Panama was a country that had intrigued me for many years. Famed for its canal I was keen to see if this little country that links the two Americas together had anything else to offer. I also have a rather tenuous ancestral link to the renowned pirate Captain Morgan, so when the opportunity arose to visit in May 2013, I was keen to see more.
Panama City itself offers the first-time visitor quite a surprise with its skyline of skyscrapers more like Hong Kong than any Central American city, but this is a booming hub right between North and South America and well worth visiting for a day or two.
There are three principal parts to the city with Panama Viejo (Old Panama) being the original 16th Century part, which is now in ruins thanks in part to my illustrious forbear! Then Casco Viejo is the 18th Century area and is a charming colonial part of the city which is being massively revitalised and a little like walking around old town Havana in Cuba….loads of beautiful old buildings and wonderful architecture including some delightful little boutique hotels, as well as great bars, restaurants, shops and churches.
A really delightful area to base yourself and then stroll around in the sunshine. The last part is the modern high rise business centre for those interested in some world class fashion shopping.
We then went to see the infamous canal and although I never considered myself to be a boat spotter, it is quite mesmerising watching these vast great tankers, cargo ships and cruise liners squeeze into these tiny locks and then rise or fall depending upon which way they’re headed. Intriguingly in the days of the California Gold Rush it was considered so dangerous, due to the Native Americans, to cross overland from the east to the west coast that many fortune hunters used to sail down to Panama and take the train across the Isthmus and then sail back up the coast to California. This train still runs today and offers a great 1 hour journey from coast to coast through the forest and along the route of the canal offering the occasional surreal glimpse of a vast liner gently cruising through the jungle as well!
We then explored the Caribbean coastline of Panama where there are some wonderful old, colonial Spanish forts, again many of which my ne’er do well ancestor had done his best to ransack, but several forts still remain with numerous rusty canons poking out of ramparts overlooking the turquoise waters below.
The Caribbean coastline is surprisingly undeveloped in terms of tourism and luxury hotels, with the main areas being the San Blas islands in the east and Bocas del Toro in the west. The beaches throughout are fabulous, but the San Blas Islands are semi-controlled by the Kuna people who like to keep the beaches very low key and undeveloped and around Bocas it is still remote with mainly back packers hostels. This no doubt will change fast, as is much of the country, so watch this space…
I then left the coast and headed upcountry into the Chiriqui Highlands and for those who enjoy their coffee in the morning (or any time of day for that matter), then the charming little town of Boquete is the place to be. This is home to the most expensive coffee that has ever been sold on the world market and it’s delicious. Coffee tours, zip wires, white water rafting, cacao (chocolate) tours, trekking, horse riding….there’s loads to do and see or relax and do nothing except enjoy the coffee!
And for those who enjoy bird watching, Panama is sensational with about 10% of all the planets’s birds and the local saying is ‘For every ten visitors in Costa Rica watching one Quetzal, in Panama there’s ten Quetzal watching every visitor’…this sums up Panama beautifully. A rarely visited little gem with so much to offer and I can’t wait to go back.