One recent afternoon in Boquete, Panama, at the Panamonte Inn & Spa, the country’s oldest hotel, an iguana was on the loose. Word reached the kitchen, and from behind the swinging doors emerged a silver-haired maître d’, a young chef, and three cooks in aprons and bandanas. The men sized up the situation. “Iguana?” one asked. “El dragon!” corrected the reptile’s caretaker, a Frenchman holding an empty box. On his way to the hotel, he had rescued a pair of alarmingly large iguanas from a man by the side of the road. Dangling by their tails, with their squat legs bound behind their backs, the iguanas had been saved from a fate that no doubt involved a steaming pot and garlic. But now one of the prehistoric beasts had escaped its cardboard co-op to explore the amenities of a brand new suite. The general manager, a beanstalk of a Welshman, watched in amusement as the macho iguana whisperers accepted the rescue mission. Welcome to Panama.
A “bizarre and beautiful little country,” Graham Greene once wrote about the country. The squiggly bracelet connecting two continents is so perplexing, its history so rife with treason and intrigue, that a dry understatement must suffice. As both a barrier and a bridge, Panama has been a magnet for seekers, scoundrels, and visionaries – from Spanish conquistadors to English privateers Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan, from gold-hungry ’49ers and French and American entrepreneurs to the 70,000 Panama Canal workers, not to leave out a fair-weather CIA operative–dictator, and sneaky bankers and prospectors.
Now, after 20 years of stable democracy and autonomy over its canal, the nation is experiencing its moment of reinvention. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Panama has recently ushered in vast investments in its infrastructure and the renaissance of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s captivating colonial section. Diversity in geography, ecology, and culture is the reigning theme on the isthmus and the presence of so much of it provides visitors with chances for adventure. Crossed by rugged volcanic mountain ranges, covered with large tracts of pristine rain forest, and bounded by two coastlines and some 1,500 islands, Panama bears a name meaning “an abundance of fish and butterflies.” In an area smaller than South Carolina live more bird species than in all of North America and more plant and tree species than in North America and Europe combined. Seven indigenous peoples thrive here.
Choosing among all the possible attractions can be difficult, though quick and easy plane rides, good roads, and short distances make the editing process less painful. We’ve focused on three destinations worth exploring: Casco Viejo; the verdant, coffee-famed mountain town of Boquete; and the unspoiled Bocas del Toro region, a land of beaches, jungles, and traditional cultures. Together, these present a vivid picture of Panama’s natural and man-made wonders, its people as well as its history, and the many who have passed through it like so many ships through the famed canal.
Panama City: Casa Viejo
From Casco Viejo, the view across the bay of the modern section of Panama City seems like a hallucination. With scores of soaring skyscrapers tangled among hundreds of cranes, the gleaming, overnight metropolis stands in stark counterpoint to the romantic yet gritty old quarter. Over the past few years, the gradual renovation of the old town, which has brought new restaurants, cafés, and hotels, is giving people a fresh reason to stay in Panama City.
The old town might not exist if it weren’t for the greed of Captain Henry Morgan. When he sacked Panama City in 1671, a ruinous fire forced the Spanish to relocate to a smaller, more easily fortified peninsula 5 miles to the south. The quarter’s unusual architectural makeup – a mélange of French and American neocolonial, neoclassical, and Art Nouveau styles – is historically unmatched. Yet from the 1920s to the 1950s, the elite abandoned Casco Viejo and the quarter descended into squalor. The tide turned in 1997 when UNESCO designated the 142-acre quarter a World Heritage site, jump-starting an ambitious revitalization. Casco Viejo possesses a past that is very much pushing up against its future. Crumbling churches and houses with trees sprouting from their sides stand shoulder to shoulder with preciously renovated mansions. Yet despite its rough edges, Casco Viejo is a living museum and a great place to spend two or three days.
The quarter follows a rectangular grid centered on Plaza de la Independencia, planted with tropical pink poui and poinciana trees and dominated by the stunning Metropolitan Cathedral, which took more than 108 years to build. Its two white belfries, encrusted with mother-of-pearl shells from the Pacific coast’s Las Perlas islands, sparkle the brightest just before sundown. Nearby must-see sites include the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá (507-211-1649; www.museodelcanal.com), with its illustrated history of the canal, and the unassuming Iglesia de San José, which holds a famed golden baroque altar once hidden from the treasure-aholic Morgan by a cunning priest who had it painted black. Along Avenida Central, the neighborhood’s thoroughfare, stop in Manolo Caracol (507-228-4640; www.manolocaracol.com), known for its 12-course market-fresh menu. Afterward go to nearby Granclément (507-208-0737; www.granclement.com) for a honey ice cream or mango sorbet.
Not far away is Plaza Bolívar, an elegant square named for the independence leader and lined with sidewalk tables where restaurateur Jorge Zarak owns three eateries: Ego Café (featuring Peruvian tapas, 507-262-2045); Narciso (Italian fare, 507-262-2045); and Ciao Pescao (ceviche, 507-262-3700). Recently the latter received a rare rave from Aristóloga, the much-feared food critic for Panama City’s La Prensa. Catty-corner is the 18th-century Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís, where a rickety climb up the belfry culminates with a bird’s eye view of the quarter. Also on the square is the refined Salon Bolívar, where a replica of El Libertador’s golden sword, coated in 1,374 diamonds, is on view, and the Teatro Nacional (507-262-3525), a venue for operas, plays, and ballets. At the waterfront near Plaza de Francia, see the remains of the Union Club, built in 1917 for Panama’s elite, and imagine what it might look like after the owner of New York City’s Hotel on Rivington transforms it into a swanky hotel over the next few years. Further along the seawall is El Mercado de Mariscos, a lively fish market. Pick out fresh langostinos, octopus, lobsters, or fish, and have the restaurant upstairs cook them, but be specific about the preparations; the Panamanian ideal is fried until bone-dry.
Until the handful of boutique hotels currently under construction open, try either The Canal House (888-593-5023; www.canalhousepanama.com), a restored 117-year-old mansion with a wraparound veranda and just three opulent guest rooms, or Los Cuatro Tulipanes’ (646-233-1019; www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) deluxe apartments, with all the benefits of hotel living.
Tucked in the green Talamanca highlands on the western flank of Panama near the Costa Rican border, the winsome hamlet of Boquete enjoys springtime climes year-round. And, with its cheerful Bavarian-style cottages dotting the flowery hillsides, Boquete resembles an off-season Swiss ski village. In town, modest churches mingle with boutiques and cafés, and outfitters offer white-water rafting, hiking and birding excursions. But there are many happy reminders that one is in Panama, such as men crowding stands selling lottery tickets; indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé women in brightly colored embroidered dresses; and mules hauling sacks of coffee, the region’s most celebrated asset.
Conquistadors and gold rushers used the valley as a shortcut (boquete means “gap” or “opening”), and by 1911 Europeans had settled the town. Among them was Norwegian Tollef B. Monniche, who designed the Panama Canal’s emergency dams and founded Finca Lérida, now one of Boquete’s largest coffee plantations. Boquete’s alpine microclimates and rich volcanic soil are ideal for producing high-quality beans. In 2007, a pound of rare Panamanian geisha beans sold at an auction for an unprecedented $130, and last year prices hit $300. Smooth and sweet with notes of honey, lemongrass, lavender, jasmine, tangerine, and tea, the coffee brewed from geisha beans is singular.
To understand what makes Boquete coffee so special, visit some of its small family-owned estates. On a Boquete Mountain Safari (507-6627-8829; www.boquetmountainsafaritours.com) coffee-tasting tour, guests get a close-up view of artisanal coffee production, from the bean planting to roasting, and then they taste the brew.
“Coffee is like a mystery,” says Finca la Milagrosa owner Tito Vargas, a local with the dirt-stained hands of a farmer and the dark steady eyes of a mystic. He named his farm Milagrosa (“miraculous”) because naysayers doubted he could grow anything on a depleted 20-acre plot with his machines made of spare parts – like the grinder that relies on a car transmission. But the proof lies in Milagrosa’s delicious coffee. At organic farm Finca Dos Jefes, California-born owner Rich Lipner sprays the trees with a brew of molasses, phosphorus, and nitrogen, and cultivates the fields according to the lunar calendar. Boquete Mountain Safari tours culminate at Finca Lérida with a cupping, a professional tasting to evaluate the aroma, body, and flavor profile of several varietals, hosted by the operation’s head of quality control Andrès Lopez. Visitors gain an appreciation for coffee’s complexity along with a quickened pulse.
Caffeine buzzes are best nursed at the Panamonte Inn & Spa (507-720-1324; www.panamonte.com) with a bowl of pumpkin soup. Owned by the same family since 1946, the inn has a quiet dignity even as it evolves. New suites have mahogany beds and glass doors that open to rose and camellia gardens. Up the road, its chef Charlie Collins recently opened a cooking school focused on new Panamanian cuisine. Rancho de Caldera (877-810-0898; www.ranchodecaldera.com) is a new eco-resort with nine glass-walled cabins. Hotel chef Craig Miller whips up innovative dishes at Madre Tierra with the flavors of Panama, Italy, India, and Thailand all sourced from the property’s gardens.
Bocas Del Toro
When Columbus returned to the Caribbean shores in 1502, he was a pitiful old man, suffering from gout, malaria, arthritis, and a serious case of the sads. Though he found bargains (trading cheap hawk’s bells for golden breastplates), his mission was to find a shortcut to the Indian Ocean. One bright spot on his fourth and final voyage must have been Bocas del Toro, the paradisaical archipelago off the northwestern coast of Panama near Costa Rica; the explorer named a bay and two islands, Isla Cristobal and Isla Colón, after himself. Fast-forward more than 500 years, and the isles – where dense jungle melts into white-sand beaches, fringed by mangroves and vibrant coral reefs – are still unspoiled.
While it’s perhaps difficult for a newcomer to imagine, the area’s chief city of Bocas Town – with its colorful two-story balconied buildings, backpacker hostels, and wacky gringo nightclubs straight out a Jimmy Buffet song – once sizzled as a banana boomtown with six foreign embassies and five newspapers. In 1899, the United Fruit Company opened its Panama headquarters in Bocas Town on Isla Colón, recruiting workers from all over the Caribbean. But by 1935, a series of fires had ravaged most of the colonial houses and a fungus had devastated the crops.
Over the past few years, yet another boom has hit Bocas – in tourism and real estate. On the surface, Bocas appears a postcard Caribbean idyll, but just underneath is remarkable ethnic diversity. Today more than 50 different nationalities coexist while dozens of dialects ring through the air. Three indigenous groups – the Ngöbe-Buglé, Bribrí, and Naso – live there.
Small ecologically and culturally oriented retreats offer a definition of luxury that goes beyond thread count. La Loma Jungle Lodge (507-6619-5364; www.thejunglelodge.com), on Isla Bastimentos, is a 20-minute boat ride away from Bocas Town, hidden from the dock by a mess of mangroves and palms. Proprietors Henry Escudero, a Peruvian-born archaeologist, and his partner Margaret Ann, an English museum specialist, elevate self-sufficiency to an art form. A typical scene includes Bolivia, a Ngöbe-Buglé woman, roasting cocoa beans over an outdoor fire; Mr. Kelly, a Creole, tending to the trees with the Escuderos’ 2-year-old Lucio in his arms; Henry baking bread in the kitchen; and Margaret Ann making a batch of fresh lemongrass tea or packing lunches for guests – all while Goose, a fluffy mutt, chases butterflies and frogs. The property’s three solar-powered cabins, crafted mostly from already fallen trees, have elegant observation decks. Flocks of parrots, tribes of fuzzy monkeys, and croaking poison dart frogs provide entertainment – best enjoyed from a hammock or a cozy bed. With the surrounding jungle as decor, the extra details are stylishly minimal: bathroom mosaics; a vase of fresh flowers; or an antique wood box containing a survival kit (with natural mosquito repellent, citronella candles, and a flashlight).
Top-notch seasonal meals offer simple spins on local recipes, with most of the ingredients coming from the property’s profuse gardens. “Really, you just toss seeds, and something grows, the soil is so rich,” says Margaret Ann. Dishes like grilled jackfish served over coconut rice, and steamed katuk, a tropical green that tastes like a nutty kale, are full of flavor and presented with care.
Punta Caracol (507-757-9410; www.puntacaracol.com), the photogenic aqua-lodge off the coast of Isla Colón, is so iconic it could be the Eiffel Tower of Bocas. Its chartreuse thatch-roofed cabanas are suspended on stilts over turquoise waters. The two-story cabins appear like charms on a bracelet linked together by a long wooden walkway. Owner José-Luis Bordas originally devised the project as his business school thesis. Initially there were no roads, electricity, or a water supply, but the industrious Barcelona native persevered and, four years later, his lodge started accepting guests. Bordas and his team of workers made by hand all the cabins, the guest room furniture, the dining room tables and chairs, even the mosquito netting. In each, the first floor has a sitting area with doors that open onto a terrace sporting two sun beds; upstairs the lovely bedroom has soft lighting, a four-poster canopy bed, and a view of the horizon. Punta Caracol’s most endearing luxury is that at any time of day or night, guests have immediate access to swimming – or snorkeling or kayaking – around a coral reef rife with parrot fish, snappers, and crabs.
From either La Loma or Punta Caracol, travelers can have their pick of sensational day excursions such as diving amid the coral forests of Cayos Zapatillas, tracking red-billed tropic birds and brown boobies on Isla de los Pájaros, watching leatherback turtles nest on Bluff Beach, or surfing on Red Frog Beach.
Soposo Rainforest Adventures (www.soposo.com), an outfitter that guides trips in the mountainous jungle of Bocas del Toro, offers a way to leave the tourist bubble. The Naso people have lived there for more than 3,000 years, but only about 3,500 are left, divided into 11 communities along the Teribe and Changuinola rivers. Their unique culture – their nation is the only one in the Americas governed by a monarchy – is under serious threat. The most immediate one is pressure from the Panamanian government for people to leave their lands to allow for dam-building projects.
Amistad National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site hosting an incredible 500 species of birds and 130 species of orchids, borders the area visited by Soposo Rainforest Adventures. From Bocas, a taxi ride takes guests to the town of El Silencio. Then it’s a float up the Teribe in a green dugout canoe with an eagle mascot and a jungle hike past clucking chickens, yapping dogs, and maybe even a gigantic pig, until a cluster of three Naso houses on stilts made with jira and palenquilla palms appear. In Sieyik, the Naso capital, children perform dances in honor of snakes and wild cats, and when it’s time to leave, guests ride traditional balsa rafts back toward home.
The Panama Canal
A trip to Panama simply must include a visit to what remains one of humankind’s most significant technological marvels and the result of one of its greatest dramas: the Panama Canal. By August 15, 1914, when the Ancon sailed the first official interoceanic voyage, 27,500 workers from all over the world had lost their lives to malaria, yellow fever, and dreadful accidents during the 34 years it took to remove the more than 268 million cubic yards of earth standing in the way (one city block wide by 5 miles high). Now, throughout the year, Panama Marine Adventures (507-226-8917; www.pmatours.net) offers excellent partial crossings for 4 to 5 hours, as well as full transits, which last double that time. The schedules vary each month so it’s essential to check the company’s website.
The isolated Kuna Yala archipelago, a string of 365 coral islands that hug Panama’s coast near Colombia, is part of the semi-autonomous homeland of the Kuna Indians, who in 1925 won independence from Panama. Few ancient tribes have been as successful in preserving their culture and controlling their own destiny. Surviving mostly off the coconut trade and fishing, the Kuna Indians welcome a limited number of tourists.
The Yandup Island lodge (www.yandupisland.com) offers thatched overwater cabins with wooden floors – a luxury for the area – and terraces overlooking the sea and the misty jungle. The setting – grassy, palm-studded Yandup Island – is not much larger than some miniature golf courses. Included in the price are meals and escorted day trips via dugout canoes to deserted islands for swimming and snorkeling. The lodge’s use of outboard motors is a rare concession to modernity.
To see secluded spots like the Kuna village Playón Chico, forgo a group tour and ask for a private, less conspicuous visit. Densely packed with tiny huts (some sinking along the water’s edge) and filled with children, the village feels magical. Albinos comprise a high percentage of the local population (1 in 165). Kids play basketball, baseball, and soccer simultaneously on the same court; elders confer in large halls; and those in the middle gather with flutes on dirt streets to practice a dance involving hopping on one foot. Within this matriarchal society, women show off their status by wearing molas, patterned silk squares that are the centerpiece of their centuries-old style of everyday dress, as well as multiple strings of orange and green beads on their forearms and calves.
When To Go
Generally, December through April is the high season in Panama and these months are the driest and coolest. The rainy season (tourism officials call it the “green season”) is from June through November. In Boquete, the temperature is steady year round (highs in the mid-80s, lows in the mid-70s), but rains arrive in the green season as they do elsewhere.
Getting There & Around
Casco Viejo: Continental flies nonstop from Newark (flight time is about 5 hours and can cost as little as $350 depending on the time of year). Continental, Copa, American, and Delta fly direct from Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami. Tocumen International Airport is about 12 miles northeast of Panama City’s center, with a taxi ride there costing $25. Most hotels can arrange transfers.
Boquete: Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) and Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com) fly daily from Albrook airport (Panama City’s domestic airport) to David, a short drive from Boquete. Flights take about an hour. Local operator Panama Trails (www.panamatrails.com) will plan a stress-free itinerary, including car rentals and hotel stays (877-290-2454; email@example.com).
Bocas: Air Panama and Aeroperlas fly daily from Albrook airport to Bocas Town; flights take about 1 hour.