Panama is the perfect place to spend your vacation.
Since the creation of the world-famous Panama Canal in 1914, Panama has been at the heart of international shipping and trade. It serves as a connection point between the Pacific and the Caribbean, making it an ideal spot for travelers who want to see how different cultures interact.
Most travelers visit Panama either at the end or the beginning of their journey through Central America, and most stick to the well-worn tourist trail of Bocas del Toro, Boquete, the San Blas Islands, and Panama City. Here I'll describe a few additional destinations that are less frequently visited but not less attractive.
The Panama Canal Railway connects Panama City with Colón and runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. The train consists of an old-fashioned General Electric locomotive drawing observation cars that offer views of the canal, Gatun Lake, and the passing rainforests. The one-hour journey costs USD 25 (USD 15 for children between the ages of 2 and 12).
The train leaves from the Corozal Railway Station in Panama City. The best way to get to the station from your hotel is by taxi.
The train journey is the perfect way to begin a visit to the Caribbean-end of the Canal in Colon. Worth special mention is the new Aguas Claras Lock, through which the huge Panamax ships pass.
Panama Viejo is the site of the original Panama City, founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila in 1519. In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan destroyed it during his pirate raids. The remaining ruins are spread over 57 acres and include the original cathedral, a hospital, churches, and convents. Because of its historical significance, in 1997 Panama Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood. Admission is USD 10 for adults and USD 3 for kids. It’s only a 10-minute drive or a 30-minute bus ride from Panama City.
Portobelo, originally named by the famous Spanish explorer who discovered it in 1502, is a sleepy little port town with an exciting history.
Christopher Columbus named this settlement Puerto Bello (“Beautiful Harbor”) when he arrived there in 1502, and, over time, it was shortened to Portobelo. The settlement became an important town at the northern end of the Gold Road, and its 18th-century fortifications were built by the Spanish to protect their gold from pirates. You can still see the original cannon battery and the crumbling ruins of the fort.
The cuisine in Portobelo includes a lot of African influences such as curries, coconut, seafood, and fragrant spices. If you are looking for a nice restaurant with a terrace overlooking Portobello Bay, head to the Casa Congo.
When you're in Panama City, you'll have many options for getting out into nature.
One of the best places to start is Parque Metropolitano, a rainforest in the city's center that is just a 15-minute walk from the Albrook Shopping Center. Admission is only USD 4, and if you hike up to the top of Cedar Hill, you'll have fantastic views over the city. Keep an eye out for sloths, toucans, hummingbirds, pacas, monkeys, and anteaters.
Parque Soberania (admission: USD 5) stretches along the shores of the Panama Canal and is the most easily accessible rainforest from Panama City. This park is a bird watchers' paradise, with over 500 species. The ride from Panama City by Uber/taxi takes 25 mins.
Parque Chagres (USD 5) is a bit further away – about 40 miles north of Panama City – but worth the trip for the variety of wildlife that can be seen there: 114 mammal species (including big cats), 96 species of reptiles, and 396 species of birds.
The only active volcano in Panama is Volcan Baru, which rises to 3,474 m (11,398 feet) above sea level. It is also the highest point in the country. The lower slopes are home to dozens of coffee plantations, while the higher ground is part of the Volcan Baru National Park. Bring your camera, as the rainforest here is an excellent place to spot the Resplendent Quetzal, considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world for its bright coloring. Expect to pay around USD 150 for a guided hike.
Chagres National Park is one of the most beautiful places in Panama. The park is home to several different tribes, including the Embera community.
To get to the village, which is located inside Chagres National Park, you’ll paddle up the Chagres River in a dugout canoe and then walk through a rainforest, allowing you the chance to immerse yourself in the surrounding nature. When you finally meet the Embera tribe, you’ll be offered traditional food, music, and dancing, followed by a chance to buy their handicrafts or go for a swim under a waterfall. A good day tour from Panama City costs between USD 100-200 per person, depending on how many people are going.
Panama City has a lot to offer. One of the most popular things to see is Casco Viejo (“Old Quarter”), the historic district of Panama City and the oldest in all of the Americas. These days, the city’s red-bricked streets are lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars. However, the Spanish-colonial style architecture makes Casco Viejo feel worlds apart from the glitzy skyscrapers of the newer parts of Panama City. There’s a coastal fortification walk, some churches, and cute little squares. Casco Viejo is a popular place to lodge and eat out. Be sure to head to Mercado de Mariscos (“fish market) for a USD 3 cup of ceviche (a dish of diced fish that has been cured in lemon juice with onions, peppers, and spices).