1 The Best of Panama AL 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 RI 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 TE 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, MA 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- D 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. TE 1 The Best of Natural Panama • Metropolitan Park (Panama City): creating a hyper-diverse natural won- GH 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 RI 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 PY 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 CO • 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; www.canopylodge.com), in El you raft, these two rivers produce seri- Valle, and Boquete Tree Trek (& 720- ous white-water ranging from techni- 1635; www.canopypanama.com), 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 panamarafters.com). 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 surftours.com). 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; www.xtrop.com), 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; www.anconexpeditions.com) 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 expeditions.com). 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; www.panama.net. 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 www.anconexpeditions.com); they’ll you’ll see one, head to Finca Lérida take you up Pirre Mountain, where, if (& 720-2285; www.fincalerida.com) 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- email@example.com) 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 expeditions.com) 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- panama.com); Guido Berguido can 4850; www.summitpanama.org), 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 www.panamaaudubon.org 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 www.canopytower.com). 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 tropicstar.com): 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.; www.posadaecologica.com). 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; www.cielitosur.com): 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- inn.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; parkeden.com): It’s the true defini- & 250-4095; www.perlareal.com). 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. panamabambu.net). These rustic yet • Vereda Tropical Hotel (Isla Taboga; ultrastylish, individual bungalows & 250-2154; www.veredatropical offer one of the most romantic places hotel.com): 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.; www.playavenado.com). • 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 lourdes.com): 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.
Pages to are hidden for
"The Best of Panama"Please download to view full document