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Passage to Panama

Created date

April 27th, 2017

An isthmus uniquely positioned to connect continents and oceans, Panama is a lively and evolving passage for trade and tourists, and a biodiversity-rich destination. Six nights is enough for a taste of Panama City (old and new), a dip in the Caribbean waters of Bocas del Toro, and encounters with natural wonders throughout. 

Expanding canal, remaining biodiversity 

Essential for any trip to Panama is a visit to the Panama Canal, the grand engineering feat that recently celebrated its centennial and the completion of an expansion project. Completed in 2016, the third set of locks doubles the canal’s capacity to accommodate larger cargo and cruise ships while using less water than the original locks. 

If your time is tight, visit the older Miraflores Locks. Just a short drive from downtown Panama City, the Miraflores Visitor Center includes a museum and a short video detailing the history of the canal and observatory decks for watching boats pass through from the Pacific to the Atlantic. 

For a related, bite-size history and biodiversity lesson, join Panama Day Trips for the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake Jungle Eco Cruise. The three-hour excursion includes a boat ride through the man-made Gatun Lake, which is sustained by the surrounding rainforest and serves as an essential component of the canal system, carrying ships between locks and maintaining a water supply for drier months. 

You’ll veer off the main thoroughfare to cruise inlets that are home to monkeys, birds, butterflies, crocodiles, and enough fish to keep the crocodiles well-fed.  Cruise passengers can admire wattled jacana, or “Jesus” birds, walking along the floating vegetation, and feed mischievous capuchin and tiny Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys eager to peel fruit from your hands. 

A Panama City biodiversity tour wouldn’t be complete without a drive down the scenic Calzada de Amador (Causeway) to the Punta Culebra Nature Center. Part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the outdoor center features rainforest and marine exhibits. Wander down a tropical rainforest path with eyes peeled for iguanas, sloths, and birds. Picnic tables at the trail’s conclusion are a prime rest spot with a view of the nearby creatures. Visit in late afternoon for a pre-sunset view of the scenic beach below and the hundreds of pelicans that call it home. 

Old city ambience 

Post-canal and nature viewing, head to Casco Viejo (Antiguo), Panama’s “old city” built after pirates destroyed the original Panama City in 1671. This UNESCO site offers photogenic sixteenth- through eighteenth-century Spanish colonial architecture, much of it newly restored, and post-colonial plazas. The district’s growing number of rooftop bars, open-air restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques has made it a popular destination for visitors and a welcome respite from the congestion of downtown Panama City. 

Have a bite at Tantalo, a tapas restaurant on the edge of Casco Viejo with a rooftop bar and colorfully decorated interior. Don’t miss the savory plantain enchiladas or signature mojitos, made with Panamanian rum. From the roof enjoy a view of Panama City’s towering skyline and the sounds of Latin tunes from live DJs. 

Beer-lovers should stop in La Rana Dorada (the golden frog), a Panamanian microbrewery. Servers will bring a flight of the four beer options for tasting without your needing to ask. The brewery’s pizza is also a must-try.

Caribbean getaway 

Escape the city with a quick flight to Panama’s Caribbean side and the Bocas del Toro archipelago, comprising 9 islands, more than 50 cays, and 200 islets. Fly into Bocas Town on the main island of Colon for a modest, charming getaway. Come with an open mind and you’re likely to understand why so many expats have chosen to make a home here.  

Stay in one of the stilted houses at KoKo Cabins, slightly off the beaten path and nestled within a local neighborhood. KoKo’s website warns against travelers seeking a 4- or 5-star resort, stating: “We believe at KoKo the ultimate luxury is being taken care of and treated nice and that is why we treat every client as part of the family.” Ohioan owners Jack and Lee are good for their word, serving homemade, family-style breakfast and witty banter in their home. 

Bocas is a haven for visitors seeking water sports. La Buga in downtown Bocas offers scuba diving, snorkeling, and surf excursions with excellent service. Just a short boat ride and relatively shallow dive reveals candy-colored coral, giant starfish, and a melting pot of tropical fish. For a beach day, try Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), a 20-minute boat ride from Bocas, where the water is calm and the atmosphere lively. 

Back on shore, meander through Bocas’ downtown on foot or bicycle but save ample time to lounge in your hammock at KoKo, listening to the water lap at the house below. 

On your last night, venture to El Ultimo Refugio, an aptly named open-air restaurant at the end of the island—and shore. Refugio offers flavorful seafood dishes and, like many Bocas hot spots, live music. As you walk back to your stilted house, don’t be surprised to see a giant crab dance across your path.