Panama, more than just a canal

My most recent trip in Panama was one of the memorable trips I have ever taken.  We started with a well planned city tour on Sunday, first stop, the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. We watched ships pass through the locks from the roof deck, had a chance to view a movie on the construction of both the old and new canal projects and spent some time in the new museum. After passing by the old military zone, now the ‘City of Knowledge’, we went to the Amador and an island owned by the Smithsonian.  There you can learn all about Panama; how the land was formed, animals past and present, the American military presence, the flora, and all while enjoying the ocean views and maybe even spot a sloth in the trees. After a delicious and fresh seafood meal for lunch with the best view of the city skyline, we went to Casco Viejo.  Beautiful cathedrals, colonial buildings, and cobblestone streets make this a perfect place to stroll away the rest of the day. Be sure to try flavored shaved ice in Plaza de Francia  and seafood lovers won’t want to miss the famous fish market.

After a short flight Monday morning, we were in a different world, the Comarca de Kuna Yala! There are 365 islands (covered in coconut trees and many uninhabited) that make up the Archipielago de San Blas. The Kuna Indians govern the region with little interference from the national government and even used coconuts as currency until the late 1990’s.  We spent two days soaking up the culture while mingling with the Kuna, shopping for their famous molas and watching the traditional dance. We also soaked up the sun on the white sand beaches and while snorkeling in the turquoise Caribbean ocean.

Back to the city to hop on our transport for the rest of the trip, we crossed the Bridge of the Americas on our way to El Valle.  After about 2 hours, we were amazed at the change of scenery and climate. Located at about 3000ft, in the crater of one of the largest, extinct volcano’s, El Valle’s cool climate is great for hiking, spotting wildlife, and shopping for handicrafts.  There is also a ‘mud bath’, square-trunked tree, and local zoo where you can see some colorful frogs and other exotic animals.

The Pacific beaches of Panama are another one of the many reasons to visit this wonderful country. Surfing some of the best waves in Central America, scuba diving in the national park compared to the Galapagos, or relaxing by a camp fire on the beach while listening to the sea and counting stars… our guide knew all the best spots!

I think the parts of Panama that surprised me the most were the mountains. We drove higher and higher into the bread basket of the country with farms clinging to these hills up to an elevation above 8000ft. The lodge we used had wonderful spa treatments, the freshest food, great view of Panama’s tallest mountain (Volcan Baru) and included a hike in the cloud forest. One day we hiked the famous Quetzal trail to Boquete and even were lucky enough to spot one of these elusive, emerald green quetzal birds.  Boquete is a little lower and is well known for its flowers and coffee plantations but also has zip lines, white water rafting and rock climbing for the more adventurous.

Before crossing the continental divide, we stopped at some nice little hot springs and cooled off in the Chiriqui River.  The views were amazing as we approached Bocas Del Toro.  This is a perfect place to wind up the tour. We visited another national park, sailed with dolphins, snorkeled by the mangroves and enjoyed the Caribbean nightlife.  Unfortunately, we also had to catch our flight back to Panama City and no one wanted to leave.

Our guide left the island the night before so he was there when we landed.  We had plenty of time to test our siesta skills and freshen up before our last night’s dinner. The guide knew the perfect place with exceptional views of the skyline at night. Seeing that our flight wasn’t until late the next day, we decided to test out the cities legendary nightlife… we were not disappointed!

It is easy to see why Panama is becoming such a popular place to travel.  Safe and inexpensive, friendly people and beautiful places, adventure and wildlife, culture and history all make this a place that everyone will enjoy. Thanks to Kevin, our guide with Panama Breezes we had a most memorable vacation and will talk about it for years to come.

5 comments to Panama, more than just a canal

  • Karen Cotton

    When did you hike the Quetzal Trail? What was the condition of the trail? My husband and I hiked it in July 2008 from Cerro Punta to Boquete. It took us close to 6 hours to finish and was quite the workout due to the poor condition and lack of upkeep of the trail. In November 2008, storms caused landslides along the trail. Afterward many of our guests said no one should be using that trail. Recent guests have told me that guides had refused to take them on the trail due to the condition – too dangerous. Other guests keep asking me the condition, wanting to hike this famous trail. We haven’t hiked it since 2008, so just wanted to get your opinion. We host at several eco-resorts in the Bocas islands and do all we can to help our guests with their travel plans. Thank you.

  • Hi Karen, Thank you for your question. I didn’t actually write the story, it was written by Kevin who has walked the Trail. However, my understanding is that parts of the Trail are in poor condition still. I understand that the remains of the landslide are still there, but it is not difficult to traverse them. Of course, a fair amount of fitness and hiking experience is necessary to complete the Trail, and given that the Trail can sometimes be hard to follow, it would probably be best to have a guide.

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  • We have been hiking a different trail out of Boquete as of late..but I will be doing the Quetzal trail in 2 weeks and can let you know how it is now!

  • Andy

    I’m a bit confused about this story. It’s written by Kevin O’Brien who says what a great tour it was and how much he will talk about it for years to come.

    I believe that Kevin was also the tour operator and the guide. I’m pleased that he enjoyed the vacation he organized and he thanked himself for it but this is hardly an objective account.

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