Panama City is at the heart of the country and it’s hard to miss once you’re there. From Tucumen Airport it’s a 40-50 minute drive to the city but, once in the centre, the traffic is crazy and an adventure in itself. I was all too glad to be driven with the chance to look out the window instead of being behind the wheel. Be prepared for a long drive from the airport but, with so much going on around you, it’s very much part of the holiday.
In all honesty, I wasn’t really looking forward to the Canal before my trip as there were so many other places to visit but, I soon changed my mind. Until you visit it, it is impossible to appreciate its sheer size, and realise what a central part it plays in so many people’s lives. A few number crunching facts:- The central part of the Canal, Lake Gatun is 26 metres above sea level (impressive when you think its 425 km2). Operating the canal employs over 9,000 workers and it operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 13,000-14,000 ships annually. Amazing!
The city is a fascinating mixture of old meets new -of skyscrapers, modern buildings and the quarter of Casco Viejo – the oldest part of Panama City, founded in 1519 and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This colonial and historic district is ideal for exploring the narrow streets. The views across the bay to the newer part of the city are impressive. For those interested in nature and wildlife, it is only a 20 minute drive from here to Soberenia National Park, which boasts a diverse range of birds and excellent trails, including the famous pipeline road.
A short, 50 minute flight from Panama City lies the San Blas archipelago, home to approximately 32,000 fiercely independent Kuna, an impressively indigenous people. This culturally independent and diverse region has its own laws, customs, language and is governed by the Kuna General Congress. When I arrived at Achutupo (the small village near to where the airstrip is found) it was a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by so many indigenous Kuna people who have repelled the Western influences of Panama city and kept to their traditional clothes and way of life.
I found accommodation here to be quite rustic, which is part of the adventure and, just as long as you’re not expecting 5* accommodation, it’s great. Somehow a “proper” hotel just wouldn’t quite fit in here! Accommodation is cabana style with some units on stilts overlooking the water with views to other small islands. Sunsets are first rate and there’s so much snorkelling and exploring around the island to be done that as soon as the sun has set and dinner is all finished, bed is a welcoming thought. The slightly thinner than normal mattress couldn’t be more comfortable. As Spanish is the Kuna’s second spoken language, communicating with them and the staff at the hotel was slightly limited but, none the less, great fun and there resulted some excellent banter.
This town, 2.5 hours drive from Panama City, is located inside a huge volcanic crater so you are surrounded on all sides by impressive and steep hills. So, it’s great for hikers. Don’t worry though, the volcano is extinct so there’s no danger of it erupting during your stay! Birds are plentiful here and the many trails make it an excellent place for bird watching.
Isla Boca Brava
An immensely peaceful and relaxing place, this was one of my favourite locations that I visited. A 20-30 minute boat ride from Boca Chica on the mainland, past small, uninhabited islands gets you to Isla Boca Brava, almost uninhabited save for a few farmers and of course those lucky enough to stay at Cala Mia. After mooring on the beach I was greeted and led to my bungalow (each of the 11 bungalows has its own outside sitting/lounge area over looking the ocean!). After leaving my bags I went up to the main “building” where the restaurant and bar are located. I’ve never seen anything like it, a combination of Robinson Crusoe meets rustic architecture. An idyllic thatched island hideaway. And the food…..well the amount my waist gained in just 3 nights can only tell….
There are many available activities on the island from horseback riding, kayaking and snorkelling to finding an untouched beach to wind away the hours or exploring the island on foot. I decided to go for the latter and, after a few hours, came across a troop of monkeys. Finding a great spot to take a few photos, I got my camera out only to be harassed by the monkeys throwing fruit and sticks at me! Luckily their aim was pretty awful so there was no harm done – but do remember to give the monkeys space!
Bocas del Toro
For those looking for beautiful clear water, excellent snorkelling and with slightly more choice of what to do in the evening then this is the place for you. I was staying in Bocas town on Isla Colon, the largest and busiest island in the North Western archipelago. When people describe it as a small town by the water it really doesn’t do the place justice. Many of the buildings are literally built over the sea and sitting having lunch on the decking with the water slapping the struts beneath is heavenly. After lunch I hailed a water taxi from my table and a quick 20 min boat trip took me to nearby Red Frog beach on Isla Bastimentos – a neighbouring island where I indulged in a quick spot of snorkelling at Hospital Point which was great. These were just two places I went to out of a mass of other bays, beaches and islands which I could have visited. This place is great for watersports – snorkelling, kayaking and boat hire and generally exploring the many surrounding islands.