Month: April 2015

Panama “Side B” from the Katy Trail Weekly

“Panama!” side ‘B’ as in beautiful

 

April 24, 2015

 

 

Beach at Toboga Island./Photo by Michael Wald

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.

Article about Panama City in local newspaper

Aside from passing through the Canal, Panama is a relatively new tourist destination. Only three hours by plane from Dallas, Panama is really two countries — Panama #1 consisting of Panama City, and Panama #2 consisting of the rest of the country. They’re completely different. I’ll discuss Panama #2 in another article. I’ll write separately about how to experience the Canal.Panama City is a traffic nightmare. With planning you can see it in a long weekend. A simple way to get around is by a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus, which stops close to many tourist hotels. A recently-opened subway also works great. But you’ll want to see some places that are not accessible by either of these methods. And neither goes to the airport where a taxi into the city is needed, around $40, tolls included, excluding tip.Not to be missed, in the jungle close to Panama City, is a visit to an Embera community. Go with a tour arranged by your hotel. The Embera are an indigenous people that strive to preserve their way of life without electricity and speaking their own language. From thatched-roofed homes built on stilts in tribal villages of two to three extended families, they fish the Chagres River and eat mangos and other fruits of the jungle. The men wear loin clothes, and the women do not wear shirts, instead covering their bodies with elaborate plant-dye tattoos.Embera village homes

Embera Village Homes

Visiting the Embera is closer and easier than visiting an African tribe, but the experience is similar. It starts with a trip in a dugout canoe. When there, get yourself a tattoo for a $5 tip. It will last about two weeks. You can learn Embera dances. They will show you their wares, which consist of carvings from the hardwoods in the jungle, exquisite jewelry and woven baskets that hold water both made from jungle materials and primitive musical instruments. You can buy these same things in tourist shops but buying from the source ensures authenticity and helps preserve the culture.

If you have time, ask the village medicine man to take you on a jungle walk to pick leaves for whatever ails you.

Another highlight is the old part of Panama City called Casco Viejo (Old Village). Even though it has long been home to the Presidential Palace, access to Casco Viejo used to require driving through Chorillo, the neighboring, very dangerous slums of Panama City. A controversial new highway makes it easy to get there now by car, but its narrow streets make it impossible for the hop-on-hop-off bus to get you there.

Casco Viejo’s charming, old Spanish architecture is preserved by law, which prevents beautiful outer walls and wrought-iron balconies from being demolished in the huge ongoing revitalization and gentrification now resulting in expensive apartments and restaurants. Visit the wonderful Panama Canal museum on Independence Plaza to learn its history. Near the French Plaza visit the promenade with a wide assortment of local souvenirs and impressive view of the city skyline.

A peninsula connecting three manmade islands built of earth from Panama Canal excavations, Amador Causeway caters to tourists. Don’t miss the Biomuseo, the new, futuristic Gehry-designed museum explaining the natural history of Panama. The hop-on-hop-off bus stops there. You’ll recognize its colorful architecture immediately!

Biomuseo

Biomuseo

Two other places in Amador, a little off the beaten path, are must-sees. Walk down the road behind Mi Ranchito restaurant and you come to a fascinating Smithsonian exhibit, which replicates the jungle experience right in the city! Second, near the new convention center a bazaar selling traditional artisan works is wonderful; haggling encouraged.

New contrasts with old — see both come alive in Panama as this budding tourist destination fully blooms.

 

 

 

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