Let’s play a quick word association game. I say a word and then you say what immediately pops into your head.
I say, Panama. You say…
I say, Canal. You say…
Panama? Or maybe Suez.
And there you have it. This could be the shortest post in the world, but that would be unfair because there is so much more to Panama.
You wouldn’t know it though, because even the Panama Tourism Institute are yet to have anything more on their webpage than a few pictures and a count-down. If you are interested, visit in 84 days* for something ‘coming soon’.
Looking at search results you would be forgiven for thinking that if you are not interested in retiring in Panama or feats of engineering that generate over $800 million in profits each year then there is not much else to get involved with.
This is where I say forget the word association game, look beyond the Canal and cross the bridge which takes you to the geographical point where North and South America meet.
1. Bocas del Toro
This archipelago in the Caribbean is a snorkelling and diving playground. Panama means an “abundance of fish, trees and butterflies” and it is in Bocas where you can island hop from beautiful beach to quiet cove.
We stayed on Isla Bastimentos, only a short panga (boat) ride from the main island, Isla Colon. There are no vehicles on this island and you get around by water taxi or by foot.
Make a stop at the highest point on the island at the tranquil cafe Up in the hill with their regular red frog visitors and collection of fruit and medicinal plants. A great stop for a purchase of pure chocolate to take back home and grate into a cup of happiness.
Starfish beach is recommended as a stop, but I would try and avoid this spot. Too many tourists picking up sea stars (they are not fish) have meant our 5-pronged buddies made like Clint Eastwood in Alcatraz.
Isla Colon the main island has a great nightlife and worth staying on the island for a couple of nights. If you are a party goer, then it will also save you from trying to find a panga boat in the wee hours of the morning to get home. A word from experience – there are not many around. There is the institution of Buena Vista Bar & Grill and if you like your drink in a fruit (who doesn’t?) then order their Thaigarita served in a pineapple. Order fast as the pineapples do run out and then you are left holding a boring glass.
The highlands of Panama help you recalibrate. If you are like me you are also tired of getting sand in your pants and prefer a change of momentum like mud-generous walks. Do give the lost waterfalls hike a go, if only for the best view from a loo.
Something about Boquete soothes the wired traveller within you. It could be the cooler temperatures where you can flop into your duvet fort. The crackle of a fireplace with a red wine in hand and a few games of cards. The amazing nature walks or the unmistakable smell of a strong cuppa made with world-class coffee beans.
Whatever it is, Boquete is a necessary detour and well worth the 8 hour trip from Bocas.
3. Santa Catalina and Coiba National Marine Park
You are starting to miss the beach and the underwater world. The remedy is Santa Catalina. Recognised for some of the best surfing in Central America, it is also your launch pad for Coiba National Marine Park.
Pop quiz, what does Panama mean?
“An abundance of fish”
Well Coiba does not disappoint. Get onto a snorkelling day tour and swim with the fishies.
Follow turtles, admire angel fish, peer out into the deep blue for a whale shark and island bop. Typical snorkelling adventures are about US$70 – $90 for 4 stops. It does take about 1.5 to 2 hours to get out to the marine park. I would bring an extra towel to sit on for the butt-banging ride.
4. Panama City
We had about 24 hours in this city and would definitely recommend another day or two.
It was the night of the total lunar eclipse or ‘Blood Moon’ and the waterfront of this sky-rise city was buzzing with families, loved up couples, and kite-flying kids.
A great time to explore the waterfront and old town is at night. Colonial churches are lit up letting the mother of pearl decorations shimmer all their colours. The maze of plazas spill over with restaurant tables and rooftop bars for the snazzy-dressed are ready to take your order.
If you like seafood then I would definitely recommend the Mercado de Mariscos for great ceviche in a cup. Costing about $2 it’s a perfect little starter whilst you continue your walk along the waterfront.
I have not mentioned the Panama Canal because the best thing would be to show you, but none of our video footage is quite right and I didn’t think you would be down for a 40 min video. I can say it is worth it. I never have been in awe of so much water being trapped and released to move container ships.
5. San Blas Islands
I hear the trip’s crap. Who would want to take a 3-5 day sailboat trip to hideaway islands with untouched white sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters. Not me!
So I’m a little sore that we didn’t get to make the trip, we had Cuba lined up and had to fly. What I’ve heard from those who have made this journey is that it’s magical. Thanks Tania for rubbing it in with these gorgeous photos:)
Home of the Kuna Yala Indians, many of the islands in the archipelago are uninhabited. There are numerous tour operators and after reading a few reviews it would be good to seek out an eco-tourism friendly company that works with the local community and minimises the rubbish footprint left on these patches of paradise.
Prices vary and it’s not the cheapest way to get over to Colombia, but an unforgettable experience I would imagine.
Hopefully this post now gives you many more words for a word association game on Panama.
Tapping the keys to Group Therapy 139 with Above and Beyond.
*Correct at time of publishing.