Panama is a mere two and a half hours from Florida. Here, visitors will find supreme eco-tourism, fabulous beaches, indigenous villages, and the world wonder that is the Panama Canal. From luxurious resorts to huts without electricity, Panama is one of The America’s most exotic and family-friendly getaways.
The Central American country of Panama is located between Colombia and Costa Rica. Panama City is its capital. The country, strategic because of its canal, is only slightly larger than Ireland. The canal, an artificial waterway linking the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, is a crucial trade route and one of the only two manmade waterways in the world – the second one being Egypt’s Suez Canal. The incredible locks of the Panama Canal, which open and close several times a day to allow ships to pass through, have changed international commerce.
Panama used to be underwater. Now, it serves as a narrow bridge connecting the Americas, joining what once were two worlds. It was a huge moment with the Spaniard conquistador Vasco del Balboa moved inland in 1501 from the Atlantic Ocean in search of gold. What he discovered, instead, was the Pacific Ocean, and was the first European to set eyes on that mass of water. It was a monumental moment.
The Spanish were quick to settle Panama, but Panama shed off their rule and aligned itself with Colombia, instead. It remained a part of Colombia until its independence in 1903. With America’s help, Panama built the all-important canal connecting the two mighty oceans. America oversaw the canal until 1999, when it was transferred to Panama.
When in Panama, one can frolic the morning away on the Pacific Coast and enjoy the evening by the Caribbean. At its narrowest, it is only 37 miles wide, making hopping across the country easy. The Pacific region is filled with luxurious resorts while the Caribbean side has the bluest water and exotic plants and wildlife. Panama has the most diverse wildlife in Central America.
Language Spoken in Panama
Panama has a great diversity of languages. While Spanish is the country’s official means of communication, 12 percent of the population speak their original indigenous dialect. Many Chinese immigrated during the building of the canal, so that is another language spoken by a large group. The province of Chiriquí is very much inhabited by generations of Chinese who speak their own language.
The Spanish spoken in Panama is different from the language spoken in Spain, as it is widely mixed and tweaked by Columbia’s Spanish. A visitor’s high school Spanish won’t be of great help in Panama.
Currency Used in Panama
Panama’s official currency is the Balboa (named for Spanish explorer de Balboa) The Balboa is comprised of 100 cents, and a Balboa equals a dollar. The U.S. Dollar is the second legal currency in Panama. Panama is considered a dollarized economy.
Things to Do in Panama
When visiting Panama, it is easy to become overwhelmed by its natural esthetics, cosmopolitan chic, and colonial culture.
Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park
The Gulf of Chiriqui National Park is a blend of everything beautiful in Panama. The park consists of 25 islands with surrounding coral reefs. The surf is rough here, crashing up to the cliffs. There is plenty of wildlife on the islands, from howler monkeys to iguanas to herons. For complete relaxation, there are several uncrowded beaches – except for the dolphins.
Surfing in Santa Catalina
The lovely fishing village of Santa Catalina has remained quiet about the first-class surfing to be found here. It is one of the best surfing sites in South America, but the remote location has kept it under the radar to many except true surfing enthusiasts. There are surf camps with accommodations and meals, and novice surfers can receive lessons. Experienced surfers appreciate the 15 to 20 feet powerful waves rolling in.
The tropical island of Taboga is a fairy tale destination with pastel-colored homes covered in bougainvillea – the reason the island has been nicknamed the “Island of Flowers.” This Eden is located a mere 20 kilometers from Panama City and is a highly recommended day trip. There are ferries between the city and Taboga Island all day long. The beachfront is lined with boutique hotels and bars. For a special, deluxe six-course meal, visit the La Vista Experience within the Villa Caprichosa Hotel,
Hiking enthusiasts have two mounts to explore, Cerro de La Cruz and Cerro Vigia, which is Taboga’s highest point at 1,200 feet, with a view of Panama City.
The lovely town of El Valle is situated in a volcano crater and surrounded by forests. There are plenty of trails for exploring, horseback riding, and enjoying the waterfalls and natural water pools. It is a popular place to simply retreat from the bustle of life and indulge in what nature has to offer. While in El Valle, visitors can see the zoo located in the forest and which is home to monkeys, tapirs, and jaguars.
Casco Viejo is the historic part of Panama City, and it is also its trendiest neighborhood filled with art galleries, colonial buildings, and restaurants. The Metropolitan Cathedral is one of Panama City’s sublime landmarks with its ornate altars and incredible artwork. It also has two of the large 18th-century organs in the Americas.
While in Casco Viejo, enjoy Panama’s best chocolate at the Oro Moreno Cafe.
To learn more about the Panama Canal, visit the Interoceanic Canal Museum and learn why the unique technology comprises the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
The best jazz in town can be heard at Danilo’s Jazz Bar at Plaza Herrera.
Best Regions in Panama
Panama City is sophisticated and fun. There is a world to see and do here. The Paseo Las Bovedas shopping district is a beautiful bougainvillea-lined esplanade. Not only is it beautiful, but the trellis also offers some relief from the Panamanian sun. Vendors are lined up to sell their crafts, making it the perfect place to pick up souvenirs.
Panama City’s nightlife always entertains. Ms. Newby’s and Patches Pub and Grill have live music, a DJ, and karaoke evenings. There is live music at Pineapple Willy’s, the Salty Goat Saloon, and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Enjoy a drink and the sunset at Schooners Last Local Beach Club.
The wonder of the Panama Canal should not be missed. It is one of the world’s most incredible engineering feats. The place to learn more about the canal and see it in action is the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center in Panama City, and taking an Uber is the best way to get there from the center of the city. The intricate lock system raises and lowers the passing ships as they slowly move through. The Visitor Center has observation desks, a museum, and a restaurant. Early morning is the best time to avoid the inevitable crowd at the canal.
Check at the Visitor Center for a boat tour that will take visitors through the canal.
Monkey Island Panama
Once the kids find out they can feed the monkeys on Monkey Island by Lake Gatun, parents won’t be able to keep them away. There are tours up the Chagres River to Monkey Island to see the wild capuchin, tamarin, howler, and lemurine owl monkeys up close and personal. Once a monkey senses the possibility of food, all his or her friends will be there. They will even jump onto the boat.
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands (over 300 of them; about 50 are inhabited) are a pure escape. Nothing but palm trees, blue waters, and the freshest seafood meals on earth, which will be whatever the fishermen drop off in the morning. There are no luxury resorts or hotels here, but visitors can stay in huts and over-the-water bungalows. This is Robinson Caruso’s off-the-grid living.
Technically, Panama does not own these islands. They are the home of the Guna Yala indigenous tribe. This is their home, and a rare opportunity to see genuine indigenous living. It is the Guna Yala who will provide visitors with a hut and meals to eat. It can take four hours from Panama City to get to the islands, and joining a tour is highly recommended, especially since the Guna Yala don’t speak much English or Spanish.
Best All-Inclusive Resort or Hotel in Panama
At the Royal Decameron in Rio Hato, rooms and suites come with a garden or ocean view. This white-sand destination is just an hour and a half from Panama City and by the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most visited beach destinations in Panama. Perfect for the entire family, it has tennis courts, an outdoor theater, a playground with slides, nightclubs, and nightly entertainment.
The hotel’s all-inclusive plan includes three meals, including snacks, beverages, activities, the use of tennis courts, kayaks and sailboats, golf,
The all-inclusive Plus Package includes all the offers in the All-Inclusive Package, as well as rooms in a different area, a minibar, welcome snacks, preferred seating at restaurants and breakfast and lunch at the All-Inclusive Plus Package’s private restaurant. Also included are a lounge with drinks, and a beach and pool bar.
The Best Resort or Hotel for Couples in Panama
The boutique Tantalo Hotel in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood has been called the most sexy hotel in Panama. Its ten rooms are each decorated in a vital, sensual, modern art style with original modern artwork. The rooftop nightclub offers nightly entertainment and salsa dancing until 3:00 a.m., all with the Panama City skyline in the background.
The Tantalo offers free breakfast, and its rooms, overlooking the city, have balconies to truly enjoy the view.
Best Resort or Hotel for Families in Panama
The Westin Playa Bonita hotel is in Panama City by the Playa Bonita Beach and is surrounded by the rainforest. Guests have a choice of six restaurants and a club lounge.
The Sensory Spa has a couple’s rooms as well as outdoor areas for deep body massage. For families with children, there are children’s pools, babysitting services, cribs for infants, and a children’s club with supervised activities. The kids will enjoy the nearby Museum of Natural Science.