A FIRST APPROACH
Which Panama Is Right for You?
Here's a snapshot of Panama's defining experiences: a modern capital on the canal, near-deserted islands, and trails for spotting wildlife and waterfalls. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and your budget.
FOLLOW THE PATH OF CONQUISTADORS AND MINERS
Panama City is three cities in one: the conquistador-era Old Panama; the colonial quarter of Casco Viejo; and the modern capital, a forest of gleaming skyscrapers that's easily the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. Among the ruins of Old Panama, razed by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671, the centerpiece is the cathedral tower. It's one of Panama's proudest national monuments, and thanks to a recent restoration, visitors can climb to its top for the first time in 355 years. The city was rebuilt on a small peninsula five miles west of its original site. Known today as Casco Viejo, the second Panama City is a maze of Spanish- and French-colonial buildings that includes the Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá, which tells the story of French and American efforts to build the Panama Canal. Restaurant Las Bóvedas is built right into the stone vaults of Casco Viejo's seawall; below it are dungeons where Spanish conquistadors allegedly drowned their prisoners at high tide. The restaurant's French-inspired dishes are pricey; the same spooky atmosphere pervades the bar (011-507/228-8058).
Not far from Panama City is a section of the Las Cruces Trail, built around 1530 by the Spanish to transport treasure looted from the Inca Empire across the isthmus. Their two main forts on the Caribbean side, San Lorenzo and Portobelo, endured 200 years of pirate attacks. Encroaching jungle is attempting to complete what the pirates started, but their partially restored ruins still guard the now-silent coast. Portobelo is easy to get to by public bus, but visitors to the more remote San Lorenzo need to either rent a car or hire a guide with one.
The Las Cruces Trail was revived as an important route in the 19th century, when forty-niners used it during the California gold rush. The route proved so popular that entrepreneurs built a railroad across the isthmus to speed up the journey. Its descendant is the Panama Canal Railway, a comfortable and extraordinarily scenic way to travel from ocean to ocean in about an hour ($22). There is only one passenger train each weekday, leaving Panama at 7:15 a.m. and departing from Colón at 5:15 p.m. The train ride is an event in itself, but once on the Caribbean side, several attractions are a short taxi ride away, including the mile-long Gatun Locks.
For many, a transit of the Panama Canal is the trip of a lifetime, a chance to experience one of the great human achievements of the 20th century and see the progress on its multi-billion-dollar expansion for the 21st. For those already on the ground in Panama, a day trip is easily arranged for a tiny fraction of the cost of a cruise. Panama Marine Adventures and Canal and Bay Tours offer partial canal transits on Saturdays ($115). One Saturday a month they offer full canal transits ($165).
SURF OR DIVE ON A DESERTED BEACH
Panama has two oceans, 1,500 miles of coastline, and hundreds of islands. In other words, it's easy to find a deserted beach. Surfers and sunbathers favor the archipelago of Bocas del Toro for its bohemian party scene and wide expanses of white sandy beaches. Accommodations include dorm beds for $10 at the backpacker paradise Mondo Taitu, and quieter private rooms at the spotless Hostel de Hansi for the same price (011-507/757-9085).
The most famous surfing spot is Playa Santa Catalina, which has one of the most consistent breaks in Latin America and wave faces that can reach 20 feet. Its growth as a tourist destination has made Panama's largest island, the remote Isla Coiba, accessible to budget travelers because it is only about an hour by boat away from Santa Catalina. The waters off Coiba are spectacular for scuba diving and snorkeling—the second-largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific Ocean attracts 760 species of fish as well as larger sea creatures such as humpback whales, orcas, manta rays, and sea turtles. Coiba Dive Center and Scuba Coiba offer excursions starting at $55 per person for a full-day snorkel trip. Other more informal operators offer boat trips to Coiba.
Kuna Yala, also known as the San Blas Islands, is a Caribbean archipelago of nearly 400 coral islands and the home of the Kuna, arguably the most intact indigenous society of the Americas. A visit is memorable as much for the chance to meet the Kuna as for the chance to swim in remarkably clear waters and lounge on palm-covered desert islands. The best of the low-end places is Hotel Kuna Niscua, a tidy, well-cared-for little place on the island of Wichub-Huala. Rates are $50 per person for a room, a daily boat tour, all meals, and transfers to and from the airstrip.