Central America Overland (country 1st/6)
I arrived in Panama expecting to visit the canal and then head straight to Costa Rica, but a week was just not enough to do justice to its attractions. Panama is the crossroads of North and South America and also where the Pacific meets the Atlantic Ocean, the heart of the Americas. Oceans, Rainforest, Mountains, top Coffee plantations, Caribbean Islands, Indigenous communities, there is a lot to explore in Panama.
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The Casco Viejo
The Capital is a city of contrasts and this is quite clear in the Casco Viejo neighbourhood, where new developments are gaining space slowly. You can find a very old colonial style house that is in the verge of collapsing with clothing hanging from its balcony next to a very fancy and posh boutique hotel with a restaurant where a meal for two is probably the monthly salary of the average Panamanian that live next door.
There are nice spots in Casco Viejo area to view the city. On one side the city centre’s supertall Skyscrapers New York type buildings; on the other, the Puente de las Americas.
Following the way along the coast, only a few minutes away, the “Mercado de mariscos” (fish market) is a great place to have lunch. At the market stalls, many types of ceviches, I recommend the ceviche de pulpo.
The Panama Canal
The taxi from where i was staying, Casco Viejo, to the Canal’s Miraflores Lock is only 20 minutes away. I recommend to visit the canal either in the morning before 12am or in the afternoon after 2.30pm as this is when the ships cross and you can observe the system of levelling waters. This is also explained in the very informative museum. There is a 20 minute movie and a simulation modelling the transit of the canal by a vessel.
The canal is 80 Km long and connects the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. The construction of the canal started by France but then the United States finished the project in 1914. Now and since 1999 the canal is managed by the Panama Government alone. The most expensive crossing was in 2010 by a Norwegian cruise that paid around US$400.000; the lowest fee paid was 36 cents by American adventurer Richard Halliburton who swam the whole length of the waterway in 10 days from Colon to Panama City ( It usually takes 10 hours to cross the whole canal from coast to coast)
To the Mountain & Panama's Rainforest: Boquete
I wasn’t expecting the overnight bus from Panama City to David to be that good but the 7hr journey seemed less than that. I went to the Terminal Albrook early with the idea to catch the midnight bus as I was told that it is hard to get tickets for the same day but to my surprise it wasn’t. I also met a group of three travellers there and joined them on the 10pm bus. on arrival to David, I took another small bus to Boquete with two Americans and a Dutch that i met while waiting. I spent three days in Boquete and there i met many travellers who been long travelling around Panama and considered the place to be their highlight.
Very laid-back atmosphere, nice fresh climate and lots of natural lush green, there are many things to do in Boquete and no wonder is to find so many expats living the the small little town.
Hike the Volcano Baru by night and get to the summit at sunrise. This volcano is the highest peak in Panama with 3,474 metres (note the Arenal volcano measures about 1,633 metres) and sometimes it is possible to see both Oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Around the Volcano Baru National Park, one of the most popular hiking trails in the rainforest is the Sendero de los Quetzales (Quetzals Trail), takes around 6 hours.
Boquete produces the best coffee, I would recommend to visit a coffee plantation and to try the Geisha coffee. You can also relax in Caldera's hot springs or white-water rafting on the Rio Chiriqui.
There are some indigenous communities living around Boquete, they are called Ngäbe-Buglé, women wear a colourful dresses.
The Pacific Coast: San Blas Islands & Bocas del Toro San Blas area is more difficult to get to and more remote, however if you want to meet the Panama indigenous communities this is the place to go. From Panama there are organised tours of two or three days to explore the islands and spend time with the Kunas people. The other caribbean place is Bocas del Toro. From Boquete is 5 hours drive. You have to go to Almirante and then there is a boat to the main island Colon. more a place to party and very touristy. The best in Bocas del Toro is to explore the islands around like isla Bastimentos.
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