Things To Do
Panama’s climate and location makes it easy to pursue a number of leisure activities, apart from formal sport. The city is surrounded by rainforest and some of the best birding in the world can be had a mere 30 minute drive out of the city.
There are many kilometers of hiking trails in the Soberania National Park, with the Pipeline Road being world famous for its birds and wildlife. The Discovery Centre there has a 40+ meter tower from where one can observe canopy birds. One of the most famous bird lodges in the world, the Canopy Tower, is located inside the park. Close to the little town of Gamboa, situated at the junction between the Canal and the Chagres River on the boundary of the Park, is the Gamboa Resort. The views from the hotel terrace are spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset. That area is also very popular with cyclists.
Panama is a water sport paradise and the tropical waters afford fantastic opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. The best places for that are around the islands of San Blas, Bocas del Toro and Coiba Island. The word Panama means plenty of fish and this country is one of the top fishing destinations in the world. The famous Tropic Star Lodge fishing resort in the Darien jungle is holder of a number of fishing world records. There is also some good fishing around Coiba Island, an old penal colony off the Azuero Peninsula.
The countryside, referred to as “el interior” or “el campo”, depending on the degree of development in a specific place, affords great weekend away opportunities. Until very recently even the “developed” parts of the interior were primitive and most parts to this day remain that way, covered with huge tracts of virgin rainforest. The beach areas of the Pacific (“las playas blancas”) around the town of Coronado and the Decameron Resort, situated between an hour and two hour’s drive from Panama City on the Interamericana highway to Costa Rica, have experienced unprecedented growth the past few years with high concentrations of gringo (meaning non-Spanish speaking) expats living on or near the beaches, as well as in the mountain developments, a short distance away from the Pacific.
The town of Coronado has become the service centre for that whole region and a number of shopping malls have recently sprung up there. There is a very good El Rey supermarket, a Super99, a Machetazo department store, a wonderful little Riba Smith, a Novey, a Cochez (both hardware stores), a Felipe Motta delicatessen and wine shop. There are also a number of restaurants and fast food outlets.
For the horse lover the resort in Coronado offers an equestrian centre. Very many Panamanians have weekend homes in those areas and the roads to the beaches on Fridays are very busy, as they are on a Sunday when the crowds return to the city.
A little further away and into the mountains is the very charming town of El Valle de Anton where many city folks have weekend homes. El Valle is situated at altitude, in the second largest (extinct) volcanic crater in the world, and is a lush oasis.
Its weekend market, especially Sunday, is really an experience. Indigenas from all over the district bring their fresh produce, magnificent plants and artifacts to the market for sale. There is always a carnival atmosphere. There are a number of hotels in El Valle, the best one being Los Mandarinos. Adjacent to the hotel is an excellent restaurant, called Lourdes.
The restaurant is actually inside Señora Lourdes’s impressive Tuscan style house. The hotel belongs to her brother. A very famous birding lodge, the Canopy Lodge, is located on the outskirts of town and people from across the globe flock there for all the unique species to be found in that crater. The Lodge belongs to the owner of the Canopy Tower in Soberania.
The Caribbean has less to offer and lags behind the Pacific when it comes to leisure facilities.
There is a lack of infrastructure and even though it is beautiful there, it rains excessively, even in the dry season. Because of the small tidal difference (less than a meter) in the Caribbean, the coast abounds with mangrove swamps instead of beaches. It does, however, boast the most important historical sites in Panama, like the Portobelo fort with its cannons, the Customs House where the Spanish used to hoard the confiscated Inca gold and the church with its black Christ. The San Lorenzo fort is also on that side, at the mouth of the Chagres River.
The Caribbean area of Bocas del Toro is a must for every visitor. It has a distinct Caribbean feel to it, is even more laid-back than the rest of the country and diving is spectacular (just keep your fingers crossed for a sunshine day!) There is a sizeable expat community there who own B & B’s, bars and restaurants. Most buildings are built out over the lagoon, Venice-style (in the old days to avoid the sand flies on land!).
Another must-visit is Boquete, a charming and beautiful town near David. That is where the most expensive coffee in the world, geisha coffee, is produced. Gringos just love Boquete and there are some very classy residential developments there. The town has interesting shops and good restaurants, owned and run by expats. Nearby Cerro Punta is called the Switzerland of Panama and it is there where most of the fresh produce of the country is produced. It is also where all our fresh milk comes from. There is one dairy farm after another. It is much colder up there in the mountains and one has to take warm clothes along on a visit there.
The Pearl Islands in the Pacific are beautiful and interesting islands to visit. Taboga (the Island of Flowers) is the biggest of those of the islands that can be actually seen from Panama City. It is a short ferry ride away and ideal for a day or weekend trip. There are no cars on the island, but everything is within walking distance. There are a number of B & B’s and small hotels. It boasts the second oldest church in the New World and this is also where the famous French painter, Paul Gauguin, recuperated after he took ill working on the failed attempt by the French to build the first Panama Canal. Taboga is also known for its connection to Inca gold. In the colonial days the Spanish shipped the Inca gold from Peru to Panama and Taboga was the stop-over. The biggest of the Pearl Islands, Contadora Island, is much further away.
One can fly there or take a ferry. Contadora is known as the place where the Shah of Iran was exiled to when his presence in the USA became too embarrassing for his hosts. The house he lived in can still be seen. There are a number of fairly decent hotels there. It is called Contadora because the government accounting office was located there during the early years of pearl harvesting, from which the archipelago derived its name.
One of the most idyllic places on this planet, the 365 coral islands of San Blas archipelago in the Caribbean, is Panama’s secret gem. It is part of the autonomous Guna Yala comarca and the Kunas don’t allow non-Kunas to overnight on their land, so there are no hotels. One has to stay with a Kuna family in a homestay or small lodge, for example, or one has to stay on a yacht or a boat on the water. San Blas consist of 365 pristine white sandy islands with only coconut trees on them. Most of the islands are uninhabited.
There is a brand new tarred road between Panama City and Carti (90 minutes), located at the heart of the lagoon in which the islands lie behind a 120 kilometer long coral barrier reef which runs some 15 kilometers off-shore. On the beach opposite Carti one can hail a Kuna in a canoe to take you to any of the nearby islands. A popular choice for short day-trips is Ikudup. Luxury is not the key word associated with San Blas, but it is absolutely unique and unspoilt and simply impressive. The Kuna women all wear traditional dress.
Their blouses consist of mola squares, a kind of cut out reverse appliqué which they also sell and where their main income arises from.
Movies have already been discussed under the heading shopping. All commercial centres have film theatres, and some boast VIP theatres. Unfortunately Panamanians are not sophisticated movie goers and art movies are rarely shown, only action blockbusters from the U.S. Those screened with original sound-track are indicated as V.O.
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