The Best of Panama by fxj14137


                    The Best of Panama

F  or such a thin squiggle of land, Panama offers travelers a surprisingly diverse selec-
tion of landscapes, cultures, and experiences. In Panama City alone, modern skyscrap-
ers contrast with 18th-century architecture, and a 10-minute cab ride from downtown

puts you deep in rainforest teeming with wildlife. From the cool, fertile highlands in
the Chiriquí region to the thick lowland jungle and white-sand beaches of Panama’s

tropical islands, this tiny nation allows you to pack a lot of fun and adventure into a
short period of time. Also, unlike Costa Rica, its more popular neighbor, Panama
boasts a rich history and a melting pot of cultures, including seven indigenous groups,
many of whom maintain their customs today. Best of all, the country is gloriously free
of tourists—but get here soon because Panama is far too attractive to be kept a secret
for long.
   The following is a list of the best that Panama has to offer, including hotels, natu-

ral areas, adventures, restaurants, and more, but expect new places to appear soon as
tourism explodes and more travelers discover this fascinating crossroads of the world.

 1 The Best of Natural Panama
  • Metropolitan Park (Panama City):              creating a hyper-diverse natural won-

    Panama City is the only metropolis            derland. A series of nature trails here
    that boasts a tropical rainforest             include the historic Camino de
    within its city limits. Travelers with        Cruces, which links the two coasts, as

    ample time will want to visit national        well as the famous Pipeline Road, a
    parks like Soberanía, but there’s no          trail revered by bird-watchers for the
    denying the appeal of hopping in a            more than 500 species of birds that

    cab and, within 10 minutes, exchang-          live in the area. See p. 140.
    ing the city streets for a steamy jungle    • Volcán Barú National Park (Chiriquí
    teeming with wildlife. See p. 121.            Highlands): The rugged, 3,505m

  • Soberanía National Park (near                 (11,500-ft.) Barú Volcano, the highest
    Panama City): This national park is           point in the country, is this national
    very accessible from Panama City—             park’s centerpiece and a “bioclimatic
    just 40 minutes by car—yet it feels           island.” It’s home to a wild, dense rain-
    worlds away. The undulating, pristine         forest packed with bamboo gardens
    rainforest that defines Soberanía is          and towering trees dripping with vines
    protected in part because it acts as a        and sprouting bromeliads and orchids
    watershed that provides the water to          from their trunks and branches. In
    keep the canal in operation. What’s           higher reaches, an intermittent cloud
    unique about the park is that wildlife        forest evokes an eerie, prehistoric
    species from North and South Amer-            ambience. The park is very popular
    ica and migratory birds meet here,            with bird-watchers, who come to
2        C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

      glimpse the famous resplendent quet-             of colorful macaws, among other
      zal. One of the most enjoyable full-day          showcase species, but you’ll need to
      hikes in Panama is here along the                join a tour and grab a chartered flight
      Quetzal Trail, which links the towns of          to the Cana Field Station. See p. 293.
      Guadalupe/Cerro Punta with Boquete,            • Isla Coiba National Park (Chiriquí
      and the crystalline rivers that descend          Gulf ): Formerly the site of an infa-
      from the volcano provide thrilling               mous penal colony for Panama’s
      white-water rafting. On a clear day,             worst criminals, Isla Coiba is now an
      hikers can see both oceans from the              untouched paradise for divers,
      summit of the volcano. See p. 230.               snorkelers, and nature lovers. The
    • La Amistad International Park                    national park and UNESCO World
      (Chiriquí Highlands): Like Isla                  Heritage Site protects 38 pristine
      Coiba, UNESCO rated this park a                  islands and marine waters so rich in
      World Heritage Site because it is one            diversity that the area is commonly
      of the most biodiverse regions in the            referred to as the Galápagos Islands of
      Americas. The park is “international”            Panama. Isla Coiba boasts the sec-
      because half of it is in Costa Rica, and         ond-largest coral reef in the eastern
      it’s managed by both nations. Char-              Pacific, and its waters teem with huge
      acterized by virgin forests, La Amis-            schools of colorful fish, hammerhead
      tad’s rugged Talamanca Range is                  and nurse sharks, dolphins, manta
      home to more than 400 species of                 rays, tuna, turtles, whales, and other
      birds and 100 species of mammals,                gigantic marine species—even salt-
      many of them endangered. The park                water crocodiles. See p. 248.
      is mostly inaccessible, except near            • The Kuna Yala Comarca: This trop-
      Cerro Punta, where there are several             ical island paradise, with more than
      outstanding walking trails suitable for          350 idyllic islands and islets ringed in
      all ability levels, and enjoyable rain or        white sand, coral gardens, and man-
      shine. See p. 222.                               grove swamps, is often populated
    • The Darién Wilderness (Darién                    with not much more than slender
      Province): This tremendous swath of              coconut palms and a few thatch-
      forest and swampland is considered               roofed huts of the Kuna indigenous
      to be one of the last untouched                  community. Given the lack of mod-
      wilderness regions in the Americas.              ern development in the region, the
      Even the Darién National Park is                 views here are not marred by tower-
      largely inaccessible, and the sur-               ing hotels and resorts, allowing the
      rounding wilderness is so thick that             natural beauty of the Comarca to
      the “missing link” of the Pan-Ameri-             shine through. Along the coast, some
      can Highway, known as the Darién                 of Panama’s wildest jungle can be
      Gap, is here. If you like your nature            explored on hikes arranged by local
      ruggedly wild and remote, this is your           tour guides, but most visitors come
      place. The Darién is rated as a world-           just to soak in the warm breeze and
      class bird-watching site for its flocks          cool turquoise waters. See p. 282.

    2 The Best Beaches
In spite of the hundreds of kilometers of          rounding Panama City is mud flats; far-
coastline on both the Caribbean Sea and            ther west the sand is dark and the water
Pacific Ocean, Panama’s beaches are less           dirty-green until you reach the pretty
than noteworthy. The coastal area sur-             beaches at Santa Clara and Farallón. The
                                                             THE BEST BEACHES              3

Azuero Peninsula and parts of the Carib-          • Santa Clara & Farallón, Pacific
bean coast are, sadly, receptacles for trash        Coast: These two are the most beau-
carried by currents from South America              tiful beaches, and the best for swim-
and beyond. There are a few exceptions,             ming, that lie within a 2-hour drive
but to find glorious tropical beaches, you’ll       of Panama City. The beaches’ water is
need to visit Panama’s islands. There are           bluer and the sand cleaner and whiter
more than 1,000 on the Pacific Side and a           that of its neighbors closer to the city.
little more than half that number on the            The Decameron Resort produces
Caribbean, so you have a lot to choose              throngs of beachgoers at Farallón, but
from. A word of caution: Panama is                  for the most part this long stretch of
renowned for its riptides. No matter how            sand sees few crowds outside of week-
refreshing the water looks, analyze condi-          ends. Self-catering cabins, midrange
tions, stay out of choppy water, or head to         bungalows, and seafood restaurants
a beach known for calm water.                       are abundant. See p. 181.
   • Comarca Kuna Yala: This is the pre-          • Las Perlas Archipelago: Despite this
      mier beach destination in Panama,             Pacific archipelago’s proximity to
      with 350 islands scattered off the            Panama City, its top-notch snorkel-
      Caribbean coast that offer picture-           ing, white-sand beaches, and calm-
      postcard beaches with powdery white           water swimming conditions, the Pearl
      sand, coral reef, piercing turquoise          Islands are a relatively unsung beach
      water, and clusters of swaying palm           destination. Outside of holidays and
      trees. The colorful Kuna indigenous           the hard-core summer, you won’t find
      population administers this province,         crowds here, even during weekends.
      and their fascinating culture is part of      It’s also drier here during the rainy
      the reason to visit the region, too.          season. Isla Contadora offers lodg-
      The glitch is that scuba diving is pro-       ing and day trips for fabulous snor-
      hibited, and lodging is mostly Robin-         keling and visits to uninhabited
      son Crusoe rustic, but all you’ll want        beaches, and there is a luxury lodge,
      to do here anyway is swim, sun, and           Hacienda San José, on Isla San José.
      swing in a hammock. See p. 282.             • Isla Coiba National Park: Beyond
   • Isla Bastimentos National Park,                ranking as Panama’s number-one div-
      Bocas del Toro: Cayos Zapatillas, or          ing site, Isla Coiba National Park
      the “Slippers Islands” (so-called             boasts fine beaches backed by dense
      because they resemble footprints),            jungle. Tiny islands such as Granito
      not only fulfill the beach lover’s fan-       de Oro are so idyllic that midsize
      tasy with their soft sand backed by a         cruise ships make a stop here (which
      tangle of jungle; they are also sur-          could spoil your day if you’re here
      rounded by a rich display of coral            independently). Even the beach
      that attracts hordes of fish, providing       fronting the park station seems too
      good snorkeling. The park’s main              perfect to be true. See p. 248.
      island, Isla Bastimentos, offers terrific   • Las Lajas, Chiriquí Province: It’s
      beaches with clean sand and blue              not the most beautiful beach in
      water, such as Red Frog Beach, Wiz-           Panama, but the water is the perfect
      ard Beach, and Playa Larga, which             temperature, and produces just the right
      can be reached by a short walk or             amount of waves for bodysurfing—
      hike, or by boat during the calm-             though there’s little current. All of
      water season from August through              which means that Las Lajas is ideal
      October. See p. 275.                          for swimming, and since the beach
4        C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

      measures more than 13km (8 miles)                   of the Azuero Peninsula, these two are
      in length, you can walk forever. Rus-               the cleanest and the most attractive,
      tic shacks and cheap restaurants are                and they are within a 20-minute drive
      clustered on the beach at the end of                from each other. However, given the
      the road, but it’s best to bring your               deforestation in the area, they are less
      own snacks. If you’re looking for a                 “tropical” than other Panamanian
      beach closer to David (and Boquete),                beaches. Currents will occasionally
      try La Barqueta. Strong currents at                 churn up the water along the golden
      this black-sand beach mean the water                sand at Playa Destiladores, but a pro-
      is not ideal for swimming, but it is                tected cove at Playa Venado means it’s
      lengthy like Las Lajas and good for                 calm enough for a toddler, and farther
      walking, and there is a nature reserve              east crashing waves have converted
      here, too. See p. 215.                              the beach into a surfing hot spot. A
    • Playa Los Destiladores & Playa                      major bonus here is the nearby pictur-
      Venado, Azuero Peninsula: Of the                    esque town of Pedasí, and three gor-
      multitude of beaches lining the coast               geous lodges. See p. 203.

    3 The Best Adventures
    • White-water Rafting & Kayaking                   different vantage points in the forest.
      the Chiriquí and Chiriquí Viejo                  Both Canopy Adventure (& 264-
      Rivers: Depending on which section               5720;, in El
      you raft, these two rivers produce seri-         Valle, and Boquete Tree Trek (& 720-
      ous white-water ranging from techni-             1635;, in
      cal Class III to Class V, some portions          Boquete, offer canopy rides. See
      of which are so difficult they’ve been           p. 184.
      named “Fear” and “Get Out if You               • Surfing Bocas del Toro: There are
      Can.” There are plenty of tamer floats           plenty of surfing hot spots along the
      on Class II rivers, such as the Esti, for        Pacific Coast, especially at Santa
      families and beginners. Virtual soli-            Catalina, but Bocas is where surfers
      tude, beautiful views, and lush sur-             find everything from beginner-
      roundings are part of the tour, too.             friendly waves to monster, Hawaii-
      Contact Chiriquí River Rafting                   style waves that reach more than 6m
      (& 720-1505; www.panama-rafting.                 (20 ft.). What’s special about Bocas,
      com) in Boquete or, for kayaking,                too, is that the water is clear blue,
      Panama Rafters (& 720-2712; www.                 allowing you to see the reef as you See p. 232.                  race over it, and there are lots of lodg-
    • Zipping through the Treetops on a                ing options, restaurants, and thump-
      Canopy Adventure: It’s all the rage              ing nightlife, unlike in Santa Catalina.
      in Costa Rica, and now Panama has                Another perk is that the Caribbean
      joined in to offer this adrenaline-              tides fluctuate only .9m (3 ft.),
      fueled and exhilarating adventure.               whereas the Pacific’s fluctuate five
      Participants climb high to a treetop             times that amount. The waves here
      platform, where they are strapped                are powerful beach breaks, and long,
      into a harness and then descend                  barreling reef point breaks; for organ-
      quickly using a pulley attached to a             ized tours, contact Panama Surf
      cable. Part of the experience is                 Tours (& 6671-7777; www.panama
      observing wildlife, mostly birds, from  See p. 253.
                                                   THE BEST ADVENTURES                  5

• Diving around Isla Coiba: This               Near Piñas Bay, the Tropic Star
  national park only recently opened to        Lodge has broken more International
  the traveling public—a notorious             Game and Fish Association world
  penal colony that closed here in 2004        records than anywhere else on the
  kept tourists away, and now the park’s       planet. There are a handful of fishing
  virgin waters rate as the best diving        lodges at Boca Chica, near David,
  site in Panama. Isla Coiba is often          and as many live-aboard fishing oper-
  described as the Galápagos Islands of        ations that use charter yachts or
  Panama, and although the snorkeling          barges as home base. Check out
  is outstanding, diving gets you close        “Fishing” in chapter 4.
  to pelagics such as white-tipped           • Kayaking in the Kuna Yala
  sharks, sailfish, turtles, manta rays,       Comarca: Considering that diving is
  dolphins, and so much more. Coiba            prohibited in the Kuna Yala, kayaking
  is home to one of the largest coral          fills the “sports void,” and offers travel-
  reefs in the Pacific Coast of the Amer-      ers a way to intimately explore the
  icas. Day excursions involve a mini-         mangrove swamps and the undevel-
  mum of 3 hours round-trip to get             oped beauty of the tiny islands this
  here, which is why many multiday             region is famous for. Along the way,
  excursions include onboard lodging,          kayakers stop at traditional Kuna
  or at the park ranger’s cabins on the        communities for cultural tours, land-
  island. See p. 246.                          based hiking, and snorkeling. Xtrop
• Trekking the Camino Real: Cen-               (& 317-1279;, or
  turies before the Panama Canal, the          “Expediciones Tropicales,” is the com-
  Spanish built a 80km (50-mile) cob-          pany to call; they are a well-respected
  blestone path to transport looted gold       company and the only outfitters with
  from the Pacific to galleons waiting         special permission from the Kuna chief
  in the Caribbean Sea. You can trace          to kayak in the Kuna Yala. They
  their path, much of which still exists       employ local guides. See p. 287.
  in stone, in about 3 days, beginning       • Bird-Watching by Dugout Canoe
  with a canoe ride up the Chagres             on the Mogue River (Darién Wilder-
  River, an overnight in an Emberá             ness): The tour outfitter Ancon Expe-
  Indian Village, and a tramp through          ditions offers a bird-watching and
  earthy jungle full of birds and wildlife     nature adventure near Punta Patiño
  to Nombre de Dios, near Portobelo.           that takes travelers up the Mogue
  Lodging is in tents, and the return trip     River in a motorized dugout canoe,
  is by railroad to give you an idea of        winding past dry forest and ancient
  how revolutionary the railroad’s con-        mangrove swamps for an absolutely
  struction was to increasing coastal          authentic jungle experience. From
  access. Ancon Expeditions (& 269-            here, it’s off to find the harpy
  9415; is           eagle, Panama’s national bird, and
  the company to call. See p. 148.             then spend the night with Emberá
• Reeling in a Billfish off the Pacific        Indians in one of their rustic commu-
  Coast: Panama’s Pacific Coast is leg-        nities. For more information, contact
  endary for sport fishing, and anglers        Ancon at (& 269-9415; www.ancon
  can battle monster species such as  See p. 297.
  marlin, sailfish, and tuna in the Gulf
  of Chiriquí and the Gulf of Panama.
6        C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

    4 The Best Day Hikes & Nature Walks
    • The Quetzal Trail (Volcán Barú                   coatimundis, sloths, and other mam-
      National Park): Panama’s foremost                mals. The best time to go is early
      day hike takes visitors around the               morning, before 9am if possible,
      northeastern flank of Volcán Barú                when birds and animals are most
      and through primary and secondary                active. See p. 140.
      tropical forest and cloud forest that          • Finca Suiza (on the road between
      provides a dazzling array of flora and           Almirante and David): The Swiss
      fauna. The trail’s namesake resplen-             owners of this tiny ranch-style hostel
      dent quetzal lives here, too. The trail          offer some of the best hiking trails in
      is mostly downhill from the Cerro                Panama, both for beauty and because
      Punta side to Boquete, and is the rec-           they are so well-maintained and
      ommended direction unless you                    marked. There are three loop trails
      really crave a workout. What’s unique            that connect with one another; all are
      about this trek is that travelers lodg-          moderate to difficult but worth the
      ing around Cerro Punta can send                  initial climb for the expansive views
      their luggage to their next hotel in             of the coast and lowlands of the
      Boquete, and walk there. See p. 221.             Pacific, and into the peaks of Costa
    • Walk to Pirre Mountain (Darién                   Rica. The trails pass through verdant
      National Park): This is a serious jun-           rainforest, and there are waterfalls
      gle trail, located in one of the most            with bathing pools for taking a dip.
      remote wildernesses in Central Amer-             You can visit for the day, or bunk in
      ica. Pirre Mountain rises above the              their simple but attractive rooms
      Cana Field Station in the Darién                 (& 6615-3774;
      National Park, and is a moderate-to-             tc). See p. 244.
      difficult trail beloved by nature              • La Amistad International Park
      enthusiasts and bird-watchers for its            (Chiriquí Highlands): Visitors here
      dense concentration of fauna. Howler             can walk a quick 15-minute easy path
      monkeys, spider monkeys, sloths,                 near the ranger station, or an hour-
      even snakes are easily and frequently            long (but still easy) path through
      spotted, but just as exciting is the             bamboo gardens and thick jungle,
      wild sensation that comes from the               and past clear-water creeks. Another
      magnificent jungle surrounding you.              2-hour hike takes visitors to a series
      At the peak’s summit, there is a look-           of lookout points with mountain and
      out point with sweeping views. See               valley views, and a crashing 49m
      p. 297.                                          (160-ft.) waterfall; a detour here to a
    • Pipeline Road (Soberanía National                lookout point offers a view that
      Park): As mentioned elsewhere,                   stretches to the Caribbean. Gung-ho
      Pipeline is a bird-watcher’s haven, but          hikers can hack through a narrow
      this trail also provides outstanding             trail up to a peak for a coast-to-coast
      opportunities to see wildlife and just           view. Finish it off with a delicious
      to delve into steamy, wild jungle.               lunch at the local co-op cafe near the
      The farther you walk or bike, the bet-           ranger station. See p. 222.
      ter your chances of seeing monkeys,
                                               T H E B E S T B I R D - WAT C H I N G    7

5 The Best Bird-Watching
• Watching Macaws in Flight Over               green resplendent quetzal is widely con-
  the Forests of Darién National               sidered to be the most beautiful bird in
  Park: Few places in the world rival          the Americas, and it was revered by the
  the Darién National Park for bird-           Aztecs and the Mayans. Today bird-
  watching. The .5 million hectares            watchers are the ones who marvel at a
  (1.3 million acres) of rainforest here       sighting, especially of the male quetzal
  provide a home for four species of           for his breeding plumage and tail feath-
  macaws, including blue and gold, red         ers that can reach nearly .6m (2 ft.).
  and green, great green, and chestnut-        Nonbirders, too, can’t help getting
  fronted. These noisy and colorful            caught up in the excitement of seeing
  birds sail over the Cana Field Sta-          a quetzal. From December to May, the
  tion, a converted research facility and      best place to see a quetzal is in the cloud
  bird-watcher’s sanctuary run by              forests of Volcán Barú National Park,
  Ancon Expeditions (& 269-9415;               but if you want a near guarantee that; they’ll           you’ll see one, head to Finca Lérida
  take you up Pirre Mountain, where, if        (& 720-2285;
  you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse the             in Boquete and have them book the
  golden-headed quetzal. Also expect to        bird-watching guide Santiago “Cha-
  see a rainbow of tanagers, toucans,          go” Caballero (& 6626-2200; santi-
  oropendolas, and black-tipped cotin- or one
  gas. See p. 297.                             of his protégés—they’re the best in the
• Looking for More Than 500                    quetzal-spotting business. See p. 230.
  Species of Birds Along Pipeline            • Being Taken Aback by the Size of
  Road in Soberanía National Park:             the Harpy Eagle in Punta Patiño
  This is the “celebrity” bird-watching        Nature Reserve: The harpy eagle is
  trail for the immense number of              Panama’s national bird and one of the
  species found here. In fact, for several     largest eagles in the world, with a
  years Pipeline Road has set the world        wingspan that can reach more than
  record for 24-hour bird counts. Even         1.8m (6 ft.). You can’t help being
  non-birders can’t help getting caught        struck by this creature’s size, though
  up in the action with so many color-         now that they’ve made the endan-
  ful show birds fluttering about, such        gered list, they’re not the easiest bird
  as mot mots, trogons, toucans,               to spot. Head to Punta Patiño, and
  antbirds, colorful tanagers, and fly-        your chances soar. Ancon Expedi-
  catchers. The farther you walk or bike       tions (& 269-9415; www.ancon
  along the rainforest trail, the better has a lodge here and
  your chances of spotting rare birds.         organizes bird-watching trips. Short
  Contact Advantage Tours                      on time? Visit the harpy eagles at Sum-
  (& 6676-2466; www.advantage                  mit Gardens Park & Zoo & 232-; Guido Berguido can              4850;, near
  provide you with a bird-watching             Panama City. See p. 144.
  tour. See p. 66.                           • Grabbing a Cab to View 200+
• Catching Sight of the Resplendent            Species in the Metropolitan Park:
  Quetzal in the Cloud Forests of the          Panama City’s Metropolitan Park is
  Chiriquí Highlands: The iridescent           the only protected tropical forest
8        C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

      found within the city limits of a major          here and has counted up to 390
      urban area in the Americas—a 10-                 species in a single day. Also fluttering
      minute cab ride and you’re there,                around Achiote are orange-chinned
      checking out orange-billed sparrows,             parakeets, barbets, and flocks of swal-
      green honeycreepers, rufous and white            lowtail kites. Check out their website
      wrens, and thrush tanagers, among                at to see
      more than 200 other species. Head to             if they’ve got any day trips planned to
      the top of the Cerro Mono Titi hilltop           the area. See p. 150.
      to view canopy birds down the slope,           • Delving Into the World of Bird-
      not to mention a pretty spectacular              Watching at the Canopy Lodge or
      view of the city. See p. 121.                    Canopy Tower: These two lodges
    • Discovering Trogons, Blue Cotin-                 live and breathe bird-watching, with
      gas, and Chestnut-Mandible Tou-                  day trips, viewing platforms, expert
      cans on the Little-Known Achiote                 guides, and a fully stocked bird-
      Road: The Atlantic Coast village of              watcher’s library. The lodges are
      Achiote, about a 11⁄2-hour drive from            located in prime bird-watching spots
      Panama City, is quietly revered as a             in Soberanía National Park and the
      bird-watching mecca by those in the              cloud-forest foothills of Valle de
      know—the Audubon Society holds                   Antón (& 264-5720 or 6687-0291;
      their Atlantic Christmas Bird Count     See p. 145.

    6 The Best Destinations for Families
    • Panama City: If you’re using Panama               butterfly farm, reptile displays, and
      City as a base for day excursions to the          aerial tram. Families can also rent a
      Canal Zone, the Country Inn &                     bicycle for a ride up the Pipeline Road
      Suites Causeway (& 211-4501) is a                 to view wildlife and birds. See p. 145.
      good bet for families for its safe, quiet       • Jungle Adventure Cruises: Half-day
      location, outdoor pools, bicycle rental,          jungle cruises are fun for families
      and long walking/jogging shoreline                because of wildlife sightings, and also
      path that connects with the Amador                because cruises put participants
      Causeway. On the causeway, visit the              shockingly close to massive tankers
      Smithsonian’s Marine Exhibit Cen-                 crossing the Panama Canal. Cruises
      ter (& 212-8793) to view and touch                visit Monkey Island, where it is
      sea creatures. Kids and adults get a              almost guaranteed you’ll see four dif-
      kick out of seeing the colorful Mer-              ferent species; also keep an eye out for
      cado de Mariscos (Fish Market), and               capybaras, crocodiles, and sloths.
      kids like the Kuna Cooperative,                   Gamboa Rainforest Resort has their
      where Kuna women affix their tradi-               own tour, or try Ancon Expeditions
      tional beaded bands to the arms and               (& 269-9415) for their fun guides.
      legs of tourists. See p. 124.                     See p. 142.
    • The Canal Zone: The Panama Canal,               • Summit Garden & Zoo (near
      Lake Gatún, and the surrounding                   Panama City; & 232-4850): Wildlife
      rainforest overflow with kid-friendly             is notorious for shying away from
      activities, and parents can either base           humans, but you can view jaguars,
      themselves in Panama City or at Gam-              monkeys, tapirs, harpy eagles, and
      boa Rainforest Resort (Gamboa;                    other species endemic to Panama at
      & 877/800-1690), a kid-pleaser for                this zoo. It’s not a fancy attraction, but
      its swimming pools, games center,                 there are extensive lawns and gardens,
                                    T H E B E S T L U X U RY H OT E L S & R E S O RT S   9

  and the zoo is undergoing a progres-            new amphibian center. The most
  sive renovation during the next few             family-friendly hotel here is the
  years. See p. 144.                              Crater Valley Adventure Spa (& 983-
• Emberá Villages (Chagres River, near            6167), with a climbing wall, bicycle
  Panama City): This adventurous trip             rental, and kids’ activities, as well as
  is fun for kids because it involves trav-       an elegant pool and minispa for
  eling a jungle-choked Chagres River             adults. See p. 186.
  by motorized dugout canoe to an               • Bocas del Toro: Three distinctively
  Emberá Indian village. Along the way,           different lodges on Isla Bastimentos
  guides keep an eye out for wildlife.            in Bocas offer family-friendly activi-
  The Emberá’s rustic villages, handi-            ties. Go to Bahía Honda to see bat
  crafts, and temporary jagua-stain “tat-         caves, sloths, monkeys, and caimans;
  toos” fascinate kids and adults alike.          snorkel around Cayos Zapatilla,
  Give Ecocircuitos (& 314-1586) a                kayak through mangroves or on a
  call. See p. 144.                               Class I inland river, and more. Check
• Isla Contadora (Archipiélago de las             out The Jungle Lodge (& 6592-
  Perlas): What’s special about this              5162), Tranquilo Bay (& 6620-
  island are the dozen beaches that offer         4179), and Casa Cayuco (& 509/
  calm-water swimming conditions, the             996-4178 in the U.S.). See p. 278,
  best snorkeling in Panama, day excur-           p. 279, and p. 280.
  sions to uninhabited islands, fishing         • Chiriquí Highlands: Many B&Bs in
  trips, and more. The Hotel Conta-               the Chiriquí do not accept kids, so
  dora Resort (& 264-1510), while                 book at the Manatial Spa & Lodge
  certainly not the nicest hotel on the           (& 771-5126) near Bambito; they
  island, does front a perfect beach and          have a canopy line, trout fishing, out-
  offers day passes that include lunch            door pools, and kids’ activities. A
  and the use of kayaks and other sports          short, kid-friendly trail is in La Amis-
  equipment; they also have a minizoo             tad International Park. The Quetzal
  with monkeys. See p. 167.                       Trail offers fairyland rainforest and
• El Valle de Antón: Just 2 hours from            birds, and is downhill from west to
  Panama City, this mountain village              east. If staying in Boquete or Bam-
  provides families with a host of                bito, book a Class II white-water
  activities, including horseback riding,         rafting trip with Chiriquí Rafting
  hiking, canopy adventures, a serpen-            (& 720-1505). See p. 229.
  tarium, and El Nispero Zoo, with its

7 The Best Luxury Hotels & Resorts
• The Panama Marriott Hotel                     • The Bristol Panama (Panama City;
  (Panama City; & 210-9100): Of all               & 265-7844): It’s button-up luxury
  the upscale options in Panama City,             with conservative textures and hues,
  the Marriott consistently outshines its         English furniture, and carpeted guest
  competitors. The hotel is in excellent          rooms, but still the ambience at the
  shape, chock-full of facilities and             Bristol feels cozy rather than stuffy.
  amenities; guest rooms are roomy and            The Bristol is known for its bend-
  comfortable, and the staff provides             over-backward service and fine dining
  outstanding service. A central location         at Las Barandas Restaurant, though it
  close to restaurants and shops is an            doesn’t have a pool. See p. 93.
  added bonus. See p. 94.
10    C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

 • Intercontinental Playa Bonita                  • Hacienda del Mar (Isla San José;
   Resort & Spa (Playa Bonita; & 800/               & 866/433-5627): If you’re looking
   424-6835): If you’re looking for a               for a lodge in a pristine island setting
   full-scale resort with all the trim-             that isn’t too far from Panama City,
   mings yet not too far from Panama                but that offers plenty of outdoor
   City, this brand-new destination                 activities—this place fills the bill.
   resort fills the bill. Set on a small inlet      Accommodations are in individual
   on the Pacific Coast, and backed by              bungalows spread across a promon-
   lush jungle, the Inter-Continental               tory and offering dynamite views.
   feels more exclusive that other resorts          The overall ambience is intimate and
   on the Pacific Coast. The beach itself           romantic, making it an ideal place for
   is just a step above mediocre, but the           a honeymoon. See p. 169.
   swimming pools, outdoor activities,            • Villa Camila (Los Destiladores;
   and sybaritic spa will keep you busy             & 232-6721): It’s one of Panama’s
   enough. The Intercontinental is so               finest hotels and one of its most
   close to Panama City that you can                exclusive, tucked away on the
   dine there at night; and they offer              wooded shore of the Azuero Penin-
   access to the Tucán Golf Course. See             sula. French architect Gilles Saint-
   p. 174.                                          Gilles employed traditional, local
 • Islas Secas (Isla Secas; & 805/729-              woodworking and iron casting tech-
   2737 in the U.S.): Casual elegance               niques to build a gorgeous and
   and an eco-conscious design using                sophisticated hybrid of a hacienda
   deluxe, solar-powered yurts for lodg-            and Moroccan villa, with locally
   ing are the hallmarks of this exquisite          produced furniture, individually
   boutique resort, located on a private            designed rooms, and a wide veranda
   island in the blue waters of the Gulf            with wonderful views out to the sea.
   of Chiriquí. Expect outstanding cui-             Surprisingly, the hotel is little-known,
   sine, impeccable service, access to              and with so few guests you can expect
   world-class sport fishing and diving,            a high level of intimacy and privacy.
   and the smug feeling of having                   Vila Camila prides itself on eco-
   escaped the crowds. Islas Secas offers           friendly practices. See p. 207.
   a bevy of activities, or they can leave        • Tropic Star Lodge (Piñas Bay, Dar-
   you “stranded” on an uninhabited                 ién Province; 800/682-3424; www.
   island for the day or back at home      For more than 40
   base at their spa. See p. 248.                   years, the Tropic Star Lodge has
 • Coral Lodge (Colón Province;                     drawn VIPs, sports stars, and actors for
   & 317-6754): Spread around a                     its world-renowned sport fishing—
   dreamy inlet ringed with white sand              which is the focus of this lodge. If
   and backed by coconut palms and                  you’re not a VIP, that’s okay; this lodge
   thick jungle, this is a diver’s and              just wants fishing fans, and they
   snorkeler’s paradise, and one of the             openly welcome families to get the
   more luxurious and handsome lodges               kids interested in this high-adrenaline
   in Panama (it’s eco-conscious, too).             sport. The luxurious Tropic Star is
   Lodging is in cozy individual                    located in the Darién Province on the
   thatched-roof casitas with snorkeling            Pacific Coast, and must be reached by
   just outside your door—and the                   small plane. See p. 299.
   property is close enough to the
   Comarca Kuna Yala to tie in a visit
   there. See p. 159.
                          THE BEST ECOLODGES & WILDERNESS RESORTS                      11

 8 The Best Ecolodges & Wilderness Resorts
These days, the term “ecolodge” is used           include jungle boat cruises, an aerial
so frequently that it has come to mean            tram ride through the rainforest, and
anything from a converted research sta-           a minizoo of reptile, butterfly, and
tion with no electricity to a “sustainable        marine species exhibits. There’s also a
luxury” lodge. Ecolodges, by definition,          full-service spa. See p. 145.
should employ environmentally sound             • The Jungle Lodge (Bocas del Toro;
practices such as proper waste manage-            & 6592-5162): No other lodge
ment, and contribute back to the local            envelops you more in nature than this
economy through jobs and an incentive             one—it’s like playing Tarzan and Jane
to protect the environment for tourism.           for a night. Sleeping in an open-air,
Ecolodges should also offer guided nature         thatched-roof bungalow, of course, is
tours and provide in-depth information.           not for everyone, but the cabins are
The Gamboa Resort is the least “eco” of           stylish, and two sit high in the forest
the following lodges, but its location,           canopy, with sweeping views and
guided tours, and wildlife displays still         wildlife sightings. There are guided
place it in this category.                        nature and cultural visits with Ngöbe-
   • Canopy Lodge & Canopy Tower (El              Buglé Indians, organic meals, and an
     Valle de Antón & Soberanía National          on-site butterfly farm. See p. 279.
     Park; & 264-5720): Birders flock to        • Cana Field Station (Darién National
     these two ecolodges for their focus on       Park; & 269-9415): Originally a
     our feathered friends and their loca-        research facility, this rustic lodge is
     tion in habitats friendly to a wide          nestled in the Darién, the wildest and
     range of species. The Canopy Tower,          most remote region of Panama and
     a remodeled military radar station in        renowned as one of the best birding
     thick jungle, is a cross between a styl-     sites in the world. Ancon Expeditions
     ish B&B and a scientific research cen-       owns and runs the lodge, but birding
     ter. It’s just 25 minutes from Panama        specialty tour operators book here,
     City but feels worlds away, and the          too. Rooms are basic, with shared
     360-degree observation deck here             bathrooms, and meals are shared com-
     provides stunning views and a plat-          munally. They include an overnight at
     form with scopes. The Canopy                 the Pirre Tent Camp in the cloud for-
     Lodge is more luxurious, with mini-          est. See p. 298.
     malist design that blends into the         • Punta Patiño Lodge (Darién Province,
     forested surroundings. Outstanding           Gulf of San Miguel; & 269-9415):
     birding guides, a well-stocked library,      This hilltop lodge looks out over the
     day trips, and chats are a part of the       Pacific, and though it’s rustic, it is a
     stay. See p. 188.                            step up in comfort compared to the
   • Gamboa Rainforest Resort (Gam-               Cana Field Station, with air-condi-
     boa; & 877/800-1690): They bill              tioning and private bathrooms. It’s
     themselves as an eco-resort, but the         also owned by Ancon Expeditions,
     Gamboa is better called a “destina-          but international tour outfitters book
     tion megaresort” that appeals equally        here, too. The lodge puts travelers
     to travelers seeking contact with            close to wetlands, Emberá indigenous
     nature to those who just want to be          communities, sightings of the harpy
     surrounded by nature while kicking           eagle, and adventurous jungle rides up
     back at the pool. Guided nature tours        rivers in dugout canoes. See p. 296.
12    C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

 • Sierra Llorona Panama Lodge                    • Trinidad Spa & Lodge (near
   (Colón Province; & 442-8104): This               Penonomé; & 786/206-0219 in the
   intimate, family-run lodge is a good             U.S.;
   bet for birders seeking a less-expen-            The drop-dead views and the fact
   sive option than the Canopy Tower.               that this spa and lodge is known to
   The lodge is nestled in 202 hectares             few outside of Panama City make the
   (500 acres) of lush rainforest that is           Trinidad Spa & Lodge a real find.
   home to more than 150 species of                 The lodge is nestled in thick, green
   birds, and there are walking trails, a           jungle and dominated by a torlike hill
   natural bathing pool, and day trips in           called Cerro La Vieja. Spa services are
   the surrounding area. Rooms are sim-             reasonably priced, and there are walk-
   ple but spotless. See p. 144.                    ing trails, mule rides, and other out-
 • Tranquilo Bay (Bocas del Toro;                   door excursions. They serve delicious,
   & 620-4179): Embraced by lush,                   organic cuisine, too. See p. 193.
   vibrant jungle and fronted by a                • Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa (Guada-
   thicket of mangroves, this resort, a             lupe; & 771-2291): Although the
   haven for adventurers, is the most               main lodge is in town, there are sev-
   upscale lodging option in Bocas del              eral rustic wooden cabins set deep in
   Toro. The idea here is to provide                lush rainforest that swarms with col-
   activities that go where no other tour           orful birds. The cabins are large
   operator goes, including river kayak-            enough for groups, and they provide
   ing on the mainland, snorkeling in               travelers with the wildest independ-
   remote areas, jungle hikes, and visits           ent lodging option in the country.
   to isolated beaches. The cabins,                 The cabins can be self-catering, or
   though simply designed, offer plush              they’ll send a chef up to cook for you.
   interiors with high-quality beds and             Walking trails and horseback-riding
   spacious bathrooms. See p. 280.                  trips are options for those who stay
                                                    here. See p. 225.

 9 The Best Small Hotels & B&Bs
 • The Coffee Estate Inn (Boquete;                  irresistible deal. The setting, on the
   & 720-2211; www.coffeeestateinn.                 outskirts of town, is quiet, save the
   com): Gorgeous views of Volcán Barú,             sound of a babbling creek. The cabins
   cozy bungalows with full kitchens, and           are newly renovated and have kitch-
   owner-managed, friendly service tai-             enettes. See p. 239.
   lored to your needs are the hallmarks          • Cielito Sur (Nueva Suiza; & 771-
   of The Coffee Estate Inn. The bun-               2038; The first
   galows are enveloped in native forest,           thing you’ll notice at this lovely coun-
   fruit trees, and flowers that attract            try inn is the dozens of humming-
   myriad birds. The romantic ambi-                 birds whizzing around the property.
   ence is ideal for honeymooners. See              The Cielito is an ideal place for trav-
   p. 237.                                          elers seeking a pastoral setting, snug
 • Boquete Garden Inn (Boquete;                     guest rooms, and easy-to-plan excur-
   & 720-2376; www.boquetegarden                    sions. The inn also has lots of com- The price is nice, and the             mon areas, including a living area
   pretty manicured gardens and comfy               with lounge chairs and a well-stocked
   cabin-style rooms make this B&B an               library. See p. 223.
                                                 T H E B E S T R E S TA U R A N T S   13

• Perla Real Inn (Isla Contadora;    It’s the true defini-
  & 250-4095;             tion of a B&B: owner-run; lots of
  This new gem of an inn is owned by          charming, country decor; hearty
  a Californian who modeled the decor         breakfasts; and warm, gracious serv-
  after Spanish missions from his home        ice. There are doubles and a full
  state. The Perla is fresh and cool, and     house for a group. The storybook set-
  a good value, too. Independent trav-        ting is amid flowering gardens and
  elers can buy their own supplies and        forest. See p. 189.
  book a suite with a kitchenette. The      • Posada los Destiladores (Playa los
  inn looks over a small patio courtyard      Destiladores; & 6675-9715; www.
  with a bubbling fountain. See p. 167. These rustic yet
• Vereda Tropical Hotel (Isla Taboga;         ultrastylish, individual bungalows
  & 250-2154; www.veredatropical              offer one of the most romantic places This artfully designed,         to stay on the Pacific Coast of
  Mexican-style inn is a welcome addi-        Panama. Secluded among 8.1 hectares
  tion to an island destination that was      (20 acres) of tropical plants and teak
  formerly starved of decent lodging.         trees, the bungalows feature bamboo,
  Expansive views, an indoor atrium           thatched roofs, and intricately carved,
  patio, and swirling iron balustrades        custom-made furniture using local
  are key features, and their restaurant,     materials. There is a pool and private
  on a breezy veranda, is one of              access to a beautiful beach. See p. 206.
  Panama’s best spots for a lunch or an     • Villa Marina (& 646/383-7486 in
  afternoon cocktail. See p. 162.             the U.S.;
• La Casa de Lourdes (El Valle de             Best described as a family home that
  Antón; & 983-6645; www.lacasade             happens to rent out rooms, this Perched on a gently           beachfront B&B is a find, located on
  sloping hill and offering picturesque       the shore of surfing beach Playa
  views of the Antón crater, this deluxe      Venado. The colonial-style home, set
  boutique hotel is also home to one of       on 89 hectares (220 acres) of private
  Panama’s best restaurants. The Tus-         land and boasting beautiful sunsets, is
  can-style hotel recently opened a           elegantly appointed—but the ambi-
  high-end spa, and they rent bikes and       ence is easeful, not fussy. Villa Marina
  arrange tours. See p. 188.                  is best rented with a group, but indi-
• Park Eden Bed & Breakfast (El               vidual reservations are accepted, too.
  Valle de Antón; & 983-6167; www.            See p. 206.

10 The Best Restaurants
• Manolo Caracol (Panama City;                know what you’re going to get, but
  & 228-4640): The city’s most inno-          you know it will be good. See p. 106.
  vative restaurant features an adven-      • Limoncillo (Panama City; & 263-
  turous and creative daily menu that         5350): This little gourmet bistro is
  embraces in-season products and the         headed by a top chef who earned her
  freshest and most exotic fish of any        stripes in New York, and brought that
  restaurant in town. Sit back in the         city’s dining concept to Panama City:
  colonial, artsy ambience and wait for       creative taste combinations, chill-out
  a “surprise” of 12 courses to be slowly     background music, an artsy ambi-
  ushered to your table—you never             ence, and high-end prices. The food
14      C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F PA N A M A

     is mostly contemporary Mediter-                     is alfresco: under the archways of a
     ranean and Italian, and the cocktails               Tuscan-style manor house, next to an
     are divine. See p. 103.                             outdoor swimming pool. See p. 190.
 •   Palms (Panama City; & 265-7256):               •    Restaurant Vista Mar (Vista Mar;
     It’s one of the hippest restaurants in              & 215-1111): This brand-new
     Panama City, with a tropical-chic and               restaurant is run by a renowned
     sleek decor, and delicious, well-con-               French chef, and sports a Moroccan
     ceived dishes that expertly blend                   decor that is fresh and chic, plus out-
     Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin                     door dining with ocean views. The
     American flavors and ingredients.                   Mediterranean-style seafood is well-
     Upstairs is an ultra-modern bar for a               conceived and bursting with flavor.
     nightcap. See p. 104.                               The restaurant is within the Vista
 •   Las Barandas (Panama City; & 265-                   Mar residential community, on the
     7844): Panama City’s best boutique                  Pacific Coast. See p. 177.
     hotel also has one of its best restau-         •    Panamonte Inn Restaurant (Boquete;
     rants. At the helm is “Cuquita,”                    & 720-1324): This sanctuary of
     nationally famous as the Martha                     gourmet cuisine is located within the
     Stewart of Panama, who adapts tradi-                clapboard walls of the oldest hotel in
     tional Panamanian recipes to modern                 Boquete. The food is inventive and
     gourmet tastes, and serves her deli-                consistently good, and service is
     cious creations in a cozy and sophisti-             attentive and courteous. You can
     cated dining area. They have Sunday                 bypass their more formal dining area
     brunch, too. See p. 108.                            for a comfy seat in their fireside bar
 •   Madame Chang (Panama City;                          and still order off the main menu. See
     & 269-1313): Few diners are aware                   p. 243.
     that some of the best Chinese food             •    La Ballena (Bocas del Toro; & 757-
     outside of China is here in Panama,                 9089): A wine bar serving fine Italian
     and Madame Chang is where you                       food is an incongruous element in
     come to savor it. The Peking duck is                the rum-and-beer Caribbean, but
     the restaurant’s showcase dish, and                 that’s what makes La Ballena so good.
     they serve potent martinis. The own-                Homemade pastas and thin-crust piz-
     ers have merged Old China with new,                 zas; a warm, candlelit ambience; and
     both in terms of cuisine and their                  a pirate’s cache of hundreds of wines
     smart-casual atmosphere. See p. 109.                can be found here. See p. 270.
 •   La Casa de Lourdes (El Valle de                •    Restaurant Yasinori (Bocas del Toro;
     Antón; & 983-6450): The cuisine is                  no phone): There’s nothing much to
     so to-die-for good that some residents              this place other than a thatched roof
     of Panama City endure the 4-hour                    and plastic chairs and tables in the
     round-trip to El Valle de Antón just                sand, but the simple Panamanian and
     to have Sunday lunch. Ultra-fresh                   creole dishes are straight-from-the-
     ingredients and exotic fruits are used              sea fresh, and the fruit juices are deli-
     to create updated takes on Panama-                  cious. Caribbean views also help make
     nian and Latin American fare. Dining                this a wonderful spot. See p. 273.

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