Weekend breaks: Panama

(Published in The Observer on Sunday, 1 April, 2012)


Largely unfettered by large crowds of tourists, Panama is a vibrant Latin American country with ample attractions to suit all. Spanning the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Panama is rich in nature, with spectacularly beautiful mountains and highlands, historical sites and a cosmopolitan capital city.

With direct flights on Thursdays and Fridays with Cayman Airways about to start, we take a look at the top things to see and do in Panama.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a marvel of modern engineering and a unique experience that can’t be reproduced anywhere else in the world. See 5,000,000-ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet as they make their way over Panama from one ocean to another. It took 250,000 people from all corners of the globe more than 10 years to build, and it stands as a monument of mankind’s ingenuity and power of conviction. From Panama City you can easily reach the Miraflores Locks. Here you will find a newly built visitor’s centre with interpretive exhibits and a restaurant with stunning Canal-side views.

Shop till you drop

For many, no trip is complete without at least a day set aside for shopping. Panama City rivals Miami as a shopper’s paradise and you’ll find all the big brands that are in the US. There are four main shopping centres, Multicentro, Albrook Mall, Los Pueblos Shopping Centre and the upscale Multiplaza in Bella Vista.

Visit a rainforest

Panama is perhaps one of the only places in the world where you can take in a rain forest and a city all in one day. The 655 acre Metropolitan Natural Park is the only rain forest located within a city’s boundaries, and is home to more than 22 bird species and 45 mammals. This tropical forest has a number of observation towers and trails, and is also a great place to spot some of Panama’s wildlife, including birds, butterflies and small mammals.

Further afield

If it’s complete rest and relaxation you are after, you’ll find it in Bocas del Toro, located just south of the Costa Rican border. Bocas del Toro consists of six densely forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, Panama’s oldest marine park. The islands are covered in dense jungles of vine tangles and forest palms that open up to pristine beaches fringed by reeds and mangroves. Hiking through huge swaths of rainforest to arrive at an empty stretch of wave-pounded shore is pretty much the norm here. Low-key development has maintained the charm of small-town Caribbean life and the absence of mega hotels has preserved the archipelago’s idyllic beauty. Even the most developed of the islands, Isla Colón, possesses a strong local flavour and appealingly slow way of life.

Back to nature

The mountain town of Boquete is located in the lush green mountain highlands of Panama and is known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural setting. Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in Boquete’s rich soil, and it is one of the country’s top destinations for outdoor lovers. From Boquete, you can hike, climb, raft, visit coffee plantations, soak in hot springs, or go zip lining on a canopy tour.

Whale watching

More than 30 species of whales and dolphins can be found in Panama’s waters. Humpback whales from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres come to Panama to breed and give birth, making Panama one of the few places in the world with two whale watching seasons. From July to October several thousand whales from Antarctica can be seen, while December to February you can spot several hundred whales who have made the trip down from Alaska.

A few things you didn’t know about Panama

You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean when standing on the 11,450-foot-high summit of Volcán Barú, the highest point in Panama.

Nicaragua was the original location of the Panama Canal, but a stock crash in the US nixed those plans. When the French failed to complete their own canal in Panama, the US bought the land rights for $40 million, and after much toil and strife it became the marvel that it remains today.

Seven different indigenous peoples – or comarcas – still call Panama home, though they now represent a mere six per cent of the population. The comarcas are self-administering sovereignties, and some can be visited if you’re willing to go off the grid.

Panama hats don’t actually come from Panama. Teddy Roosevelt was spotted wearing one at the canal and they’ve been misnamed forever more.

Panamanians love snow cones, better known as raspados. On scorching days, armies of cone vendors push their carts around the city, where you can choose from a variety of fruit flavours.

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