Words by Lisa Haynes
Known as the Bride of the World, Panama celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 2014. Since it’s opening in 1914, more than a million vessels have journeyed through the waterway for commerce and culture, connecting people from all corners of the world. The Panama Canal is an integral centerpiece to the county, but Panama is more than her canal. On a recent visit, POTENT was able to get regional viewpoints of the diversity that surround the country and learned that it’s a triple hitter on the tourism spectrum: urban (metropolitan city), aquatic (waterways and beaches), and eco (dense rainforests).
Landing at Tocumen International Airport is the perfect spot to start the discovery tour, leading straight into a Miami-like cosmopolitan center of attraction; lined with a beach, boardwalk, and a skyline that looks more like art than office or residential buildings. The Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) is a modernized flashback of a colonial area that dates back from the 16th century, dotted with shops, eateries, and historic landmarks such as the Plaza de la Independencia, Compañía de Jesús, and Las Bóvedas. At Las Bóvedas, women are dressed in the traditional handmade La Pollera dresses – the national dress and symbol of pure Panamanian heritage. Additionally, the indigenous Kuna Indians have been essential in continuing the tradition of handmade blouses and Molas, which are dresses sewn with a reversed applique technique.
From the urban area, you can leave Panama City by plane and take a beach break to the island of Bocas del Toro. It’s a sleepy expat town, known for the perfect surf with a side of nightlife. Stellar beaches yield trade winds that produce consistent swells, and powerful island and reef surf. It’s different from Nicaragua and Costa Rica and more comparable to surfing in the Indian Ocean in some areas. When the tide rolls out for the day, Bocas is a place to line the surfboards up and paddle to the nearest swim bar to watch the sunset. It’s a budget-friendly island that caters to everyone; from college students abroad to families seeking a vacation. The dollar is the legal tender in Panama and still goes pretty far in a place like Bocas. Day trips by boat taxis can render you at a host of secluded beaches, fishing holes, and zip line expeditions. Choose to hike through the Parque Nacional Marino in Isla Bastimentos, or go horseback riding through the dense jungle to visit the Ngobe Indians.
With just a short 1-hour flight back to the mainland you’re heading yet again to another diverse region. Driving along the countryside, a few of the rivers are carved throughout the rugged landscape. With a visit to the Anton Valley, you’ll find some of Panama’s indigenous animals housed at the El Nispero Zoo. Opportunities to bathe in the Pozos Termales (hot springs) are full of healing mud that has been saturated with minerals and used for massages and mud facials.
Head up north from the Anton Valley, and you’ll reach the Gamboa Rainforest. Organized tours included a tram ride through the canopy of treetops where we spotted howler monkeys and the elusive sloths. A boat around and along the Panama Canal in the Gatun Lake offer many chances to see more wildlife, colorful birds and different species of monkeys.
Being on the lake, riding alongside the canal and looking across the Bridge of the World is a moving experience. When you think about the manpower and ingenuity it took to devise and execute such a well-crafted plan… as they cut through the isthmus, gave easier access to navigate commerce and the shipping industry, it shifted Panama to a global stage. It opened up a whole world of discovery and opportunity.