Panama’s Big Three

By Peter Majerle   Photo by Andrés Madrigal

Brief

Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro and Panama City offer easy, diverse travel from Costa Rica

CHIRIQUI
Just over Costa Rica’s southern border is Chiriquí, one of Panama’s most versatile regions. The area’s hub is David, a bustling trade center that houses the region’s international airport and most services. Nearby are a couple of beaches, including Playa Catalina (a surfer’s mecca) and Coiba National Park, which is an undisturbed collection of wildlife-rich, forest-covered islands.

Most travelers, however, make a beeline to the highlands around massive Barú Volcano. Rising 3,475 meters above the hot lowlands, the rugged, dramatic landscapes offer some of Panama’s most impressive vistas, as well as a glimpse into a Central America of yesterday. You’re just as likely to see Nögbe-Bugle indigenous people speaking their native tongue and working fields as you are to experience a gourmet meal or five-star accommodations. And the elevation offers an additional bonus: a year-round springlike climate that offers respite from the heat below.

BOQUETE

Located on Barú Volcano’s eastern flanks, Boquete is the travel center for the highlands. A growing hotel and restaurant industry complements a variety of day trips and tour options. The town itself is small and can be seen on foot in a short period of time, but it’s worth staying to check out the surrounding countryside and take in the slow pace and myriad attractions.

What to do

Mi Jardín Es Su Jardín
Meaning “My Garden Is Your Garden,” this formal garden carries the eccentric owner’s personality throughout the grounds. Entrance is free to this quirky collection of sweeping views, exotic plants and recycled “junk” which serves as part of the charming decoration. Located in Boquete.

Scooter Rentals
For $15 and hour, or $39 a day, you can rent a scooter and explore the back roads and rugged scenery around Boquete. Rental fee includes a helmet, insurance and use of a cell phone. www.boquetescooters.com

Local Tours
There are a number of outfitters in town offering tours, including canopy tours, rafting, four-wheel-drive excursions, hikes, and more. A walk around town will reveal several options.

Where to stay
Valle Escondido Resort and Spa is located just outside of town and is a mini-community all of its own. This high-end hotel sports a full spa, nine-hole golf course, and an excellent restaurant. www.resort.valleescondido.biz

Where to eat
In Boquete, a budget option offering tasty, filling traditional Panamanian meals is Sabrozón. You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $3 on lunch or dinner. For a high-end experience, try chef Melissa de León’s inventive, nuanced menu at Sabor Escondido, located at Valle Escondido. De León varies the menu constantly, using locally grown produce and her creative touch to craft a memorable dining experience. Best of all, dinner entrees run from around $12-16, making a king’s feast feasible even for commoners.

VOLCAN
On the other side of Barú Volcano, the small town of Volcán is often overlooked by travelers coming to Panama. Travelers coming to Chiriquí, however, should plan to spend at least a couple of days on this side of the mountain. Absolutely astounding pastoral views is what this area is about. Most of Panama’s vegetables are produced around Volcán, and the neat farms stretch over undulating fields like a living quilt. Steep mountain cliffs protect highland forests, and crystalline rivers cut swaths through the fertile land.

What to do
Sendero Los Quetzales
Hike from the Cerro Punta ranger station all the way to Boquete. It’s better to start on this side of the mountain, as the hike is mostly downhill. The hike takes between four to six hours, and is best done with a local guide.

Sitio Barriles
The Landuau farm offers a glimpse into the region’s fascinating distant past. Many archeological artifacts have been uncovered here, and many fascinating pieces are still on display. Be sure not to miss the “water stone,” and the nearly intact pottery embedded in the ground. Doña Edna, the farm’s matriarch, offers a wonderfully nuanced explanation of the local culture (in Spanish and English). Also, she offers up some tasty jams and cheeses for sale.

Finca Dracula 
Over 2,000 species of orchids are on display at this high-elevation farm. As the name suggests, the star is the Dracula orchid. Even those with a mere passing interest in seeing orchids will enjoy this tour, which lasts around 45 minutes (or longer, if you have a lot of questions). Where to stay

Hotel Bambito is the area’s most established high-end lodging. Bambito sits amid a gorgeous setting in Chiriquí’s highlands and is a great springboard for the area’s activities. www.hotelbambito.com

Where to eat

Carnes y Mariscos Fernando, located in a hexagonal building just off the main road in Volcán, serves up excellent grilled meat and seafood. Don Fernando, the owner and head chef, has put together a delicious, affordable menu, and is working on his own vegetable garden next door.

Chiriquí: Getting there
By land: Getting to David by land involves crossing the border at Paso Canoas. Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com) has daily rides. David also has its own international airport. Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) has routes from San José and Panama City. Paradise Air (www.flywithparadise.com) offers luxury charters from San José.

BOCAS DEL TORO
Most people, when they conjure up images of the Caribbean, they think of idyllic tropical islands ringed by white-sand beaches and turquoise waters. Part of the mix is a laid-back local attitude, adopted by a diverse mix of peoples. This is Bocas del Toro. Bocas del Toro is an archipelago that stretches some 100 kilometers along Panama’s northwestern Caribbean coast. Studded by islands, kissed by cool breezes and sparkling with abundant wildlife, Bocas del Toro is the quintessential tropical dream.

Bocas Town is the main hub for services, and most restaurants and tours are based from there. Carenero Island is a short boat ride from Bocas, and Bastimentos boasts a large community of Afro-Caribbeans, many of which speak English and Guari-Guari, the local Creole English.

What to do

Beach bums will find a plethora of gorgeous sands to explore. Red Frog Beach, on Bastimentos, is worth a visit. And Zapatillas Cay is another place you’ll want to head to.
Diving and snorkeling around Bocas is fantastic. Clear waters and extensive coral reefs provide ideal conditions for seeing the myriad fish and sea life that live in the area.

Beginners will find easy conditions, as there are plenty of shallow, calm waters to explore.
Taking a boat ride around the islands is a must when staying in Bocas. You get a chance to cruise over the clear waters, watching the verdant landscape unfold before you, and feel a bit like an intrepid explorer as you ply the warm waters. When hiring boats, ignore the touts in the streets and use one of these companies: Transparente Tours, Boteros Unidos or Bocas Water Sport. These companies have insurance and life preservers.

Ibone Cañada, who works at La Buga Dive Center and Adventures (www.labugapanama.com) told us why she thinks Bocas del Toro is such a popular destination. “You’ll fall in love with Bocas del Toro immediately,” she said. “Its scenic beauty will transport you to a kingdom of peace and harmony. Its beaches and mangroves will envelope you in silence’s most intimate dream. Its music will beat to the rhythm of your heart, and children will look at you with an innocent gaze, making you remember harmony is easily achieved in a single moment. Come and experience the wonderful world that surrounds us here: turn off the television and live it with us.”

Where to stay
Conveniently located on the main strip in Bocas Town, Hotel Laguna (www.hotellaguna.net) offers clean, air conditioned rooms. For an upscale adventure, Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge (www.puntacaracol.com) is a series of bungalows with thatched roofs and private docks that make each room feel like a private island.

How to get there

By land from Costa Rica, you’ll have to cross the border at Sixoala, get a taxi to a town near the archipelago and take a water taxi to Bocas. Nature Air (www.natureair.com) offers regularly scheduled flights, and Paradise Air (www.flywithparadise) has charters to Bocas.

PANAMA CITY

Panama City bursts out of the tropical landscape with an ostentatious crop of glimmering skyscrapers. At first, you might not even think you’re in Latin America. Modern high-rise towers line the bay, reaching towards the sky, looking like glimmering baubles of commerce. But Panama City is much more than banking and condos. Because of its importance for the Canal, Panama’s capital has long been an international crossroads, and travelers can revel in the city’s diverse people, cuisines and neighborhoods.

What to do
Don’t miss the Casco Antiguo (Old Town). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a living museum of French and Spanish colonial architecture, which is slowly and lovingly being restored. Strolling and window shopping are wonderful here, and new restaurants are popping up all the time. While here, take a couple of hours to explore the Museo del Canal Interoceánico (Inter-oceanic Canal Museum). If you don’t speak Spanish, you might want to consider renting a headset which explains the exhibits, or hiring a guide (available at the front desk). It’s located on the Plaza de la Independencia. Admission is $2.

Dining and nightlife is hottest around Calle Uruguay. Establishments rarely remain the same for any length of time, and owners and clubbers delight in the ever-changing cityscape here.

And, of course, no trip to Panama City would be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal (www.pancanal.com). You’ll most likely see ships going through the Miraflores Locks (the closest ones to the city), and the museum here is worth checking out.

Where to stay

Panama City has a dizzying myriad of lodging options, from five-star international business complexes to budget rooming houses.

How to get there

Tica Bus (www.ticabus) has daily trips from San José. Air Panama (www.flyairpanama) and Taca (www.taca.com) offer daily flights. Paradise Air (www.flywithparadise.com) offers luxury charters.

PANAMA FACTS:

Language: Spanish is the official language. Most tourist areas and the many areas on the Caribbean coast speak English.

Currency: The U.S. Dollar. Although many people still refer to the local currency as Balboas (the old currency), the Dollar is used.

Transportation: Major highways are in excellent condition. However, those unfamiliar with Latin American driving conditions should consider flying or taking buses.

Costs: Panama is considerably less expensive than the North America or Europe, and is slightly less expensive than Costa Rica.

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