Panama Exploratory Trip
In September I headed south for an exciting two weeks in the wilds of Panama to explore new places and meet with our guides. Travel time from Costa Rica to Panama City is a quick one hour flight! Accompanied by three of the best naturalist guides in Panama, I traveled to all the places our Wildlanders visit on our Panama adventures, except for the Darien, where I plan to travel next year. Stay tuned for an update from me!
Our journey began in Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal area, a great introduction into Panama history and its future. Casco Viejo is an old town that has been well-preserved. A wonderful place to wander and take in the local vibe, visit museums, plazas and stroll past charming colonial buildings and houses, some with Juliet balconies full of tropical flowers. We dined in small outdoor restaurants with street light dining and lively music. The view from Casco Viejo to Panama City looks quite impressive in the distance, like a miniature Manhattan. It is by far the most cosmopolitan city in Central America, the metropolis of soaring skyscrapers, sophisticated restaurants and international banks and businesses.
Everyone who travels to Panama should visit and, if possible, transit the Canal. We stopped at Miraflores Locks which offers the best visitor facilities and has a very well maintained museum which explains how the canal was built and operates. Of course, having your own guide to tell you the story while you view the artifacts, videos and maps, is much more enriching than just walking through on your own. We also ventured out on a Jungle Boat Expedition around Gatun Lake, a vital part of the Panama Canal and the largest in the world. When the canal opened in 1914, the damn controlled the flow of the Chagres River. The absence of houses and infrastructure surrounding the Canal helps keep it intact. Within a few minutes we were seeing white faced capuchin monkeys, a large iguana eating from the jocote tree, over 12 river turtles waiting for the iguana to drop a jocote fruit and two baby caimans hiding among the bushes. Later we spotted the Tamarind Titi monkeys near the little no-name island where we enjoyed a picnic lunch and watched large cargo ships passing by on their way to the Pacific Ocean. What a treat!
The Chagres River, which supplies most of the water for the Panama Canal and the drinking water for Panama City, also offers the opportunity to explore the upper sections with its lovely rainforest. This combined with a visit to the Embera indigenous people makes a perfect day of exploration and cultural exchange. The Embera people are very friendly and during our visit they share their story of how they were relocated from the Darien jungle to live in communities along the banks of the river and how they adapted their way of living in order to survive. Our time spent with the Embera includes dance demonstrations, a walk through a botanical garden, a chance to buy handicrafts including cocobolo and tagua nut carvings and their famous woven baskets including a demonstration of how they are made. Your children will enjoy a great time playing ball with the local children who always welcome new friends.
Around Panama City there are several towers which can be climbed for wildlife viewing and rainforest observation. I had the opportunity to visit three towers: We started with the Canopy tower, an old US military radar tower which was transformed into a 12 room hotel with a wildlife observation platform high above the protected forest of Soberania National Park. Within 30 minutes on the observation platform we had quickly spotted 3 different species of monkeys, over 24 species of birds, sloth and some iguanas. This area is a nirvana for birder watchers and nature lovers who don't mind staying in rustic/basic accommodations. Next I visited the Panama Canopy Crane, the first canopy crane erected in a dry tropical forest, in 1990, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This is one of six cranes erected in temperate forest around the world and they are not accessible to the general public. We have special permission to take nature enthusiasts in small groups of four. The gondola gets raised and lowered at desired observation sites within the canopy. This is a very unique and exclusive experience to explore the forest canopy and observe wildlife. Imagine a 360 degree view of the city and forest. What a great photo opportunity! As part of the Central America biological corridor, Panama also has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world and it is easily seen throughout your travels around the country.
Pipeline Road is one of the best day trips from the city and immerses you in the Soberania National Park on an easy hike to see an abundance of birds. We even spotted capybaras, the worlds largest rodents. We stopped in at the nearby Rainforest Discovery Center, a facility that promotes environmental education and has a tower from where we enjoyed a large family of Howler Monkeys and countless colorful birds.
Panama is so rich in culture and has a large population of indigenous people; over 5% of the population belongs to one of the seven recognized tribes. It was so exciting to experience, meet and interact with three of these tribes: the Kunas, the Emberas and the Nobe-Bugle. All three tribes strive to preserve their traditional way of life and are fiercely proud of their language.
One of my favorite areas to visit was the San Blas Archipelago to spend time with the Kuna Indigenous people at Achutupu, one of the islands. For the Kunas, Earth Planet is the Mother of everything that exists and represents the spirit, the strength, the balance and the force of their culture. This is why it is so important for them to take care of the environment and not abuse it. Another reason to fight to keep their autonomy and preserve their culture is the biological diversity of the region and the recent tourism upturn. We are known as the wagas (non Kuna people). Juan, our Kuna guide, is one of the most accommodating people I have met through my travel years. Juan was always making sure everyone was having a good time and getting the most out of their experience. The accommodations at Uaguinega Lodge where rustic but clean, comfortable and safe. The food was superb with a whole red snapper served for lunch and mouth watering lobster for dinner, all prepared and served by Kuna people who were welcoming and enthusiastic throughout our stay. A walk through the community allowed us to chat with the Kuna people, learn about their way of life, and purchase their world famous handstitched Molas. Mola is the Kuna word for blouse, but it usually refers to the colorful panels on the front and back of the women's garments. It is one of the most well preserved native art forms on the planet. There are many fun activities to enjoy including kayaking, boat tours, snorkeling and swimming. But it is the chance to immerse ones self in the lifestyle of this community that remains the highlight of the trip. Would you like to plan a romantic lunch for two on a deserted island with your partner? No problem, the Kuna people do anything in their power to have you experience the best service and natural surroundings in the most sustainable way possible.
Panama is gifted with a diverse ecosystems combined with a variety of micro climates that can be experienced in a very short time. With most roads in excellent condition, and convenient scheduled domestic flights to the main destinations, it is easy to savor two different oceans in one day; go white water rafting or zip lining in the morning and sea kayaking or whale watching in the afternoon! Speaking of whales! This was hands down one of the most unforgettable experiences of our trip. During our stay at Cala Mia, a deluxe boutique hotel on the Pacific Ocean, we had the chance to go whale watching with Alberto, an expert local guide blessed with sharp eyes. Alberto took us up close and personal, 30 feet from a large group of Humpback Whales. Richard, our naturalist guide, had never seen whales this close in over 19 years of guiding in Panama. Whale watching day trips to Taboca Island are easily arranged for those not staying at Cal Mia. It was a whale of a day trip! Panama is really easy and flexible.
Our next stop is Chiriqui Highlands, with so much beauty its is not surprising that one of its villages (Boquete) is praised by the international press as being among the worlds most desirable places to live. On the coast of Chiriqui there are islands, offering excellent fishing, pristine beaches, surf breaks, and quaint villages. Inland you can enjoy Panamas tallest mountain, spectacular rain forests, cascading white-water rivers, and abundant wildlife. The drive through the Anton Valley and then to Cerro Punta and Boquete is spectacular and the most scenic in all of Panama. Lowland areas give way to gentle rolling hills that have been cleared for agriculture, especially coffee plantation and pastureland. Climbing further, you find primeval forest and mountains become steeper, volcanic peaks are all around with their slopes densely forested and in the afternoons cloaked in clouds changing from silver to orange as the sun sets. Boquete's elevation is over 4,000 feet with hikes taking you upwards over 7,000 feet where you enjoy stunning views of the mountains and valley below.
In Volcan and Boquete we meet new friends: Sergio, Charly and Deibys, three of our local "Chiriqueos" guides who share their expertise of the area through their knowledge of geography, nature and cultural history. They are the eyes and ears of the rainforest as they lead us through a maze of giant trees covered with ferns and moss. . The trees provide habitat for a great number of birds, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, Three-wattled Bell bird, Ruddy Treerunner, Spotted Barbtail, and Spectacled Foliage-Gleaner.
Heliconias and flowers also attract a variety of colorful hummingbirds such as White-throated Mountain-Gem, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Volcano Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird and Violet Sabrewing. Really stunning!
Coffee tours, river rafting, hiking at Finca Lerida or Los Quetzales trail, horseback riding, hot springs, are just some of the many activities available in both areas. It is always nice to stroll around the little town of Boquete or Cerro Punta and be part of the daily live of the Chiriqueos.
After our highland experience we drove across the Continental Divide by the Fortuna Dam with views of waterfalls and the spectacular rainforest of the Palo Seco protected area that serves as buffer zone to La Amistad National Park. In Almirante we meet the boat for the trip to Bocas del Toro on Colon Island, the largest and more developed Island of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Bocas del Toro translates as "mouth of the bull," but how it got this name remains a mystery. There are no bulls and the topography does not, and never did, resemble a bull's mouth. Bocas is a small, colorful town of wooden houses with a relaxing, laid back Caribbean feel. In little more than a decade, the town has managed to reinvent itself as a tourist-friendly destination without loosing its charm as a sleepy provincial capital and one-time banana company headquarters. The town, set on a curving strip of waterfront, consists of a few hotels, bars, restaurants and touristoriented businesses. This funky little town has a romantic charm and welcomes everyone. There is so much to see and do for anyone interested in having fun or just spending some quiet time in a Caribbean paradise. After a couple of days it is hard to leave!
Among the places we visit are Swan's Cay, home to the gorgeous red-billed tropicbird, Bocas del Drago and lastly Starfish Bay, a sleepy beach famous for a large number of colorful starfish and crystal clear waters to laze in. At Bocas del Drago you can enjoy lunch and a tall cool one at the one and only beachside restaurant. Check out Crawls Cay, a lovely place for snorkeling. Enjoy a seafood feast on one of the several floating restaurants.
Along the way you pass by lush red mangroves which provide protection for sea life during their reproductive and development stages. If you have never tried it I highly recommend mangrove snorkeling to see nurse sharks, barracudas, starfish and many other tropical fish.
Make sure to include a visit to Isla Bastimentos, a 10 minute boat ride from Bocas del Toro and home to the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous people of Salt Creek. The villagers are friendly and welcome visitors. Salino, an Ngobe-Bugle guide, is always happy to take anyone on a two hour walk into the forest along the island trail to observe the night monkeys and red frogs. This community is beginning to benefit from tourists purchasing their woven handbags and wood carvings. Salino and his family were the first to recognize the importance of neighboring Bastimentos National Marine Park. This village provides a great opportunity for your children to interact with local children.
It is worthwhile spending an additional night in Bocas to include a trip to Zapatillas Islands, located on a coral platform and famous for their beautiful beaches, shimmering clear water, coral reefs and shady forests. If you like to swim or snorkel Zapatillas is a perfect place to spend the day with a picnic lunch.
Panama's highlights are considered off-the-beaten-path destinations making it the perfect time to go! It is a destination for everyone: bird watchers, families, and honeymooners, groups of friends, and adventurous spirits looking to discover the secrets of Panama.
Meeting new people and learning about a new culture reminded me that one of the reasons I love traveling and arranging amazing adventures for our Wildlanders is because it connects us with people at a deeper level than we ever imagined or expected. Of course the warm temperature, normally around 80's, is another great reason among a long list of reasons to plan your next vacation to Panama. Water temperature hovers at an average of 75F meaning no wetsuits! Not crossing time zones is another advantage, especially when traveling with children.
Given that Panama remains relatively undiscovered you can expect travel costs to be more affordable than other Central American countries. Panamas political stability makes it a very safe country for families, couples, and single women. Panama is always green and warm. Any time of year it is the perfect place for a tropical getaway.