There’s so much more to Panama than just the Canal, yet for many travelers worldwide, the nation’s industrial feat — one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World — is the first, and sometimes only, association that comes to mind. It’s rare that a country with such high name recognition isn’t flooded by tourists, and yet Panama remains wild and untouched, with vast stretches of uncharted jungle and rainforest.
Known as the ‘Crossroads of the Americas,’ Panama isn’t only where North America meets South America but also where the Atlantic meets the Pacific — it is the only country in the world where you can watch the sunrise on the Caribbean coast and drive over to the Pacific coast for sunset. When I first visited Panama this past summer, I was struck by the immense diversity of wildlife, the beauty of the countryside and the coast, the glittering allure of the capital city, and its richly varied cultural heritage.
This Central American paradise won’t remain under the radar for long — especially when its neighboring countries (Colombia and Costa Rica) grow ever more inundated with tourists. Read on for top places to visit as you journey through one of the last unexplored places on earth: the neotropical paradise of Panama.
Experience the historic charms of Panama City
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Panama City is one of the most romantic cities in Central America and — in my humble opinion — the entire world. The capital is the second most modern city in Latin America (second only to Mexico City), boasting 43 skyscrapers concentrated in the modern portion of the city. Visitors will want to stay along the charming cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo (the ‘old quarter’). I stayed at the gorgeous Hotel La Compañía, which features stunning colonial architecture, glamorous late-night speakeasies, and a rooftop swimming pool.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the architecture of Panama City reflects a blend of wooden Afro-Caribbean and Neoclassical styles. Spend an afternoon or two sightseeing, and sample the shaved ice sold by street vendors along the way to stay cool.
“Shaved ice is the closest we get to snow in Panama,” says EcoCircuitos guide Octavius Rios, my guide to all things Panama.
As always, it’s best to have a guide. The cobblestone streets are picture-perfect and charming. Be sure to keep an eye out for the ornate murals — the street art in Panama is amazing, and the artwork on display overlooking Casa de Salado is especially striking, showcasing Panama’s Afro-Caribbean heritage. Although Seco Sour is the national drink of Panama (a twist on a Pisco Sour), the nation is also famous for its rum. To that end, we suggest you check out Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar — not like you’ll need to seek out rum ever; it’s on many menus.
And rum isn’t the only popular artisanal offering in Panama, you can check out an artisanal cacao experience at Nome Chocolate. Long an exporter of cacao, Panamanians now focus on making their own chocolate,
“The purpose of Nome is to make local chocolate and help support Panamanian farmers,” says chocolate maker Pedro Gill.
Coffee is another product growing in popularity, and you should visit Cruce Coffee Company for a tasting — just be prepared to leave a little hyper: “Our naughty chai is like a cappuccino on steroids,” says co-founder Manuel Otero.
There’s no shortage of delicious cuisine in Panama, and some of my favorites included the super chic Azahar Panama and the laid-back yet delicious Fonda Lo Que Hay. Easily my favorite meal of the trip, however, was at A to Z, which boasts the only chef’s table in the country, run by celebrated chef Ariel Zebede. The restaurant is tucked away and well worth booking a reservation — and is at the forefront of the Panamanian foodie movement.
“Panama has the best food in the world,” says Zebede. “And you can grow everything all year round — from artichokes to plantains to mangoes.”
Panama not only has some of the best food in the world but — in my humble opinion — some of the best people in the world, too. Laid-back, welcoming, friendly, eager to chat, and — above all else — hospitable. When I visited last summer, it was during a time of political unrest, and there were demonstrations in the street, blocking our path home. My fellow travelers and I exited the car to walk along the road toward our hotel room in the dark night.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t slightly apprehensive as we approached the bonfire of protestors — I was clearly a tourist in this region — but any nervousness I had was quickly alleviated when the demonstrators (who were dancing around the fire) invited me to join in. There was no hostility on their part and, as such, no fear on mine. And while this may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of the welcoming nature of the people I encountered during my visit — exhibiting kindness towards strangers, even amidst political protest.
“You can go to so many places in the world and visit so many different countries, but what makes Panama special is the people,” says Octavius Rios.
Explore the lush Caribbean coast in Colón
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Next, head east towards the Caribbean Sea to visit the Panamanian province of Colón, where neotropical wildlife abounds. Pay a visit to Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, located near Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park, one of 13 National Parks in Panama — more than a third of the country is protected. My guide, botanist Carlos Saavedra, led us on a climb up to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, which is funded by the Eugene Eisenmann Avifauna Foundation. First established 18 years ago as a mountain biking outfitter, the foundation has since shifted to eco-tourism, educating conservationists in other parts of Panama about how to protect these fragile habitats.
“Avifauna is privileged to be the pioneers of sustainable architecture in the country,” says botanist Carlos Saavedra.
Next, we visited Hummingbird Station (the setting for countless nature documentaries on National Geographic, BBC, and beyond). Panama is a birders’ paradise, and Pipeline Road is one of the most renowned spots in the world for birdwatching, Of the 1,016 species of birds in Panama, of which half are endangered or threatened. Saavedra, whose hummingbird tattoo matched the birds flitting at the feeders around us, seemed totally adapted to the rainforest.
“Before coming to the jungle, don’t eat sweets,” he told me while snacking on Oreos.
For visitors, bug spray is simply mandatory in Panama. For the best wildlife sightings, visit the rainforest in the early morning — we spotted howler monkeys, tree frogs, and toucans on our 8 am hike. Later, head to the airy and luxurious Gamboa Rainforest Reserve to cool off with a cocktail or two at the Monkey Bar.
Visitors to Gamboa would be remiss not to venture nearby to Emberá Village, where you can sign up for an Embera Village Tour. The Ella Puru is one of Panama's seven officially recognized indigenous groups, and the village is in Soberania National Park. A motorized canoe delivered us to the heart of the village, where we learned the ancient history of the people that is still being preserved today.
“The soldiers that survived training here went on to the Vietnam War,” says Marshall Caizamo, our Embera host. “That’s how the village was founded. About 108 people live here today, and the main source of income is tourism.”
You can support the local village by visiting and purchasing arts and crafts, all handmade by the Embera people for generations — the beaded hummingbird keychains are a particularly unique reminder of your visit to this special place.
Other adventures include a jaunt to nearby Portobelo to visit Portobelo National Park with Portobelo Adventures. I spotted sloths hanging in their natural habitat while kayaking through the mangroves. Afterward, explore the fascinating town of Portobelo, home to a thriving Congolese community who have painstakingly preserved their heritage and local culture via dance, art, and music — such work is the mission of the Bahía de Portobelo Foundation. Head to el Bongo Hotel Boutique for a delicious Panamanian-Caribbean lunch.
“You can go to so many places in the world and visit so many different countries, but what makes Panama special is the people,” says Octavius Rios, a sentiment that rang true throughout my inaugural trip to Panama.
Set out for the Pacific Coast to visit the Azuero Peninsula
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Finally, set out for Panama's Pacific coast to explore the Azuero Peninsula, home to a bucolic mix of surf towns, countryside, and uninhabited islands. Visit FINCA Pamel, a family-owned farm in Los Santos, a region in the country’s interior known by locals as the “cuna del folklore” (the cradle of folklore) for its rich Spanish heritage and well-preserved cultural practices. FINCA Pamel co-founder Pablo Alcides Arosemena established La Casita Museo de Las Fiestas y Tradiciones de La Villa De Los Santos (House Museum of Festivals and Traditions of La Villa de Los Santos) on his farm to preserve the region’s storied history.
“Our government doesn’t care about history, and people want to whitewash our culture,” says Pablo Alcides Arosemena. “But we came from Africa, and our roots are indigenous — and this blend of cultures is what makes us Panamanian.”
Today, visitors can spend a full day learning about Panamanian history, local cuisine, religious and spiritual traditions, and folklore.
“When I was a kid, I told my parents I wanted to build something similar to the legend of Atlantis in the Bahamas - the lost city,” says Arosemena.
And he has accomplished just that by bringing a lost world back to life. The vendors who come in for the guest experiences are people from the community — and this is the perfect spot to purchase a handmade Panama hat (never mind that the style was actually invented in Ecuador). Word to the wise: If you’re a man, you wear your hat with the front brim flipped upward, and the back flipped down. If you’re a girl, you wear the front of the hat tipped down and the back of the hat flipped up. You want to fit in, after all.
Visitors would be remiss not to venture out to nearby Isla Iguana, located just off the Pedasi coast on the Azuero Peninsula, to explore the untouched wildlife refuge on the island. And be sure to keep an eye out for whales on your boat ride across the water — I witnessed the spectacular vision of humpback whales breaching near our boat. I heard the whales before I saw them — their massive splash reverberates over the top of the waves, a majestic site.
Another wildlife destination to visit is Isla Canas, which is home to five of the seven turtle species in the world. July is the beginning of the nesting season, so depending on your visit, you can witness the natural phenomenon on the beach at nightfall, the sea turtles illuminated by the moonlight and stars overhead (extra-bright in Panama, sans the industrial light pollution found in more populated nations). Finally, a Cerro Hoya day trip to explore Cambutal with Azuero Adventures is mandatory for all active travelers – and a stay at the Rio Lajas Cabins is a must-do for visitors looking to venture into the unknown.
“This place is very remote,” says Rio Lajas Cabins owner Carlos Velezquez. “There are very few people who have traveled here.”
Cheers to being one of the first — and certainly not the last. Panama will only remain so undiscovered and underrated for a short period of time, so be sure to visit soon before the rest of the world catches on. ¡Vamos!