Beyond The Canal: Must-See Locations in Panama
There are so many reasons to visit Panama. Yes, the canal is interesting, but when you've got tropical islands, gorgeous rain forest and charming surf towns, visiting Panama means you just have to travel beyond Panama City.
Contadora is the largest of the pearl islands in Panama. A one-hour boat ride from the docks in Panama City, these islands are named for the incredible pearls that were found surrounding them. Rich with a history of pirates and the location for a season of the reality show Survivor, these islands are on the Pacific ocean and boast amazing turquoise water and some beautiful white sand beaches. Reaching Contadora is incredibly simple as daily boats are available from both the Trump Hotel and The Amador Causeway.
More challenging to access, Boca Chica is located just a few hours from the border of Costa Rica on the Pacific Ocean. The best way to reach this tiny coastal retreat is by car from Panama City or you can fly to the city of David (Panama's second largest city) and drive from there. The area is relatively remote but offers some of the best deep sea fishing you will find anywhere. Beautiful little bed and breakfasts, hotels and fishing resorts line the coast and are very well priced.
Bocas Del Toro
Bocas del Toro is one of the best-known archipelagos in the region. Bocas del Toro is a cluster of nine major islands, 50 cays and 200-plus islets scattered along the Caribbean sea. It just a one-hour boat ride from the mainland or a one-hour flight from Panama City and a relatively short distance from Costa Rica. These islands each have their own unique characteristics and activities available. From sprawling beaches and amazing swell to night clubs and motor bikes, you can choose the island that best suits exactly the kind of holiday you are looking for.
Boquete is a mountain town that has recently become a mecca for expats. With a cool, standard climate of around 25 degrees, this area has cool evenings and refreshing breezes that are otherwise unknown to the country. Situated 3500 feet above sea level, the views and landscapes are incredibly beautiful and perfect for the many coffee plantations in the area. Go to Bouquete for the amazing hikes, delicious coffee and refreshing climate. Getting there can be a long journey but if you fly into the city of David from Panama City it is only a two-hour, mountainous drive to the centre of town.
El Valle de Anton
Not unlike Boquete, El Valle is a mountainous town on the Panamanian Isthmus. Located an easy two-hour drive from Panama City, this beautiful town is situated in the crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by lush hilltops of rainforest and some incredible waterfalls and hiking trails. The beautiful town also has an amazing little farmers market and a spectacular variety of hotels and bed and breakfasts ranging from five star to sweet and simple.
Playa Venao is unlike any other part of the country. Still relatively untouched, this town is about to undergo a huge transformation at the hands of a large development company in the country. Plans for extensive housing developments, resorts and vacation properties are well underway and will have an enormous impact on the local infastructure. The centre of Playa Venao is the beach itself. Around 35 minutes from Pedasi, another growing community in the region, Playa Venao is situated on the Azueros Peninsula about five hours from Panama City. It is well renowned for its amazing surf, rolling hills and expansive beachfronts.
On the Caribbean side of Panama, Portobelo is one of few towns that is easily accessible and offers the crystal turquoise water one expects from a tropical get away. While a little seedy, this town has begun to develop a few pretty little hotels and interesting restaurants. It is best known for the many dive centres and scuba schools along the coast as well. Isla Grande, a simple island just ten minutes from shore, is easily accessible from Portobelo. Perhaps the most impressive part of this town is the incredible Fort San Lorenzo, a fortress built by the Spanish in the late 1500s in an effort to protect the town and local trade routes from pirate attacks.
San Blas Islands are exactly what you picture when you picture a deserted island. Entirely self-governed, this indigenous region is made up of 365 tiny tropical islands. Some are as simple as a white sandy hill emerging from the ocean with a single palm tree, ripe with coconuts. Others have eco resorts or a simple hut and surrounding tents for rent for the night. San Blas is entirely uncomplicated. Food is made on the island using local ingredients including a lot of freshly caught fish and lobster, and beer is brought in by the boat load to serve thirsty tourists. You can’t beat the picturesque views and will have never experienced water as crystal clear as it is in San Blas.
Another surf town not far from Playa Venao on the Azuero peninsula, Santa Catalina is the jumping off point to visit Coiba Island, what was previously a prison camp and is now the centre of all whale and shark migrations through the Pacific Ocean. Whether you are seeking an underwater adventure gazing at a 40-foot whale shark or simply want to catch some waves, Santa Catalina is a great option. Local bars, restaurants and hotels are plentiful and accessibility is as simple as a five-hour journey from Panama City.