Central / South America

Maybe you should consider visiting Panama!

On the river | Photo credit: Tourism Authority of Panama

You won’t regret it.

Panama has few rivals in the quantity and quality of its attractions: fifteen hundred islands on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the planets most nature-rich, accessible rainforests, spectacularly beautiful mountains and highlands, historical sites from a past as an international crossroads, seven living native cultures and a cosmopolitan capital city rivalling many other country capitals…

Panama continues to grow as an attractive and exciting tourism destination. Unfettered – as yet – by multitudes of tourists, Panama’s scenic wonders glitter. Although most travellers to Central America set their sights on Costa Rica and Guatemala, Panama offers visitors an unspoiled treasure trove on natural wonders, a rich history and a unique culture that dates from the 16th century.

Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is the southernmost country of Central America. Situated on the isthmus connecting North and South America, it is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Some geographers categorize Panama as a transcontinental nation connecting the northern and southern regions of the Americas.

Panama is only the size of South Carolina, yet it has a great variety of attractions: exotic tropical rainforests, beautiful mountain refuges, Caribbean-style beaches and 1000 islands, one of the best birding sites worldwide, seven living Indian cultures, an American-style and sophisticated capital city, Spanish colonial historical sites, golf, diving, snorkelling, not to mention that 8th wonder of the world and engineering marvel, the Panama Canal.

And, no doubt, you will appreciate the weather. Panama has a tropical climate. Temperatures are uniformly high – as is the relative humidity – and there is little seasonal variation. On a typical dry-season day in the Panama City, the early morning minimum may be 24°C and the afternoon maximum 30°C. Temperatures on the Pacific side of the isthmus are somewhat lower than on the Caribbean, and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country. Temperatures are markedly cooler in the higher parts of the mountain ranges.

Panama is one of the most stable democratic republics in the Americas and has been a committed U.S. ally since the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900’s.The crime rate is far lower than that in most U.S. cities and other vacation and retirement destinations.

Casco Viejo | Photo credit: Visit Panama

Panamanians are known for their peaceful, get-along and fun loving nature. As a result of the 90 year presence of Americans in the Canal Zone, Panamanians understand and appreciate other cultures and nationalities. English is also widely spoken and understood.

And here is some interesting information that perhaps you did not know …

You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the 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 market crash in the United States quelled those plans. When the French failed to complete their own canal in Panama, the U.S. bought the land rights for $40 million, and after much toil and strife it became the marvel that it remains today.

Hilltops became islands when the U.S. dammed the Río Chagres during the construction of the Panama Canal, creating Lago (Lake) Gatún. One such island is Barro Colorado, which was declared a biological reserve in 1923.

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

Every year on October 21, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to Portobelo to repent their sins in front of a statue of the black Christ said to bequeath fortune and blessings on the pious. Quite a legend has built up around this statue. No one is sure when it arrived in Portobelo (sometime in the 1600s) and its provenance is shrouded in mystery and small-town lore.

Panama City’s city limits actually encompass a 655-acre rain forest, the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is home to more than 220 bird species (including keel-billed toucans and mealy parrots) and 45 mammals (from sloths to agoutis).

From 1919 to 2004, Panama had its own Alcatraz, a penal colony on Isla de Coiba, in the Pacific’s Golfo de Chiriquí. The institution housed some of the country’s most fearsome violators. After the prison was phased out, Coiba, 38 other islands, and their surrounding waters became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, the island remains mostly in its pristine natural state.

Panamanians love snow cones, better known as raspados in these parts. On scorching days, armies of cone vendors push their carts around the city. When you order, they hand scrape shavings from a block of ice into your cone, you choose from a variety of fruit flavours, get a squirt of condensed milk or honey, and go along your merry way.

In the 1500s, the Spanish built a 50-mile cobblestone-paved route to transport Inca gold making its way up the Pacific from Peru to Spanish galleons anchored in the Caribbean. The path, called the Camino Real, linked Panama City in the south with Nombre de Dios (later Portobelo) in the north. Patches of route still exist.

Tourism is becoming an integral element to the Panamanian economy. Tourism, during the past several years, has increased as a result of government tax incentives and price discounts to foreign guests and retirees. Now, some 1.2 million people visit Panama each year … and many come back year-after-year …

 

And here’s why. Just to whet your appetite and imagination, here are several highlights that you can do and see on your first trip …

Diablos en las Fiestas del Corpus Cristhi, Villa de Los Santos | Photo credit: Visit  Panama

Embera Indian Village Tour Right out of the pages of National Geographic, an unforgettable encounter with a living Indian culture in Panama’s rainforest. You’ll take a motorized canoe, the only means of transport in the jungle, up a scenic rainforest river to an authentic Embera Indian village on a river bank. The village consists of rough wood and palm homes on stilts typical of the jungle Indians. The Emberas will perform a tribal dance; offer you body paintings with rainforest dyes and their exquisite handicrafts. You’ll share a typical meal and learn about their way of life, traditions and beliefs.

Gamboa Rainforest at the Panama Canal is located 45 minutes from Panama City, and offers ecotourism experiences during day tours which include a pick up from your Panama City hotel. You can ride on the aerial tram through the rainforest canopy, visit outstanding nature exhibits and dine on a restaurant terrace with views of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.

Canopy Tower Named by Travel and Leisure magazine one of the top ecolodges in the world and lauded by more travel publications than any other Panama destination, Canopy Tower is just an hour from Panama City by car. It offers a close-to-nature experience, world class birding and nature observation and gourmet dining. If you’re not a birder this experience will nevertheless impress you! From the tower in the tree tops like a giant tree house, you’ll have a panoramic view of the jungle and see florescent coloured birds and hear howler monkeys roar.

Portobello Bay About a two hour trip from Panama City on the Atlantic Coast, Portobello is set on a scenic Caribbean bay. You can visit this picturesque bay side town with the ruins of four Spanish forts and a restored customs house. During the Spanish Colonial era it was the trans-shipment point for all the treasure Spain looted from Inca Empire. Treasure was stored, displayed in fairs and then shipped to Spain. The fabulous treasures stacked high in the customs house made Portobello a favourite target of English pirates like Sir Francis Drake who attacked the cities forts repeatedly. Sir Francis met his demise in waters nearby. You can drive yourself or go with a tour operator.

Whale watching in the Pearl Islands An amazing two-for: you can enjoy watching magnificent whales, plus the incredible tropical beauty of the Pearl Islands. From Panama City, there are both day tours and 2-5 night stayovers. You must however book in season: Panama has two whale watching seasons, July-October (These whales are from Antarctica) and December-February (These whales hale from Alaska).

Monkey Island Boat Tour A thrilling, fun and up-close encounter with rainforest nature. You can tour by boat the islands in lakes of the Panama Canal waterway through pristine rainforests where you’ll see four types of monkeys cavorting in the jungle. As well, watch for other water life like crocodiles, and exotic birds.

El Valle is a quaint flower filled mountain town 2 hours from Panama City. The attractions are the large artisans market, mountain views, a great restaurant, a thrilling Canopy Zipline tour through rainforest canopies and a small tropical zoo. Have lunch at the famous gourmet restaurant Casa de Lourdes. For a budget meal, lunch at Pinocchio’s Pizza or a have the delicious Panamanian chicken soup “Sancocho” at local cafe.

Visit Panama’s Riviera Just one and a half hours from Panama City is Panama’s Rivera – a string of lovely, uncrowded beaches. One of the best things about Panama’s Pacific is that the water is warm. Santa Clara and El Palmar beaches are the best for day trippers because there are beach-side restaurants where you can also use the facilities for 25 cents.

Golf Just thirty minutes from downtown Panama City, the Summit Golf Club offers extraordinary tropical scenery, a championship course designed by Jeffrey Myers with a par 72, 18 hole, 6,626 yards and sand based Bermuda Tidway grass. The course is host to several international tournaments outstanding practice facilities and a beautiful club house with a restaurant.

Other sites to see …

The Archipiélago de las Perlas itself could occupy your entire trip, with its endless islands and islets, sublime beaches and pristine waters. Parque Nacional Volcán Barú is home to Panama’s only volcano and some incredibly scenic trekking opportunities, while the Interior is a veritable bonanza of colonial towns, exquisite handicrafts and the country’s friendliest people. Panama is also home to one of Central America’s most independent indigenous groups, the Kuna, who live autonomously in the Comarca de Kuna Yala; as well as one of the last true frontiers in the Americas, the infamous Darién Province.

Why should you consider travel to Panama?

Beautiful beaches | Photo credit: Visit Panama

Simply because the country and its peoples are fascinating … Since the days of pirates, adventurers have been discovering and exploring the wonders of Panama for generations.

And as such, we’ll leave you with one more interesting tidbit …

The remains of a sunken 17th century ship belonging to pirate Captain Henry Morgan have been uncovered in Panama by a team of archaeologists from the United States and rum manufacturer Captain Morgan.

Pirate Morgan lost five ships near the reef of Lajas in 1671, including his flagship “Satisfaction”. The team discovered a portion of the starboard side of the hull of a wooden boat and unopened cargo boxes encrusted with coral. The cargo boxes have not yet been opened, but Captain Morgan USA, who sells spicy rum named after the pirate of the same name, is clearly hoping to find some liquor inside.

Captain Morgan has been using the image of the famous pirate on their logo for many years. Furthermore, films such as Disney’s, “The Pirates of the Caribbean”, have portrayed many pirates as bloodthirsty, captivated by booty and power, as well as, of course, drink from time to time. But researchers say that the real Morgan doesn’t fit with such an unsavoury description.

Artefacts excavated by the diving team in 2010 included six cannons. Any future relics will remain the property of the Government of Panama and will be preserved and presented by the Patronage of Old Panama.

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