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Dugout canoes are the mode of local transportation in Panama’s Kuna Yala (aka Guna Yala and San Blas Islands). They also become floating markets to sell wares to foreigners sailing in the area. My new bride and I were on one such chartered sailboat, which led to a special encounter. Throughout our honeymoon, we were visited by merchants known by the boat’s owners, Swedish couple Christina and Ulf. Items for sale included lobsters (a local specialty), the catch of the day, mangoes, coconuts, and molas, which are embroidered works of art traditionally worn as vibrant panels on a Kuna woman’s blouse. Most Kuna don’t have electricity, so Ulf often charged cell phones overnight. One transaction led to an invitation by Kuna couple Pricilliano and Adelaida to visit their family island. Known as Gunboat Island, the entire speck of Caribbean paradise was roughly the diameter of a quarter-mile track. Three generations (more than 10 family members) live in two huts with thatched roofs and sand floors. During the day, clothes hang from the ceiling where hammocks drape at night. Meals are prepared over an open flame. An outhouse sits on a pier. But cultural differences only run so deep. Over several hours, we bonded with two young girls, Elaida and A., who played in the water and sand and climbed palm trees with us. I let them shoot photos and see them in my viewfinder, and they squealed with delight. It was the perfect encounter for a young couple with dreams of starting a family.
Paddling through the Panama Canal? Yes, a passion born from an annual race called the Regata de Cayucos: Ocean to Ocean, founded in 1954. Witnessing the three day race (or even a few practices leading up to it, as I did) is such a phenomenal way to see the canal. Check out the website for the Balboa Paddle Club below, for practice and event information. They are a nonprofit club that is dedicated to promoting the sport of rowing and the conservation of the basin of the Canal. The teamwork, timing, balance, communication and strength involved is beyond impressive. My best friend from college was a part of a local team and I had a chance to follow along in a smaller motor boat while her team was on the water. If you're headed to Panama City any time soon, be sure to check out the Balboa Paddle Club's schedule to see if you can see some of the action and tip your hat to the Panamanian sport of cayuco.
The Panama Canal, an early 20th-century industrial marvel, continues to amaze engineering, construction, history, and maritime buffs. An expansion to double its capacity is in progress and slated for completion in 2015. The upper deck of the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, on the Panama City side, offers views of massive cargo ships being raised and lowered (depending on the direction) through the giant lock gates.
Panama City's colonial neighborhood, called Casco Viejo, is a beautiful peninsula full of a mix of crumbling colonial decay and dutifully restored colonial dreams. The area is great for a day of strolling and stopping for occasional drinks when the tropical sun becomes oppressive. Look out for indigenous Embera and Kuna women selling their vibrant multicolor handicrafts.
City parks are often urban oases of natural life, but few offer the ecological drama of Panama City's Parque Natural Metropolitano, the city's largest park. While residents stroll, play sports, and relax within its leafy acres, travelers often watch for birds (keep an eye out for chatty parrots and flashy red trogons). Lucky visitors who trek into the park early in the morning may even be treated to a sighting of a sloth dangling from a branch or a tamarin monkey peeking out from behind the brush. Image courtesy of Parque Natural Metropolitano.
Of the many boat excursions available in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, the trip to Playa Estrella stands out for its numerous multicolored starfish residing in the tranquil, crystal-clear waters. The beach is truly an "oasis" of calm and the shallow warm water is perfect for bobbing around and relaxing.
These little red frog are the namesake of a beautiful stretch of sand on Isla Bastimentos, an island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The island is easily reached by water taxi from Bocas del Toro and has a few good trails across the island where you can spot some wildlife on the way to the beach.
These impressive stone ruins are all that remain of the original Panama City, founded in 1519 by the feared conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila. Although the Panamá Viejo (or Panamá La Vieja) remains are now skeletal, a tour of the site is a crash course in local history. The looming cathedral tower is a national symbol, and the on-site museum is a veritable pantry of history, stocked with centuries-old pots and pans, plates, and household items left over from the Spanish, as well as extensive indigenous artifacts. Photo by Mónica Mora/Flickr.
Visitors who want a change of pace from the busy city can sign up for a half-day excursion to Gatun Lake. Trips to this lake, which are made via high-speed motorboat, typically include stops at Monkey Island, so named for its principal inhabitants: capuchin and howler monkeys. The island is also a protected habitat for sloths and tropical birds, including the toucan. Many excursions also include a stop at a second island, named Sounds of Silence, where guests can relax and enjoy a picnic lunch before returning to the capital. Photo by Tom Long/Flickr.
While the site has plenty of trees, plants, and other projects, here is Manuel Noriega's former bar. Yep, that kind of bar. The institute has since turned it into an aquarium.
These fuzzy little creatures look a lot like the cute Mogwais from the movie Gremlins, but are actually monkeys, called Cotton Top Tamarins. These tamarins are virtually extinct in Central America and only remain in isolated pockets of forest in and around Panama City. Cerro Ancon is a forest covered hill and a tranquil oasis surrounded on all sides by the frenetic city. The hill maintains some charming buildings and former residences of important Canal Zone employees. One such building has been converted into a charming bed and breakfast, called La Estancia. At La Estancia you can enjoy a long leisurely breakfast on the patio and view more urban dwelling wildlife than wandering through the virgin rainforest all day. The list of animals viewed in a single morning is nothing short of incredible. Tamarins, sloths, tit monkeys, armadillos, agouti, parrots and toucans are all actually easy to spot on the hill, especially in the morning and late afternoon. Cerro Ancon occupies a central location in Panama City and offers easy access to the Mira Flores Locks of the Panama Canal, the colonial Casco Viejo neighborhood and the modern highrises of downtown. Most importantly, Cerro Ancon provides a quick escape after an exhausting day of exploring these exciting destinations in the tropical heat.
You are (almost) guaranteed the sight many an iguana and at least one sloth while on a visit to Punta Culebra. This small treasure is a Smithsonian museum outpost on Amador Causeway. The grounds are made of a forest and beach, as well as interactive touch pools. There are large tanks that serve as homes for sharks and marine turtles and you'll be sure to see pelicans while they're fishing. Make sure you don't miss the view of watching the ships sail under the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Be sure to make the trip to Punta Culebra while you're in the hustle and bustle of the dynamic Panama City. The hidden and obvious iguanas (and possible sloths) won't disappoint.
Old world theaters exude glamour and grandeur, and this one is exceptional—from the gold facade and brass door fixtures, to the interior wooden foyer, painted ceiling frescos, gilded tiered balconies, and posh chandelier. Tour inside and view the city from the balcony or, better yet, enjoy a performance or a concert. It's along the waterside promenade near Plaza de la Francia.
Even travelers who consider themselves averse to cruises seem to feel drawn to a day-time cruise tour of the Panama Canal, and it's easy to understand why: it's a manmade engineering marvel, best seen close-up. A full-day tour, which typically lasts 8-10 hours, takes passengers along the locks and lakes of the canal, starting at the Pacific Ocean and transiting to the Atlantic. Along the way, tour operators provide meals and snacks, along with narration in English and Spanish. Tours are offered year-round. Photo: Marlin 2121/Flickr
One of the most anticipated events of the last quarter of 2014 is the opening of Panama City's Biomuseo. The Frank Gehry–designed museum—his only building in Latin America to date—brings a pop of welcome color to the industrial-looking Amador Causeway. Architecture aficionados will be drawn to the structure even if they have little interest in what it houses. Inside, visitors will find eight galleries, the majority of them devoted to displaying Panama's biodiversity and explaining the country's geological and biological origins. Outside, "El Bioparque" functions as an extension of the exhibits, and features native flora. Photo courtesy of El Biomuseo.
Just 20 minutes outside of Panama City, Playa Bonita is the best location to experience the sprawling city's urban excitement as well as its natural wonders. Hugging the Pacific Ocean, the resort offers dramatic views of ships lining up for the Panama Canal. Playa Bonita provides excursions to the lush Panamanian rain forest and the lakes and waterways that feed into the Canal, with Gamboa Tours.You can also quickly dive into the city, exploring Casco Viejo and the restaurants and nightclubs that never seem to close. The resort boasts six elegant restaurants and four pools. I loved the beach views but the rocky terrain and high waves make it best for lounging. I especially enjoyed the Oasis Lounge, where live bands served up an energetic supply of cumbia, salsa, and romantic boleros. The passion fruit mojitos were my nightly relaxation tonic.
There's just one spot where you can drive across the Panama Canal's locks - this little swing bridge a the Gatun (Atlantic side) locks. It's an amazing view!
Off Panama’s Caribbean coast, these palm-roofed cabins perch over a stretch of aquamarine sea. The surrounding Bocas del Toro archipelago is home to sloths, howler monkeys, and scarlet dart frogs. —Brendan Brady Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, Bocas del Toro, Colon Island, Panama. 507/6612-1088, puntacaracol.com. From $430, including breakfast, tea, and dinner. Photo courtesy of Punta Caracol Acqua-Logde. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue. See more overwater bungalows.
The Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity is finally finished. The guide on the Panama Canal called it a building from someone who has done too much partying in Panama. I guess he hadn’t been to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.(view from the Panama Canal) For more info, see my post on Panama on my website.
The anticipated Museum of Biodiversity, designed by Frank Gehry, opens this year, and the Panama Canal will soon double its capacity. To prepare, luxury hotels, such as the Trump Ocean Club and Le Méridien, are cropping up. And in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, Spanish colonial buildings are reopening as restaurants, boutiques, and trendy hotels such as Tántalo, home to the city’s first rooftop bar. Photo courtesy of Tántalo/Facebook. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Head to Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, a stunning mix of Art deco, Caribbean, French and Colonial architectural styles. Hungry? Look for the Havana Club. I thought I'd walked onto a set. 'Buena Vista Social Club’ was playing on a small screen in the corner of the room. A red barbers chair guarded one of the four wooden doors. I couldn't help but stare at the wall to wall wood panelled bar. The rum stained floor and the overpowering chandelier probably rescued from the ruins of an old ship envelops the room with echo of countless tall tales. No better way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.
In the farmer's market in Boquete, Panama, I tasted my first tree tomato. Yes it is a tomato that grows on a tree. And no, it hardly tastes like a tomato. it's more like a sweet fruit. You slurp the delicious juicy pulp out of the skin and throw away the peel. Of course, part of the magic of discovering a new food in a remote corner of the world is that you are in a remote corner of the world. Boquete is a mountain town in the cloud forest of western Panama, very close to the Costa Rican border. Until about 20 years ago, Boquete and its surrounding Province of Chiriqui, was cut off from the rest of the country. Boquete was connected only with the city of David by rattly trains. It was not until the Pan American highway was built through the area that Boquete linked up. From its history of isolation, Boquete had developed its own unique character, culture - and foods.
You can’t travel far in Boquete, a coffee-growing region in the highlands of western Panama, without hearing about geisha beans, reputed to be the world’s best coffee. Farmers here credit Boquete’s alpine microclimates and rich volcanic soil for the geisha’s singular profile—robust with notes of tangerine and jasmine. Boquete is a 45-minute drive north from David, which is an hour west by plane from Panama City. Sample geisha beans at the source on Boquete Mountain Safari’s tasting tour. Visit three family-run estates, where owners walk you through the production process from planting to percolating. At the sprawling Finca Lérida plantation, founded in 1922, you can sip several types of coffee. There, Andrès Lopez, who oversees quality control, instructs newcomers on how to evaluate the various varieties for color, aroma, body, and taste. Lopez’s sense of smell is reportedly so refined that he can tell if the beans were transported by a horse or a truck. —Victoria De Silverio $55 per person, 507/6627-8829, boquetemountainsafaritours.com. Photo by Mark Guitard. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.
Panama City is best known for its fish market, but a few blocks away on Avenue B near the Chinatown Gates lies the equally interesting Mercado Público. The market is divided into four main sections: meat, produce, dried goods, and a court full of fonda food stands. The market is a great place to get a sense of Panamanian cuisine and a cheap place to buy food. After exploring the market, I recommend cutting across Calle 15 to the bustling Avenida Central, a festive street full of cheap clothing shops, rowdy vendors, and food markets.
En route to the cloud forest and waterfall trails north of Boquete lies an abandoned castle in a lush and magical clearing. The story goes that a man finally started building the dream home for his wife when he retired, but she died before it was done. He too eventually passed of a heart attack and the project was left uncompleted. The family has since put the land up for sale hoping a buyer would be interested in turning the lonely castle into a spa or resort hotel.
Casco Viejo (the old city) is currently undergoing a massive revitalization. Everywhere you look new construction and remodeling is underway. Already a major attraction of Panama City, this charming, colonial location will soon be able to host even more hotels, restaurants, and bars. As I strolled around Castro, I was reminded of Havana, Cuba. Indeed, the city consists of Spanish Colonial architecture, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Being that I love rooftop bars, I was more than delighted to stumble on Tantalo, a new, modern bar and restaurant with great views of Panama city. Get there early, at sunset the place is packed!
As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in what might be the birthplace of foodie-ism. Surrounded as I am by world-class restaurants and beautiful local food, I still dream about the meals I experienced at a secluded treehouse on a protected island in Panama's Caribbean. La Loma Jungle Lodge is tucked serenely away on Isla Bastimentos, accessible only by boat. Our accommodations were an open-air platform in the rainforest with nothing but romantic netting to protect us from Jurassic insects and nocturnal creatures while we slept. By day we paddled through mangroves, explored bat-lined caves, and body-surfed crystal waves. Come evening, we were treated to dinners the likes of which I have yet to experience in the Foodie Capital of California. Every bite - animal, vegetable, and many of the spices - was grown on the island and much of it on the property itself. Try this out: a starter of stuffed green plantains with a pepper cocktail followed by carolla chicken with fresh tumeric, plantain, and taro paired with cinnamon and cardoman rice and banana-coconut chutney with habanero. What just happened in my mouth?! Our hosts showed us more than good meals and enviro-luxuries. They were social, knowledgeable, and supportive. They wanted us to have more than just a good time, but a life experience. Back in the Bay Area fog, we recall the evening of dominoes and rum with locals followed by a night walk on the premises to spy on anteaters. That and home-grown chocolate.
Where to stay in Panama City? Casco Viejo, the old district, is the edgy, cool area where the creative restaurants, historic squares and native markets convene. Tattered neglect is rapidly giving way to tasteful renovations and vibrant renewal. Think of photos of Havana, Cuba’s crumbling colonial manses of faded glory. Picture heavy stone buildings with missing roofs and woody weeds rising to the sky. In Casco Viejo, trash-strewn shells are being revived with polished wood and buffed ironwork, with sparkling lights, sophisticated foods, music and goods. We stayed in Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel in a refurbished bakery. An Italian designer couple exposed the brick walls, created apartment suites with balconies and iPod speaker-decked sitting rooms. Breakfast is delivered on a beautiful tray by a smiling gracious concierge. It’s a lovely little place just steps away from historic churches, squares and the Presidential Palace. (And yes, I should have straightened the bed).
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