Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - See Both Sides of the Canal
No trip to Panama is complete without exploring the Panama Canal. This engineering marvel changed global trade and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Most visitors flock to Miraflores Locks near Panama City. But to truly appreciate the canal’s scale, you need to experience both the Atlantic and Pacific sides.
On the Atlantic end, start at Gatun Locks. Here you’ll find the canal’s only set of three consecutive locks, which raise ships 85 feet to Gatun Lake. Stand on the viewing platform as massive container ships squeeze through the tight chambers. The locomotives guiding these behemoths seem tiny in comparison! For a closer look, book a partial canal transit. A 4-hour boat tour passes through the Gatun Locks before returning to dock.
Don’t miss the Agua Clara Visitor Center, which has exhibits on the canal’s history and operations. The star attraction is the video wall in the observation deck. Cameras along the route display live footage, so you can watch ships transiting in real time. Below, glass floors reveal the original canal locks underneath.
Nearby, hike the rainforest trails at Gatun Lake. Howler monkeys swing through the canopy, while toucans flit between branches. The lake itself – an essential part of the canal system – covers 165 square miles. Boat tours cruise past half-submerged trees protruding from its surface.
Cross to the Pacific side to explore Miraflores Locks. From the four-story observation center, you can look down on giant vessels squeezing through the two-step lock chambers. The museum details how the original canal was carved out of the jungle. Outside, walking trails skirt the locks. Time your stroll to watch freighters and yachts make their descent.
End at the Amador Causeway – the skinny peninsula leading to the Pacific locks. Pelicans dive for fish as ships line up to enter. Joggers and bikers share the paved path with local families. Grab a bite with a canal view at one of the causeway’s waterside restaurants. A cocktail at sunset is the perfect way to toast your transcontinental crossing.
What else is in this post?
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - See Both Sides of the Canal
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Experience Panama City's Cosmopolitan Vibe
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Get Off the Grid in Bocas del Toro
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Soak in the Beauty of San Blas Islands
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Hike to Lost Waterfalls in Chiriqui Highlands
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Delve into Panama's Diverse Ecosystems
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Savor the Flavors of Panamanian Cuisine
- Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Dive the Pristine Reefs of Coiba National Park
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Experience Panama City's Cosmopolitan Vibe
Though Panama is brimming with natural wonders, its cosmopolitan capital beckons. Panama City juxtaposes modern skyscrapers with colonial ruins, combining influences from Europe and the Americas into its own distinct character. Spend a few days immersing yourself in the city’s vibrant food, nightlife, and culture.
Start in the atmospheric Casco Viejo quarter, where you’ll rub shoulders with a cross-section of Panamanian society. Students and young professionals mix with politicians and foreign dignitaries in the cobblestoned plazas. The Presidential Palace overlooks tree-lined squares centered around bubbling stone fountains. Crumbling arches connect colonial mansions painted in tropical pastels. Inside, these historic buildings house bohemian cafes, chic boutique hotels, art galleries, and happening bars.
For people watching, snag a patio table at a cafe on Plaza Bolivar. Order a salted caramel milkshake and frosted pineapple juice from Granclement. Soak up the relaxed vibe as locals greet passing friends with two-cheek kisses. Kids in school uniforms play hacky sack, while street musicians strum guitars and play flutes.
In the evening, join the city’s movers and shakers for pre-dinner cocktails at The Stranger’s Club. Its unmarked entrance leads to an intimate lounge modeled after a 1930’s gentleman’s club. Sip expertly mixed gin and tonics and nibble Brazilian-style steak tartare, as regulars test their knowledge during lively trivia nights.
Afterwards, sample Panama’s cosmopolitan dining scene. At Maito, Chef Mario Castrellón forages in Chiriquí province to infuse indigenous ingredients into his tasting menus. Dishes like guandu bean hummus with pickled ramps reflect Panama’s cultural crossroads on the plate. Or opt for Celeste’s colorful Peruvian ceviches and causas whipped with aji amarillo chilies and lime.
Burn off the calories dancing to Latin hits at Havana Panama. Crowds spill into the street from its open-air courtyard, moving to the pulsing beats. For a mellower evening, catch world music at Tángeriné in Casco Viejo. Its Moroccan-style courtyard makes a romantic setting for taking in Afro-Latin jazz or reggae bands.
Beyond the historic quarter, explore the surrounding city districts. Bella Vista and Marbella boast chic shopping centers and high-rises along the bay. El Cangrejo tempts foodies with its mix of cuisines, from hole-in-the-wall noodle joints to upscale seafood eateries.
Nearby along the Amador Causeway, Frank Gehry’s iconic Biodiversity Museum hovers like a multicolored mother ship over the ocean. Nearby, locals fly kites from Panama Bay’s breezy shoreline. Joggers pound the pavement as ships line up to enter the Canal.
Don’t miss a day trip to Panama Canal Miraflores Visitor Center. Ascend the observation deck for views over giant freighters squeezing through the locks below. Interactive exhibits detail how the epic waterway transformed global trade. Time your visit for nightfall to watch a show projected over the locks, set to music and narration about the canal’s construction.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Get Off the Grid in Bocas del Toro
Craving a total escape from the connected world? Bocas del Toro is Panama’s off-the-grid archipelago, where turquoise waters lap against palm-fringed isles untouched by mass tourism. This remote region is part of an eco-paradise brimming with exotic wildlife, lush rainforests, and vibrant coral reefs.
On Isla Colón, wander unpaved roads lined with candy-colored Caribbean cottages. Kick back in a hammock strung on the deck of a creaky beach bar, sipping chilled coconuts as reggae beats float on the breeze. Cycle past cows grazing in green pastures to reach secluded beaches, where hermit crabs scuttle through the rustling palms.
Isla Bastimentos tempts adventurers with jungle-clad peaks and secluded bays perfect for snorkeling. Take a boat to Wizard Beach, fringed by jungle where howler monkeys roar at sunbathing iguanas. Wade through bathtub-warm water to a hidden cove where bioluminescent plankton light up the night.
Nearby at Red Frog Beach, scarlet poison dart frogs hop along rainforest trails once used by cacao traders. Paddle out by kayak or stand-up paddleboard to spot sloths lounging in the mangroves. In the evening, dine by candlelight on just-caught Caribbean lobster at rustic overwater bungalows.
On Isla Solarte, live a castaway fantasy while beachcombing for shells and starfish. Snorkel out to breathtaking coral gardens swirling with angelfish and parrotfish. For a special meal, take a water taxi to La Loma Jungle Lodge, perched on a hill amidst soaring palms. Feast on plantain-crusted catch of the day on their al fresco terrace.
Nearby on Isla Carenero, cycle from one chilled-out beach bar to the next, choosing between BBQ, tacos, and ceviche. At Bibi’s on the Beach, sip passionfruit mojitos to the beat of Caribbean drums at sunset. In the morning, stroll along soft sand dotted with pastel chalets on stilts.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Soak in the Beauty of San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are an indigenous paradise with sugary beaches fringed by swaying palms. This Caribbean archipelago belongs to the Guna people, who fiercely protect their ancestral lands from outside influences. Visitors who respect their customs are welcomed into a world few outsiders experience.
Ringed by aquamarine waters, the San Blas Islands seem perpetually bathed in golden sunlight. Crystalline waves lap against palm-lined shores reminiscent of tropical screen savers. But beyond the idyllic backdrops, these islands give a rare glimpse into Guna culture.
Women in brightly colored molas sell hand-woven textiles. Wizened elders dressed in traditional cloths socialize under thatched huts among the palms. Villages of bamboo huts on stilts perch over turquoise coves, with dugout canoes tethered to rickety docks. The largest town of Cartí retains traditional architecture, with dirt paths winding between reed-thatched homes.
While development is restricted, glamping eco-lodges let you comfortably experience off-the-grid island life. At San Blas Life, sleep in a private cabin amid the jungle canopy. Fall asleep to the croaks of frogs and chatter of parrots after spending days snorkeling pristine reefs.
On desert island excursions, stumble upon starfish bigger than your hand while wading through bathtub-warm water. Don snorkel gear to follow stingrays gliding over colorful corals swarming with angelfish. Watch the sunset while dining on freshly grilled langoustines, before stargazing on the beach.
Island hop to find your own slice of paradise, taking leisurely tours in covered boats. Soak up the laidback vibes on Isla Perro, where you can walk from one end to the other in just 10 minutes. On Isla Pelicano, laze in a hammock strung between palms while waiting for the catch of the day to be cooked over a woodfire.
At Isla Maquina, trade stories with globetrotters from around the world while sipping cold beers. Take a jungle hike to hidden coves for a true Robinson Crusoe experience. Paddle out by kayak to snorkel sites brimming with sea turtles, eagle rays, and nurse sharks.
Part of the allure is the journey itself through scattered isles fringed by coral reefs. Skim over glassy seas in narrow wooden boats hand-carved by the Guna people. Watch dolphins dancing off the bow as you weave through uninhabited islets draped in greenery.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Hike to Lost Waterfalls in Chiriqui Highlands
The mountainous Chiriquí highlands offer misty trails winding through cloud forests and mossy ravines, leading to thundering waterfalls hidden deep in the wilderness. This remote region shared with Costa Rica boasts cool mountain air and endlessly rushing rivers – a refreshing change from steamy coastlines. Lace up your hiking boots to discover lost waterfalls spilling over jungle cliffs.
One of the most spectacular is Cascada Escondida, tucked high in a mountain valley near Boquete. A steep, root-strewn trail leads through dense forest along the gushing Caldera River. Lush ferns sprout beside the path, where colorful heliconias droop under the canopy. The roar of rushing water echoes between sheer rock walls covered in velvety moss.
Suddenly, the trail ends at a viewpoint of the mighty cascade plunging over a 120-foot cliff, foaming into a rocky pool below. Watch intrepid locals dive from wet ledges into the crisp mountain water for an exhilarating plunge. Pack a picnic to enjoy on sunny boulders beside the thundering falls. On the hike down, keep your eyes peeled for tiny strawberry poison dart frogs hopping amidst the foliage.
Near Volcán Barú, a challenging day hike bags three waterfalls – Cascadas Los Ladrones, de Balsa, and Chorrerón. The route follows the Río Caldera through tropical forests all the way to 11,000 feet. The first is a delicate ribbon joining the river, while the second tumbles down a sheer 20-foot drop. Finish at the mighty Chorrerón, its dual chutes crashing down a towering cliff into a misty gorge.
Off the beaten path near Santa Fé, Cascada Esmeralda spills 130 feet into an emerald pool perfect for swimming. Ladders bolted into the rock wall allow daring souls to scale the slick stone behind the thundering curtain of water. Pack a bathing suit to enjoy the bracing freshwater swimming hole nestled in the rainforest.
Whatever trail you choose, prepare for rugged routes traversing muddy and slippery terrain. Sturdy hiking boots with ankle support are a must, along with plenty of water and snacks for energy. A dry bag protects cameras and phones from downpours and raging rapids.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Delve into Panama's Diverse Ecosystems
Panama boasts astonishing biodiversity across a range of ecosystems, from steamy lowland rainforests to misty cloud forests cloaking volcanic peaks. Its position as the slender land bridge between two continents led to a merging of flora and fauna from North and South America. This makes it one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries relative to its size. Delve into sundry landscapes teeming with exotic species found nowhere else on Earth.
The Darién jungle in eastern Panama represents the largest swath of intact lowland rainforest left in Central America. Trek deep into primaeval jungle to encounter indigenous Emberá people, who host visitors in their riverside villages. Paddle dugout canoes up the Sambu River, squinting at the canopy in hopes of spotting a harpy eagle circling above. Listen for the booming hammer of pale-billed woodpeckers echoing through stands of wild banana trees.
On night hikes, keep an eye out for tapirs crashing through the underbrush. At tent camps inside the jungle, fall asleep to the hypnotic croaks of glass frogs. Your guide will point out deadly pit vipers coiled around branches, as well as three-toed sloths and long-nosed bats.
In central Panama, Soberanía National Park shelters the amazing diversity of the Panama Canal watershed. Follow trails through towering ceiba trees draped in vines, searching for mantled howler monkeys. Watch white-faced capuchin monkeys crashing through the canopy overhead. Listen for the piercing call of the continuous cicada or glimpse morpho butterflies flashing iridescent blue wings.
After rain, keep your eyes peeled for tiny strawberry poison dart frogs, whose scarlet backs blend into the forest floor. Come nightfall, join researchers in tracking elusive ocelots with radio transmitters through dense foliage. Take a break by canoeing along the historic Chagres River, watching for sunbathing iguanas and crocodiles lurking just below the surface.
Panama’s richest ecosystems are often its least explored. Remote protected areas like Coiba National Park offer intrepid adventurers the chance to venture into largely untouched habitats. Dive the vibrant coral reefs ringing uninhabited Isla Coiba, spotting rays, sharks, sea turtles and a phenomenal variety of colorful fish. Venture into the island's untamed interior to search for secret waterfalls and spy scarlet macaws in the mountain forests.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Savor the Flavors of Panamanian Cuisine
Panama’s crossroads location has made it a melting pot of culinary influences from Europe, Africa, North America and beyond. Diverse immigrant groups have all left their mark, creating a distinctive national cuisine celebrating the country’s multiculturalism on the plate. Savoring the flavors of Panamanian cooking offers delicious insight into the immigrant communities shaping its cultural heritage.
On the Atlantic coast, Afro-Caribbean culture reigns supreme. In coastal cities like Colón and Portobelo, savor dishes reflecting West Indian and Jamaican roots. Dig into plates of ‘rondón’ - fish stewed in coconut milk with chayote squash and sweet plantains. Try ‘patí de pollo’ - spicy chicken pâté wrapped in pastry, or shrimp ‘encocado’ bathed in a rich peanut-cilantro sauce.
Inland near Panama City, sample Spanish-influenced fare in Casco Viejo’s atmospheric plazas. Nosh on garlicky gambas al ajillo (shrimp in olive oil), cured Iberian hams, and shareable tapas plates perfect for lingering over drinks. Sit outside under the arches at Las Bóvedas to try chewy Spanish tortilla layered with caramelized onions, patatas bravas doused in spicy tomato sauce, or tender beef empanadillas hot from the oven.
On the Pacific coast, the descendants of Chinese railroad workers serve up an unexpected fusion called ‘chifa’. Try chow mein noodles tossed with local ingredients like yucca, chayote, and corvina fish. Don’t miss ‘arroz chaufa’ - buttery fried rice punctuated with scallions, shrimp, and scrambled eggs. Restaurante California whips up the best in the city.
The interior Azuero Peninsula is Panama’s heartland, where Spanish colonial traditions remain strong. Here, polleras (embroidered dresses) and intricate mola textiles echo early indigenous patterns. Savor hearty classics perfected over generations, like chunky beef soup ‘mondongo’, velvety corn cakes ‘tortillas de maíz’, and crispy pork ‘carimañola’ fritters.
Panama City’s cosmopolitan dining scene adds global influences to the mix. At Maito in Casa Viejo, Chef Mario Castrellón fuses indigenous ingredients into contemporary tasting menus. Or try a Nikkei-fusion take on ceviche at Pez On in the Trump Hotel, blending Japanese and Peruvian influences with local corvina and sweet potato. Wherever you dine, don’t miss out on quintessential Panamanian street snacks. Grab spicy beef empanadas hot from the oven or crisp yuca fritters called ‘carimañolas’ from a curbside vendor. Venture to Marqués de la Ensenada Market to feast on just-plucked-from-the-ocean ceviche piled with sweet plantain chips. Nothing beats washing it all down with a chilled passionfruit or cinnamon ‘chi chi’ cocktail - Panama’s quintessential thirst-quencher.
Unravel Panama: 18 Insider Tips for Navigating the Bridge Between Two Worlds - Dive the Pristine Reefs of Coiba National Park
Far off Panama’s southwest coast, Isla Coiba remains a largely unexplored eco-paradise brimming with exotic wildlife above and below the waves. Encompassing the island and surrounding waters, Coiba National Park shelters vibrant coral reefs, nesting sea turtles, and a phenomenal diversity of tropical fish. Diving here offers a glimpse into an underwater world unchanged since prehistoric times.
The crown jewel of Coiba’s reefs is El Cantil, consistently rated one of the top dive sites in Central America. Here the seafloor drops off into the abyss along a submerged cliff. Drift diving along its face reveals a kaleidoscope of colorful corals and sponges clinging to the rock. Swarms of creolefish, snapper and grouper gather below to feed. Keep your eyes peeled for eagle rays gliding by or whitetip reef sharks napping in rocky overhangs.
Nearby Punta Brava tempts advanced divers with unpredictable currents sweeping nutrients to garden eels, seahorses and octopus hiding in the intricate topography. The shallows off Granito de Oro shelter bumphead parrotfish up to four feet long - be gentle giants crunching chunks of coral to access algae. Closer to shore, beginners can snorkel tight coral canyons near Isla Canal de Afuera, where moray eels dart from crevices.
During turtle nesting season from July to October, local guides lead night dives to offshore beaches. Witness endangered hawksbill, leatherback and olive ridley turtles hauling themselves ashore under cover of darkness to lay eggs. But stay low and silent to avoid disturbing these sensitive creatures. Other rarely seen species appear on night dives like crafty octopus unfurling their tentacles to hunt.