A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama

Tripoto
1st Nov 2012
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 1/8 by Terry Gardner
Panama Canal
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 2/8 by Terry Gardner
Kuna Yala and the San Blas Islands
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 3/8 by Terry Gardner
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 4/8 by Terry Gardner
The Biomuseum
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 5/8 by Terry Gardner
The Biomuseum
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 6/8 by Terry Gardner
Patio de Casa de La Municipalidad, San Felip
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 7/8 by Terry Gardner
San Felipe
Photo of A Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Panama 8/8 by Terry Gardner
San Blas Islands

Prior to visiting Panama, I only knew two things about the country, and these I had learned in school. First, Panama has the Panama Canal and second, Panama was the stronghold of Manuel Noriega. And in one visit to Panama, I would see both. The infamous drug lord, dictator and former CIA operative was now an old man serving time in a Panamanian prison for crimes committed during his reign. You can peek through the gates at the ruins of the Noriega Estate. Surprises Downtown Panama City has so many high-rises, that I initially wondered if my pilot had made a mistake, and I had landed in either Dubai or Miami Beach, since the skyscrapers are reminiscent of both cities. Unlike most of the world, Panama City has continued to thrive as the global economy tanked, largely due to the millions generated annually by ships passing through the Panama Canal. And to paraphrase Sally Field, Panamanians appear to “really, really like” Americans because we kept our word about returning the Canal to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999.

This is the first Frank Gehry-designed building in South America. The Biomuseum highlights Panama’s great biodiversity with more than 1,300 species of plants, 230 mammal species and 940 kinds of birds. The museum is set to open during the summer of 2013, but visitors can currently tour the construction site and see a preview of exhibits the museum will have. Daily tours are available in Spanish. Arrangements need to be made in advance for a tour in English.

Photo of Biomuseo, Calle Miller, Panama, North America by Terry Gardner

Casco Viejo (aka Casco Antiquo) is the original Panama City. In 1997, it was granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the highlights of visiting Casco Viejo now is that you can see a city in the midst of transformation. Squatters have lived here since the 1970s when Noriega let them settle in for free, and they have powered their homes by tapping into power and phone lines belonging to hotels and businesses. But the government is currently moving telephone and power lines underground to encourage squatters to relocate. Casco makes a great home base for exploring Panama City. Don’t miss taking a walk on the Amador Causeway, grabbing a bite at Super Gourmet, Tantalo Kitchen or Manolo Caracol, having a drink at the Rooftop Bar at Tantalo Hotel or going salsa dancing at Havana Panama.

Photo of San Felipe, San Felipe, Panama by Terry Gardner

For travelers drawn to native people, there are two tribes that you will want to meet, the Kuna Tribe in the San Blas Islands and the Embera Tribe off the Chagras River. The two-plus hour journey to the Kuna Yala area to meet up with a Kuna guide and a boat to visit the San Blas Islands reminded me of the windy drive to Hana on Maui. If you are motion-sensitive like me, plan on taking a Bonine or Dramamine before you go. Halfway there, close to hurling, a friend gave me a Dramamine. The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of almost 400 small islands, but the Kuna Tribe only occupies a small number of them. This means you have a choice of beaches to visit. We opted for a wonderfully private beach that happened to be toilet-free – we don’t know if the fish objected to our use of their facility. Our visit to the rainforest off the Chagras River, where the Embera Tribe dwell, was a similar treat, and I was drawn to their friendly nature and welcoming hospitality. Whereas the Kuna tend to be a bit guarded, the Embera openly share their culture, and literally embrace tourists. And it’s the people who make you long to re-visit. From the indigenous tribes to the locals and ex-pat Americans, it’s the people that truly make Panama special.

Photo of San Blas Islands, San Blas Islands, Panama by Terry Gardner

This 12-room boutique hotel in Casco Viejo also includes Tantalo Kitchen and Rooftop bar. Each room was designed by a different artist currently residing in Panama. The hotel was the first hotel to have a green wall in Panama. Its rooftop bar was the first in Casco, and now rooftop bars are springing up on almost every suitable roof.

Photo of Tantalo Hotel, Calle 8a Este, Panama by Terry Gardner
Photo of Tantalo Hotel, Calle 8a Este, Panama by Terry Gardner

At El Mercado del Mariscos, you can eat lunch at the restaurant upstairs or shop for your own seafood. I heard that some of the local restaurants will prepare seafood that you buy at the market, but I didn't test this rumor out. If you are squeamish like me and don't want to eat a fish with the head on it, I recommend ordering the shrimp because their little heads and beady eyes are smaller.

Photo of The Fish Market, Panama by Terry Gardner

Amazing cuisine from the seafood to meat and vegetarian dishes. I loved the Spicy Shrimp dish the most.

Photo of Tantalo Kitchen, Calle 8a Este, Panama by Terry Gardner
Photo of Tantalo Kitchen, Calle 8a Este, Panama by Terry Gardner

This is a great Salsa dance club in Casco Viejo. Good drinks and live music.

Photo of Habana Panamá, Avenida Eloy Alfaro, Casco Antiguo, Ciudad de Panamá, Panama by Terry Gardner

A great place to grab some vitamins, holistic cream or lotion, a bite to eat or a coffee or tea. Started by an ex-pat American who fell in love with Casco Viejo. There are many ex-pats here, including the owner of Casa Sucre.

Photo of Super Gourmet, Calle 6a Oeste, Panama by Terry Gardner
Photo of Super Gourmet, Calle 6a Oeste, Panama by Terry Gardner

This is a great local restaurant that helped pioneer cooking with fresh local ingredients in Casco. Each day the chef creates a new menu based on what's available and fresh that day.

Photo of Manolo Caracol, Avenida Central y Calle 3ra - Casco Antiguo, Panama by Terry Gardner
Photo of Manolo Caracol, Avenida Central y Calle 3ra - Casco Antiguo, Panama by Terry Gardner

You can't visit Panama City without seeing one of the world's greatest technological marvels. When the new larger locks open in 2015, there will be even more to see. One of the reasons Panama is prospering is due to the $800,000,000 U.S. dollars generated annually in canal tolls. Typically, 30 ships pass through per day. The new locks will double that capacity. In 2014, the Panama Canal celebrates its 100th birthday. Until I visited Panama, I had no idea that the French began the canal, and the Americans finished it.

Photo of Panama Canal, Panama by Terry Gardner
Photo of Panama Canal, Panama by Terry Gardner
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