Panama City is an extraordinary amalgam of modern metropolis, Spanish colonial and cosmopolitan diversity within easy reach of attractions such as Soberania National Park and Lake Gatun, the Sunday market at the mountain village of El Valle, Taboga Island or perhaps a journey via dugout canoe up the Rio Chagres to visit the indigenous Embera community in the Panamanian rainforest.
The Panama Canal is essentially a man-made water bridge which is used to lift ships at the locks at one end and lower them at the other as they transit between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is also surprisingly attractive with an abundance of bio-diversity and birdlife. Work started in 2007 to deepen and widen the entrances and add a third lane to allow the transit of larger ships.
Colon is just 50km north-west of Panama City and was founded in 1852 as the Atlantic terminus of the railway across the Panamanian isthmus which was then under construction and which was completed in 1855. An interesting day trip from Panama City visits the Miraflores Locks and Lake Gatun before taking the train from Colon for the hour’s journey back to the capital.
This is one of the most stunning archipelagos in the world comprising some 378 islands covering an area of around 100 square miles along the coast of the Caribbean Sea. The majority of the islands are uninhabited but are visited by local Kuna Indians to gather coconuts. Many of the islands are tropical, with fine white sand and calm, translucent, water.
The Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro is just 30 minutes from Almirante and consists of 9 islands, 50 cayes, and more than 200 islets with beautiful beaches. The most important island is Isla Colon where the main town, Bocas, is located. The archipelago is a veritable paradise with fantastic beaches, amazing birdlife, opportunities for snorkelling, sailing and diving, tropical forest, mangrove zones and nesting sites for 4 types of endangered turtles.
Portobelo was once the end of the Camino Real where silver, gold and treasure from the Inca Empire was carried across the isthmus and stored in fortified warehouses ready to be shipped back to Europe. Inevitably, where there is gold, there are rich pickings for pirates and ships were targeted by Francis Drake, William Parker and Captain Henry Morgan. In November 1739, during the peculiar War of Jenkins’ Ear, Admiral Edward Vernon captured the port.
Boquete is an attractive mountain village located in the highlands of the Chiriquí province about an hour and a half from David. The black volcanic soil which characterises the region is immensely fertile coupled with the advantages of being 1200m above sea level, making it ideal for the production of coffee, including the award-winning Panama Geisha coffee which was first introduced in 1963. Boquete is an excellent base from which to go hiking in the Volcan Baru National Park, riding, bird-watching and white-water rafting. There are hot springs at Los Pozos de Caldera.
The mountain village of El Valle, 120km from Panama City in the province of Cocle, is usually a quiet, peaceful place with a refreshingly cool climate, which springs to life at weekends for the colourful Sunday market. Panama’s best known pre-Colombian petroglyphs can be seen nearby. There is good hiking at Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park where jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarondi can be spotted. Other excursions include visits to waterfalls and canopy tours to the cloudforest which is habitat to the critically-endangered Golden Frog, under threat from the spread of fungus.