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Frommer's Panama

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Frommer’s books aren’t written by committee, or by travel writers who simply pop in briefly to a destination and then consider the job done. We use seasoned journalists like Nicholas Gill has been covering Panama for over a decade and has strong opinions on what travelers should do in country…and what they can skip without regret. He’s also attuned to the fact that not all travelers have the same needs or budgets and so has created a guide that is extremely helpful whether you’re a honeymooner, a backpacker or are traveling with kids in tow. The book covers:
• Panamas top ecolodges, beach stays and wilderness resorts (some for luxury travelers, others for those on a budget).
• The best beaches, bird-watching and other outdoor activities, with fastidiously researched information on the best outfitters for adventuring.
• An in-depth look at Panama's history and culture, from pre-Columbian times, through the building of the Canal, to the 21st century's issues and debates, as well as an overview of the ecosystems and native flora and fauna.
• Doable, smartly conceived itineraries for one or two weeks, for families, and for adventurers.
• Savvy, sometimes sneaky, tips for saving money in ALL price ranges.

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1 THE BEST OF PANAMA

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Panama City’s Casco Viejo or Old Town

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The Best of Panama

For such a thin squiggle of land, Panama offers travelers a surprisingly diverse selection of landscapes, cultures, and experiences.

In Panama City alone, modern skyscrapers contrast with 18th-century architecture, and a 10-minute cab ride from downtown puts you deep into rainforest teeming with wildlife. From the cool, fertile highlands in the Chiriquí region to the thick lowland jungle and white-sand beaches of Panama’s tropical islands, this tiny nation packs fun and adventure into a small package. In addition, Panama boasts a rich history and a melting pot of cultures, including seven indigenous groups, many of whom maintain their customs today. Best of all, the country is gloriously free of tourists. But get here soon—Panama is far too attractive to stay a secret for long.

Panama’s best Authentic Experiences

Eating Ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos (Panama City): Have a taste of the rich waters off the country’s Pacific coastline with a sample of ceviche, finely diced and marinated fish and/or shellfish, from a Styrofoam cup sold at one of the many carts in Panama City’s most famous market. If the tall glass jars and piles of just-caught seafood on ice is a bit too raw an experience for you, step outside to the slightly more formal market stalls with full menus of seafood dishes. See p. 79.

 

2 SUGGESTED PANAMA ITINEARIES

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Suggested Panama Itineraries

Panama is home to a staggering array of natural landscapes, each beautiful in its own way, and each offering attractions and excursions that appeal to different kinds of people. Scuba-diving fanatics or anglers seeking to reel in boatloads of billfish, for example, might plan their entire journey to Panama around their sport. Multisport resorts have been popping up around the country, too, providing guests with a home base and roster of activities as varied as kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, and mountain biking. These range from pricey, boutique-style lodges boasting “rustic elegance” to destination megaresorts, with 300 or more guest rooms.

Whatever your passion or desire, Panama has it all: a thriving metropolis; endless stretches of pristine, hyperdiverse rainforest; legendary sport fishing; scuba diving in the Caribbean and Pacific (even diving both oceans in 1 day, if you wish); white-water rafting and trekking through rugged mountain highlands; cultural encounters with one of the country’s seven indigenous groups; a round of golf on a world-class course; a river cruise on a dugout canoe; or boating the Panama Canal. Of course, there are also plenty of relaxing spots for travelers who just want to kick back on a chaise longue or spend their afternoons strolling along the beach.

 

3 PANAMA IN CONTEXT

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Panama in context

For many years, Panama remained off the radar of international travelers and investors, but those days have come to an end—Panama has come into its own. Panama now receives about 2 million visitors a year, quite impressive for a tiny country of just under 4 million people. Panama has undergone a major boom since the mid-2000s, with new retirement communities, restaurants, and hotels breaking ground practically every week. Prices and speculation have appeared to stabilize, though it‘s still very much a country on the rise. Escaping much of the tourism boom all too familiar to Costa Rica, likely because of the Noriega years, Panama is proudly making a name for itself as a must-see destination in Latin America.

Rapidly emerging from Costa Rica’s shadow, Panama’s geography is similar to that of its neighbor to the north, including pristine rainforests, attractive beaches, mountain villages, and, as an added bonus, a vibrant, cosmopolitan city many compare to Miami. Traveling isn’t as dirt-cheap as it was a decade ago, but Panama is still less expensive than Costa Rica.

 

4 PANAMA CITY

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Panama City

L ong overshadowed by the Panama Canal, Panama City is not only reinventing itself as the thriving commercial and financial hub of Central America, it is asserting itself as a burgeoning tourist destination. In the last decade, the Panama City skyline has ballooned into a Dubai-like cityscape filled with glitzy glass skyscrapers designed by world-renowned architects. It is one of those rare Latin American capitals that appears to have it all: a relatively high standard of living, a seemingly endless supply of investment from abroad, a surplus of natural beauty, and a rich cultural brew of ethnicities and religions. A sizeable expat presence, as well as a growing Asian community, continues to change the face of Panama City.

Signs of Panama City’s reinvention are everywhere. The Amador Causeway, formerly a U.S. military base, is now home to the Biomuseo, a biodiversity museum designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. The once rundown 19th-century buildings of Casco Viejo were long off limits at night but have been revitalized with private and public funds and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Casco Viejo is now home to dozens of boutique hotels and hip restaurants. Along the coast, swiftly rising skyscrapers, spurred by an irresistible 20-year tax exemption (and rumors of drug laundering), portend a megalopolis in the making. Although traffic can still be a nightmare, a subway system, the first in Central America, has helped alleviate some of the gridlock. Even the dirty Panama Bay has undergone significant cleanup.

 

5 AROUND PANAMA CITY

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Around Panama City

This chapter’s focus is on a sizeable region around Panama City, including the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone, the Central Caribbean Coast (including Colón and its surroundings), and the Gulf of Panama. At first glance, it seems like a lot of ground to cover, but these destinations can be reached by a short drive, a puddle-jump flight, or a boat ride from the city, and some attractions are even close enough to visit by taxi. With its high level of services and amenities, Panama City is an ideal base from which to explore this region, and many travelers, especially those with limited time, plan their entire trips around this area, owing to its surprisingly diverse range of attractions.

Exploring the Region    A trip to Panama wouldn’t be the same without visiting one of the engineering marvels of the world, the Panama Canal. There are several ways to do this: at the viewing platform in Miraflores, on a jungle cruise or partial canal transit, or at the Gatún Locks near Colón.

 

6 CENTRAL PANAMA

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Central Panama

In this guide, Central Panama is defined as the Panamá and Coclé provinces west of Panama City, along with the Herrera and Los Santos provinces that make up the Azuero Peninsula. The Central region includes El Valle de Antón, a lovely mountain village located in the center of a volcanic crater; the Pacific beaches, with an array of lodging accommodations, from rustic cabins to all-inclusive destination resorts; and the charm of Panama’s cultural “heartland,” the Azuero Peninsula, dotted with colonial villages and home to the liveliest festivals in Panama. What these destinations all have in common is that they are reached by vehicle (or bus) from Panama City, not by plane—unless, of course, you fly to Pedasí at the tip of the peninsula or charter a flight to the rarely used Río Hato Airport. This region begs to be explored by car, however, so consider renting a vehicle, which will give you the freedom to plan your own itinerary and wander at your own pace, stopping off at villages and attractions that interest you and buying gastronomic treats from vendors that line the highway.

 

7 THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS & THE GULF OF CHIRIQUí

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The Western Highlands & the Gulf of Chiriquí

Western Panama is home to the cool highlands of the Chiriquí Province, a tropical mountain paradise brimming with lush rainforest and trout-filled streams, and dotted with storybook villages nestled on the verdant slopes of the region’s dominant peak, the 3,478m (11,410-ft.) Barú Volcano. Given the region’s fertile soil and ideal year-round temperatures, the Chiriquí area is Panama’s agricultural breadbasket, and many of the mountain’s valleys and hillsides are blanketed with a colorful patchwork of fruit trees, vegetable fields, and coffee plantations—one of the country’s signature products. The air is fresh and sweet here, and the roads that wind through the peaks and valleys overflow with pretty pink and white impatiens and exotic blooms.

The Chiriquí Highlands region is a mecca for adventure, and travelers can participate in activities such as white-water rafting and kayaking Class II to Class V rivers, canopy rides, or hiking through primeval forest dripping with vines and bromeliads and interlaced with creeks. Laidback activities include scenic drives and tours of coffee plantations or orchid farms. The Chiriquí region is well known as a hot spot for bird-watching, and hundreds of species have been recorded in the area, including showcase birds such as the resplendent quetzal, blue cotinga, trogons, and toucans. The region is a corridor for migratory species that pass through from November to April.

 

8 BOCAS DEL TORO ARCHIPELAGO

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Bocas del Toro Archipelago

The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a scattering of seven islands and more than 200 islets off the northwestern coast of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. The region has all the trappings of a Caribbean fantasy: dreamy beaches, thatched-roofed huts, aquamarine sea, thick rainforest, and soft ocean breezes. Add to that a funky, carefree ambience and a large English-speaking population, and it’s easy to see why Bocas del Toro has emerged as an ecotourism hot spot faster than any other part of Panama.

But scratch the surface and you will find an island destination that is as much a paradox as it is paradise. Backpackers and surfers first discovered Bocas, lured by big waves, an underwater playground, and cheap accommodations. Midrange hotels and restaurants moved in, and retirees and expats with disposable income followed, snapping up beachfront properties and building their own tropical Xanadu. Considering that Bocas consists mostly of Ngöbe-Buglé and Teribe Indians plying the waters in dugout canoes, as well as Afro-Caribbeans who go about living much as they have for nearly a century, the contrast between the mix of ethnicities and nationalities here is striking.

 

9 COMARCA KUNA YALA

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Comarca Kuna Yala

With more than 350 picture-postcard islands and islets ringed by powdery white sand, a coral reef, and piercing turquoise water, the Comarca Kuna Yala is a fascinating and primitive region that fulfills every tourist’s, yachter’s, and cruiser’s island fantasy. Given the pristine beauty of the region—most islands are populated with no more than a cluster of coconut palms—it is the premier beach destination in Panama. But what really sets it apart is that it provides you with the opportunity to spend time with the Kuna indigenous group that lives here.

The region formerly known as the San Blas Archipelago is now officially known as the Comarca Kuna Yala (although many Panama nians continue to use its former moniker). The “Kuna Yala” means “Land of the Kuna,” and a comarca is a semiautonomous province governed by three tribal chiefs, or caciques, with the input of dozens of regional representatives. As a semiautonomous province, the Kuna have maintained their cultural identity and integrity, and have complete control over economic matters such as tourism. (For example, it is considered improper to travel with an “outside” tour company that has not requested permission from tribal chiefs.) Since the colonial period, the Kuna have successfully resisted invasions by pirates, colonists, missionaries, adventurers, and developers.

 

10 THE DARIÉN PROVINCE

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The Darién Province

The Darién Province, a remote, sparsely populated expanse of tropical rainforest and swampland along Panama’s eastern boundary with Colombia, is considered Central America’s last grand, untamed wilderness. Home to nearly .8 million hectares (2 million acres) of protected land, the Darién includes La Reserva Natural Privada Punta Patiño and the Parque Nacional del Darién, Panama’s largest protected area and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This entire wilderness is commonly called the “Darién Gap,” which refers to the roadless swath of forest that is the “missing link” in the Pan American Highway from Alaska to Chile. Colombia would like to extend the road, but Panamanians fear widespread environmental destruction and an increase in drug trafficking. For now at least, a road seems unlikely.

Given the Darién’s inaccessibility, there are few places a traveler can actually visit within the boundaries of the province. The national park measures a staggering 860,000 hectares (2.1 million acres), yet only the Pirre and Cana stations offer trails and basic services. On the southern coast at Piñas Bay is the famous Tropic Star Lodge, and there are trails and dugout canoe trips on rivers around Punta Patiño.

 

11 PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO PANAMA

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Planning Your Trip to Panama

Panama is just starting to take off as a major tourist destination, and many areas remain deliciously free of crowds while offering the same pristine wilderness and action-packed adventure as its more popular neighbor, Costa Rica. Panama is but a thin squiggle of a country, but it has a wealth of diversity packed within its borders, from lush rainforests to sultry beaches to craggy mountain peaks—all of which can be reached by a short drive or flight. The Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean are so close to each other that you can swim in both in 1 day. If you’re a nature lover, consider that Panama is a land bridge between North and South America, and hundreds of wildlife species—more than 900 species of birds alone—meet here at the isthmus, providing a rich environment for eco-travel.

Panama is a safe country, too, and Panamanians are some of the friendliest people in Latin America. So many residents speak English that it could almost be called Panama’s second language. And in comparison to Costa Rica’s, Panama’s infrastructure and capital city are decidedly more modern, and travel budgeting is easier considering that the country’s national monetary unit is the U.S. dollar.

 

12 GLOSSARY OF SPANISH TERMS & PHRASES

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Glossary of Spanish Terms & Phrases

The official language of Panama is Spanish. However, with so many new hotel owners hailing from the U.S. and Canada, English is widely spoken in the tour industry. But this doesn’t get you off the hook—taxi drivers, waiters, local tour guides, and everyday Panamanians speak little or no English. Arm yourself with basic words and phrases in Spanish and your trip won’t be a constant battle to make yourself understood. Panamanians appreciate the effort, and really, part of the fun of traveling is learning the local lingo. Due to the long U.S. presence in Panama, you’ll hear a few expressions that have been adapted from English, such as “parkear,” meaning to park, or “watchiman,” for security guard (watchman).

Panamanians speak at a relatively relaxed speed, and they have a more neutral accent when compared with their Latin American neighbors. Panamanians speaking in a slangy manner have a tendency to drop the “d” from words that end in -ido or -ado, as in pelao, instead of pelado. Like most Latin Americans, Panamanians are more conscious of salutations. Before launching into conversation or asking a question, do not forget a greeting such as “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes,” or as most Panamanians say, simply “Buenas.”

 

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