Everybody had the same reaction. “Panama?” they’d enquire with raised eyebrows, when I mentioned that I was off to the waistline of the Americas.
Yet while Panama doesn’t tend to make it into too many tourist brochures, it offers visitors more than merely a giant canal.
Some destinations are ideal for lounging on a palm studded coastline, others are great for sightseeing and colonial secrets. Some are ideal for partying the night away, others for quiet, low-key evenings. Some are best suited to romantic couples, others to backpackers intent on having fun. What sets Panama apart, is that it ticks every single box making it arguably the most alluring of all the countries of Central America.
The traditional travellers’ route into the country is via Panama City. Latin America’s most cosmopolitan capital is a teeming metropolis, chock full of chi chi clubs and casinos, steel skyscrapers and super-sized shopping malls.
That said it is possible to step back in time in the old city centre of Casco Viejo – which was built after an Englishman, Captain Henry Morgan, ransacked the original Spanish settlement back in 1671. Film buffs will recognise this UNESCO world heritage listed barrio (neighbourhood) from the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace and The Tailor of Panama starring Pierce Brosnan – both of which were shot here.
Stroll the quaint cobblestone streets, stopping to admire the pastel-coloured colonial buildings – Panama’s past is reflected in its architecture – before shopping for the ubiquitous Panama hat.
Yet Casco Viejo’s real selling point is its street life – best sampled at Coca Cola cafe over on Avenue Central. Something of a neighbourhood institution, Panama City’s oldest cafe is where locals head to play chess or watch the latest soccer game, while tucking into hearty portions of rice and beans – the staple of Panamanian cuisine – served with a side of plantain, for peanut prices.
Alternatively make for the always lively Mercado de Mariscos – a bustling fish market where the locals go to get their seafood fix – before seeking out Tantalo, a stylish rooftop bar serving expertly mixed cocktails alongside spectacular views of the city skyline.
Of course no visit to Panama City is complete without visiting the canal – an awe-inspiring modern engineering marvel which was built by the U.S. between 1904 and 1914. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting to a Panamanian, then you’ll know that they’re mightily proud of the world’s most famous shortcut that links the Atlantic and the Pacific – despite the waterway’s dark past. (More than 25,000 workers lost their lives during the construction of the canal).
It’s easy to while away an afternoon on the viewing platform at the impressive visitors’ centre at Miraflores Locks, watching colossal cargo ships cruise through the Panama Canal…
Yet much of Panama’s appeal lies beyond the city. When the noise and frenetic activity of the capital gets too much, seek out the San Blas islands – 365 islands and islands, perched off the coast of Panama.
Controlled by the fiercely independent self governing Guna Yala – the first indigenous group to gain autonomy in Latin America – the San Blas islands haven’t been Google mapped, meaning a visit here remains a genuine adventure.
You won’t find any internet access, phone signal, television and package tourists as the Guna have gone to great lengths to preserve their culture. Case in point? The Guna opt to speak their own language rather than Spanish (like the rest of Panama), wear traditional dress – think blouses made out of mola (brightly embroidered square fabrics), elaborate body painting, necklaces and a nose ring – and regularly introducing new legislation to protect their lands from foreign influences.
Days can be spent swimming in crystal clear turquoise waters and exploring the kaleidoscopic underwater world. Or you could just flop in a hammock under swaying palm trees and soak up the blue skies.
Accommodation largely consists of bohios – read thatched roof, open sided dwellings. They’re authentically rustic – huts are still made from palm thatch and cane – but basic. (Don’t expect electricity, running water or flush toilets).
So, when you’re Robinson Crusoe-ed out and looking for island life that comes with spas and bars, make for Bocas del Toro. This dreamy Caribbean archipelago is busier than San Blas (where tourists are as rare as emus) but still not packed with visitors, ensuring you never feel as though you are trudging a well-worn path.
The easiest way to reach Bocas del Toro is to take a 45 minute flight from Panama City. However I elected to board the overnight bus – a more affordable option – to Almirante on the mainland and from there a water taxi to Isla Colon, the archipelago’s principle island where there’s still only one ATM and a refreshing lack of global brands and western hotel chains.
I stayed at Hotel Lula’s – a charming B&B run by Josh and Chad, two amiable Georgian guys who were only too happy to share their favourite stretches of sand with me.
Bocas boasts some of the most jaw dropping-ly beautiful beaches anywhere in the world, but standouts include Starfish beach – which as the name suggests is home to hundreds of starfish – on Isla Colon and Red Frog beach (named after the rana rojo strawberry poison dart frog), a short but thrilling boat ride away on neighbouring Isla Bastimentos.
By night, hit Bocas del Toros Town whose attitude to life is entirely Caribbean: sandy streets are lined with restaurants and bars pulsating with the rhythms of reggae, that rage on until dawn.
Half the fun is taking a chance of any place you like the look of but I had a blast at Bookstore bar and Barco Hundido, an open air, beach front bar where the rum punch flows freely.
It’s a great spot to end your trip to this underrated, affordable corner of Central America – and perhaps start planning your next one. Return is inevitable.
Words and pictures: Kaye Holland