserving the nearly extinct yellow frog that only exists in Panama and is a symbol of the country. A new butterfly museum run by an ex-pat is attracting attention.
Visit Coiba Island for a tropical paradise that rivals the Galápagos Islands. A common launching point for trips there is Santa Catalina, a surfing mecca on the Pacific. You can also get there from Puerto Mutis, one hour south of Santiago.
The interior offers a wide variety of things to do. You’re guaranteed to find your paradise, but you have to get out of Panama City.
Michael Wald is a travel specialist with special expertise in Panama adventure travel. He blogs about travel and other musings at untroddenla.com.