Bocas del Toro and its exuberant beaches with turquoise waters, Boquete and its mountains where the most valuable coffee in the world is grown, the incredible seabed of Coiba Island , the only mountain from which, on clear days, you can see the Atlantic and Pacific (which is also a volcano), the town of Portobelo , the Camino de Cruces or the tropical jungles that dot the country. Definitely, Panama is much more than its capital, its skyscrapers and its famous canal.
And it is that if the country can boast of something, in addition to having an immense engineering work that allows connecting two oceans saving thousands of nautical miles of navigation for ships, it is an amazing biodiversity . For example, it has more species of birds than Europe and North America combined and more varieties of plants than the United States and Canada.
A sustainible destination
Its tropical forests cover 63% of the country (they are among the most studied in the world due to their incredible number of species) and up to a third of its 75,500 km2 of surface is protected.
Isla Iguana is a wildlife refuge in the east of the country
Added to this is that it is one of the only three countries in the world that is carbon negative by eliminating more CO2 than it emits (the others are Bhutan and Suriname and the three have just renewed their commitment within the framework of the recent Conference of the United Nations on Climate Change, COP26, held in Glasgow).
They are the weapons, the Panamanian tourism minister, Iván Eskildsen, explains to Tendenciahoy , with which Panama is positioning itself “as a sustainable tourist destination based on the extraordinary richness and diversity of its cultural and natural heritage.”
Panama is one of only three countries in the world that is carbon negative by eliminating more CO2 than it emits.
Three natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the only urban capital with a rainforest within the city limits, 13 national and marine parks (30% of its sea and land area is protected), and more than 1,400 tropical islands They only reaffirm this potential, in addition to turning Panama into one of the best destinations in the world for bird watching, snorkeling, rafting or simply walking along one of its historical itineraries.
Contrasts in Panama City with the biomuseo designed by Frank Gehry, the historic center and the skyscrapers
Ethnodiversity as a tourist attraction
“Ethnodiversity” is the other great asset of the country, adds Eskildsen. He refers to the seven indigenous peoples of Panama: Guna, Teribe, Buglé, Ngöbe, Naso, Emberá and Wounaan , who live in 24% of the country’s surface. “Its fundamental role has been demonstrated not only in the conservation of its original cultures, but also of the forests and jungles.”
In the Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism 2020-2025 these towns “are one of the key pieces”, explains the minister, who relates it to the ” transformative tourism boom that attracts increasingly conscientious travelers (one segment is quantified in more than 500 million people in the world) that seeks to have direct contact with local communities and have authentic and transcendent experiences”.
The Panamanian tourism minister, Iván Eskildsen
This type of tourism also promotes an interaction between equals, where an exchange of cultures, stories, traditions and experiences takes place and whose guidelines and policies have been designed in collaboration with the communities involved.
Thanks to the country’s small size and good infrastructure, some of these communities are located 45 minutes from Panama City, as is the case of the Emberá, who live in the area of the Panama Canal basin and its tropical jungle. . Or the Kuna , who have risen to fame for their appearance in the popular series La casa de papel , and who are just over two hours from the capital.
With the borders open to vaccinated tourists (only the unvaccinated from countries considered high risk must quarantine to travel to the country) and figures of over 80% of the target population vaccinated , the start of the dry season is a great time to discover Panama beyond the skyscrapers and the locks. These are the essential destinations.
The seven original towns are part of the country’s tourism strategy
They call it the ‘Galapagos of the Caribbean’ for its biodiversity and marine wealth (the prestigious Smithsonian maintains a research center here) although travelers are more impressed by the incredible turquoise waters that bathe its beaches. In the north of the country, almost bordering Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is also home to a tropical forest and is home to the Ngäbe and Teribes.
Boquete is home to coffee plantations where the most valuable variety in the world is grown, Geisha coffee.
Perfect for exploring nature, diving or surfing, and even participating in a science dive, the region is home to 95% of the Caribbean’s coral species , the perfect habitat for cat sharks, rays, and many species of crabs and lobsters.
After the sea, get ready to enjoy Afro-Caribbean culture, calypso music and delicious cuisine.
Bocas del Toro is a paradise between the jungle and the sea
A short distance away, but facing the Pacific, we stop at Boquete, in the Chiriquí region . This small city in the shadow of the imposing Barú volcano is a postcard destination, with flowers bursting with color and numerous coffee plantations where the most valuable coffee in the world, the Geisha variety , is grown .
However, coffee is not the only thing to try in the town, which is among the gastronomic destinations par excellence in Panama, from the hands of local and international award-winning chefs from around the world.
Surely you have in mind the skyline of Panama City and its skyscrapers, but you may not know that before this there was another Panama, whose remains are now known as Old Panama.
Before the current city of Panama there was another, founded in 1519 by the Spanish and destroyed by a pirate attack by Henry Morgan, whose remains are now known as Old Panama.
Founded in 1519 under the name of Our Lady of the Assumption of Panama , the city, the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of America, was moved 10 km to the southwest after being destroyed by an attack commanded by the English pirate Henry Morgan at the beginning of the 1670s.
After its destruction in the 17th century, Panama City was moved to its current location
Today several ruins make up this site, among which the tower of the cathedral and part of the convent of La Concepción, the cistern or the town hall stand out.
Historic center of Panama
The most cosmopolitan city in Central America is also home to an old town with cobblestone streets and colonial-style houses declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
A good place to appreciate the contrast with the more modern face of the city is Cerro Ancón , a natural viewpoint at 199 meters high.
Among the best boutique hotels and the most appetizing restaurants we also find attractions such as the Metropolitan Cathedral , the Plaza Mayor, the Church of San José (do not miss its golden altar), the Plaza de Francia, the monument of Las Bóvedas, in remote times used as a defense against pirate attacks, the Paseo Esteban Huertas, the Canal and de la Mola Museums, the Arco Chato or the National Theater of Panama , with frescoes painted by Robert Lewis.
Historic center of Panama
Road of crosses
Another essential on a trip to Panama is the Soberanía National Park , just 45 minutes from the capital and on the shores of the Panama Canal. With some 22,000 hectares, it is home to countless species of animals, especially birds, such as toucans, trogons, motmots, flycatchers, red-bellied woodpeckers, crested eagles, tawny fans, rufous-bellied ground-cuckoo and harpy eagles.
For a hiking adventure, head to Camino de Cruces , a trail built in 1527 to link Old Panama with Venta de Cruces, the port on the banks of the Chagres River from which textiles, spices, gold, and silver were loaded onto ships for be sent to Spain.
You can still see the original stones from the Camino de Cruces.
When Columbus arrived in 1502 at this resplendent bay on the Caribbean coast, north of Panama, it is said that he exclaimed “What a beautiful port”, from which its current name, Portobelo , would derive . It is not difficult to understand why.
In 1597 the place was already the main merchandise crossing between Europe and America and the most important port in Central America , where gold from Peru was shipped and where markets were held that lasted 40 days in a row. All this attracted the attention of pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who attacked the city and took the port several times throughout the 17th century.
Remains of the city’s efforts to protect itself from corsairs can still be seen today , such as the Forts of Santiago, San Jerónimo, or those of San Fernando and San Fernandino, in the hills surrounding Portobelo. Nor should you miss visiting the Nazarene or Black Christ in the church of San Felipe.
Portobelo was once the most important port in Central America
In addition, in this enclave declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO that rises between the blue of the Caribbean and the green of the jungle, an important African heritage survives, which is revealed with celebrations and dances but also with a tasty cuisine that mixes local vegetables, fresh seafood, coconut and curry, among others.