A vacation in Central America and the Caribbean is a fantastic idea. Being a tremendously diverse part of the world and relatively easy to get to, planning your holiday to one of the many destinations in this region should be on top of your bucket list. Panama is one Central American destination that may not immediately spring to mind. Best known for its iconic hats and a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Panama’s got a lot to offer the first-time visitor. Here are 10 must-do things to tick off your maiden Panama itinerary:
1. Kick things off in Panama City
This will most likely be the starting point of your holiday in Panama. Sign up for a day-tour to immerse yourself in the history and culture of this capital city. In the historic district Casco Viejo, you will find the city’s cathedral, Independence Plaza, French Plaza, artisan market, and the Panama Canal Museum. For a brush with nature, take a walk in Punta Culebra and head up to Ancón Hill for panoramic views of the city.
2. Transport yourself to the iconic canal
Panama’s recent history has been shaped by its canal – an engineering feat connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Construction of the Panama Canal was initiated by France in 1881, and later taken over by the United States in 1904. Opening for operations in 1914, the United States retained control of the canal until 1977, when it was transferred to Panama. A guided tour is the ideal way see and learn about how the canal works. The Aguas Claras locks, Gatun Dam and Lake, Monkey Island, and the four small islands that form the Causeway would be the highlights of your tour.
3. Navigate the coast
Panama has an extraordinary amount of coastline – its northern coastline looks out onto the Caribbean Sea, leading to the Atlantic Ocean. While its southern coastline faces the Pacific Ocean. A Caribbean adventure cruise could take you to Portobello for snorkeling in the bay and beside a reef wall. You can also laze around on the many beaches and catch some sun before proceeding inland.
4. Trek into the jungle
Much of Panama – about 40 percent of its surface area - is covered by tropical jungles. Within its fascinating ecology, you’ll find tropical plants and animals that are unique to this part of the world. A must-visit place in the mountainous region is Boquete, set within a valley of flowers and coffee farms surrounded by the Chiriqui highlands. Just about a 6 hour drive away from Panama City, a bespoke tour to this small town on the Caldera river is absolutely worth your time.
5. Discover the Azuero Peninsula
The Azuero Peninsula is one of the few places in Panama where it is better to visit during the wet season (May to December). In this surprisingly dry part of the country, the rainy season brings out the region’s natural beauty. Rich in history and folklore, the peninsula is an ideal place to connect with Panama unique culture. Surfers and nature lovers would love a couple of days here too. Get lost in the picturesque charms of Pedasi, snorkel off Isla Iguana, meet the turtles and macaws of Playa Combutal or join the party in Playa Venao.
6. Explore the food and drink
Given its history and cultural mix, Panamanian cuisine is a vibrant blend of cooking techniques from Spain, Africa, and Native American cultures. Some of the delicious staple dishes that you’ll be feasting on include chicken with rice, ceviche, corn mash cooked in banana leaf, carimañola (the Panamanian version of empanadas), tamales, fried plantains, and corn tortillas. Panamanians drink a lot of fresh coconut water, as well as tropical fruit juices. If you fancy a beer, then Balboa Cerveza is the most likely brew to be served.
7. Count the islands of Comarca de Guna Yala
Comarca de Guna Yala, on the north-eastern coast of Panama, is an easy two-hour drive from the capital. It is a strip of land that spans about 140 miles, branching off to the archipelago of over 365 small islands called San Blas. Most of them are covered in thick tropical forests and ringed by white sandy beaches, but only a few are inhabited. This region is controlled by the indigenous Kuna people and a tour would be the best way to observe traditional aspects of life in tropical Panama. You could also splurge on one of the luxury resorts in this area.
8. Drink some of the world’s finest coffee
Widely recognized as one of the best coffee beans in the world, Geisha coffee is grown in Panama. It’s believed that the plants that produce these coffee beans were originally imported from Ethiopia. They are now synonymous with the coffee plantations of the mountainous Boquete region.
9. Wear your hat with pride
It might seem a bit cliched, but if you’re in Panama you should probably invest in a stylish Panama hat. The truth is, this popular style is not originally from Panama at all; but now could there be a better symbol of the country – other than the Canal of, course. Traditionally, the hats are made by plaiting local palm leaves – the tighter the weave, the higher the quality of the hat. The town of Montecristis has the reputation of producing the best hats in Panama.
10. Drink the day away at Pedro Mandinga
Pedro Mandinga in Casco Viejo is Panama’s first rum distillery - it’s hard to miss the eye-catching pink building. In the afternoon, it gets busy with locals and visitors enjoying rum-based cocktails. Get yourself a drink too - Panamanian rum is the ideal way to pump up the tropical spirit.
Image details and licenses: https://flic.kr/p/4wTvpB (Rita Willaert, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/6CgFrK (Eylon Israely, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/624m2Z (TravelingOtter, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/jGCM2b (DaseinDesign, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/oE8Tke (Steve Bennett, CC BY-NC 2.0)