Panama City is a destination itself. You have the canal, one of the seven modern wonders of the world… the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, a UN World Heritage site… the Smithsonian-affiliated Frank Gehry-designed Bridge of Life Museum on the Amador Causeway (set to open in 2012)…
But even the most die-hard city slicker can use an escape on occasion. Here are five worthwhile, easy-to-reach getaways:
1. The “Island of Flowers”: From Panama City, no island is easier to get to than tiny (and often overlooked) Taboga. The best island in Panama for true local flavor, it’s just 12 miles off Panama’s Pacific coast.
Locals call Taboga “the Island of Flowers,” and you’ll see why as you walk the 500-year-old Spanish Cross trail across “the hump,” a low hill rising from the center of the island. Flowers blossom everywhere and the smell of jasmine pervades. You’ll have breathtaking views of the clear waters, divers still find centuries-old gold coins.
It’s no wonder French artist Paul Gauguin went to Taboga in 1887 in search of a small plot of land to call his own.
The town of Taboga hosts many small festivals, from the pre-Lent Carnival to the Patron Saint festival on June 29. The July 16 Virgen del Carmen festival is a particular highlight—you can join the town in celebrating with music, processions and fireworks.
Taboga is just a $10 round-trip and less than an hour each way. Catch the ferry from Panama City’s Amador dock. For an overnight stay, check out B&B Cerrito Tropical run by expat Cynthia Cudmore-Mulder.
2. Biodiversity in Action: Every tourist that comes to Panama visits the Canal, but just 45 minutes from Panama City on Barro Colorado, in Panama’s Gatun Lake, is another watery wonder.
On this islet in the Panama Canal system, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) offers visitors an opportunity to get up close with the isthmus’ wildlife. Barro Colorado is one of the most studied places on earth and one of the best places in Panama for a fun (and yes, educational) family trip. From the “fab five” monkey species to thousands of insect types, you will be amazed at the number and range of colorful critters. The islet hosts 72 documented species of bats and over 250 species of ants. Then there’s the toucans, tapirs, coatimundis, peccaries, agoutis…
Be sure to book well in advance for a two- to three-hour adventure walk. Kids must be at least 10 years old. The day-visit program includes ground and boat transportation, a guided tour and lunch. The tour typically takes most of the day; from 7am or 8am until 3pm or 4pm. Cost for non-nationals is $70 for adults, $40 for kids. The package is excellent value—transportation to this area alone can run as much as $30 per person and cruise and tour companies tend to charge more for day-long hiking or Canal tours. With its fun science component and location in the actual Panama Canal, Barro Colorado offers a lot more than hiking at a great low price.
3. Cool, Quiet Cloud Forest: Just an hour west of Panama City, on the Pacific Coast, are a string of pretty beaches near towns like Farallon, San Carlos and Santa Clara. What most day-trippers in these parts miss, though, is the Campana National Park.
The cloud forest that is Campana drapes volcanic mountains in shades of green. With altitudes ranging from 1,300 to just over 3,000 feet, Campana is cool and quiet. Here you can see some of the best of Panama’s flora and fauna, including the nation’s emblematic golden frog.
Most Panamanians make day trips here, bringing small picnics to the lookout point near the park’s administration office to enjoy panoramic views of the valleys and mountains all the way to the Pacific Coast. This is a good place to hike or take a horseback ride.
But to make the most of Campana, stay at least one night. Posada Loma Grande is a little family home and boarding house you’re unlikely to discover unless you drive past it on the way up the Campana Park road. A remodeled country home, it boasts some of the country’s most dramatic views from staggered mountain terraces.
Enjoy a misty morning sipping rich Panamanian coffee on one of the terraces…or enjoying a Sunday barbecue. Splurge on a two-room unit with kitchenette from $180 a night or get a room for as little as $80 a night. The rooms and service are very basic, little more than rooms to let as the owners are busy lawyers who have the inn as a sort of hobby. But with the elegant views that frame the dining area, it’s the ultimate in natural décor. One catch: the inn is only open on weekends.
To drive to Campana, take the Pan-American Highway west out of Panama City toward Coronado; you’ll see the turn-off at about the 35-mile-point.
4. Sweet Valley High: You’ll think maybe you imagined the rainforest greens, so deep and lush they were almost blue. Memories of the misty mornings seem surreal, perhaps exaggerated. The flowers couldn’t possibly be that plentiful, spilling over pretty fences or walls of stone. Yet every time you look through your photos, you realize that it really is that fantastic.
I’m talking about the cool crater-town of El Valle de Anton, more commonly referred to as El Valle. It’s just a two-hour drive from Panama City; just take the Pan-American Highway heading west and follow the signs.
From its once-mighty volcano to its minuscule golden frogs, El Valle de Anton is a treasure of a town. The weather here is always at least a few degrees cooler than in the city, with temperatures sometimes getting as low as 60° F.
El Valle is a true paradise for lovers of the outdoors. Whether or not you’re a bird watcher, you’ll marvel at the sheer variety of species. Tanagers, hummingbirds, and rare birds such as the mottled owl are frequently sighted here. It’s also the perfect place for plant lovers; city dwellers flock here to buy orchids at the weekend market, where you’ll also find everything from tropical fruit to handicrafts made and sold by members of Panama’s active tribes.
Visit El Nispero Plant Nursery and Zoo, where you’ll find more than 200 orchid species, as well as peacocks, storks, serpents, crocodiles, and Panama’s famous golden frogs.
Or hike to the 125-foot waterfall, Chorro El Macho. The waterfall empties into a cool creek, the perfect spot for a swim or a summer day picnic. Not a fan of cold water? Visit the pozos termales or thermal springs and mud baths just off the main road to El Valle.
Want to stay a few days? I don’t blame you. Try the Park Eden Bed & Breakfast. The gazebo is the perfect place for a Sunday brunch of fried corn patties, scrambled eggs, and bowls heaped high with tropical fruit. You wouldn’t believe the number of colorful birds, flitting in and out of the flower bushes in the morning.
5. Caribbean calling: For a Caribbean location that’s well off the beaten track, try a trip to Isla Grande. The “little big island” is located in the province of Colon, and thanks to a recently completed highway, you can now get from Panama City to Colon City in about 45 minutes. From there it’s another hour and a half out to the little town of La Guaira, where you can get a fishing boat to take you all the way out to the island…bring something to read, the ride is all of ten minutes long.
Pulling up to “la isla,” you’ll see what makes this island so different in its allure. Other beaches in Panama offer ocean views as far as the eye can see. Here, you look out over the blue green waters to small mountains covered in deep green forest growth. It gives the sensation of being on an atoll, looking out over a tropical lagoon.
Isla Grande is the largest of a group of islands here…but that isn’t saying much. You can take a boat ride around the island in less than 30 minutes or hike it in about two hours (there are no cars on the island, so walking is the method of conveyance of choice). The small size of the island and the microscopic village on its southern coast add to the appeal. Here, locals continue to live simply, largely unaffected by the mad construction and infrastructure works going on in Panama City and elsewhere in the nation.
This is not a place for refined customer service or luxuriously appointed rooms. It’s a place to step right into Panamanian-Caribbean culture…take a hint from the locals and take it easy, mon. If you’re the type to fuss, they won’t understand what there is to get riled up about.
For a great meal or a clean, basic room to rent, try La Cholita. The menu at the little hotel is Caribbean/Panamanian. Here the signature dish is cambombia, or conch, but on any given day you’ll find a selection of seafood prepared myriad ways—smothered in butter and garlic, lightly grilled, a la curry, in a tomato-based salsa criolla, or with the ubiquitous coconut sauce. Rooms from about $50 a night.
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