Bienvenidos a Panamá!
Located in Central America, Panama is mostly known for its canal, skyscrapers and great shopping opportunities but trust us, there are many other facts Panama should be known for.
Two weeks ago, Just Boarded had the chance to be invited to attend the AdventureWeek, an event organised by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) in partnership with the Panama Tourism Authority to feature the best adventure travel products on offer.
During a week, we trekked into complete wilderness to spot howler monkeys, sloths and resplendent quetzals, had lunch with indigenous people living deep in the rainforest, tasted the most expensive coffee in the world, kayaked on the famous Panama Canal and snorkelled in the crystal clear water of the Gulf of Chiriqui. Yes, all that in just a week! Actually, we did much more than that. To save you some time, we made a list of the best activities you can do in Panama, so next time you go there, you won’t miss a thing. De nada!
Wander around Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo, is one of Panama’s 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites and for sure the most charismatic neighbourhood of Panama City. The restored and well conserved historical buildings and old colonial houses with their pastel facades definitely don’t need an Instagram filter.
The neighbourhood is small, but it’s quite a show. The cobblestone streets are populated by street vendors, old ladies chatting on a bench, children laughing and playing and people playing music. We know it used to be an area written about in travel guides only to tell tourists not to venture there, but Casco Viejo has now become an area hosting some of the capital’s most stylish addresses. Full of hidden gems, the narrow streets come to life at night with open-air restaurants, live music and rooftop bars. For the best views over the city, we recommend you to enjoy some tapas and “just one” passion fruit mojito at Tantalo, the first rooftop bar opened in Casco Viejo.
Pay the famous Panama Canal a visit
The first attempt to construct a canal, from the deep waters of the Atlantic to the deep waters of the Pacific, began in 1880 under French management and was completed in 1914 by the US. Today, the Panama Canal is one of the most important shipping routes in the world, employs approximately 9,000 employees and is the country’s star attraction.
The length of the Panama Canal is 80 kilometres (about 50 miles) and it takes an average of 8 to 10 hours for a ship to transit the waterway. Since its opening, all vessels have to pay a toll to cross the canal, the amount depending mainly on their size and cargo. The lowest toll to date was paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the Panama Canal in 1928. He only paid 36 cents! Since its expansion in 2016, the canal now welcomes larger ships carrying more cargo and paying tolls as high as a million dollars! Very expensive but still less than sailing around South America.
To get a chance to see a ship transit the Panama Canal, head over to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center. If you feel more adventurous, kayaking on the canal is a unique experience. Feel the magnitude of the canal, get close to the huge vessels on their way to the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean and look out for howler monkeys, crocodiles, sloths and iguanas.
Eat your bodyweight in food
Have you ever tasted Panamanian cuisine before? The food in Panama is a true representation of the diversity of the country. It’s a combination of fresh and delicious Hispanic, native Indian, European, African and even Chinese local ingredients and spices. When eating on the coasts, expect vibrant dishes with fresh seafood, root vegetables and tropical fruits, such as mango, coconut and pineapple. In the inlands, you will be served meat with root vegetables, rice, beans and bananas.
A typical breakfast includes fried corn tortillas, served with a melting piece of cheese on top, meat and eggs. If your tummy can’t handle it, fresh fruits, eggs and toasts are easy to find all over the country. For lunch and dinner, try the meat soup called sancocho or some seafood (we recommend the sea bass called corvina, it’s delicious!) served with coconut rice with guandu (pigeon peas). Popular side dishes are tamales – boiled dough of ground corn, stuffed with meat and served in banana leaves and empanadas – corn or flour pastries filled with meat, potatoes and cheese. For dessert, try a piece of pastel de tres leches – a rich cake soaked in evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and cream (forget about your diet!) or a flan – a light egg custard in a caramelised sauce.
Here are 3 of our favourite dishes tasted during our trip in Panama:
- Plátanos maduros en tentación: plantains caramelised with sugar and covered with cinnamon. Basically, our definition of heaven.
- Ceviche: chopped raw fish, mixed with onions, tomatoes and cilantro, and marinated in lime juice. For all our vegan friends out there, try the mango ceviche, but watch out, you may get addicted!
- Yuca frita: fried cassava, the tropical version of the French fries… but even more delicious!
When it comes to drinks, you have a wide choice of fresh juices, local beers and of course Panama is famous for its award-winning Geisha coffee, known to be the most expensive in the world! Prepare your taste buds for an explosion of flavours and go on a coffee adventure tour to learn more about the different coffee varieties. Last but not least, did you know that Panama is the only country in Latin America where it is safe to drink the tap water?
Explore a desert island
Panama has more than 1,400 islands and most of all are blessed with white sand beaches. Whether you want an island with dense jungle vegetation, centuries-old towns or surrounded by bright coral reefs, Panama definitely has an island that will meet your needs, whether it’s along its Caribbean or its Pacific coast. Some are luxury and well developed for tourism, others are remote and wholly uninhabited.
The San Blas archipelago and the Bocas del Toro Islands are the most popular amongst tourists. Located on the Caribbean cost, they offer numerous hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions. Popular activities include surfing, snorkelling, fishing and kayaking.
If you are looking for a more remote and quiet island, head over to the incredible Gulf of Chiriqui National Park. This park encompasses some of the world’s most bio diverse ecosystems: dense jungles, protected coral reef, deep mangroves and dozens of pristine emerald isles. The Gulf of Chiriqui is an uncrowded paradise which serves as a refuge for humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, bottle nose dolphins, sea turtles and tropical fish.
If you don’t know which coast to choose, try both! At the country’s narrowest point, only 80 kilometres separates the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean, so you can actually swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean on the same day. If you had a long week and would rather relax, choose one of the many quiet islands that Panama has to offer and enjoy a siesta on the warm sand under the shade of a palm tree (not a coconut tree!). End your day by jumping aboard a tiny boat and experience a magical sunset tour. By the way, did you know Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic?
Trek in the rainforest
Exploring new trails and hidden corners of the jungle is quite easy in Panama as nature is never far away. Panama City is actually the only capital in the world that has a rainforest within its city limits. Crazy, right?
Panama is home to some of the most diverse and exotic species of plants and animals on Earth. According to the National Association for the conservation of Nature (ANCON) in Panama, you can find over 10,000 different types of plant species including orchids, ferns and different varieties of trees. Over 250 species of mammals and 950 species of birds, including the tiniest volcano hummingbird and the harpy eagle – the national bird of Panama, can also be spotted.
If you are not scared of height, head over to the slopes of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama (3,478m), to explore the rainforest from an incredible point of view. Follow your guide on the suspension bridges hanging 75 meters above the ground and learn more about the lush flora and fauna. It’s an adrenaline filled adventure for sure!
Rivers and streams dance across the Panamanian landscape and sometimes form impressive waterfalls. If you feel the need to cool off, head over to central Panama or to the western highlands and you will come across towering waterfalls. We are not going to lie, getting there involves a bit of hiking but it’s well worth the climb! Once there, you can swim in the cool water and enjoy the magical surroundings, welcome to heaven!
Spend a day in an indigenous community
There are seven indigenous groups of people in Panama. According to the IWGIA, they number 417,559 inhabitants (12% of the total Panamanian population). Most indigenous groups in Panama still live on ancestral lands in autonomous regions called comarcas, and are doing everything they can to keep their culture and traditions alive.
They tend to make a living through farming, fishing, hunting, and the sale of handicrafts (which, by the way, are great souvenirs to bring back home). Some groups also allow you to spend some time with them. They live in small communities or villages and build their houses along the banks of rivers, so getting there is an adventure in itself but it’s a great opportunity to explore their village and the surrounding areas which are full of birds and wildlife. Depending on the community you will visit, you will assist to traditional performances of music and dance, see how the women create their handicrafts or learn more about their rituals and how they use medicinal plants and natural pigments. And for a complete immersion into the indigenous culture, you can even stay overnight.
It was an intense week spent learning about the people, the culture and the land that make Panama such an incredible place to explore. We discovered a beautiful country full of lush rainforests, small villages, white sand beaches, clear turquoise seas and home to the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. It’s crazy how a small tropical country can be so diverse! Add to that the Pan-American Highway and more than 30 airports and you will have one of the easiest country to travel around. Panama can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish. So give Panama a chance and you will fall in love too!
Psst! We are working on an amazing itinerary through Panama and can’t wait to share it with you. Stay tuned!
Until next adventure.
Before we go, (still here?), we like destinations to stay as authentic as possible so help us adopt a responsible tourism to make sure the beauty of countries like Panama is preserved. Thank you!
If you managed to stay with us until the very end (well done you), you deserve more than a little pat on the back. We’re going to teach you your first Panamanian (slang) word: Meto – pronounced “MET-oh”. It’s an interjection used in the province of Chiriqui to express surprise, anger or disgust (it’s like our overused OMG). To be completely honest, we still haven’t figured out exactly how and when to use it but every time we did, Panamanians were laughing. So you won’t sound like a local, but at least you will be funny!
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