Panamá is a charming Central American country that wallops a big bang for your buck. The currency is the U.S. dollar, even though you may get small change back in Panamanian balboas. The adventure traveler can select from a variety of activities in spectacular settings: from exploring the lush rainforests to lazing under an umbrella on sandy beaches, from shopping and partying till dawn in sophisticated, first-world cities to wiling the days away on time-forgotten islands.
You’ll be swept away by its tropical beauty, by landscapes ablaze with fragrant flowers, and mesmerized by the distant sound of a barking howler monkey floating in the wind. Magnificent birds—yellow flycatchers, three-wattled bellbirds that remind me of Fu Manchu, and multi-colored keel-billed toucans—warble in the treetops.
Naturally, a trip to Panamá wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Canal, but there is so much more to experience. Here’s a list of “must do’s” in this captivating nation that bridges two oceans and the South American continent.
1. Ride a Diablo Rojo
Affectionately called “Red Devils,” these are the ultra-inexpensive buses plying the crazy network of streets that make up Panama City. They are actually just revamped school buses imported from the United States. Garishly painted, with deafening rock or reggae music blasting out the windows, the Diablo Rojos will ferry you anywhere you want to go within a relatively-close proximity to Panamá’s bustling capital city, even out to Tocumen International Airport. When was the last time you secured transportation from your hotel to catch a flight for a whopping 25¢?
2. Watch a supertanker pass through the locks of the Panama Canal
It’ll take your breath away as you watch the precision of it all: from the little trams that ride the rails alongside the tankers, attaching the guide cables, to the Panama Canal captain, a magician in disguise, who steers the gigantic vessel perfectly into the narrow confines of the lock, to the incredible mechanics – the gears and machinery – that loose the millions of gallons of water into the hold. Just another tiny feat in a long history of incredible feats that have been working to near perfection since the Canal was finished in 1914.
3. Fish in Lago Gatún
The ultimate sweet spot for fishing, believe it or not, is the 51-mile stretch of waterway comprising the Panama Canal zone. Peacock bass, known locally as sargento, are amazingly abundant. A squirming minnow as bait, a quick flick of your rod, and within seconds, another fish jumps on your line. Captain Carl, at Gatun Explorer, offers exhilarating day trips with authentic Panamanian guides. You can pull the hook out of the mouth of a sargento with one hand, and wave to a passing mega tanker with the other, as the wake from his gargantuan ship tousles your little boat.
4. Zip line in El Valle de Anton
For the ultimate thrill ride — zip lining. Strap on your harnesses, slide your fingers inside those heavy-duty gloves, and prepare to sail across the canopy of the rainforest. Or descend slowly over a cascading waterfall. Nothing like the afternoon breeze whistling through your hair as you fly over the treetops on a thin line of cable! Just two hours from la Ciudad de Panamá (Panama City), El Valle de Anton is a lovely market town, obscured in mist and surrounded by mountains and greenery. Weekends are crowded, since locals come to sell their handmade wares.
5. Get a tattoo from the Embera Indians.
Take a relaxing canoe trip up the Chagres River, deep inside Panamá’s Darien Province, close to the Colombian border, and you will reach the hillside homes of the Embera Indians. A great day trip from Panama City, the excursion allows you to interact with the indigenous tribespeople: eat traditionally-prepared foods, learn the native customs, participate in their dance rituals, and spend a couple of dollars getting tattooed with jagua juice –Mother Nature’s dye; it wears off in a couple of weeks (or sooner if you get caught in the downpour of a massive thunderstorm).
6. Buy a sweet treat from a snow-cone vendor in Bocas del Toro.
You’ll hear the glass bottles of syrup clinking loudly as they rattle against each other. Tires will be crunching over small pebbles of stone as the homemade wagon trundles along the gravel road. Without noticing, the elderly street vendor will be swaying to the rhythm of his snow-cone cart, fashioned from bicycle parts and second-hand metal. Try the passion-fruit flavor (maricuyá), seeds and all, with the dollop of sweetened condensed milk on the top.
7. Cross a river in a 4×4 to get to the San Blas Islands.
The seasoned traveler wouldn’t even consider flying into the San Blás Islands. Not when there’s a picturesque, four-hour bumpy ride down a goat path of a road, called El Llano Carti, and the only land access to Kuna Indian territory. Rent a four-wheel drive; better yet, hire a professional driver…because, before you can access the Kuna Yala, you will have to forge the river. In the rainy season, that can be a harrowing experience. Better not to get swept away by the strong current.
8. Buy a mola.
The Kuna Indians of Panamá lead a simple life fishing, growing coconuts for barter, and sewing molas. In their native language, mola translates to “shirt” or “clothing.” It is, in fact, a peasant blouse, embellished by applique stitching through layers and layers of bright fabric, with intricate patterns trimmed from the cloth. Tedious work. Yet, it is the livelihood of the Kuna> women, a skill that has been passed on for generations. The colors are bold, the designs are entertaining. Not exactly haute couture, but fun fashion with the Kuna touch.