Central America’s cosmopolitan gem boasts glittering skyscrapers, jungle villages, and oceans teeming with adventure. Explorers wanted, secrets revealed.
By Jeanne Polocheck
In the quick stretch of highway from the airport to bustling Panama City, the hip old quarter of Casco Viejo invites a good wandering and the gleaming high rises of Avenida Balboa introduce themselves, sparkling in the afternoon sun over the Pacific. Panama City is packed with luxury hotels, designer boutiques and salons that open at six am for five dollar blowouts. The waterfront has myriads of bike and walking trails, but don’t expect to see young professionals pedaling to the office – one needs to arrive pressed and coiffed to perfection.
Panama has a deep, storied history based on the marvels of engineering and trade, magnificent skyscrapers set amid lush landscapes, and friendly locals that span the globe from born and bred to just arrived. Look closer. Panama holds secrets waiting to be revealed.
To the north and east, indigenous tribes peacefully co-exist with modern life, thriving in the vibrant rainforest. To the west, the clear depths of the Caribbean invite adventurers to explore beneath the waves.
Panama’s population is a study in diversity, both culturally and religiously, evidenced by a strong Catholic population, the city’s Mormon Temple, and a large Hasidic Jewish community. Ancestors of present day Afro-Caribbeans and Asians built the canal and the railroad, their descendants making up a large swath of the citizenry. Europeans and Americans have been lured to Panama by generous retirement opportunities, low crime rates and a favorable cost of living. Not only is it a pleasurable place to live, a vacation stay here is easy on the wallet, compared to similar accommodations in sultry hotspots it closely resembles, like Miami. A glut of high end properties has brought room rates down, especially in the summer. This squiggle of land close to the equator enjoys a year round temperate climate, making it easy on the calendar to plan a trip.
The adventure begins. The boat’s gassed up, our timing – perfect. Humpback whales and dolphins are migrating through the Bay of Panama and the Pearl Islands, calling our names. American Anne Gordon de Barrigon, a native of Olympia, Washington, is a former Hollywood animal trainer, who arrived in Panama to work on a movie. She met and married, Otniel, a member of the Embera tribe, who was born and raised in a traditional village in the rainforest of Panama. Today, they own Whale Watching Panama, and Embera Village Tours, bringing small groups on day and overnight visits to discover how Panama’s indigenous people live in the rainforest.
Anne is taking us from the Balboa Yacht Club to explore Contadora, one of the Pearl Islands, setting for three seasons of the reality show, Survivor, as we watch for whales along the way. Security is a constant in Panama City, with so many cargo ships from around the world converging on the canal. Foreigners must carry passports at all times. Local police are friendly, dressed in spotless fatigues, and well armed – no doubt contributing to the low level of crime here. After a quick stop, passports in hand, our boat finally pushes off. We find ourselves winding through massive ships waiting to pass through the canal. Each year, tens of thousands of vessels transit the locks, making the ten to twelve hour, forty-eight mile journey from Atlantic to Pacific. The passage can take days, especially if you don’t pay the premium to reserve a space. Huge cargo vessels mix with high end fishing boats – helicopters at the ready – to track dolphins – which often tip off fisherman to the best tuna spots.
As we navigate past the ships into open water, Anne tells us to look for the telltale sign of a humpback whale – blow spouts, and a smooth water footprint on the surface. After trolling for an hour, we happen upon on a majestic fifty foot long female and her calf. They are not alone. Listening on a specially equipped radio to the sounds below, we hear the whales singing. Anne explains that only the males sing – all the same song – and it changes every year. No one knows why. It’s beautifully eery, like long lost friends trying to find each other across miles of ocean. It takes your breath away, giving you a great appreciation for the mysteries of the deep.
Equally awe inspiring is our journey the following day, up the Chagres River, passing ousted dictator Manuel Noriega’s barbed wire encased compound, a stark reminder of Panama’s corrupt past. From it’s stunning seat on the banks of the river in the middle of the jungle, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is charming because of its dedicated local staff and stunning wildlife. The resort is a former grand dame hotel a bit past its prime, but rooms are clean and tidy, and the tours offered really get you into the local area. At $100+ per night for a river view, you really can’t complain. Be prepared to see and hear wildlife while walking the open air hallways of the resort. For a real treat, stay up late or rise early, sip your coffee on the balcony and just listen to the sounds of the jungle.
Our sole purpose today is to join an Embera tribe member, taking us by canoe, to visit a local village. In Panama, you don’t see art from ancient peoples long extinct. The Embera and Kuna tribes are still living their culture – very much in the present. Daily life in their villages is primitive at best, existing in large thatched huts, eating only the fish they catch from the river and produce they farm or find in the jungle. It’s a stark reminder of how simple life used to be.
Embera children are often naked until they reach puberty, except when they leave the village to attend public schools, quietly making the trip across the river by canoe. As our boat meets the pier, it feels like we’re stepping into a lost continent, frozen by time. The village men, in loincloths, welcome us with music, as beautiful, brightly skirted women wave and smile. The jungle teems with life, a perceptible hum of activity from birds, insects, monkeys and other wildlife living amongst their human companions, hidden by the plants and flowers that call Panama home. Armies of leaf cutter ants, able to carry five thousand times their body weight, charge single file across fences, trees and the jungle floor, completely ignoring us. Onward they march, to an unseen fortress – perhaps
a giant ant mansion deep in the forest – as a Dave Matthews song strums in my head. An afternoon spent in the village finds you walking the jungle, spotting plants and wildlife, eating a typical Embera meal, and learning how they make their jewelry – a currency in their culture. Buying pieces from the elders helps put money in the hands of the villagers to purchase necessities they can’t find in the rainforest – outboard motors and mosquito netting. It’s hard to look at these parts of Panama and not want to whitewash them, make them pristine and perfect. Witnessing these people, surviving in the rainforest without modern comforts or (gasp!) cell phones, is a reminder. This is how we all began.
The adventure continues in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, on the Caribbean border of Costa Rica. Unless you’ve visited Bocas (as the locals call it), it’s difficult to explain the pull these islands leave on visitors. They’re captivating in so many ways – from their biodiversity, beauty and rich ethnic culture – to laid back luxury. We touch down in Bocas Town, just long enough to make a run to the tiny grocery store for provisions. They’re quickly loaded, along with our luggage, into a small dugout boat with a huge outboard motor. We’re whisked across a sparkling bay, passing reefs packed with bright coral and iridescent fish emerging from the depths like fireflies, sneaking across the ocean.
As we slowly enter the marina, sailboats bob languidly, welcoming us to slow down and relax. Nosing into a small, elegant pier built through the mangroves, we’re met by the team that run the Red Frog Beach Resort, named for the tiny red frogs that inhabit this island. Stucco, marble and air conditioned villas dot across the rainforest, their private plunge pools and decks creating the perfect place for
cocktails after a day at the beach or a hike. The villas are linked by dirt trails laid for two golf carts to pass, meandering through the hillside. Visitors wave as they stop to spot sloths and capuchin monkeys dangling above or crossing at night in groups.
Red Frog Beach is ecotourism at its best. Each villa is budgeted 30 kilowatts of electricity per day (you can pay for more), and the golf carts seen zipping around the island are charged overnight in front of your villa. Barbecuing is encouraged, and the main restaurant, a thatched roof cottage on the stunning beach, serves South American food like Venezuelan Arepas (shredded beef over corn fritters), as well as local seafood. They’ll deliver to your villa if you order ahead, a great option for intrepid guests not wanting to travel the paths at night, when the real sounds of the forest make you remember you are totally off the grid.
The adventures are many, and not for the faint of heart. I couldn’t bring myself to wander the bat caves in waist deep water, but zip lining here is a tremendous rush as you speed through the jungle, and finish challenging climbs into the canopy, landing on breathtakingly high platforms. Snorkeling delivers a gorgeous trip across shallow waters, as the boatman speeds you to a restaurant in the middle of the water. Hop out and order the lobster – then return 45 minutes later after they’ve freshly caught and grilled it with fried plantains and cold beer. Snorkel right off the pier, welcomed by bright orange starfish, winking a few feet below. While there are other smaller hotels across the water in Bocas Town, Red Frog Beach Resort provides the highest level of luxury (at an affordable price), and is ideal if you’re traveling with family or in a group. They offer 2-5 bedroom luxury villas, just make sure to reserve a golf
cart when you book – there will not be extras when you arrive. It’s a thrill driving around the jungle in a cart at night, not so much on foot. The resort includes all your transport to and from the airport, and has packages available for tours and excursions.
Skyscrapers, indigenous tribes, ocean adventures and lush rainforests live together in present day Panama. The best way to describe a vacation here is that it makes you curious – Panama slowly reveals its secrets, day by day, weaving the narrative on its own time. It shows you what its made of, then invites you back for more.
International Flights are served by Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. Direct flights from Houston are offered by United Airlines, gate to gate in 4 hours. Inter – Panama and Central American flights depart from the smaller Albrook’s Marcos A. Gilbert International Airport, served primarily by Air Panama. While Air Panama’s website may be clunky and intermittent, emailing customer service works like lightening. Be prepared to be personally weighed (along with your luggage) and walk on the runway to board your flight. The in-flight crew are warm and welcoming, make sure you try Panama’s local beer offered in-flight.
A welcome surprise in Panama City – luxury accommodations at bargain prices. All the big brand’s are here – Marriott, Hilton, Westin, Intercontinental – and competition has brought prices down, dramatically. Even the city’s only oceanfront hotel, the ultra-luxe Marriott Ocean Club, and the gleaming five star Waldorf Astoria can be had for under $175 per night this summer.
Local Taxis are not well regulated, and allowed to pick up other passengers at their discretion – while you’re on the way to your destination. Not only is this highly inconvenient, the taxis are tiny. Most drivers don’t speak English, and you’ll have to negotiate your rate with them directly. Car rental is not recommended – roads in the city center and the Canal Zone are well laid but can be snarled with traffic, and well populated with taxis. Roads outside of the city areas and through the countryside can be treacherous and not well marked.
Uber operates seamlessly in Panama City and the Canal Zone. English speaking drivers whisk you away in newer vehicles, and double as tour guides with friendly smiles and local tips for hotspots and history. Just beware that if you order an Uber to take you further outside of the city, you will likely not be able to contact them to bring you back as Wifi and cell phone service are unreliable (at best) the further you get away from Panama City, so make arrangements with the driver in advance for your return trip.