Panama: Much more than a canal

The islands of Bocas del Toro feature many beautiful beaches and attractions. (Photo: panama tourism)

The islands of Bocas del Toro feature many beautiful beaches and attractions. (Photo: panama tourism)

Panama has been called many things: “A path between the seas,” “the Dubai of the Americas,” “bridge to the world,” “heart of the universe” and, most recently, one of the best places to retire in the world.
The government of Panama has put in place several strategies aimed at attracting Canadians to our country. We offer some of the world’s best retiree visa programs and business investor visas and we offer visa exemptions to Canadians. Many of our visitors to the embassy in Ottawa just want to visit Panama for a week, but end up moving there.
Whether you are retirees, young families, entrepreneurs or single adventurers, there is something for everyone. Spectacular highrise buildings, a world-class financial district, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, virgin rainforests, fabulous beaches, surfing, stunning golf courses and shopping are just a few of the things Panama offers. Canadians can now fly direct to Panama on several charter and commercial flights from Montreal and Toronto.

Casco Antiguo or San Felipe is the historic district of Panama City. (Photo: panama tourism)

Casco Antiguo or San Felipe is the historic district of Panama City. (Photo: panama tourism)

Those who enjoy water sports will find top-notch surfing. On the Pacific side, there is Playa Venao Beach, located in the province of Los Santos, the small rural town of Santa Catalina off the coast of the Province of Veraguas, and La Barqueta in the Province of Chiriqui. On the Atlantic side, it’s hard to beat Isla Grande off the province of Colón or one of the many beaches on the islands of Bocas del Toro.
Speaking of the province of Colón and Bocas del Toro, it is impossible to mention these two places without including their cuisine. This area of Panama is well known for its multiculturalism, which comes to life in the kitchen with dishes such as sautéed octopus in coconut curry sauce with a side of fried plantain, fresh fish ceviche or sautéed shrimp in Creole-style sauce with coconut rice. And that is just on the Atlantic side. There, visitors will be amazed by the unique variety of flavours from Michelin-starred local chefs, where you can get home-cooked tamales, hojaldras (our version of the BeaverTail), sancocho (a delicious chicken soup with root vegetables) or arroz con pollo (chicken with rice, a national favourite).

These women are dressed in traditional festival costumes, including handmade skirts known as polleras. (Photo:panama tourism)

These women are dressed in traditional festival costumes, including handmade skirts known as polleras. (Photo:panama tourism)

The adventures in Panama are not just culinary, however. If you had just a few days to visit, I would put the Guna Yala, formerly known as San Blas, as No. 1 on your list. This spectacular conglomerate of more than 300 tiny islands on the Atlantic side of Panama, is a one-of-a-kind experience, marked by white sand beaches, turquoise waters and the Guna people, a native indigenous tribe known for unique handmade molas. Molas are colourful fabrics sewn together by the Guna women in beautiful fauna and flora patterns that make great souvenirs.

Adventure and relaxation await travellers who make the trip to Panama.

Adventure and relaxation await travellers who make the trip to Panama.

A few days in Panama City, a bustling metropolis packed with cultural activities, shopping, food and history, is also a must. The city has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The archeological site of Panama Viejo and the historic district of Casco Viejo. Panama Viejo was founded in 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedrarías Dávila, making it the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, and Casco Viejo is a charming historic district from the 17th Century that has preserved its original street plan and architecture.  It is a fantastic mixture of Spanish, French and early American styles. Casco Viejo has delightful souvenir shops and restaurants, all within walking distance of one another.

Toucans are one of the many kinds of tropical birds found in Panama. (Photo: panama tourism)

Toucans are one of the many kinds of tropical birds found in Panama. (Photo: panama tourism)

After spending the morning strolling through these unique sites, I recommend heading over to the Miraflores Visitors’ Centre, a true expression of the permanent commitment of the Panama Canal Authority to strengthen the public’s understanding of the canal. The centre is located on the east side of the Miraflores Locks and allows visitors to observe moving vessels and learn about the canal’s history, construction and importance to the world. Finish off your day in Panama City by visiting the Biodiveristy Museum, the only Frank Gehry-designed structure in Latin America, and learn about how Panama’s biodiversity changed the world.
Travellers on a more leisurely schedule can take advantage of Panama’s scenery and off-the-beaten-path destinations that most guides will not tell you about. Coiba National Park, off the coast of the Veraguas province, is not only another one of our UNESCO World Heritage sites, but also an ecological wonder. Used for many years as a high security prison, this pristine set of islands is the last refuge for many threatened species of animals, including the crested eagle. It is also an essential habitat for hundreds of species of cetaceans, sharks, sea turtles and pelagic fish species. The Coiba Prison, which, at its peak held 3,000 prisoners, was shut down in 2004, but a few reformed prisoners remain as volunteers to look after the island. On Coiba, you can take a 5 a.m. boat ride and see more than 500 macaws gather for breakfast, or you can scuba dive around the 38 small islands that make up this marine park.

Adventure travel is on offer across Panama. (Photo: panama tourism)

Adventure travel is on offer across Panama. (Photo: panama tourism)

Another hidden treasure is Bahia Piñas in the province of Darien. This remote bay, surrounded by virgin rainforests, is home to some of the world’s best fishing, with more than 300 world records set in its surrounding waters.
The best thing about Panama is that no matter what you like, we have something for you. Some people just want to lounge on a beach for a few days and relax, or sip coffee on a cool mountain surrounded by birds and trees. The Pacific beaches of Gorgona, Coronado, Punta Barco, Rio Ma, Santa Clara, Farallon and Playa Blanca in Rio Hato, offer kilometres of beaches and warm ocean water, ideal for swimming, kayaking, wind surfing or just relaxing.
If you prefer ponchos to flip flops, Boquete, Cerro Punta and Volcan in the province of Chiriqui, are all crowd-pleasers given their superior restaurants, scenery, coffee and climate. These small villages, all easily accessible by car, boast temperatures between 12C and 24C year round and are known for their breathtaking mountains, hiking trails, bird watching, and Geisha Coffee, which is among the world’s finest. Another cool climate village is El Valle in the province of Coclé. Only two hours away from Panama City, this small town is famous for its Sunday farmers market, the endangered Panamanian golden frog, bird watching, hiking and mild temperatures. A day on a hammock in El Valle listening to the sound of the rain and the chirping of birds is all it takes to unwind.

The presidential palace of Panama is a sight not to miss. (Photo: panama tourism)

The presidential palace of Panama is a sight not to miss. (Photo: panama tourism)

People often get scared of travelling to remote, unknown places, but in Panama, the only thing you need to worry about is never leaving. We are one of the safest countries in the region for tourists, have the best roads in Central America and outstanding health care. Travelling within Panama is easy — there are buses to anywhere in the country for less than $15 and local flights to Rio Hato, Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro and Colón. Since 2013, Canadians have been able to fly direct from Montreal and Toronto to Panama City in fewer than six hours, and there are several direct charter flights to Rio Hato and Panama City.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Panama, or to prepare for a visit, is welcome to call our embassy in Ottawa or visit embassyofpanama.ca, where we are dedicated to offering personalized service and information. Bienvenidos!

Alberto Aristides Arosemena Medina is ambassador of Panama to Canada.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags:

Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Alberto Aristides Arosemena Medina is ambassador of Panama to Canada.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *