This article from the Epoch Times talks more about the rise in tourism within Panama, considered the fastest growing economy in Latin America. Check it out!
Blessed with alpine mountains, tropical forests rich in wildlife, pristine beaches, protected coral reefs, vibrant indigenous cultures, and a cosmopolitan capital city, Panama is Latin America’s unspoiled treasure.
Panama has drawn dreamers, schemers and adventurers throughout its history. But the hordes of tourists that have overrun Costa Rica, flattening its culture in the process, have not landed in Panama—yet. It seems you’ll encounter more bankers, businessmen and pensioners visiting Panama than tourists.
With a diverse economy anchored in the canal, maritime services and a thriving banking and real estate sector, Panama has been saved from tourism-based development that has entrapped so much of the Caribbean and Latin America. That’s a good thing for the country, and for the traveler seeking an authentic experience.
Some other good things—you can drink the tap water in Panama City and most of the country because of a first-world public health infrastructure (a legacy of the American presence) that has also eradicated malaria and yellow fever.
Panama runs on U.S. currency—and you’ll get far more mileage from your dollar. Getting there is not a strain on the budget, either. Various carriers offer inexpensive flights to Panama City, many non-stop.
When you arrive you will find the Panamanians very welcoming. Situated literally on one of the world’s crossroads, Panama has a long history of accommodating outsiders, from gold-digging Spanish to canal-digging French and Americans.
Panama City is the finance capital of Latin America, with hundreds of banks offering secret accounts to all comers. The financiers and assorted other tax dodgers who park there money here have an interest in being safe while they visit their investments. Hence, Panama is free of kidnappings and the other crimes that plague many parts of Latin America.
The most colorful part of the city is Casco Viejo, the colonial quarter with narrow brick streets, filigreed iron balconies and bougainvillea filled plazas. A pleasant afternoon is spent in its charming sidewalk cafes, eclectic shops, hip restaurants and art galleries. S’cena (www.scenaplatea.com), a popular upscale restaurant serves Mediterranean influenced dishes upstairs and pulses with exceptional live jazz and salsa at the bar Platea downstairs.
No trip to Panama is complete without visiting the canal, truly a wonder of the modern world. You have to be on the canal to fully experience its breathtaking scale, though you needn’t make the full 12-hour canal transit. Panama Marine Adventures (www.pmatours.net) offers a half-transit on the Pacific Queen tour boat, with air conditioned cabin, 2 lounge decks, outdoor seating. Your ticket includes a catered lunch, snacks and soft drinks.
The friendly, bilingual tour guide entertains with a running commentary of interesting facts and stories about the canal as the boat takes you from Lake Gatun, the flooded valley in the center of the Isthmus, into the Culebra Cut, the man-made valley that cuts through the continental divide, through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks, to the Amador Causeway, the four-mile long palm-lined breakwater in the Bay of Panama built from rock dug out of the Culebra Cut during the canal’s construction. The trip takes about five hours, depending on ship traffic, as you drop 35 feet at a time through the locks, passing elephantine freighters and occasional pleasure craft.
Panama City is blessed with a wealth of excellent choices for international and regional cuisines. Chinese, Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, French Italian, and various Latin are all represented.
Eurasia, Calle 48, offers signature seafood dishes with an Asian fusion cuisine. Prawns with tamarind and coconut melted in my mouth. The surroundings are a rich sensory experience as well. Original art by contemporary Panamanian painters adorn the 1936 hacienda-style home’s rich papaya-colored walls.
La Posta (www.lapostapanama.com), Calle 49, serves Latin with a European flair in a 1950’s Havana setting with potted palms and wicker ceiling fans. The menu offers a choice of salads, seafood and meats. Seared yellow fin tuna was pure heaven.
It would be a big mistake to skip the local cuisine at the innumerable cafes, cafeterias, roadside stands and street stalls. Manolo café, across the street from El Veneto hotel and casino, is open till the wee hours of the morning. You can sit on the wraparound patio and take in the vibrant street life while chowing down on lechon (pork) and tostones (fried plantains) or the typical Panamanian sancocho stew.
El Veneto Hotel and Casino (www.venetopanama.com) captures the Las Vegas, wide-open town aspect of Panama. El Veneto’s 24-hour casino is the center of all the action. The attentive, bilingual hotel staff are on duty at all times, and so are coffee shops, hopping bars and restaurants. The comfortable rooms come with top drawer linens and toiletries, and the hotel has a large rooftop pool, with poolside café and bar and fitness center.
The Intercontinental Miramar (www.miramarpanama.com), caters to the top international clientele, counting among its visitors presidents, Mick Jagger and Hillary Clinton. Located on the seafront boulevard with a huge pool and breathtaking views of the Bay of Panama and the skyline, it is close by Calle Uruguay’s hot nightspots and restaurants.
The Playa Bonita Resort and Spa (www.playabonitapanama.com) offers a close-by alternative to staying in the city. Set on a small Pacific cove and surrounded on 3 sides by lush rain forest in the former Canal Zone, it’s just minutes from downtown, across the canal on the Bridge of the Americas.
With 3 pools (including a swim-up bar), a variety of restaurants and the best spa in the country, it’s a good place to relax and get a massage after roughing it in the bush. Stylish rooms, all with balconies and ocean views, and a beach lined with coconut palms add up to international resort ambiance. When you’re sitting on a chaise lounge with a rum punch, the ships on the blue horizon queued up to enter the canal tell you you’re in Panama.
Beyond the City
Panama’s diverse natural beauty is readily accessible. Just minutes from downtown Panama City, you’ll find yourself in protected tropical rain forest. This is the watershed that feeds the canal, and more species of birds are found here than in all of Europe.
Located on a mountaintop 40 minutes from the capital, the Canopy Tower (www.canopytower.com) is a mecca for bird watchers and nature lovers of all kinds. A former U.S. military radar installation with 360 degree views of the canal and surrounding rainforest, this round, five-story metal tower has been converted to a rustic-chic lodge for world-class bird watching. The forest canopy is at eye-level from the bedrooms and dining room. Fruit crows, hummingbirds, sloths and monkeys seemed close enough to touch from the window.
Equipped with digital telescopes and binoculars, the Tower’s expert guides take you on hikes on rain forest trails where they will spot and point out toucans, blue cotingas, howler monkeys, capuchins and other wildlife. It was a fascinating experience even for me who is not a birder.
The Canopy Lodge (www.canopylodge.com), the Tower’s luxurious sister property, is located in the Valle de Anton, an extinct volcanic crater in the mountains two hours west of the city. The Valle de Anton enjoys cool spring temperatures year round, and wealthy Panamanians make it a weekend destination and own second homes here. The Lodge’s rooms are tastefully appointed with natural stone walls, high ceilings, and balconies overlooking lush gardens of tropical flowers, banana plants and palms beside a fast-running stream.
The Tower and Lodge include delicious freshly prepared meals served family style with the other guests. At the Lodge, we enjoyed a candlelight dinner of the freshest fish and perfectly spiced vegetables on the covered patio that doubles as a dining room and library. Dining partners included couples from California, Maryland and Maine, and an engineer from Madrid in Panama for the Canal expansion.
The next morning, our Panamanian guide took us hiking through the cloud forest. He had a story for each of the trees, flowers and insects we encountered. Like the Tower’s guides, he would mimic bird calls and had an uncanny ability to spot the tiniest birds in the thick forest canopy.
The winding trail up the rim of the ancient volcano led to the take-off point for the Canopy Adventure (http://adventure.panamabirding.com) zip line, a cable strung high above waterfalls and treetops that you grab onto and zip down for an adrenalin charged ride.
Later, we visited the outdoor Indian market with stalls offering local handicrafts, ceramics, fruits and vegetables. As I was drinking a café con leche, an old man walked by selling fresh tart tamarinds and buttery soft freshly roasted cashews the likes of which I had never tasted.
Best Beach in the World?
East of Colon in the Caribbean you’ll find the San Blas islands, the premiere beach destination of Panama, if not the world. More than 300 idyllic, picture postcard coral islands, most inhabited only by coconut palms, fringed with white sand and living reef, scatter across miles of sapphire water stretching to the Colombian border. The islands and the virgin rainforest on the mainland are unspoiled by hotels, mass tourism or modern development of any sort.
This is Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna Indians, the friendly, self-governing indigenous people who have retained control of their culture, their land and their economy. They bar all development, outside investment or land sales. Their fascinating matriarchal culture, largely intact since pre-Columbian times, is yet another reason to visit this incredibly beautiful tropical paradise. The story of how the Kuna won their autonomy through an armed uprising with the help of an American adventurer in the 1920s reads like an Indiana Jones tale.
You can visit Kuna Yala aboard a boat or by staying at one of the rustic lodges of thatched huts the Kuna run on otherwise uninhabited islands. A Kuna family prepares meals of lobster and other local seafood, and takes you by dugout canoe to visit other islands and snorkel. The rub is that there’s no running water and the outhouse toilets empty to the sea, so you will probably want to swim elsewhere.
We went by boat, and it was a truly unforgettable experience. The pocket sized islands, silver and dark tufts of palm, appear like a mirage on the shimmering horizon. We would drop anchor and snorkel among sunken ships and some of the best-preserved coral reefs on earth. (No runoff from onshore development to harm them.)
Kuna fishermen pilot dugout canoes boat side to sell fresh-caught lobster. The women, dressed in traditional fashion with colorful headscarves and skirts, gold nose rings and intricate beadwork on their calves and forearms, are famous for their hand-stitched appliqué fabric blouses (molas). They spread their handiwork across the deck to make a sale.
After dark, the night sky, with no competition from earthly electric lights, revealed the infinite splendor of “heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light.”
The Kuna believe the islands and sea are a gift from God, and true happiness is only experienced within nature’s presence. You will experience it when you visit this magical land suspended in time.
For budget travelers, the Andiamo (http://theandiamo.com), offers group sails, where you share cooking and other duties with up to six shipmates. For a luxury experience, the Simpatica (www.sail247.net), a 45’ blue water catamaran, accommodates up to four guests in air-conditioned staterooms, with gourmet meals and all the accessories you need to enjoy the water.
It’s owned by a couple sailing San Blas as they prepare a round the world trip. Louis and Julie invite a few people to come sail with them for as long or as short as you wish, and see the world from a different perspective. A portion of proceeds from the boat go to Africa Down Under, the non-profit they founded to support sustainable community development projects in Zimbabwe.
Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) serves San Blas with daily flights from Panama City on small planes.
For information on travel to Panama visit www.visitpanama.com
and the Panama Tourism Bureau at www.atp.gob.pa
Nov 15, 2009
Of course take advantage of Bocas del Toro's best hotel group:
Bocas Paradise Hotel www.bocasparadisehotel.com
Popa Paradise Beach Resort www.popaparadisebeachresort.com